God has a kingdom and it’s funded through tithes and offerings . That being the case, as leaders we better have a solid grasp and biblical understanding of what they are (and aren’t).
For an Old Testament Israelite, tithing was the returning of the first 10% of their gross income to God through their local church to fund God’s work on this earth. Let me explain this definition piece by piece, making application along the way.
1. Tithing was returning, not giving.
The tithe was recognized as God’s, so the Israelites didn’t technically give a tithe, they returned it to God. The Old Testament speaks of “bringing,” “taking,” “presenting,” or even “paying” tithes, but not “giving” them. Malachi 3:10 says to bring the tithe, not give the tithe. There’s a difference. It’s like this…I recently borrowed a pair of binoculars from my father-in-law. When he gets them back he won’t consider me to have given him something that’s mine, he will consider me to have returned that which was already his. In the same way, the Israelites didn’t give their tithe to God, they returned it. And that’s exactly what we should do…return the tithe to God. After all, we can’t give something that’s not ours to begin with.
2. The tithe was 10%.
Leviticus 27:30 says, “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy [set apart] to the Lord.” (NIV) The word “tithe” in this passage is the English translation of the Hebrew word “ma-aser”, which means “a tenth part” or simply put, 10%. Today, some people mistakenly use the word tithing interchangeably with giving. People talk about tithing $50 a month when they make $4,000 a month. But a tithe of $4,000 is $400, not $50. An Old Testament Israelite could donate 3% or 5% or 7% of their income, but they couldn’t tithe it because the tithe was 10%. Giving God a tip is not the same as giving God a tithe. A tithe is 10% and belongs to God.
3. The tithe was the first 10%.
Proverbs 3:9-10, “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” (NIV) The Israelites weren’t allowed to give God their leftovers. They were required to give 10% to God off the top, not out of what’s left – or not left. Today many people only give if they have enough money left at the end of the month (and they usually don’t). They pay their mortgage, they pay their utilities, they pay their debts. Then, if there’s anything left, they give something to God. In other words, they give God their leftovers. But the Israelites gave to God first. He was first priority in their finances and they would trust Him to provide all they needed on what was left after giving to Him. That’s what we should do too. We give to God first, then pay our mortgage, our utilities, our debts, etc.
4. They tithed on their gross income, not their net income.
Your gross income is the amount you actually make. Your net income is what you have left to live on after your tithes and taxes are taken out. As we just learned, God required the Israelites to give him their firstfruits. God didn’t allow them to give to someone else first and then give the tithe on what was left. That would’ve violated the firstfruits commandment (Proverbs 3:9). Giving to God off our net income, after our taxes have been taken out, prioritizes the government over God. And that violates the principle of firstfruits.
5. They gave their tithe to God through their local church.
God instructed the Israelites in Malachi 3:10 to “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…” (NIV) The “storehouse” was the Old Testament picture of the New Testament church. They called it the storehouse, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the synagogue, but these are just Old Testament names for what we would call today our local church. Some people today return their tithe to an overseas missions organization, a television ministry, to a relative in need, or to some place other than their local church. But the Bible is clear. The tithe goes to your local church.
6. Tithing funded God’s work on this earth.
God instructed the Israelites in Malachi 3:10, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house…” (NIV) The Israelites were farmers and shepherds so they didn’t get paychecks like we do today. So they tithed their food and flocks. And what was this food for? Why did God want this food in his house? Practically speaking, it provided for the priests who led the nation spiritually and ministered to their needs. Think of the tithe as God’s business plan…A small business owner must develop a solid business plan, with a strategy for generating revenue. Only when a company generates revenue can they take care of existing customers and reach new ones. Well, the tithe was God’s strategy for generating revenue. And God intended that the revenue generated would be used to take care of His existing children, and reach new ones. Stop thinking of tithing as losing income. Start thinking of it as funding God’s work. It takes money to do ministry and as you tithe, you help your local church fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
7. A tithe was different than an offering.
There’s at least four differences between a tithe and an offering.
1) The tithe was 10%. The offering was any amount given above and beyond the tithe. Here’s an example…In the book of Ezra, when the Temple needed to be rebuilt (because it had been destroyed by Israel’s enemies) the Israelites were asked to give freewill offerings (Ezra 1:4,6; 3:5; 7:16; 8:28). These offerings were not substitutes for their tithe, they were to be given above and beyond their tithe. You shouldn’t be giving offerings if you’re not tithing. The tithe comes first. Then, if you can afford to, you are free to give an offering above and beyond the tithe.
2) The tithe was mandatory, an offering was not (unless God prompted them to give one). When it came to offerings the Israelites could give or not give as they felt led by God, but not so with the tithe. The tithe was required whether they felt like returning it or not. Same is true for us. We don’t have to feel led to return our tithe. God expects us to obey whether we feel like it or not.
3) The Israelites could not designate their tithe. The tithe belonged to God so only he could designate its use, and he said the tithe is earmarked for funding his church. But an offering was different. The offering didn’t come out of the 10% that belonged to God, but out of the 90% God let them steward. That belonged to God too, but God allowed some freedom in how it was used. We’re free to designate an offering, but not the tithe.
4) An offering is never to be used as a substitute for the tithe. Some people today give an offering instead of a tithe, but God never allowed the Israelites to do any such thing. You should only give to missions if you can do so above and beyond the tithe. You should only give to the building fund if you can do so above and beyond the tithe. You should only give to our annual Christmas offering if you can do so above and beyond the tithe. You should only give to our new Ministry Endowment Fund if you can do so above and beyond the tithe.
Pastor – if there’s a mist in the pulpit there’s a fog in the pew. If you’re a church leader you need to study up on tithes and offerings because if you’re unclear on what they are, your people will be too – and that would be one costly mistake.