Updated: Aug 31, 2022
Giving is wonderfully purposeful practice from the Lord, but unfortunately it can be manipulatively twisted and taken out of context by others more concerned with personal gain or power.
In order to recognize if you are being financially exploited, it is important to first understand the origin of giving, then to explore God's purpose for it today.
Origins of Tithing in the Old Testament
Tithing is first introduced in Genesis 14:20 as a portion of everything (money, animals, crops), and exists in the Old Testament for three different reasons. Each type had a definite purpose, and totaled about 23 1/3% annually: The Levite tithe (Numbers 18:21), the festival tithe (Deuteronomy 14:22-26), and the poor tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
Levite Tithe: The members of the tribe of Levi (who didn’t have land of their own) received this tithe. In turn, they would give one tenth of what they received to the priests. This tithe replaced land inheritance rights in Israel and provided for the needs of the Levites in the Promised Land (10%).
Festival Tithe: Every year, Israel would set aside their tithe to be used for festivals (like Passover, for example). This money was spent on things that enhanced the glorification of God and added joy to the feast in remembrance and celebration of his blessings throughout the year (10%).
Poor Tithe: Intended to help the poor of the community (the strangers/sojourners, the fatherless, and the widows), this giving was commanded by God to care for these individuals, who wouldn’t have the means to care for themselves (10% every 3 years, or 3 1/3% annually).
When comparing the Old Testament to our call to action for giving, we can see similar forms of tithing today. We may not celebrate the festivals that the Israelites did (and thus don’t have a reason for the festival tithe), however we do give to our local church (think of this as the Levite tithe) and various ministry efforts (likened to the poor tithe), though neither is necessarily 10%.
Fun fact: "Tithe" means "ten," so "tithing" indicates ten percent, specifically.
What about the New Testament?
In the New Testament, there are precious few mentions of ten percent. In one example, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for tithing herbs but neglecting the care of others, (Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42). Of course we can agree with Jesus in these verses about loving others, but we can’t forget in the midst of that He is telling us to give.
The other mention of tithing in the New Testament is a Genesis reference to what Abraham gave back to Melchizedek as part of the argument that Jesus is superior to the Levitical priest, Melchizedek, (Hebrews 7:15-17).
While these New Testament verses don’t speak directly into what Christians are to do with their money, there are countless verses about living generously and sacrificially, and to alleviate the needs of individuals that can’t be boiled down to a fixed percentage.
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ - Acts 20:35
God’s Intention Behind the Act of Giving
In religiously abusive or manipulative situations, some individuals may have been heavily taught and indoctrinated that there are certain measures they have to meet in order to gain salvation or good standing with God.
When comparing someone who makes $20,000 a year to someone who makes $200,000 a year, generous and sacrificial look differently. At $20,000, a tithe of ten percent may be too high, while a tithe of ten percent of $200,000 may not be generous at all. So the New Testament resists a fixed formula for Christian giving. - Dr. Craig Blomberg
However, that is not God’s heart or intention when it comes to giving. Rather, His heart in giving is that all have what they need; that none go without. He reminds us that what we have is not our own—everything is a gift from Him, and we will be accountable for what we do with one hundred percent of what we are given by Him. God calls us to both enjoy what He has given us, and to be generous and ready to share (1 Timothy 6:17-18).
This section of scripture in 1 Timothy 6 reminds us that these financial gifts from God are for our enjoyment as well, so we don’t have to put extreme pressure on ourselves and give everything away–it’s okay to have a car, a nice home, to go on vacation, etc. But the flipside is also true: someone may give 10% out of obligation and then live frivolously on the remaining ninety percent, passing by those in need and thinking, "I've fulfilled my requirement." This is not the heart position Jesus speaks to in the New Testament!
Misinterpreted Tithing Verses
8 Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11 I will rebuke the devourer[a] for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
As the most commonly quoted scripture of giving, these verses (when misapplied), give the mindset that we must give what was actually 23 1/3% and that it must go to the the various areas described earlier (local church, festivals, and the poor). The context of these verses are under the old covenant for those living in ancient Israel, though, and we must now be reading these verses through the fulfillment of the new covenant–which is ultimately looking at what Jesus says about this (as we have previously addressed).
12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
In this passage, Jesus is objecting to the financial exploitation taking place in the temple that was built for others to pray and bring honor to God within. This has been misinterpreted by some to mean that churches shouldn’t collect gifts during a Sunday worship service. However, the act of giving is a giving from what God has given to us, which is not what is playing out in the context of this scripture.
Given the length of this scripture, here is the context:
This passage is talking about Abraham, who had given a tithe to Melchizedek (a King and priest) when Abraham met him after he returned from the defeat of the kings. Abraham blessed him and gave him a tenth of everything. It says here to think how great Melchizedek was that even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of his plunder.
This section of scripture shows that the new covenant in Christ is now superior to the mosaic covenant. Therefore, these verses are directly relevant to us today in regards to what the new covenant teaches about giving. Hebrews is essentially saying to go back to our patriarch to whom everyone traces the founding of Israel (Abraham), and now see how much greater Jesus is.
Jesus is much higher than the king and priest who was Melchizedek. This means that Abraham and the whole levitical system of the Old Testament is subordinate to Jesus. The superiority of the new covenant means that it is important for us to understand how the old covenant is fulfilled in the new covenant, and how that has changed things.
Tying all of this together: Don’t give a fixed percentage. With a good conscience, be generous. It’s between you and God, so figure out what generous means to you. And enjoy the rest responsibly! - Dr. Craig Blomberg
Religiously Abusive Lies About Tithing
The topic of giving comes up in church sermons today, which is good, because we do need to talk about giving– specifically what the scriptures tell us about giving. But we cross a line when the leadership starts to say, “You have to make sure you’re giving to us,” or “You have to make sure you’re giving us a certain amount.”
Lie: The amount of your giving is directly related to your good standing with God. A required percentage is equated with someone’s promise of salvation.
Truth: This is a lie, because it implies our lives are performance-based and that Jesus died for no reason. Instead, give generously and with integrity.
Lie: It is required for a congregant to settle up their account at the end of the year–the amount they made is compared to the amount they’ve given throughout the year. If the math is not as it should be, then they need to balance their account. This level of involvement in someone's personal finances is appropriate and necessary.
Truth: While leadership and discipleship include accountability, this practice is incredibly out of line. First, checking for 10% is outdated by about 2,000 years–it ended with Jesus' resurrection. Second, generous giving is between the heart of the giver and the heart of God. Teachers should teach about giving, but ultimately, they are not in control of someone else's finances (nor should they be).
What can I do If I am having difficulty trusting a church’s financial situation?
In light of the concerns among some church's leadership, people have brought up the idea of asking to see the finances of their church or a church they are considering becoming a member of. Especially for those who have been in churches where there hasn't been good financial accountability, or there was some financial exploitation in one way or another, this could offer reassurance.
Sometimes this information has been made public and you can find it on the church's website or available in printed form on an annual basis. Typically this will show categories and total funds utilized, which can be very helpful.
However, we want to caution anyone from jumping to conclusions when looking at these summaries. Instead, sit down with a staff member who is going to be able to answer any questions you have. It’s very easy for us on the outside to cast judgment on where funds are going because we don’t really understand the details. Giving people the opportunity to explain is important and part of the due diligence on our end.
The New Testament teaches us in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 that the Lord does not want us to be impoverished because of our generosity, but to meet the need of others from our surplus:
"13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”