To Tithe or Not to Tithe

In a recent conversation I had with a church planting friend of mine, the topic of the tithe came up, and I thought it might be interesting for me to put down in this forum what I am teaching my church regarding giving.

Having been heavily influenced by the likes of Andy Stanley, Randy Alcorn, and my own Dad, I have become convinced that teaching percentage-based giving is not only the number one kind of giving to encourage in our people, but I have also become convinced that the church organization should structure its budget based on the tithes of the people without regard to special offerings, designated funds, or anything above and beyond the tithe.

However, I know there are two major problems with my approach:

Objections to My Approach

First of all, some people find the tithe principle to be archaic and irrelevant to New Testament Christianity. Since none of the epistles reference tithing, many Christians have concluded that our freedom from the law also includes freedom from the tithe. Therefore, these Christians claim that teaching tithing as a principle is bordering on legalism and should not be done. Now, to be sure, these Christians often encourage people to go beyond the tithe into sacrificial generosity, but they almost never use the word “tithe” out of their theological convictions. For these people, my approach smacks of legalism, and I think I both understand and can sympathize with their perspective.

Secondly, modern realities are such that people give very little of their money to very few causes, but that doesn’t mean they are not compassionate. In fact, there seems to be a growing movement of compassion especially among younger generations that are increasingly eager to get involved personally and financially in causes that truly benefit those in need. For example, the Red Cross receives record donations whenever they focus on a cause and give people easy ways to give toward those causes. The end result of this, for churches, is that many churches are encouraging people to give not just to the “general fund” of the church but to specific needs within the church or even to specific societal projects through the church. For these churches, one goal is to help people become generous people in principle and therefore the church strives to give people many, many different giving opportunities and to use many different giving motivations.

My Response

If either of these two issues are true, then there is a definite weakness with my continuing emphasis on tithing or percentage-based giving. Nevertheless, I still hold to my position because (1) I believe the tithe is a valid scriptural principle today along the same lines as the Sabbath command (i.e. though not salvific, it is yet a command that God has given for our own benefit and for the sake of his kingdom) and (2) I believe the best way to move people to true sacrificial generosity is to start with the training wheels of percentage-based giving.

First, even though the epistles do not reference tithing as a core financial principle, they also do not reference the Sabbath as an enduring principle, yet the practice of weekly worship among Christians eventually changed the calendar of the secular government. Likewise, I assume that tithing, so completely ingrained in Jewish culture as the way to maintain the synagogue, also became method of sustaining the local church. My convictions are not totally based on this assumption, however. My convictions are most firmly based on Jesus’ words to the Pharisees:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. — Matthew 23:23

Jesus appears here to be reaffirming the tithe at least in principle even though he never directly reaffirms the Sabbath commands.

Secondly, I believe that teaching percentage based giving is the only way to move people beyond casual, spontaneous, and it-tugged-my-heart, style giving. I know of no one who through casual, spontaneous giving ever gave more than a tiny percentage of their income aside from the folks listed here:

Nevertheless, in general, casual and spontaneous giving is exactly the way the world already operates, but Christians are called to go beyond the world with our generosity.

Cause-Based Giving or Percentage-Based Giving

As I see it, if we encourage people to give to causes, then we constantly have to communicate to them the next cause to which they should give, defend the validity of that cause, and to use whatever emotional tactics are at our disposal to motivate the cause to become THEIR cause. In the past, pastors have been guilty of descending into emotional manipulation to raise money (against what Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 9:7). The bottom line is that in order for a person to give to a cause, they need to personally value that cause, and they will only give to that cause so long as that cause continues to carry the value for them.

On the other hand, cause-based giving does not inherently push people into levels of sacrifice. They may choose to give to this cause this month, but that’s partially because they know this cause is a one-time cause. Next month, the causes will be different, and they can rest in the knowledge that if their budget gets tight next month, they won’t need to feel the lifestyle strain of this month’s decision. Percentage-based giving has the intrinsic force of making people decide to change their lifestyle over the long-term. Percentage-based giving forces people to increase their giving along with their income. Percentage-based giving forces people to put giving as a higher priority than any other bill they face.

Additionally, cause-based giving is only one kind of giving in the Bible. It shows up in Paul’s missionary efforts, Paul’s collections for the Jerusalem church, David’s collection for the building of the temple, etc. But cause-based giving is never used in the Bible to care for the poor, to provide for corporate worship, or to respond to God in personal worship. These three issues are taken care of in the Old Testament by percentage-based giving, specifically tithes and firstfruits, and these issues are not addressed from a funding standpoint in the New Testament with the one exception of the money donated to help the spontaneous hunger needs of the residents of Jerusalem whether immediately after Pentecost or later during the Jerusalem famine.


  • Tithing, or at least the principle of percentage-based giving, is the starting point for developing true generosity and specifically tithing is the foundation for declaring God’s authority over our money.
  • And, tithing, or the regular percentage-based giving of the congregation, should be the foundation for the church’s budgeting and operations. There will be moments for cause-based giving such as building campaigns (like the temple and tabernacle of old), disaster relief (like the Jerusalem famine), or missionary work (like the ministry of Paul), but the regular operations of the church (building maintenance, marketing expenses, staffing costs, curriculum purchases, etc) should be based on the tithes of the people.
  • Furthermore, the church, as an organization, should also tithe, committing at least 10% of their income to the Kingdom through some church association.

What about you?

I would love to hear some feedback on this and to know how you approach “financial discipleship” in your congregation specifically with regard to how the people in your congregation are developing as givers.

Specifically, I’m interested to know (1) Does your church emphasize percentage-based giving or cause-based giving or neither? and (2) Does your church have people who are committed to cause-based giving and are also giving more than 10% of their income away?