A few years ago Suzanne Staline of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article called, “The Backlash Against Tithing.”[i] She noted for the Journal’s readers what Christian pastors have presumed for quite some time: giving to the church is on the decline. As these pastors seek to reverse the trend and encourage tithing to the local church, many members object. Some oppose their dollars being spent on “coffee bars and widescreen TVs.” Some take issue with the implication (or outright teaching of some) that giving convinces God to bless them materially—the so-called prosperity gospel. Still others simply aren’t convinced that tithing is biblical.

A question I’m regularly asked about giving is slightly different: “Does all our tithe have to go to our church or can I give part of it to a Christian ministry?” I love the heart behind the question. Those who ask it want to be good stewards of their wealth, they care about the local church, and they have a serious desire to bless outside ministries. Those are all great things.

Let me give my answer to this question and then share how I got there: There is a Christian responsibility to give generously to the local church and a Christian freedom to give generously outside the local church. To flesh out this answer, I need to say a word about the tithe and a word about the local church.

A Word about the Tithe

We know from several parts of the Old Testament that the tithe was a central component of Israelite worship. In Malachi 3:8-10 God’s people are scolded for withholding their “tithes and contributions.” When you add up all the giving commandments Israelite’s faced, it comes to about 25% of their yearly income. The first tithe (or tenth) went to the Levites. This priestly tribe was not given land so they depended upon the people to provide for them (Lev 27; Num 18; Neh 10). In addition, every Israelite contributed a second tithe to the yearly religious festivals (Deut 14). Another tithe was given to the needy and it was exacted every three years (Deut 14). Thus, about a quarter of their income, each year, was to be brought to the Temple for the support of the priests, the festivals and the poor.

In Malachi’s day, God rebuked Israel for its stinginess. They failed to trust God to meet their needs while they faithfully obeyed his command to give. Sadly, we can understand their failure to trust the Lord, especially in financial matters. It’s easy to forget the fact that we don’t need stuff, we need God. Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that sending 25% of their income away was a real act of faith for these Israelites.

When we get to the New Testament, we don’t find similar commands to tithe. In Christianity there is no Temple to support. Though we are to provide for those who teach us the Word of God (1 Tim 5:17-18) as well as for the widows (1 Tim 5:3) and poor in the body (James 2:14-17), no amount is given.