This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
What Does the Bible Say about Tithing?
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Sam Storms, author of Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions, discusses what the Bible teaches about tithing. He explores the word's Old Testament background, examines whether or not Christians are obligated to give 10% of their income today, offers advice related to living generously, speaks to the sensitive issues of pastor's salaries, and reflects on how giving to support missions, the poor, and other charities fits into this conversation.
Topics Addressed in This Interview
- What Does the Word ‘Tithe’ Mean?
- Are Christians Obligated to Tithe?
- How Do We Know How Much to Give?
- What Does the New Testament Say about Giving?
- Should We Get Outside Input on our Finances?
- Why Is Money a Taboo Topic?
- Using Ministry for Personal Gain
- Pastoral Transparency about Compensation
- Asking for a Raise as a Pastor
What Does the Word ‘Tithe’ Mean?
We're going to talk about tithing today—the idea of giving to our churches. But before we jump in, could you just help us understand that word “tithe”? It's an odd word. I don't think we hear it much outside of a church context. Where does the word actually come from and what does it mean?
It's first used in the Old Testament. The Hebrew equivalent is “a tenth” and it's found in numerous passages that talk about Israel's obligation to support the work of the Levites primarily, but also to supply other needs. We can get into that in just a minute. It doesn't appear in the New Testament except in three places. There are two texts in the Gospels where it's referenced, and then one in Hebrews 7; but aside from that, it's not found in the New Testament. I think most Christians know what it means when they hear the word “tithe.” Some of them will immediately think it's just synonymous with “give.” Others will know that it's not just giving, but how much giving. Namely, 10% of one's income.
Are Christians Obligated to Tithe?
So when you hear someone ask this common question, Are Christians obligated to tithe?, how would you answer that question?
Before I give an explicit answer to that, let me just say one thing up front: what we're talking about here is not whether or not Christians who live under the new covenant are responsible to give generously, joyfully, and sacrificially to the work of the ministry of the local church or to world missions—we know that we are. It's very clear in the New Testament that we are to give with a joyful, cheerful heart. The question is, Does the New Testament specify a particular percentage of our income? When somebody says, Sam, are we obligated to tithe?, I immediately respond, Well, you are certainly responsible—and you are commanded in Scripture—to give generously and joyfully. But I don't believe that you are given a specific percentage in the New Testament to which you are obligated. Yes, we are responsible—and I can even say obligated because it is a command—we're obligated to give generously and joyfully; but there is no specified percentage that is found in the New Testament.
How Do We Know How Much to Give?
I wonder if you could speak a little bit to that. If you're arguing that the technical requirement of 10% rooted in the Old Testament—in the history of Israel—isn't binding on Christians today, then how do we understand how much we should be giving? What's the benchmark? I think we want a little bit more clarity and specificity so that we can know whether or not we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. What would you say to that?
Let's start out by just mentioning what the tithe was in the Old Testament. There are two references to tithing prior to the Mosaic Covenant. There's one in Genesis 14 where Abraham gave a tenth of everything to Melchizedek, and then there's another passage in Genesis 28 where Jacob promised to give a tithe of all he had to God. And some people will say, Well, doesn't that establish a rule or a standard for us in the new covenant? It's before the Mosaic Covenant was instituted, we know we're not under the law of Moses, so why can't we appeal to Abraham and Jacob? Well, the problem with that is first of all, we don't know whether Abraham tithed to Melchizedek because of some command that he received from God, or whether it was just a common ancient Near East custom. And then when you have the situation with Jacob—it's very interesting when you read the broader context—Jacob is promising, or vowing, to tithe to God on the condition that God would bless him—that he would provide food and clothing for him, for example. So I don't think we can look to Abraham and Jacob as normative for us. If we had no New Testament teaching on giving, then we might want to look back to those two patriarchs. But we do have New Testament standards for giving. Let me just say a brief word about tithing under the old covenant, or the Mosaic Covenant. Many scholars, and I happen to agree with them, believe that Israel paid nearly 22% of their income to the Lord every year, not just 10%. When we come to the New Testament, we have to remember, first of all, we are not bound by the old covenant. We're not under the law of Moses. We don't bring a lamb to sacrifice. We don't have to observe the civil code of Leviticus. It's okay to touch a dead body, for example. We aren't immediately ceremonially unclean. Therefore, I do not believe the law concerning tithing is binding on Christians under the new covenant.
