God knows I love pastors. I was a pastor, off and on, for about twenty years. I’ve spoken to thousands of pastors around the world and expended myself on their behalf. I know something about the challenges they face. But sometimes they say things that I’m certain they will one day regret.
For example, have you ever heard a pastor say, “Your tithe belongs to the local church”? I’ll bet I’ve heard that hundreds of times over the past 40 years of my Christian life. That familiar claim is often followed with, “If you want to give to other ministries, you can give offerings over and above your tithe.”
Those claims have been repeated so often that they are widely accepted as biblical truth. You may be surprised to learn, however, that those claims aren’t biblical at all. If you don’t believe me, keep reading.
If you are a pastor who has been making those claims, what I’ve got to say may not be easy for you to accept. But if you’ll keep reading to the end, I promise I’ve got something much better and more biblical for you to teach God’s flock. And your ministry could be so significantly changed that you will be eternally thankful that you took ten minutes to read what follows. I don’t exaggerate.
What is the scriptural basis for the claim that the tithe belongs to the local church? Generally, it is three verses from the Old Testament:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” 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” (Mal. 3:8-10).
Clearly, in Malachi’s day, there was a storehouse in the vicinity of the temple (which God calls “My house”) where the people’s tithes were brought. Since the temple is the physical place that God was worshipped under the Old Covenant, and since the church building or meeting location is the physical place where God is corporately worshipped under the New Covenant, New Covenant worshippers should bring their tithes to the local church. At least, that is what we’ve been told for many years.
But there are problems, on several levels, with that line of reasoning.
First, that line of reasoning is not taught anywhere in the New Testament, either by Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, James, or Jude. No one can point to any verse or passage in the New Testament that says something like, “Under the Old Covenant, God’s people were commanded to bring their tithes to the temple storehouse, and since the temple was the physical place where God’s Old Covenant people worshipped, and the church building or church meeting location is the physical place where God’s New Covenant people worship, so New Covenant believers should give their tithes to their local church.” So any person who makes that claim is teaching what the New Testament never teaches.
Second, not only is there no teaching in the New Testament that equates the Old Covenant temple storehouse with the New Covenant church building or meeting place, there is also no teaching or instruction in the New Testament for Christians to give their tithes to the local church. That is, of course, why pastors have to resort to proving the idea from the Old Testament book of Malachi. They have nothing to draw from in the New Testament. Nothing at all.
Third, anyone can string a few scriptures together, take them out of context, twist their meaning, and make the Bible say anything they want it to say.
I could, for example, prove that Christians should tithe to themselves using Malachi 3:8-10. Sure! Under the New Covenant, believers are God’s temple (see 1 Cor. 3:16-17). Since God’s Old Covenant people were instructed in Malachi 3 to give their tithes at the Old Covenant temple, so God’s New Covenant people should give their tithes at the New Covenant temple—themselves! Bingo!
What I have just done is no different than what pastors do who use Malachi 3:8-10 to prove that Christians should tithe to their local church.
As one who directs a ministry that focuses on serving those whom Jesus referred to as the “least of these,” I could very easily string some scriptures together to prove that every Christian should tithe to the “least of these.” Sure! Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:12), a priest who was, at very least, a type of Christ, and who was, at most, Christ pre-incarnate (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:6, 7:1-10). Therefore, Christians, all children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7), should follow his example and also pay tithes to Christ who is their high priest, and who told us that when we give to the “least of these,” we actually give to Him (Matt. 25:34-40). So all Christians should tithe to Heaven’s Family! Voila!
What I have just done is no different than what pastors do who use Malachi 3:8-10 to prove that Christians should tithe to their local church.
An Old Testament Embarrassment
There are other fundamental problems with the Malachi 3 tithe-to-the-local-church idea.
One is that, under the Old Covenant, not all tithes were supposed to end up at the temple or, for that matter, be consumed by the Levites:
You shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the Lord your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the Lord your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.
At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do (Deut. 14:23-29, emphasis added).
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. You shall say before the Lord your God, “I have removed the sacred portion from my house, and also have given it to the Levite and the alien, the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed or forgotten any of Your commandments (Deut. 26:12-13, emphasis added).
From what we just read, it is obvious that, under the Old Covenant, some tithes were not to be brought to the temple, and some tithes benefitted people whom Jesus referred to as the “least of these.” (Incidentally, you may have also noticed that these passages actually do support a limited version of tithe-to-yourself…)
Why do pastors never mention these passages when they teach from Malachi 3 about how the tithe belongs to the local church?
Incidentally, one other twist on the standard tithe-to-your-local-church claim is also exposed as fallacious from these passages. Some pastors claim that, just as Levites were God’s ministers under the Old Covenant, so pastors are God’s ministers under the New Covenant. Thus, because the people’s tithes were given to the Levites under the Old Covenant, they should be given to pastors under the New Covenant.
