If you're a younger person living in the 21st century, you may be disillusioned or even offended by the practice of Christian Churches asking for money. This fact is highlighted by the many memes you'll likely be able to find if you look up Christian televangelists on social media. Many public Christian figures are looked at as crooks because of the way they ask for financial support.
But churches historically do often participate in all kinds of awesome activities, whether it be supporting the spiritual needs of their own members or reaching beyond their walls to help the community. Religious communities in general have often been centers of charity and helpfulness to the improvement of human life. This seemingly contradictory state of affairs leaves some people conflicted when it comes to the issue of tithes and offerings.
So what exactly is tithe? Many Christians grow up hearing about it and hearing how important it is, but what is it?
The Tithe is essentially a payment of a tenth, or ten percent. "One-tenth of the produce of the land, whether grain from the fields or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord and must be set apart to him as holy." Leviticus 27:30 NLT
While Genesis has some mentions of people paying tithes, the tithing system that we know through most of the Bible is most clearly established in Deuteronomy. The tithing system in Israel had several purposes: to support the Levites, to support the temple and the priests, and to help the poor.
One thing you have to keep in mind when you consider these laws in the Old Testament is that the culture and time are very specific, and often quite different than the times we live in. For example, while the tribe of Levi was given certain cities they could settle in, they did not own any land in the way that other Israelite tribes owned land for farming. Instead, the Levites served God in the temple, and depended on the tithes and donations from the rest of Israel for their food.
So how exactly did this system work in the Bible? Here's a basic breakdown:
1. The yearly tithe. Every year, farmers (a.k.a. almost everybody in this agricultural society) would take a tenth (tithe) of the fruits, vegetables, grain, and other produce they created
(Deuteronomy 14:22-29), they would take it to "the place the Lord will choose" (which ends up being the temple in Jerusalem) and eat that offering there in the presence of God. By essentially setting aside food to eat a meal with God, a person demonstrated their belief that everything they had in life ultimately belonged to and came from God. And since people would not actually eat an entire tenth of their farming yield for the year, lots of this produce would go to the needs of the temple and the levites.
2. The tithe every third year. Every three years, all of the produce created in the land would be brought to the nearest cities and put into storage. This would be portioned out among the Levites and the poor, in order to help create a stockpile to meet their needs for food.
In Malachi 3:8-12, God accuses the people of robbing him. Specifically, he means that they have been neglecting to bring their tithes and offerings to the temple. There is a lot of conflict about the temple in the time of Malachi because of the corrupt character of the priests at that time. The religious life of Israel was spiraling out of control - but the people's unwillingness to provide support to those working for God contributed to the spiritual hardship.
Could this be similar to what we face today? Could spiritual leaders be lacking support and resources from their own people? What if our own spiritual well-being can be benefitted from supporting the church systems we belong to? What blessings might come to us if we learn to practice generosity?
2 Corinthians 9 lays out Paul's understanding of generosity in the Christian life. Read through the passage and observe what it says. Does this passage harmonize well with the teachings on tithe in Deuteronomy 12 and 14?
Read this quote from 2 Corinthians 9:7: "You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” (NLT) Does this mean we can all decide for ourselves how much we should give? Why or why not?
Read Malachi 3:8-12. What kind of blessings does God promise for those who generously bring their tithes? What might be some modern applications of this if you are not a farmer?
Some people believe that churches should only use their financial resources to help the poor. Others say that churches don't need to concern themselves with the poor at all and should attend to their own business. What does Deuteronomy 14:22-29 say about this? How does your church measure up in the things it cares about financially?