An ambitious young man told his pastor he’d promised God a tithe of his income. And so together they prayed for God to bless his career. At that time he was making $50.00 per week and tithing $5.00 per week. In a few years God blessed him, and his income increased and he was making $5000.00 per week and tithing $500.00 per week. He called on the pastor to see if he could be released from his tithing promise, it was too costly now. The pastor replied, “I don’t see how you can be released from your promise, but we can ask God to reduce your income back to $50.00 a week, then you’d have no problem tithing $5.00.” (W.A. Criswell)
J.L. Kraft, head of the Kraft Cheese Corporation, who had given approximately 25% of his enormous income to Christian causes for many years, said, “The only investment I ever made which has paid consistently increasing dividends is the money I have given to the Lord.”
Tithing your income, whatever percentage, net or gross, pre-tax or after-tax, is a big decision to make. We search the Scriptures for understanding. There is no lack of verses in the Old Testament on the subject, but aren’t Christians under a new covenant in Christ? Since when were we bound under the Deuteronomic Law of tithing, tenths, and refraining from pork? So we look to the New Testament for direction. But what exactly does the NT say on tithing? How much does the New Testament tell us to tithe?
Here’s the thing:
There are a few passages where tithing is mentioned in passing, but not really as a prescription, let alone command:
- Matt 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law”
- Hebrews 7 “Abraham gave (Melchizedek) a tenth of everything”
We are hard-pressed to find any teaching on exactly what percentages to tithe in the NT. But there are teachings on giving. And there the real prescription doesn’t seem to be 10% at all. It’s a different figure. Do you know what it is? Do you want to know? I’ll tell you.
Are you ready?
Here are a few passages that convey this ethos:
- Acts 4:32-37 “32 And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them… 34 there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.”
- Mark 10:17-31 “go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven… and come, follow Me.”
The ethic of Jesus when it comes to giving our lives to the Gospel is 100%. For some they paid for it in full with their own lives. So there is no haggling over percentages, pre-tax or after-tax, net or gross. It is quite simply, 100%. That is the New Testament Jesus ethic when it comes to giving.
Now in one sense, this is an impossible standard; in another sense, it’s a relief.
Relief, because now giving is not about a rule to stand by and keep but a direction, a goal to strive towards, of complete surrender. There is no judgment for failing to give all if you are unable to give all. But Jesus does hold us to that higher standard. Perhaps today we are unable to tithe. But as our faith grows so our giving…
R.G. LeTourneau was one of the more unlikely leaders of 20th century industry. From humble beginnings and a 7th grade education, he taught himself engineering and eventually built a manufacturing empire. His earth-moving machines helped win WWII and construct the highway infrastructure of modern America. By the end of his life he held more than 300 patents. He had also become one of the leading spokespersons in the lay-led faith and work movement. In the church today he is famously known not for tithing. No he didn’t tithe 10%. He practiced something called a “reverse tithe” – 90%. He tithed 90% of his income and kept 10% of it for himself. It was a solid step of faith he took in his younger years to do so, and his legacy continues to this day. As the faith, so the giving.
I don’t think Jesus is disappointed with our giving, if it is less than anything but 100%. When he encountered Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10, he was satisfied with Zaccheus’ 50% and 4X amends saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Now that’s still a lot, but somehow this camel made it through the needle’s eye: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25)
So in the end it’s not an issue of percentages. It is the response of the rich American that is everything. Be chastened, as I am, by the conscience-piercing lyrics of a song by Arcade Fire: “You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount”. If there is any prescription in the New Testament for us camels struggling to get through the needle’s eye, perhaps it’s this:
“Much has been given; much is expected” (Luke 12:48)