Wow, do we have it wrong!
I bet when you hear the word “tithe” or even “offerings,” your thoughts go immediately to pictures of a plate being passed in church. I’ve heard it from pulpits myself, “the tithe belongs to the church … your offerings can go to other places (like the traveling evangelist passing through), but your tithe stays here.” The common understanding among many Christians is that a 10th of their income belongs to God — and that means to the church. (Whether that’s 10% on your gross income or your net is a matter of conscience — and obviously, if you choose the cheaper way out, well, what does that say about you?)*
But here’s the thing: that was not where “giving” in the New Testament went. It didn’t go to build new churches; it didn’t go solely to pay the bills of some institution. It went to people. Poor people, in fact.
But let’s back-track a bit. Where did this idea of your obligation to the church come from? If you’ve been in any independent Charismatic church in the last half-century, you know very well the over-quoted verse in Malachi 3:10.
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”
It’s a favorite of preachers trying to motivate their congregations to reach into their wallets and purses, and give … give … give! until it hurts. Because God will reward you beyond your capactity to contain it all.
In other words, “give so you can get back.”
It’s a teaching made popular by Oral Roberts back in the 1940s when he realized that most people gave their tithes out of guilt and obligation. Preachers taught their flocks that they had to support God’s work, but Oral saw it in a different light. He saw it as an opportunity for blessing. “Seed-faith,” he called it. You sow like a farmer, and you expect a harvest, a return on your investment. “Give as a seed you sow, not as a debt you owe.” It turned obligation into optimism; people began giving because they wanted to. They wanted their harvest.
And that’s great. If you have the faith that God wants to reward your generosity, then who can fault that? But on any other topic, most Christians are united in the belief that God cares about what motivates us as much as he does what we do. Why we do something is as important as the thing itself. Because God judges the heart. Outward actions can be deceiving, can be put on for show, can be the action of hypocrites eager for public approval but whose hearts are made of stone. God knows the difference.
And that’s exactly what Jesus taught. Right before his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, he advises his disciples to watch how they give, how they pray, and how they fast (Matthew 6). Do it in secret, he says, so that no one can pat you on the back, and your Father in Heaven who sees what is done in secret will reward you. It’s not that you nullify those actions if you do them publically (didn’t Daniel in the Bible pray 3 times a day with his windows open?), but Jesus declares that doing things “to be seen by others” reflects a corrupt attitude. And by doing so, you’ve forfeited God’s blessing. You have your reward — other people’s attention — paid in full.
Alms-giving was a religious fundamental in Judaism. Along with prayer and fasting, it was one of the main hallmarks of godliness. (Hence, Jesus addressing these three specific issues in Mt 6.) So much so, that “acts of righteousness” (or just plain ole “righteousness” for short) became synonymous with alms-giving. And it still is today. And, in fact, it’s a hallmark of the faithful in Islam too — it’s #3 in the “Five Pillars of Islam” (Profession of Faith, Prayer, Giving, Fasting, and Pilgramage to Mecca). But “giving” was well understood to mean “giving to the poor and needy” — charity, alms-gving — not dropping cash into the synagogue or mosque coffers.
How did we Christians get it confused? How did what was so clearly understood by the Middle Eastern faithful as taking care of the needs of people around us get turned into mostly supporting a church organziation?
Well, there’s that nice phrase in that Malachi passage, “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” And what’s the storehouse? The Temple — err, the church, I mean. Right? But wait: “so that there may be meat in my house.” That’s talking about food. Okay, yes. Part of the Israelite’s tithe (in grain, meats, produce, oil and wine) went to support the priests and Levites — the religious workers. So the analogy would be that your tithe goes to support people in ministry. But the storehouse was also the local food-pantry for widows, orphans, illegal aliens, and other assorted needy people. They, along with the Levites who had no other trade except priestly work, could come to their local storehouse to get food.
“Bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Dt 14:28,29)
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul did a little guilt-tripping on some of the congregations he founded. He was trekking across great distances, preaching, teaching, raising small congregations in the places he visited, and sometimes he had to foot the bill by himself. So he would use popular images to defend his right to financial support: A soldier does not serve at his own expense; you don’t muzzle an ox when it’s working at the mill; a teacher should share in the profit of his students, etc. He felt a bit abandoned. Except for his friends in Philippi, the other churches weren’t consistently supporting him (Phil 4:15). So yeah, there is that. People who surrender their lives to the work of God should be supported by the people of God.
But Paul wasn’t out to line his own pockets with gold — he had little good to say about those who preached the Gospel for personal gain. Look at Paul’s other teachings on giving, especially our favorite ones promising God’s blessing when we give. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) is ALL about Paul encouraging the Corinthians to support the poor believers in other jurisdictions. He devotes two full chapters on this, using God as an example who scattered his gifts abroad and gave to the poor. Christ who was rich became poor for our sakes, so that we might become rich. Just as God cares about and gives to the poor, so should we. It’s all about sharing our wealth with those in need. This wasn’t so that some could live a life of ease at the expense of hard-working folk, but so that there would be enough for all.
“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 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, 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'” (2 Cor 8:13-15).
And then he adds a little sugar to his appeal: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. … You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.”
Taking care of the poor and widows was so important, that the early church under the first apostles created the office of “Deacon” in order to oversee the daily distribution of their food-pantry (Acts 6), and the people shared their possessions with anyone who had need (Acts 4:35). That was the mark of truly godly people — their generosity and support of the needy.
The church was never meant to be just a place where you sing a few songs and hear a good sermon. It was also meant to be a local storehouse. Literally.
But over time the church lost its concern for the physical and material welfare of the people, and focused almost exclusively on their spiritual condition. And giving to God, as a result, followed suit. Alms-giving which was once so closely associated with righteousness, became “giving to the church,” and shifted from caring for people to providing for the needs of the organization and its ministers.
The nature of tithes and offerings changed because the church’s priorities changed. (When was the last time you heard a sermon about God blessing you with prosperity for feeding the hungry or the homeless?)
I’m not suggesting that should you stop supporting your local place of worship. The work of God won’t get done if you’re not putting your money where your mouth is. And as Paul argues, ministers are in fact worthy of our support. But God’s promise of blessing is to those who care for the vulnerable among us. And unless your church offering envelope has a checkbox for programs specifically geared toward these social concerns, you might want to consider holding back a bit of your offering and giving elsewhere. Or maybe meeting those needs yourself. Neglecting the financial support of people who need help, and reserving your tithes and offerings exclusively for “giving to the church” would mark you as un-righteous not only in the eyes of other religions, but in the eyes of early Christians too.
* Side note: Whether “tithing” is even a Christian obligation is a matter of hot debate. Some claim it is a remnant of Old Testament law that the Christian has been set free from, and our only obligation is to “give” as our heart leads. Others will say that because Jesus mentioned tithing (once) in a discussion with some Pharisees, he obviously condones its continued use in the church today. But this is a topic for another time …
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.