Tithing and Stewardship
By John Walton
The Old Testament Today, Zondervan, 2004, p. 270
Tithing was an obligation in ancient Israel. Similar to taxes today, it was not an option. Many people today wonder whether we are still required to give a tithe to God. What does the Bible teach that is relevant to our contemporary situation?
Giving one-tenth (the tithe) of one’s produce to deity was commonplace throughout the ancient world. The tithe was a means of revenue collection in both secular (i.e., taxation) and sacred contexts. In the Bible, occasional tithing is practiced before the law by both Abraham (Gen. 14:20) and Jacob (Gen. 28:22). Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:8-32, and Deuteronomy 14:22-29 contain the most complete descriptions of Israel’s tithing laws. The tithe “belongs to the Lord” and is used to support the priests and Levites and to assist the poor. Since the economy of Israel was based on agriculture and herding, the tithes were typically taken from flocks, herds, and crops (including not only grain, but wine and olive oil as well).These were turned over to the temple for use and redistribution. In Malachi 3:8-12 the prophet rebukes the people for withholding the full tithe.
Though our entire religious and social system has changed since Israelite days, some things never change. God is entitled to be acknowledged by our gifts to him, and we are obliged to be conscientious stewards of all that God has given us. In this way, it is seen that tithing is simply a way of talking about our stewardship. The rationale behind stewardship is that God is the creator and giver of life and resources. Our use of these ought to reflect our recognition of his ownership, while our giving from these resources ought to reflect our gratitude to the one who gives freely to us. Our giving to God demonstrates our priorities and serves to honor God. Faithful stewardship is a worldview and serves as a measure of spiritual maturity. Stewardship involves not only how we give of our time and our resources; it also involves how we use our time and resources.
In our society, we enjoy a standard of living that is incomprehensible to most of the rest of the world. What are the demands that stewardship imposes on our extraordinary financial and material resources? Our attitude toward financial resources must reflect a balanced worldview. Specifically, our spending must be evaluated to determine whether it reflects God’s priorities and whether it honors him. How do we identify God’s priorities? Would they include items that provide convenience and comfort? Would they preclude items considered luxuries? The Bible does not offer clear-cut answers to these questions, and different individuals will arrive at different answers.
While the Bible does not demand that everyone live a spartan lifestyle or make a vow of poverty, a biblical worldview prohibits us from succumbing to reckless self-indulgence. We should not buy something “because we can afford it”; nor should our purchases be justified by reference to our station in society. The fact that our friends own certain things or that advertising tells us we need certain things should not dictate what our spending decisions should be. Our standard is not society’s values, but God’s values. Perhaps we should be more willing to be content with the “functional” rather than the “state-of-the-art” or that which is the current trend. Advertising tries to convince us that prestige is a worthwhile objective and that it can be achieved by inducing envy in others. In contrast the Bible identifies envy with sin, suggesting that we should therefore not attempt to stimulate it in others. Conspicuous consumption or selfish extravagance cannot be reconciled with good stewardship. The entertainment that we enjoy must be God-honoring. Responsible stewardship requires discipline, sensitivity to the needs of others, denial of possessiveness, resistance to the consumerism that pervades our culture, and above all, constant evaluation of our priorities and motivations. Income that is available to us that exceeds our basic needs ought to be the basis for proportionate giving above and beyond the benchmark percentages. Each spending decision should be made by first asking, “Is this a reasonable way to spend the money God has made available to me?” Each acquisition ought to be preceded by asking the question, “What is my motive for owning this?”
The mandate of the Old Testament tithing system indicates that 10 percent is an appropriate level of giving to express gratitude to God for what he has done for us. We show gratitude to God as the source of our goods by dedicating a portion of our goods to him and by becoming a source of goods to others (cf. also Acts 2:44-46; Heb. 13:16). Is the situation any different now that we are not under law? In the New Testament, Paul encourages contributions not as obligatory, but as gifts (2 Cor. 9:5). Tithing can therefore not be considered an obligation of law, but that does not mean that it is not an obligation of stewardship. How are we to show our gratitude to God other than by giving back a portion? If 10 percent was considered an acceptable portion by God as an expression of gratitude then, why should we view it any differently today? We might consider 10 percent as a benchmark just as we consider 15 percent a benchmark for tipping in a restaurant. The extent of the customer’s gratitude and appreciation is demonstrated in the size of the tip. It would be considered the ultimate rudeness or the consummate insult to leave no tip at all. So it is to God if we return no portion to him. In addition, there are occasions when the situation calls for a contribution exceeding the benchmark. In these cases, it is appropriate that giving be proportionate, according to the individual’s ability (Acts 11:29). Is the faithful steward under obligation to tithe? Not in a legalistic way; but it is the least we can do to show our appreciation to God for what life has given us. Further, we should not be satisfied with the tithe (10%) when God begins to prosper us beyond the needs of our normal and necessary expenses. Our stewardship should grow as God continues to provide above and beyond our needs. As mentioned earlier, our determination and success as stewards are measures of our Christian maturity and commitment.
In conclusion, stewardship is a worldview that is not limited to finances, or to giving. It involves our use and giving with regard to natural resources, time, skills and abilities, and material and financial resources. We must be aware of our stewardship responsibilities in each of these areas. We cannot exercise our stewardship in one area and assume that our obligation taken care of. Giving of our time is not a substitute for giving from our financial resources. Conversely, giving money cannot take the place of giving our skills and abilities. We must be careful to be faithful stewards in all aspects of our lives.