All of that is a preface to getting back to your question: What is the standard for believers? What are we required or responsible to do in the church age in which we live? First of all, I'd say this: if a Christian wants to tithe—in other words, if they want to give 10%—they are totally and completely free to do so. In fact, when I have people who perhaps haven't given before, maybe they're new believers, and they say, Hey, what's a benchmark? Where can I start out? I say, Why not start out with a tenth? We know it does have biblical precedent. That doesn't mean you're required to give that much. You may want to give a percent, you may want to give 20% depending on how God has prospered you. I think certainly the Christian is free to tithe. I just don't think we are free to impose that 10% as a rule on all other Christians as if anything less or anything more would somehow be unbiblical. So again, Are we morally obligated under the terms of the new covenant to give at least 10%? The answer to that is No. Are we morally and spiritually free to do so? The answer to that is undeniably, Yes. So all that is a prelude to answering the question, What is a new covenant Christian supposed to do?*
What Does the New Testament Say about Giving?
Maybe for a lot of people you've just deconstructed an assumption that the Bible, in a more general sense for all people, mandates a 10% gift where some would say, Well, I checked that box, so I guess I'm good. What would you say if you had to summarize the New Testament's teaching on the idea of giving and generosity?
Most often we typically turn to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. We have to admit up front—this is important for people to remember—2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is not necessarily designed by Paul who wrote it to provide standards, principles, or guidelines for how we are to give in every situation. It's an appeal. Paul writes these two chapters to encourage them, to motivate them, to stimulate them to be true to their original promise and commitment and follow through and be generous in their giving. In that context and understanding that is the background, there are numerous principles that we find there. For example, everybody knows 2 Corinthians 8:9—if they don't, they should—where Paul said, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake you became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." And Paul cites that famous statement primarily in the context of motivating Christians to be generous. He's basically saying, Look, you're giving has to be rooted in the gospel. Your giving has to flow out of a heart that has been gripped with the reality of the sacrifice that Jesus made on your behalf. He was infinitely wealthy in glory, honor, praise, and power; and then became human, entered into this state of humiliation—basically I think that's what he means when he says he became poor, that he lived basically a very minimal lifestyle on Earth—all of this so that you might ultimately and eventually share in the spiritual wealth that he has provided. So first off, all of our giving has to be rooted in the gospel. And then in the next couple of verses he says, “So now finish doing it as well” (1 Cor. 8:11). In other words, bring to consummation this promise you made. He says, “completing it out of what you have (1 Cor. 8:11). And then in 2 Corinthians 8:12 he says, “For if the readiness is there*—in other words if you're willing ready, joyful, and hungry to give—“it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.” So his point is, you give in accordance with, or in proportion to, the way in which God has blessed you.
