In Israel, everyone gave the same percentage but not the same amount. In this structure, a person who makes $10,000 per year returns $1,000 in tithe. The person who makes $1 million per year returns $100,000. The rich person returns far more money, but it is the same percentage that the poor person pays.
Trouble developed in the Old Testament when the people held out on their tithes. They were not obedient to God’s law. Malachi 3:8–10 tells us:
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.
This means that if the tithe principle is still in effect, we systematically rob God when we don’t tithe. Let me repeat that. Malachi’s teaching indicates that when we fail to tithe, we are not merely robbing the church, the clergy, or Christian educators—we are robbing God Himself. But note that God had words not only of condemnation for the people but also a promise of prosperity were they to change their ways. God challenged them to be faithful, giving His own promise that He would open the windows of heaven and pour out blessings upon them.
Why did God institute the tithe in the first place? In order to support the Levites, who had no tribal allocation of land. The Levites were set apart to take care of the spiritual and educational responsibilities of the nation, and their work and physical necessities were paid for by the tithe (Num. 18). Under the new covenant, the tithe continues to support the work of building up people in the truth of God and reaching sinners with the gospel. Christ works through churches, seminaries, parachurch organizations, missionaries, and many others to build and grow His kingdom.
When we don’t tithe, we reduce the ministry of Christ. One of the greatest barriers to expanding the kingdom of Christ in this world is financial. A fundamental principle is at work here. If we have $100 to work with in ministry, we are limited by that dollar amount. We can waste that money and do only $10 of actual work. But even if we are expert managers and scrupulous stewards, we cannot do $110 of ministry.
Christian ministry depends upon Christian giving. That giving always and everywhere limits the work of ministry.
Of course, my argument assumes that the tithe continues in this new covenant era. Some deny that the tithe continues today, but that’s not what the earliest Christians believed. In the Didache, written at the end of the first century or early in the second, there is a significant amount of material on the question of supporting the work of the kingdom. The tithe principle is clearly communicated in this work, showing us that the primitive Christian community continued the practice of the tithe. Also, there is in the Didache a prudential warning given to the Christian, saying, “Let your donation sweat in your hand before you give it.” An interesting metaphor, isn’t it? The injunction is not for your hand to squeeze the money so hard that you never give it. That’s not the point. The point is to be very careful, very discerning where you give your donation.
That brings up a controversial question with respect to financing the kingdom. Again, in Malachi 3:10 God says, “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse that there may be food in my house.” In the Old Testament, the tithe, either in animals or produce, was brought to a central location, the storehouse, which was managed by the Levites. The whole tithe from the whole nation was brought into this single receiving place, and it was then distributed by the Levites according to the needs of the people.