The problem with that line of logic is that it was not just the Levites who received tithes under the Old Covenant, as the passages we’ve just read make so plain. Beyond that, how is it that the only New Covenant ministers who are allegedly the equivalent of Old Covenant Levites are pastors? Aren’t there any other New Covenant ministers besides pastors, such as apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers (see Eph. 4:11)?
Yet Another Problem
Another problem with the tithe-to-the-local-church idea is that, not only is there no teaching or instruction in the New Testament for Christians to give their tithes to the local church, there is no teaching or instruction in the New Testament epistles for Christians to tithe, period. In fact, tithing is only mentioned once in all of the New Testament epistles, in Hebrews 7:8-9. There you will find a reference to the Old Testament story of Abraham giving a tenth to Melchizedek.
When you think of all the commandments and instructions that Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write to New Testament believers to help them please God, and consider that not once were any of them inspired to instruct Christians to tithe, that seems rather significant. Any pastor who makes the claim that Christians are expected by God to tithe is teaching what Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude never claimed in any of their letters to the churches. (The New Testament authors, of course, had plenty to say about stewardship and giving.)
But didn’t Jesus advocate tithing? In all that is recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John concerning what Jesus taught during His 3-1/2 years of ministry, together they record that He mentioned tithing only twice. That’s it. Once was in His story of the Pharisee and the tax collector—in which the Pharisee boasted of his tithing—and once when He was denouncing the Pharisees for tithing their garden herbs while neglecting “the weightier provisions of the law,” namely, “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” In that case, Jesus ended by saying to the Pharisees: “But these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). So there is Jesus’ single endorsement of tithing, something He obviously considered a “lesser commandment,” spoken to people who were living under the Old Covenant and who were of course expected to tithe.
But is tithing included in the Law of Christ, thus making it binding upon New Testament believers? A fragile case could be made from Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:23, but it would be difficult to strengthen that case in the absence of any endorsement from the New Testament epistles. And still, even if that single verse in Matthew warrants tithing under the New Covenant, it speaks nothing about where the tithe should be given.
Why is there so little about tithing in the New Testament? I tend to think that people who are genuinely born again are transformed by God’s Spirit and filled with His love, and He makes them into givers who aren’t trying to figure out the minimum they can reluctantly relinquish while still feeling OK about their relationship with Him. People who actually love God and neighbor live to give. They are storing as much treasure as they can in heaven.
New Testament Giving to the Church
So do Christians have any obligation to financially support their local church? Rather than twisting an Old Testament verse to fit our theology, let’s look at what the New Testament clearly teaches on the subject.
Here’s a very relevant New Testament verse:
The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him (Gal. 6:6).
That’s easy to understand. If someone is teaching you God’s Word, you have an obligation to reciprocate. You should share what you have to support your teacher. Obviously, that applies to pastors. And it also applies just as much to other teachers outside the “local church.” Paul’s words expose the fallacy that the local church is somehow “first in line” to receive support from believers. And notice, of course, that Paul makes no mention of tithing in his instructions about supporting teachers.
Here’s another relevant New Testament passage:
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
Obviously, Paul was writing about paying church elders (who, according to the New Testament, are the same as pastors). Notice again Paul’s emphasis on supporting those who work hard at teaching (and preaching), because that is what elders/pastors should be doing more than anything else.
Also notice the principle on which Paul’s instruction is based. Elders/pastors should be remunerated because they work. Financially supporting elders/pastors is not charity, it is paying them wages for what they do.
Incidentally, if Paul believed that Christians should tithe to the local church, this would have been a good place to mention it. But he didn’t.
Here’s yet another relevant New Testament passage:
Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?
I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.
If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:6-14).
Paul undeniably believed that it was not just teachers and elders/pastors who should be supported by those whom they serve, but also apostles, like himself and Barnabas. Again, Paul exposes the fallacy that the local church is “first in line” to receive support from Christians. That idea is not taught in the New Testament.
Note that once again we find no mention of tithing in Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians regarding their obligation to financially support those who “sowed spiritual things” into their lives.
And again, notice the principle on which Paul’s argument is founded: Ministers expend time and effort to teach us God’s Word, so it is only right that we should support them materially. Paul is not arguing from a principle of charity, but of reciprocity. He wrote, “Don’t muzzle the ox while he is threshing” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18). Failing to support someone who is teaching you is like eating at a restaurant and not paying for your meal. It is like hiring people to harvest your field and then not paying them for their labor (see Jas. 5:4). Such a thing should not be done. It is taking advantage of others. It is equivalent to stealing. It angers God.