I know people who God has blessed immensely in terms of their business and financial success, and 10% may be woefully inadequate for them. I've heard of people doing what they call a “reverse tithe” where they give 90% and they live on 10%. On the other hand, we've got some people in our church, for example, who are really struggling financially. It's not because they're irresponsible or lazy; they've just had setbacks financially. They haven't been able to generate much savings or income and they ask me, Should I still give 10%? And my response is, Look at what you have, and in proportion to that, make your decision. So it may be 5%, or maybe 8% for them. My point is I don't want believers in the church today to operate under this heavy cloud of some sort of legal obligation that they have to measure up to some specific percentage in order to be pleasing to God and to be living a godly life. Paul says later in 2 Corinthians 9:7, you need to “give as you have decided in your heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” And so I think we prayerfully come to the Lord and say, God, I want to take into consideration how you've blessed me and how you've prospered me, and I want to be as generous as I possibly can. I don't want to look at this and ask how little can I get away with giving and still be pleasing to you? That's not the mentality God wants us to have. Rather, it's How generous can I be? How joyful can I be? How sacrificial can I be to help others in need and also prosper the work of the kingdom of God? So again, we just tend to get hung up on percentage and that's the thing that bothers me so much. I'll just give you a principle that governs my life and that of my wife. We've agreed that we want to give out of what we call the “first fruits” of our wealth. What I mean by that is that every payday the first check we write is to the church, or to whatever mission, missionary, or mission agency we're supporting. So we make up our minds at the beginning to give generously and sacrificially, and then whatever is left over, that's what we live on. It may require that we make some adjustments in our standard of living. It may mean that we go without some of the luxuries that we otherwise thought we needed to have. But we don't want to give to God out of the leftovers, if I can use that imagery. I find so many Christians have an attitude of, Wow! I just got a substantial raise, I just got this bonus, I just got this windfall, so I'm going to go spend it on everything that I've wanted and if there's a few dollars left over, then I'll give that to the Lord. I'll designate that for the church or some missionary. Again, I can't give this as a law to other Christians. I don't have a verse that says that you're to do it in the way that Sam just outlined, but I would just simply say it as a principle: Isn't God deserving of the most and the very best of what we have? And then we learn to adjust our standard of living with what he has given us. So that's just a principle that I abide by. Now, all of that being said, we pretty much give right around 10%. So when it all works out, that tends to be the percentage that we land on. But again, as somebody else has said, that probably ought to be the floor, not the ceiling, of our giving. In other words, I think it's a good place to start, but it's not necessarily the place we want to end.
Should We Get Outside Input on our Finances?
You mentioned the value of seeking counsel from other Christians and obviously, money is one of those taboo topics that tends to be very hard for us to consider talking about. It's very hard to think about sitting down with another Christian—someone who's not part of our family—and talking about our finances in any depth. Have you and your wife ever done that? Have you ever gotten someone else's outside input on your finances generally, and then maybe on your giving specifically, and what has that been like? How helpful was that, and do you think that's something that other Christians should pursue on a regular basis?
Yes. Over the years—and I'd have to go back into my memory and try to identify the individuals—but yes, we have definitely had people speak into our lives. And again, you're right. It feels like an area where you don't pry into and so most people will not volunteer counsel—you have to go and solicit it. You have to go ask them and say, Hey look, we're young, we're just getting started in life, we're trying to figure out how to best manage the wealth God has given us. Tell us what you have done. Tell us what you have seen God do as a result of your decisions. What advice would you give us? I think that's always an appropriate approach to take. And I will say this: there are certain areas that feel off limits to Christians, and it's generally three areas: how we're raising our children, sexual relationship in marriage, and what we're doing with our money. People just tend to bristle when you approach them about one of these areas. For example, here's a hypothetical: Matt, if I heard you in casual conversation using profanity—which obviously, you wouldn't—but if I did, I wouldn't really have any hesitation saying, Hey Matt, let's go have coffee and then sit down and say, You know, you really need to think about the language you use because it's really not a good testimony to Christ. That's easy to do. But for me to take you to coffee and say, Hey buddy, tell me how much you're giving to the church and what percentage are you setting aside out of your income to support the work of the Lord? That feels profoundly invasive. Talk about an invasion of privacy! People will really bristle in response to that. So I think what Christians need to do is they need to take the initiative themselves. They need to seek out wise, mature, seasoned believers and take them to coffee or have them over for dinner and say, Tell us what you have experienced. Tell us what you've learned. Help us understand what might be some guidelines to help us in making decisions now, and for the future, in how we use our money.
Why Is Money a Taboo Topic?
Why do you think it is that money, in particular, is such a taboo topic for even Christians? When we look at the New Testament specifically, it seems pretty clear that money is a focus. Jesus teaches a lot about our money and Paul talks a lot about money and supporting people and being generous; so why is it that we've gotten to this place where it feels like we don't view it as something that we can really talk about or challenge each other on?
