Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/08/1997
Malachi 3:7 “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?” 8 “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed thee?’ I tithes and offerings. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you! 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse so that there my be food in my house, and test me now,” says the Lord of Hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. 11 Then will I rebuke the devourer for you, so that it may not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” declares the Lord of Hosts. 12 “And all the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,” says the Lord of Hosts.
Malachi 3:10 has been used and abused by preachers trying to use guilt to increase the offerings from their congregations. We neither want to abuse the passage nor to run from that abuse so far that we miss its right use. Rather, we must try to hear what God is saying to Israel, and to us, here. The first step to that goal is to replace this passage into its context, out of which it has been yanked too often. It is a part of the ongoing conversation between God and Israel that Malachi uses as a framework to address the dead orthodoxy, the religious laxity disguised by outward observance, and the going through the motions that had resulted in his generation from their disillusionment at the fact that God had not sent the Messiah on their timetable in response to their works. They went to the temple services but only to comment on how tedious they were. They made the required sacrifices, but they would slip a lame, blind, half-dead sheep into them as opposed to a male without blemish from the flock if they could get away with it. So it is no surprise to discover that they were also skimping on their tithes and offerings. God accuses them of stealing from him. What does he mean by that? And how does this relate to our giving to support the Lord’s work today? To answer those questions we also need to replace this passage into the context of the larger teaching about tithing in the Old Testament and giving in the New. And that also means relating it to the larger biblical concept of stewardship.
Tithing is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments except by implication, as the Eighth Commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”) and the Tenth (“Thou shalt not covet”) invite us to consider how we relate to the material things God has entrusted to our stewardship. Does that make tithing part of the Ceremonial Law, no longer binding on NT believers? Two facts suggest that the answer is "No." First, the New Testament never overturns the principle of tithing, and what references there are seem to uphold it. The Pharisees ought to have done it while not neglecting the weightier matters (Lk. 11:42), and Paul uses the Old Testament practice to justify New Testament ministers making their living by the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:13-14). Just as importantly, in the Old Testament tithing actually occurs before the Law of Moses was ever given: Abraham paid a tithe of the spoils of battle to Melchizedek in Gen. 14:18-20. So it would seem that the basic principle of setting aside a tenth of our income for the support of the Lord's work is universal, not just Mosaic, and is therefore still in effect. Those who do not tithe, sin. By ignoring God's instructions for how he wants us to manage the money with which He has entrusted us, in effect we steal from Him (Mal. 3:8). But note: it is not stealing because we give nine percent instead of ten; it is stealing because in doing so we are treating all of our money as if it were our own, rather than as God’s money, entrusted to us as stewards along with some rather specific instructions about how he wants us to manage it for him.
How is the tithe to be computed? Here is where Legalism often rears its ugly head. Many who speak very dogmatically do not even understand how the Old Testament tithe worked. There were in fact three separate tithes in the Old Testament. First is the basic Tithe (Num. 18:21). Ten per cent was set aside for the basic maintenance of the Temple services and the priesthood. That would correspond to our support of the local church today. But then there is the Rejoicing Tithe (Deut. 14:22-26). Because all Israelite males had to show up at the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year for the major feasts, they were instructed to budget ten per cent of their income, set it aside, so that when the time for those trips came they would be able to make them without financial hardship. When they got to Jerusalem, they were to spend it for whatever they wanted so they could enjoy the feast and have a good time! Perhaps setting aside money so that we can make short-term mission trips or attend our denomination's national and regional meetings as delegates from our local churches would be a good contemporary application of this tithe. Finally, there was the Poor Tithe (Deut. 14:28), which funded the nation's poverty relief program. As this was collected every third year, you would need to set aside about three per cent a year to be ready to pay it. The total Old Testament tithe then amounted to a whopping 23 per cent, ten percent of which you got to spend on yourself, and 13 per cent of which you gave away.
OK, then, how much should we give? The first thing I want to say is, "What is the spirit in which you are asking this question?" To see what you can get out of, or to discern God's will? I care a whole lot more about how you answer this second question than I do about your actual figures and percentages. Paul's statement that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7) tells me that our Father does too.
Having said that, I'm not going to give you a formula. But I will mention some considerations that I think are relevant as you make this decision before God. First, it seems to me that a rigid application of the OT figures misses the point. For the Israelites, the three tithes were basically their tax structure. Unlike them, we have a huge chunk of our earnings (for many of us much more than 23 %) removed before we even see them, and God understands that our situations are not parallel. But I do think we should pay close attention to the basic principles and purposes of giving that were so wisely codified by Moses for those living in OT Israel.