When Israel failed to pay their tithes (which we read about in Malachi 3:8-10), it invited God’s curse. In effect, God said, “So you are going to steal from the Levites (and others of course), expecting them to serve you for free? OK, I’ll give you a taste of what it feels like to have your hard work go unrewarded. Let’s see how you like it when all your crops fail…”
Giving Versus Paying
This same principle of reciprocity is true of just about every dollar that you put in your church’s offering plate. It is “payment for benefits,” not “charity.” Your money not only pays your pastor’s salary, reciprocating for his service to you, but it also pays for the mortgage on the building where you sit and listen to his teaching. It pays for the electricity that powers the lights and air conditioning. It pays for the maintenance and cleaning of the building. And it pays for the salaries of the other church employees, such as youth pastors, worship leaders and so on, who serve the members. As a beneficiary of their labors, and as one whose attendance generates expenses for the church, you should pay your fair share.
But this leads me to something that many Christians (and pastors) don’t seem to understand. “Paying for services rendered” is not the same as “giving to the Lord.” You don’t lay up treasures in heaven when you pay for services rendered.
Let’s be honest. The collective money put in the offering plate primarily benefits the folks who put it there. They are essentially giving to themselves, just like country club members do when they pay their dues.
Do we lay up treasure in heaven when we make a mortgage payment on our house, buy food to eat, or pay someone to repair our car? Of course not. So why would God credit us with treasure in heaven when we pay for services rendered and benefits received at church? What is so virtuous about paying for services from which I benefit that it deserves God’s reward? (I suppose the exception could be when one gives more than his or her fair share, thus benefitting others who aren’t paying their fair share.)
What About Churches that “Tithe on the Tithe?”
Of course, many churches take what their members put in the offering plate and use a tenth of it to support outreach, other ministries, missionaries, or the poor. Some churches give more than 10%.
Praise God for any money that is put in church offerings plates that ends up benefiting people other than the people who put it in the plates. For that money—if you are one who gave—you will receive credit in heaven for actually giving, since that portion does not end up as “payment for services rendered.” Again, let’s be honest. If you tithe to your church and your church tithes, you are getting credit in heaven for giving 1% of your income…not 10%. The other 9% of your income you are spending to pay for services rendered and benefits received at your church.
Am I wrong? Consider what Jesus taught:
And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14, emphasis added).
Jesus is quite clear on this: Do something kind for those who can and do repay you, and when they do repay you, you’ve got your full reward. Consequently, you’ll receive no reward for it at the resurrection. If that is true, why would anyone ever expect reward at the resurrection for doing nothing more than repaying someone for a kindness received, or paying someone for a service rendered? That is exactly what occurs when the offering plate is passed at church.
If we can trust Jesus, it seems that the only way to lay up treasure in heaven is to give, not in two-way earthly transactions (which would include repayments for gifts received, payments for services rendered, or gifts that will likely be reciprocated by the recipients), but by one-way earthly transactions. That truth is clearly illustrated in Luke 14:12-14, which we just read. It is also echoed in Jesus’ words to all His followers in Luke 12:
Sell your possessions and give to charity (Greek: eleemosune, translated as “alms” in most other places it is found in the New American Standardtranslation; that is, “gifts to the poor”); make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys (Luke 12:33, emphasis).
“But our church building is a place where the lost can come to hear the gospel! So what we give to the church helps other people hear the gospel!”
Certainly that is true. But it doesn’t change anything I’ve said. If your church has 100 attendees every week, 1 of whom is an unsaved person who hears the gospel, then an additional 1/100th of what you put in the offering plate each week is credited as treasure in heaven. The lion’s share of most church offerings benefits the attendees.
If a country club’s annual membership costs $10,000, and one of the members invites a friend to play golf with him on the club golf course—which costs the member a $25 fee—that member would be fooling himself to think that the $10,025 he paid to his country club that year was all for the benefit of the friend who played a round of golf with him!
How Much Do I Give to My Church?
So, should you put money in the offering plate as it goes by? Of course you should, but not based on some alleged biblical requirement that you should tithe to your local church. Rather, you should put money in the plate to pay your rightful share—based on your means—of all the expenses that the church is incurring in order to serve you and your family.
Your pastor might be able to tell you the annual cost, per attendee, of the many programs and ministries his church provides. That would give you an average annual amount that all attendees should pay their church. But in order to arrive at everyone’s fair share as a percentage of their income, you’d have to know that aggregate income of all attendees, something that is likely impossible to find out. (For example, if the total expenses of your church are $100,000 and the aggregate income of everyone who attends your church is $2,000,000, everyone should support the church with 5% of their income.)
But here is something that I, and every pastor in the world, can guarantee you: There is no church in the world in which every attendee tithes, so you can be sure that there is no church in the world that needs 10% of everyone’s income to provide the services that it currently provides. Right now, every church is providing the services it provides using less than 10% of the aggregate income of those who attend. On that basis alone, you can be certain that your rightful share of support for your church is less than 10% of your income.
