Tithing is a hot-button issue for many. Is tithing for New Testament Christians, or is it an Old Testament concept? Does God expect his people to pay a 10% tithe each week? Does he promise to prosper them financially if they do? Will he withhold blessings if they don’t?
In this the latest in our Misused Bible Verses series, we’ll examine tithing – specifically from Malachi 3:10 – which is perhaps the most-used and misused Bible verse on the subject. This is what it says,
“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 there will not be room enough to store it” (Malachi 3:10).
In this verse God is addressing the “sons of Levi“ (3:3) and the “sons of Jacob” (3:6), or the nation of Israel and its religious leaders. He promises judgment against the nation, particularly against corrupt priests. He is unhappy with their constant sinning. He rebukes them for their lack of concern for anyone but themselves, and for their toleration of sin and exploitation of the weak. He structures this heavenly lament around three primary questions the guilty nation asks:
“How can we return to God?” (3:7)
“How have we robbed God? (3:8)
“How have we spoken against God?” (3:13)
One way that the nation as a whole was sinning was in their failure to pay tithes. Tithes were for the care of the Levitical priests and strangers and orphans in Israel (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). This particular tithe was a “first fruit” tithe, or 1/10 of one’s produce (Deuteronomy 26:10). It wasn’t a monetary tithe, but a tithe of produce. This produce tithe was the tithe mentioned in Malachi 3:10.
How do we know this? Because in the preceding verses God explicitly mentions the recipients of abuse – including orphans, widows, foreigners. In other words, those to whom the tithe should’ve been distributed after it was given to God via the priests. However, this clearly wasn’t happening.
Also, the storehouse is mentioned. Is the storehouse a bank account? No, it was a literal storehouse, a treasury, a structure for holding the produce that was offered in worship. The stock of the storehouse was for the Levites who did not raise livestock and produce and therefore could not care for themselves, and for the poor and oppressed who likewise could not do the same.
Notice that God peaks of rebuking the devourer in 3:11. The devourers were locusts which threatened to decimate the crops of the Israelites, and was a sign of God’s judgment. If the tithe was monetary, how could the devourer harm coins? It makes no sense in context: “Tithe, and I will prevent locusts from eating all your coins.” Likewise, the blessings God promises to pour out was in the form of rain, not money and possessions and luxuries. The phrase “windows of heaven” is also used in Genesis 7:11 to signify abundant rain. The “blessing” mentioned is obviously produce. All this makes perfect sense when the tithe is viewed as a produce offering, and not money.
What can we learn from Malachi 3:10? Does it teach us how to tithe? The shortest answer is “no.” Malachi 3:10 is a promise of judgment against those who would oppress the poor and needy at the expense of their own comfort. The entire nation of Israel, including the priesthood, were neglecting the “weightier matters of the law” which included “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). The tithe was given as an act of worship as a means of helping those in need. It wasn’t a magic ticket to receive blessings from God.
The Christian landscape today is littered with those who teach tithing as a means to receive grace, money, position, and other material things. I read of one church program that promised that, if its members tithed faithfully for a certain amount of time, God was guaranteed to bless them. And, if God didn’t bless them, their investment would be refunded. I think that’s a careless and dangerous promise to make. I say this because the program starts with the misconception that a tithe is 10% of one’s money, and that God is bound by our religious acts to reciprocate.
Our motivation for giving should never be to “test” God, or to make him our debtor.
If anything, Malachi 3:10 warns us to not neglect the needy. We often get caught up in our own lives and forget those around us who are in need. As churches, we should think twice about that new parking lot or bus when two houses over is a starving family. The poor, needy, and oppressed matter. They should matter to us because they matter to God.
Also, storehouse giving isn’t taught in the New Testament. Giving and funneling straight to the needy and other church ministries is taught, however. For a church to expect its members to give, give, give in order to pad its own bank account is a horrible witness to the church and unbelievers both. I’m not suggesting that churches shouldn’t have a savings account, because it’s hard to operate without one, but storehouse giving is not something we should be aspiring to as an end in itself.
Finally, turning a 10% (The total of all the OT tithes was actually 23%, but that’s another blog) produce offering that was meant to care for the needy into modern money given to pay pastor’s salaries, purchase land and buildings, and to keep up with the latest and greatest technologies is a classic case of hermeneutical gymnastics if ever there was one! A solid case cannot be made for the continuation of the OT tithe in the NT church. Churches which teach tithing should just come clean and tell their members that a 10% weekly monetary contribution is the minimum expectation. Trying to turn Malachi 3:10 into a proof text for tithing is why it’s a misused Bible verse.