A “tithe” is a portion of our income which is offered to God. It is offered to God in the sense that it is given to the local Church in order to finance the work of the Church. It is commonly regarded as 10% of a person's income. So many questions arise from this; Where do we get the figure of 10%? Is it 10% of our gross our net income? Does all 10% need to go to my local Church, or can I split it between my Church and some other ministry? And of course, the “big” question; Is it compulsory?
All of these questions can tend to have a common motive... we're really asking “How little of my hard earned cash do I have to lose?” Even when we ask “Does all 10% need to go to the Church?” we might really be more concerned that supporting another ministry will cost us over and above the 10% set aside to the Church. Well, as you can probably guess, all of these motivations are not very pure. Our obsession with the finer details of how much we give to the Church are really to do with our attachment to money.
Tithing is a part of the Old Testament Mosaic Law...
To the Levites I [God] have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting (Leviticus 18:21)
The Levites were the priests. Israel were divided into 12 tribes, and when Israel came into the land of Canaan, each tribe inherited a parcel of land to live in. But the Levites (the tribe of Levi) did not inherit land; they lived amongst the other tribes, and were supported by them. Since the Levites' job was to be priests, they weren't going to be making a living by farming or doing any other kind of work. And so the rest of Israel supported them with their tithes. The tithe was 10%, and was compulsory for all Israel. But this is what the Law is like in all its commands; it was compulsory for people to follow those commands whether they did so from the heart or not. But now, after Christ has come, we are to understand that the Law was really about showing us what we ought to do “from the heart”. Even an Israelite ought not to have said grudgingly “Here, take my 10% you greedy Levites!” Rather, from the heart he should have given gladly, knowing that his contribution was supporting those priests in their God-given role. The New Testament doesn't command a compulsory tithe, but as Christians we know what we ought to want to give to our pastors which have no other form of income, and to the Church which does good in its ministry and needs our financial support. In the New Testament age, we borrow the term “tithe” from the Old Testament, and we give a general recommendation of 10%; but really, I prefer the term offering, since there is no “legal requirement” as the term “tithe” suggests. We ought to give as much as we can afford and are still gladly willing to give. I know that my own pastor struggles from time to time, and that if it weren't for the income he receives through the congregation's offerings, he might not even eat. A Christian ought to be more concerned about that than whether they “have to” make an offering or not at all.
A Christian ought to give generously to all kinds of needs, not forgetting the Church, or charities for the poor, or those we know personally who are in need. When we give it ought always to be out of a genuine care to meet those needs. That means that when you give to your local Church, you do genuinely care that your pastor has enough to live on, and that the needs of the Church's ministry are met. It is absolutely right, then, for you to have some knowledge of whether your pastor actually is in need, and to have a knowledge of the kind of ministry your Church performs. Do you, in fact, support the ministry that they do? If you don't actually agree with what they do for some reason, then you might need to have a think about more than just whether to support them with your finances. Our Church has various ways in which we can keep up to date with what they're doing, and they also publish openly in each week's bulletin how much money has been received in Church offerings, and what their target is. We can look and see whether that target is being met, and if we are so inclined, we can offer more or less money to the Church.
It's not in opposition to faith when we are careful to know where our money is going and whether it's being used wisely. However, there's another aspect to giving that we must consider. Often we want to give our money to those who “deserve it”. We see an alcoholic who is cold and hungry because they've spent all their money on booze, and yet we think “I won't give anything to him, he'll just spend it on more booze. He's cold and hungry, but he did that to himself; he doesn't deserve it!” Well, I don't know if we might think it in exactly those words, but sometimes in our hearts that's how we feel. Yet if we consider all that God has given us, and we ask ourselves whether we “deserved it”, it ought to make us think twice. And when God gave us His only Son to die for us, was it not to save us from that which we'd done to ourselves? We want to help people, and you can seek God's wisdom for how to do that. But no one ought to be excluded based on your own judgements of “desert”. Sometimes the act of giving is more about letting someone know that they're loved and cared for by a Godly person, than what that little bit of cash might achieve for them materially. Sometimes the greater amounts of money we give sort of count for less because they simply meet some physical need and leave the spiritual needs of the person unmet. We ought not to be in the business of making people feel comfortable on their way to hell. The best use of our time and money will be to care for their spiritual need for Christ, not neglecting by any means their physical needs, for through our care for their physical needs Christ is revealed and glorified.
Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (Corinthians 9:7)