Of course, most pastors would like to see church offerings increase, as more money means they can provide more programs, ministries and services, perhaps by hiring another pastor, or building a gymnasium, broadcasting on a local TV station, or supplying free donuts every Sunday.
But wouldn’t it be best to ask ourselves what ministries and programs God expects the local church to provide? Anyone who reads the New Testament quickly realizes that the modern church offers exponentially more programs and services than the early church, which consequently requires exponentially more money. Meeting in homes, as did the early church, there were no expenses related to special buildings, like mortgages, utilities, sound and multi-media equipment, parking lots and so on. The only paid “staff” were elders/pastors. There were no executive pastors, youth pastors, children’s ministers, worship leaders, secretaries, custodians and so on.
This opens up a new subject in itself, but the early church did wonderfully well without all those things, and many places in the world where the church is the healthiest today are places where churches have none of those things. So why do we think we must have all those things to simply make disciples who obey Jesus’ commandments, which is what Jesus wants us to do?
Another related question every disciple should ask is: “Do I want to attend a church that offers lots of services, to which if I pay my rightful share, will require a significant percentage of my income? Or do I want to attend a church that offers only discipleship (following Jesus’ model), to which if I pay my rightful share, will require a much smaller percentage of my income, thus allowing me to have more money to send the gospel to the unreached and care for the poor?” This is actually a profound question on many levels, and is worth seriously pondering.
Who is Really Robbing God?
If you are a pastor who has been teaching your flock that the tithe belongs to the local church and you’ve read this far, then I praise God. Don’t stop reading now, because I’ve saved what is most important for last. Your ministry could be changed in such a way that you will be eternally thankful for reading the final paragraphs.
Pastors who are telling their non-tithing members that they are robbing God need to ask themselves if they might be bigger robbers themselves. Here is why: Every dime those pastors collect for the “Lord’s work” and then spend on things the Lord never mentions in the Bible as necessary to make disciples could be used to serve the poor and reach the lost. Consequently, the lost and the poor are being robbed of what God commands His church to give them, namely a chance to hear the gospel, food, water, clothing, shelter, and someone who cares about them. On top of that, those pastors’ flocks are being robbed of future rewards as they “pay for services rendered” while being told that they are “giving to the Lord” and “laying up treasure in heaven.” I wonder what those “givers” will be thinking about their pastors when they get to heaven and discover that they’ve been misled?
But all of this is not just the fault of pastors. It is also the fault of many professing Christians, consumers who demand more and more programs and services that can only be provided by churches with big buildings, big staffs, and big budgets. Any pastor who attempts to reverse that trend will find himself in trouble (albeit glorious trouble; see Philippians 3:10).
I know what I’m talking about. My ministry today began when, as a pastor years ago, I first believed Matthew 25:31-46 and stopped playing church games. I realized that Jesus said nothing to the sheep or goats in that passage about tithing to the local church. Rather, the eternal salvation of the sheep and goats hinged on what they did or didn’t do for Jesus Himself, incarnated in the “least of these.” Now read slowly: It was the goats who were literally “robbing God,” withholding basic necessities from Him!
Ever since then, I’ve been on a crusade to help others see what I was blind to for so long, but what is so obvious to me now. I thank God for the receptive hearts I’ve found all around the world.
A Call to Action
In summary, if you are a pastor who has, knowingly or unknowingly, been misleading your flock regarding tithing, you have a decision to make. Will you continue to promote a twisting of Malachi 3:8-10? Or will you stop? If your church tithes, using 90% of its income for church programs and ministries that benefit those who attend, will you tell your flock that 90% of what they give is just paying for services rendered, and only 10% of what they give is credited by God as treasure laid up in heaven? Will you tell those who tithe to your church that they are actually only giving 1% of their income and paying for services rendered with 9%?
If you continue to mislead your flock on these issues, sooner of later, they’ll know you’ve misled them. If you admit that you’ve been misleading them, they will respect you as a man of God, and your example of humility will be worth more than 100 sermons on the same topic.
Pastors and church boards, will you lead your churches in financial repentance by implementing a budget policy to annually increase what your church gives to missions, to the gospel, and to the “least of these,” so that each year you can tell those who support your church that 20%, then 30%, then 40%, then 50%, then one day 90% of their support is benefitting others besides themselves and is treasure laid up in heaven? I’d be willing to bet that any pastor who started teaching the truth, and any church board that implemented the budget policy that I’m advocating, would find that church’s income increasing exponentially.
If you are a church attender, will you ask your church leadership what percentage of your church’s income is used for ministry that doesn’t only benefit the church attendees? Will you stop demanding more ministries and programs that only benefit you and your family, and start requesting that progressively more of your church’s income be used for the benefit of others?
Reader, will you have the courage to forward this e-teaching to your pastor and every Christian you know?
If this e-teaching rocked your boat, maybe your boat needed to be rocked. May God help us!