One phrase I often hear is well meaning but definitely wrong: "The first tenth belongs to God." Or another way of saying the same thing is to refer to “God’s tithe and your offering.” Now, that is simply heretical. The whole 100 per cent belongs to God, not just the first ten, and He has given us some very specific guidelines about how He wants us to manage it for Him, which includes what we are to do with that particular tenth. As I said above, the first thing we need to do is get back to the New Testament concept of stewardship—which is not just a synonym for tithing. It means conceiving all of your wealth, time, and talent as God’s property, on loan to you as his steward, that is, his manager, a servant who manages the Master’s wealth for the benefit of the Master. If we get that mentality right, the issue of the ten percent will take care of itself. And if we do not think that way, we are in effect stealing from God even if we give more than ten percent.
Someone says, "Let's not be legalistic about it." I agree. If you give more than ten per cent, God will forgive you! Seriously, I find it incomprehensible that New Testament believers, with all the privileges we enjoy under the Gospel, would WANT to give less than the Old Testament saints, to whom these blessings were only promised. Our question should not be, "How much can I get away with keeping," but "How much can I afford to give?" For me personally, ten percent is a conveniently good starting point. I take that amount off the top of my net income and give it to my local church, and then try to always do a little bit more on top of that, for missions, other worthy projects, or needy brothers and sisters.
If you say, "I can't afford to give . . ." Well, I simply don't believe you. I have always taken my tithe off the top of whatever God gave me, and then made my lifestyle decisions based on the rest. And I did it during some times of pretty severe poverty, too, when I was trying to get through college, seminary, and graduate school. God never let me starve. And, by the way, if you can't give it joyfully, forget it! (2 Cor. 9:7). To give grudgingly is spiritually the same as not giving--it is the same sin. Church Treasurer looketh upon the outward balance, but God sees the heart. A spiritually healthy Christian WANTS to support the Lord's work out of the double motive of gratitude for all that Christ has done for him and love that wants to see ministry be able to happen. He gives joyfully as a privilege, and wishes he could do more.
Finally, what about "Storehouse Tithing?" This is a big issue among some of our Southern Baptist brethren. They base it on this very passage, Mal. 3:10, "Bring ye all the tithes into the Storehouse." What they derive from this is that we ought to give our whole tithe and all our offerings to the local church, which can then distribute them as it sees fit. If you split your giving between your local church and other ministries decided on not by it but by you, you are held to be in violation of this passage and to be sinning. You must not only give a full 10 percent, you must give it to us and to no one else! Is anything starting to smell suspicious here to anyone besides me?
Frankly, I often suspect that this “storehouse tithing” is just a cynical way of trying to use guilt to keep conservative money in liberal churches and seminaries or colleges that don't deserve it, or of amassing power to the local pastor and board of deacons. For it has nothing to do with Malachi at all, despite the use of this passage as a prooftext. You see, his emphasis is not on the storehouse but on the whole tithe (on which people at that time were skimping), and the Old Testament storehouse is not equivalent to or even parallel to the New Testament local church anyway. There happened to be a storehouse where tithes and offerings were collected, and Malachi happens to mention it; but Malachi’s point is not where the people should bring their tithe but that they should bring it—and no lame, blind, half-dead sheep mixed in with it, either! The principle of stewardship means that you are responsible for managing the wealth God gives you. Apostate churches, churches that do not stand without compromise for the fundamentals of the faith--which would include churches that support apostate colleges and seminaries--are not eligible to receive that tithe in the first place! If God wants us to tithe in the context of stewardship, that means among other things that we have a responsibility to belong to a church to which we can tithe in good conscience in the first place. We should not therefore be diverting money elsewhere because we do not trust how the church will spend it. If we are, that is a good sign that it is time to find another church. For we do have a responsibility to support the local church. But if we direct some of our giving directly to other ministries too, for proper motives, that is between us and the Lord. Nothing in Scripture says that we should let the local pastor and deacons take over our stewardship responsibilities for us. Anyone who tells you otherwise based on this passage has missed its point entirely.
Is it possible to rob from God? Yes. We do it when we consider any of the wealth he has given us to be our own, not just when our tithe falls below ten percent or some other magical figure. Skimping on one’s tithe is a symptom of faulty and unfaithful stewardship, which is usually a symptom not only of selfishness but of a lack of faith and even more a lack of love. It is one’s relationship to God, and then consequently and secondarily one’s relationship to money, which is the underlying disease. Let us use this passage as an opportunity to examine ourselves in terms of those relationships. If we do that, our giving will take care of itself.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams