Tithes and Offerings

by Tim Isbell   3/2011

#charity, #donate, #retirement

This web page is for parishioners and pastors. Also, be sure to see Tax Smart Donations

We Christians understand that God owns everything, and we are his managers (1 Chronicles 29.10-20). Since God is gracious and giving, it is only natural that his followers show their appreciation by returning some of what he provides back to him. Giving money to the church is a way we respond to God's grace, a way we affirm that Jesus is Lord, a way we invest in the Kingdom, and a statement to the powers of darkness that money is not our God. Giving tithes and offerings is not only a part of Christian worship, but it also benefits givers. For more on this click on Irrational Act, a short Forbes article by Rich Karlgaard.

The primary way we donate money to the Kingdom is giving Tithes/General Offerings to our local church. The second way is by giving Designated Offerings to our local church. Beyond our local church, many Christians also give to other Christian and secular charities. This Christian teaching on Tithes and Offerings provides perspective and guidance on giving to your local church.

Giving an offering as part of regular worship began early in the Old Testament when people brought sheep, goats, grain, and drink offerings to the Tabernacle, and later to the Temple. Today many people carry checks and a growing number contribute electronically. Because of the favorable tax treatment in the United States, some offer stock or other items that have long-term capital gains. For more on this click Stock Donations.

Years ago when I started electronically paying our household bills, I also tried donating electronically to our local church. But soon I decided that New Life parishioners benefited by seeing their pastor put something in the offering bag as it passed by. So I went back to checks. When I did this, I discovered that the physical act of putting something in the offering adds an element of worship that I missed by electronic or automatic forms. I also learned the blessing of carrying a blank check to special services to see if during the presentation the Lord might nudge me about what to give. Just before the offering I'd often lean over to my wife and ask what she felt we should give. It was usually more than I had in mind - so that's what we gave. Not only were these special times with God, but they were also moments of connection between Robin and me. If I had just triggered the automatic payment system before leaving home, I wouldn't have thought much more about it. To be clear: there's nothing wrong with automatic donations to your church, including donating by credit card. But at least consider ways that might make giving to God more worshipful than paying the electric bill.

Okay, let's get on with the details. There are two general categories of giving to a local church: 1) Tithes/General Offerings and 2) Designated Offerings.

Tithes/General Offerings

The primary way God finances the general operation of his churches is through the Tithes/General Offerings of its participants. These donations are unrestricted, meaning donors have not earmarked the money for any particular purpose. Instead, church leadership (usually an elected board of some sort) manages this money across a variety of categories including:

  • Staff payroll
  • Facility costs
  • Ministry operating expenses
  • Denominational obligations (often except missions, see below)
  • Insurance
  • Capital improvements

Mature Christians give a full tithe: 10% of their income. Some give even a larger tithe. If our income flow is uneven throughout the year, we estimate weekly or monthly. Then once a year, such as at tax time in the United States, we compute our tithe based on our total income and make an adjusting donation as necessary. I recommend giving based on total pretax income. Yes, I know some Christians teach tithing on after-tax income. If that's your position, please read on because I think you will find some helpful suggestions for your case, too.

A good starting point for most Americans the Adjusted Gross Income that we report each year on our Federal Income Tax form. To this, we may add a few items that the federal government excludes from the Adjusted Gross Income line, such as:

  • Income from tax-free municipal bonds
  • Interest from government savings bonds
  • IRA and 401k contributions
  • Capital gains exclusions from the sale of a personal residence
  • For most licensed and ordained ministers, their housing and health care allowances and perhaps some other non-reimbursement items.

The basic point is this: a good baseline for computing our tithe is our Adjusted Gross Income plus tax-exempt income.

Giving the full tithe is a big decision. So, new Christians usually start slowly by giving some Designated Offerings (see below). As their relationship with Christ grows they regularly begin giving at a level such as 1-3% and then increase this over time.

