Tithes and Offerings

The phrase tithes and offerings is commonly used in churches of many denominations. What is the difference between a tithe and an offering? Why do we make a distinction?

Historically, the tithe was an obligation of the Israelites under Mosaic Law to give ten percent of everything they earned and grew to the Temple for the use of the priests and Levites (Lev 27:30, 32; Deut 14:22; 2 Chron 31:5, 6; Mal 3:10). Ten percent was also the standard according to which both Abram and Jacob made thank-offerings to God (Gen 14:20b; Gen 28:22). Offerings in the Bible were general donations and sacrifices, which included everything from burnt offerings to atone for sin to gold for the construction of the tabernacle. Offerings were collected from churches to support missionaries, like the Apostle Paul, and to provide for the church in Jerusalem. Such offerings were above and beyond the basic obligation of the tithe.

The New Testament mentions the tithe only in an historical context, leading many people to conclude that the obligation of the tithe was rescinded following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when there was no longer any need to support priests and Levites. A central point of Jesus’ teaching is that discipleship demands commitment of all of life—in other words, the stakes are much higher in the New Testament. It is about complete commitment, offering ourselves as what the Apostle Paul termed “a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). Phoebe Palmer, an influential 19th-century Methodist writer and teacher, described her life as a living sacrifice in terms of “putting all on the altar.” These are the words by which she dedicated her life: “In the name of the triune Deity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I do hereby consecrate body, soul, and spirit, time, talents, influence, family, and estate—all with which I stand connected, near or remote, to be for ever, and in the most unlimited sense, THE LORD’S.” God wants all of each of us, totally, a living sacrifice, not just ten percent.

Today, we use the biblical tithe as a convenient benchmark, a minimal standard, a reachable goal. The tithe is understood as God’s minimal expectation of our giving of time, talent, and treasure directly to God’s work (i.e., through our local church). All other giving, even to ministries outside the local church, is considered to be an offering, above and beyond the minimal expectation of the tithe. Since 1996, by resolution of General Conference, The United Methodist Church has been “a tithing church”; and The Book of Discipline [§630. 5. e)] holds up the tithe as the official minimal standard of giving in United Methodist churches. Because all that we have and all that we are has come from God, returning to God a ten-percent tithe means an average of 2.4 hours per day of our time, ten percent of our talents, and ten percent of our gross—not net—annual income.

Average giving in mainline Protestant churches during the Great Depression was 3.6 percent of gross household income. Today that figure is 2.3 percent. If you are giving financially anywhere close to the national average, the tithe may seem unattainable; in fact, for most people, increasing their annual giving almost five-fold is not practical. How do we go from where we are to where God expects us to be? The answer is the same as the proverbial instructions for how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Most people can increase their annual giving by at least one percent. The goal is to move “toward, to, and beyond the tithe.” No matter where you start, with a modest increase of at least one percent each year, it won’t take many years before you can join those who give at or beyond the tithe; and, like those joyful givers, you will never miss what you give to God.