At the end of the year there's often a lot of focus on the practices of charitable giving and the beliefs behind it. One teaching that comes under scrutiny is the Christian practice of "tithing," by which ten percent of a believer's income is dedicated to God.
Non-Christians, and non-religious folks in general, sometimes have difficulty understanding just how tithing goes. Is this a loan that Christians expect to receive back from God with interest? Is it a downpayment on something that will appreciate over time?
Some versions of evangelicalism in America tend toward an affirmative answer to these kinds of questions. You reap what you sow, they say, and when you sow the seed of the tithe with God, he'll reward you handsomely. The focus on giving here is finally and fully on what the givers get back.
Often those who reason in this way will make an appeal to the prophet Malachi, who records this message from God: "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it" (Mal. 3:10 NIV).
The teaching that we give in order to get even more is really a perversion of the biblical message. It's a message associated with a particular form of evangelicalism in America, the so-called "health and wealth" gospel, or the "gospel of prosperity." We shouldn't understand the passage in Malachi, directed at the covenant people of Israel toward the end of the Old Testament monarchy, to so easily and directly refer to the situation of the American church.
The focus on the good brought to ourselves in the act of tithing is one that corrupts the purpose of the giving itself. C. S. Lewis provides an analogy to the proper view of marriage that fits here. Lewis said that you don't get married to become happy, but rather to make the other person happy. Your own happiness is a by-product, a consequence, of maintaining the proper end. If, by contrast, you get married simply in order to make yourself happy, your true happiness is made that much more unlikely.
In the same way, whatever benefits we claim to receive from tithing, whether spiritual, emotional, or financial, these are not to be the reason that we give. We give out of obedience to God's word.
The biblical basis for the tithe is primarily found in the Old Testament narratives about the divinely-ordered life of ancient Israel. For instance, when Melchizedek, the King of Salem, blessed Abram the Bible tells us that "Abram gave him a tenth of everything" he had recovered during battle (Gen. 14:20 NIV). This provides Christians with an example of a righteous action that is later explicitly referred to in the New Testament (Heb. 7:4-10).
When we give a tithe to God, we testify that everything we receive is a blessing from the Lord. He is the giver of all good gifts, and we are stewards of his creation, for "the earth is the LORD's, and everything in it" (Ps. 24:1 NIV). So when we tithe or give other offerings to God, it isn't the case that we're simply giving him something of our own. We're demonstrating that everything ultimately belongs to God and that part of our first responsibility as stewards is to give a portion back directly.
This is not to say that there are not good reasons beyond simple obedience to give to the church and to other charitable organizations. Evangelical activist Ron Sider estimates that if all Christians gave a full ten percent of their income, "there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world."
While evangelism should never be an afterthought or relegated to "leftovers," Sider's point is true enough. If American Christians were to focus on the simple obedience of giving back to God what is really his in the first place, the church would have the resources to do great things. But we should give not primarily because of the good we expect it will do the church, or others, or ourselves (although these may be valid considerations for how we give). Ultimately we should give because, as the children's song goes, the Bible tells us so.
Jordan J. Ballor is a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.