Commentary: Tithing

Tithing — A church leader asks if it’s ‘time to talk more’ about it

By Philip E. Meinzen

Isn’t it time to talk more about tithing?

The promise in the tithe, or giving the first one-tenth of our income to the Lord, is powerful for our witness and joy.  Could we be missing its power?

What are we as a church body missing when we don’t talk about tithing?  What is the “opportunity cost,” or the benefits that are foregone when clergy and laity alike aren’t talking about tithing?

Tithing in the Bible

Among numerous references of tithing in the Bible, one of the earliest shows Abram giving an offering of a tenth of everything to Melchizedek, a priest of God Most High, as a thank offering for God’s protection in battle (Gen. 14:17-20).  Jacob also pledged a tithe to God in response to God’s covenant promises (Gen. 28:20-22).  The practice is codified in Leviticus 27:30-33.  The well-known promise in Malachi 3:10 calls God’s people to bring the tithe into the storehouse.

In the New Testament, Jesus makes reference to the tithe, noting that it had been turned into a legalistic practice by the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:23).  Jesus points out that tithing is meant as a spiritual practice or witness, on a par with showing justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  The Apostle Paul encourages proportional giving in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.

Clearly, tithing is not a requirement for New Testament believers.  But many Christians today are blessed by the tithe to guide their own financial giving.  For them the “transactional” benefits lead to economic vitality.  The “relational benefits” replace greed and fear that can kill with peace and joy that sustains.

Research says …

In the mid-1990s the LCMS Foundation, our Synod’s gift-planning department, conducted research with committed donors.  The study sought to determine the attitudes that drive Lutherans’ giving decisions.  It identified six different attitudes that exist among LCMS worshipers, reliable within a 5 percent margin of error.  It also found that the attitude segment known as “tithing responder” represents only 11 percent of regular worshipers in the Synod.

We learned that one or more of these statements most likely reflects the attitude about giving and tithing held by Lutherans:

  • “I would be more open to talking about tithing if I knew that I had enough to make it to the end to cover my financial needs, especially if someone showed me how it could optimize my hard-earned finances.”

  • “Talking about tithing? It’s what I’m supposed to do, called to do, and want to do!”

  • “I would be more inclined to talk about tithing if I knew that specific ministries I want to support are ones that would benefit from my giving.”

  • “I believe that my first obligation is to care for my family. If I thought tithing would help me do that, I would be more interested in talking about it.”

  • “If tithing were everyone’s fair share, I would consider talking about it more. I think it’s smart to give my part in relation to what others are giving.”

  • “Talking about tithing doesn’t set my boundaries. My joy is giving to ministry. The more ministries I can support, the more joyful I am.”

Additional study uncovered that, although most pastors have personal attitudes that favor giving and tithing, three-fourths of the people in the pews are probably not picking up on their messages.

Could it be that the language being used doesn’t match the pew sitters’ suppositions about tithing?  A close examination of our Savior’s teaching reveals His mastery and versatility in talking about spiritual tithing — full of grace and truth, yet seasoned with salt.

Tithing possibilities

Some don’t talk about tithing because they want to avoid its perceived legalism. 

I wonder this: if we began to define “tithing” as a best practice that helps people to see God more clearly, might more be encouraged to claim such blessing?

Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount is instructive, especially in His words, “Blessed are the pure
in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).

It occurs to me that the spiritual response of tithing (giving oneself to the Lord’s possession) doesn’t come without the prerequisite purity to which  Jesus is referring — the Spirit’s rebirth.

There is a correlation!  As I trust and give to God, He reveals Himself to me. The more I trust His promises, the more I see Him.  The tithe proclaims God’s ownership and power in my life. Seeing God, I can live in a nurturing relationship of God’s economies (okonomia) as a co-worker, co-missioned for His mission — by His power.

First fruits

A tree planted in paradise came with instructions about its fruit for the first Adam. The Second Adam (Christ) came as the First Fruits    of creation to restore paradise with another tree planted in desolation. As God emptied Himself on that tree we became heirs of His Kingdom. 

St. Paul records it this way:  “You know about the kindness (grace) of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor in order to make you rich through his poverty” (2 Cor. 8:9).

God emptied Himself so we can have His fullness. Renewed in the waters of baptism, we turn or “blush” like the waters in the vessels at Cana’s wedding. This is the purity of heart, the Spirit’s fruit, that lets us see God. 
More talking about tithing in the kindness of Christ will strengthen our faith, unite our hearts, and encourage our walk with the Risen Lord — today, tomorrow, and forever. Let’s start talking!

Philip E. Meinzen of West Bend, Wis., is president of the Center for Financial Leadership, Inc., based on the campus of Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, and chairman  of the LCMS Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support’s Economic Vitality Action Team.

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