There are several ways I could answer that question, but let me just mention one in particular. As you know, we live in a day and time in which there have been an ever-increasing number of financial scandals in the church in which we find ministry leaders, or pastors, who are making exorbitant amounts in terms of salary. They have finagled somehow the church budgets so that they are blessed not just beyond what they need, but even beyond anything that is reasonable. And so when these things come to light—in fact, we've seen this just within the last six to eight months here in the U.S. The salaries of some very prominent pastors and leaders are revealed, and we find out many of them are living in 7,0000 or 8,000 square foot homes with half a dozen cars and their expense budget is larger than most pastors salaries. That has created such an opposition in the hearts of many people.They say, Well, all you Christians are about is getting more money. You pastors are in the ministry for the monetary gain. And that, I think, has created a hesitancy on the part of others to even say anything about it at all. I'll give you an example. I don't think I overreacted to this, but when I first came to Bridgeway Church, like most churches we passed the plate on Sunday mornings—we had a time of offering. I felt increasingly uncomfortable doing that and making it such a prominent focus because I thought, What are visitors thinking? What message am I sending to them? What about non-Christians who, by God's grace, have been drawn to our service and are seeking out information about the Christian faith—are they going to think that we're asking them for their money? Are we just like all those fanatics that they see on TV who are constantly taking up offerings and belittling them and manipulating people to give more? So we stopped passing the plate and we have offering boxes at the back of the auditorium. We announced that they were there once and we haven't said anything about it since. When we first did this, people said, Sam, you're giving at your church is going to go way down if you don't pass the plate and put it in front of people's noses! They're going to stop giving. Well, the amazing thing is giving went up. We encourage people to give as an act of worship. Go as a family and pray over your offering. We just wanted to avoid sending the wrong message to seekers and to non-believers. Was that decision driven by the bad image that has been projected by some Christian leaders and some churches? The answer to that is, Yes. I have to be honest and say it is. I don't think there's anything wrong with passing the plate. I don't want anybody listening to this to think that your church is in sin for doing that. I'm not suggesting that at all. But you asked the question, Why is it that we're so reticent to talk about money? and I think a lot of it is because of the public scandals. I think watching certain individuals who are in ministry getting rich off of it has more to do with this mentality that now exists than anything else. So the result is, money is either an enemy that you don't talk about or you fight, or it's become an entitlement and you think you're deserving of more. I think we need to find some way of avoiding those two extremes
Using Ministry for Personal Gain
You brought up pastors and these prominent, public examples of money becoming this idol for a pastor or a church leader—it makes me think of 1 Peter 5 where Peter exhorts and warns elders about shepherding the flock for shameful gain. As you think about your own personal life and ministry as a pastor for many, many years now, what have been some of the things that you've done to protect yourself from the temptation of viewing ministry, or using ministry even, as a means of shameful gain?
For one thing, I'm very accountable to the elders of our church. They're the ones who set my salary. They are the ones who determine the compensation package and whatever benefits may be there. Our lay elders, in other words the non-staff elders, are the ones who set the salary for all the rest of our staff—all of our pastors and all of our administrative team. I think we need to be very above-board in that regard, and that's what I've done all my life and that's what we do here at Bridgeway. Honestly, I just have to look at the patterns of individuals in the New Testament and see what principles they lived by, and I have to ask myself the question constantly, How much of that do I really need? Have I noticed a tendency in my own heart to allow my enjoyment of what money can obtain for me to supplant my enjoyment of Jesus? Jesus talks about not being able to serve two masters and our hearts not being captivated by greed. So I just have to constantly remind myself of that and constantly go back to the glories of the gospel. When I start thinking I'm entitled to more money, what I need to remember is I'm only entitled to one thing and that's eternal damnation. And I'm not going to get that. We talk about what I deserve: the one thing I deserve is death. God, in Jesus through his grace and his mercy, has determined not to give that to me. The one thing I deserve I'll never get. Everything else is a blessing. Everything else is just a monumental overflow of God's goodness and his abundant provision. I just have to constantly bring myself back to that, and I have to remind myself of what Paul said in 1 Timothy 6 about the dangers of wealth. I go back into Proverbs and I have to teach my own soul, preach to my own soul, Hey, be careful! It's deceptive. It can lure you into a false sense of security. What is your ultimate confidence in? Is it the comforts of Western culture that money can purchase for you? Or is it the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and the assurance that everything God is for me, in Jesus, will come to pass? So I've got to constantly preach to my own soul to guard myself.
Pastoral Transparency about Compensation
That is so good and so relevant for all of us, regardless of whether or not we're in vocational ministry or not. One of the things that's unique about vocational ministry is that probably some number of people—whether it's just the elders, or a subset of the elders in a Congregational church, or it could be even the whole church—is aware of how much you're making as a pastor, aware of the details of your compensation package. Has that ever been a challenge? Has that ever been hard having that transparency? Again, going back to an earlier point, that's not the kind of information that we typically share to a broad audience.
That's a very difficult question to answer, and my guess is that each church is going to have to answer that for themselves. I don't know that there's any particular rule. You are right: you pointed out that in churches that are Congregationally governed—not all of them, but probably most of them—the congregation knows the details of the salary, benefits, and compensation packages for everybody who's on paid staff. Bridgeway is elder-governed, and so the elders are the ones who set, as I said earlier, the salary and the benefits for all paid staff. We've never had it come up at Bridgeway, amazingly. The people see our budget and, in fact, we just concluded our annual covenant members meeting a couple of weeks ago and we presented the budget and they see where the money is allocated; but we don't give specific details on who makes what or how much. In my twelve years here at Bridgeway, we've never had a single person ask that question. I'm always prepared for it, should it come up. If they say, I want to know: how much are you being paid, Sam? I think I should know that. My response would be, You need to take that question to the board of elders, to the compensation committee—they are the ones who determine whether or not it is a question that needs to be answered. My guess is they would probably say, No, it doesn't. There's always the possibility that those who are lower middle class, or are making substantially less, might be resentful. Those who are making substantially more might think you're being underpaid, and it could just create tension and controversy. So we just basically say to the people, *If you believe that the Spirit of God has raised up these men to lead the church—as Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5 indicates that he has—if you trust their character, then we're simply asking you to trust their decision about what is a fair, equitable, and generous compensation package for the pastoral team and the staff. So that's kind of the way we approach it. But again, if other churches think that all of the details need to be made public, I think that's fine, as well. Let me make this very clear: all of our elders—that's both governing and non-governing because some elders will rotate off the board after a certain number of years—they know exactly what I make and what all the other pastors make. There are some churches, actually, that have been of late in the news that have created these special little smaller subcommittees, if you will, of elders—like two or three—who are really, really close to the senior pastor and they are the ones who set his salary. I think that's dangerous. In the same way—and I don't mind going on record with this—this idea of an external board of Christian leaders, who are not even part of the church, who are given the authority to set the salary of the senior pastor, I think, is just a disaster ready to happen.
Why is that?
I have some friends, for example, who are in churches where their own board of elders don't even know what they make. They set up this external board—and it's usually very close friends from very large churches in which the pastors are paid humongous salaries—they get five or six of these guys and say, I want you to be my external accountability board, and you're going to have the authority to set my salary. That's just, in my opinion, a manipulative way of probably being paid more than you really should be. I hear stories of this all the time. That's my first pushback. Secondly, how do those men know what's going on in your local church? They don't understand the demographics of the people. They don't know the giving patterns. They don't know how well you are fulfilling your responsibilities as a pastor. They don't know whether you're diligent or lazy, whether you're exploiting the people or sacrificing for them. The internal board of elders are the ones who have been given the responsibility to make those decisions. Somehow exporting that to a small group of cronies—or good, close friends of yours—and you happen to know how much they make, and that's why you've got them on that board so that they will likely say, Yeah, that's how much you should make—I just think that's disingenuous. I think it's dangerous. I think that your own board of elders should be the ones who make that determination. Again, whether or not they make that public or not has to rest with them. I don't think there's any biblical rule. I think they have to decide for themselves what is best for their local church.
Asking for a Raise as a Pastor
What advice would you offer to the pastor listening who maybe has felt for a long time that he's not getting paid enough—that he's not able to support his family, that he's not able to save for retirement, that he's just not being paid enough. Maybe he's actually tried to go to his elders, or the compensation committee, and express his concerns, but has been rejected or received a lot of pushback. What advice would you give along those lines?
Some of my answer comes down to personal preference and principle. Let me just say, first of all, that I do think that, in general, pastors are paid too little. There's this idea—I don't know where it came from—that circulates in our society that ministers of the gospel ought to struggle financially. Maybe it's because they need to be tested in their faith, maybe to "trust God." Well, of course they should trust God, but neither more nor less than every other Christian. They're not in a unique category in that regard. There's nothing in Scripture that says that. We know Paul very clearly says that the labor is worthy of his hire. And so this idea that pastors are supposed to be paid less than others in the society, I don't buy into that. At the same time, I don't think that a pastor of a megachurch is necessarily due a higher salary than a pastor of a church of only 150 or 200 people. I think he should be paid according to his job performance, how he discharges his ministry, and what the church can afford to give. Now in regards to the other question that you more specifically asked, I'm always hesitant to respond to this question because I do speak out of personal experience. My father, who is now with the Lord, and my mentor in the faith—a man by the name of S. Lewis Johnson—both of them counseled me and modeled for me this approach that you don't need to go ask for a raise. You need to go ask God that he would move the hearts of those who are responsible for your financial package, and be content with what they decide. I'm getting ready to turn 69 years old, I've been in ministry forty-six years, and I've never asked for a salary increase. Now, I want everyone to listen to me carefully. I'm not saying that you're wrong if you do ask for a raise. Please don't misunderstand me. There's no rule for this. There's nothing in the Bible that says, Thou shalt, or shalt not, go to the elders and ask for an increase. Some of you pastors who are listening to this probably need to do that, but you've probably been too scared because you're afraid they're going to conclude that you're just in ministry for the money, you're just one to spend it on a second or third car, or second or third vacation home, and so you're reluctant. But you need to be able to have enough money to live on, to provide for your family, to even prepare to pay for your children's education beyond high school, and to have a retirement in place. You need to be able to save. Studies have been done and you can go online and you can see what—given the demographics of a particular area of the country, size of the church, educational background, all these sorts of factors—you can find out what most are making. If you're making significantly below that, I don't think there's anything wrong if you choose to go and request an increase. I'm just saying that I've never done it, and God has been very faithful to provide for me. About a year ago I sat down over a long lunch with a pastor in my community who was really hurting financially. He started the church—he founded it—he'd been there for seven years, and he'd had one salary increase and he was barely able to get by. He was scared to death of saying anything to his elders about it. I said, You don't need to be afraid. In fact, if it would help, I will even communicate with them myself as an external counsel in that regard. I think each individual has to make up his mind. You have to go to the Lord and ask, What am I comfortable doing? And again, I don't think there's any clear, empirically verifiable rule or verse of Scripture that I can give you that tells you whether you should or should not seek a salary increase. A lot of it just comes down to how we were raised and who has influenced us the most and why. So I have my own principles that guide me, and I'm not imposing that on anybody else. I don't want anybody to think that I'm laying down a rule that is binding on every minister of the gospel. That's certainly not the case.
Popular Articles in This Series
A Christian doctor discusses the current coronavirus pandemic, explaining what's currently happening in the US and around the world and offering perspective on how we should think about this virus.
Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.
What are the five points of Calvinism really about and how can we believe them, while maintaining gracious humility towards others who don't?
Rosaria Butterfield encourages us to engage our LGBTQ neighbors for Christ, highlighting how God used the radically ordinary hospitality of Christians to draw her to himself.