Designated Offerings

If a person earmarks a donation for a particular purpose, it is called a designated or special offering. Accountants call this restricted money because the church is obligated to spend it only for the designated purpose. Mature Christians make it a practice to contribute their full tithe before contributing to designated offerings. Pre-Christians and new Christians often begin by donating in designated areas, such as:

  • World Missions
  • Local Compassion
  • Capital campaign (such as to build a building)
  • Scholarship Fund
  • Kids summer camp scholarships

Tithing and Teens

I was fortunate to grow up in a tithing family. My parents didn't talk about it, but they didn't hide the way they did it, either. I was aware that tithing was a sacrifice for our family. I also watched my father serve as treasurer of our local church for many years, and I noticed how diligent he was with church money.

So the first time I mowed a lawn for my grandparents and they paid me $5, I put 50 cents in Sunday's offering. It was just what I presumed Christians did. Soon I began receiving income from companies that withheld money for taxes and other things. I started by tithing my take-home pay. When I graduated from the university and started a career as an electrical engineer we (Robin and I) decided to give at least the 10% tithe based on our total pretax income, all to our local church. In addition, we donated to other designated offerings to the church and outside. 

Tithing is difficult for those who were accustomed to living on 100% (or more!) of their income before they began following Jesus. But our Lord's going to the cross for us was also difficult. Anyway, it's pretty easy to give the full tithe if you learn to live on 85-90% of your income from the very beginning of your working life. So if you are a Christian teen, start now. You'll be glad you did. If you are a parent or a person who influences teens, teach your teens about charitable giving. If your own stewardship is not on track, begin to work on it - but don't wait until you are a full 10% tither to start encouraging your teens in their stewardship!

But I'm delinquent on my bills!

I want to be clear that I am writing about when we are delinquent on paying our bills - meaning we are behind the payment schedule. As you read this section, keep in mind Jesus' teaching, "... if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God." (Matthew 5.23-24, NLT)

Especially if you are far behind on paying your bills, first consider trying to renegotiate the terms of your debt. Sometimes lenders will accept a lesser amount if they get it immediately. Or they may accept a lower interest rate or spread your debt over a longer time if payments begin immediately.

Whether you can renegotiate the terms or not, elevate delinquent debts to first priority - pay them before you contribute to charity. Christians need to operate as if their lenders know all the facts - whether they do or not. It is a terrible witness when lenders discover that we, who claim to follow Christ, divert their money to a charity! We must allow our lenders to make their own donations! So let's clean up our delinquencies before donating our lenders' money to charity.

This is always welcome news to delinquent debtors until they realize that the only honorable way to do it is to make significant financial sacrifices to clean up their delinquencies as rapidly as possible. They may need to make sacrifices like: terminate cable, quit visiting Starbucks, stop dining out, postpone the new laptop or video game, delay new clothes, repair the car instead of replacing it, put a hold on vacation plans, and so on. It is a breach of Christian integrity to make such purchases using money that belongs to our lenders. So let's put our donations on hold while we ruthlessly adjust our spending until we get current on our debts.

You may wonder if this applies to consumer debt (credit card debt) that is so beyond control that we're starting to think that making the minimum payment is enough. Maybe we are not technically delinquent, but good stewardship and common sense says that we need to take action. My advice is to continue regular donations to your local church but eliminate the special offerings; at the same time make the kinds of sacrifices listed above until you pay down your credit card debt to a level that you can pay off every month. Let's make it our goal to always pay off our entire credit card bill each month.

My spouse disagrees

It is common for one spouse to become a Christian before the other, or for someone to live in a household for decades as the only Christian. It's also common for two Christians to disagree about stewardship. So here's a little advice.

The Christian is wise to prioritize their witness to their spouse and others in the household above any sort of "rule" of donating to the church. Recently I heard a great quote from Reggie Joiner that captures this well: "Our lives are designed to be a platform to illustrate God’s story of redemption and restoration to others." So I don't advise the Christian spouse to secretly donate to the church. Sometimes, the Christian has their own income stream and the spouse is comfortable with the Christian spending all or part of this as they wish. So perhaps you can donate, or tithe, using this money. Doing this transparently is a positive witness of Jesus' lordship in the life of the Christian.

If you are the lone Christian in your marriage, I recommend Lee and Leslie Strobel's book: Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage. Leslie came to Christian faith before Lee, so they come at this topic with deep personal experience. Lee was definitely a very unlikely Christian. Now he's a minister and Christian author.

What about Social Security?

From the time Americans retire until we die most of us receive benefits from Social Security and Medicare. During our working years, we pay into both systems. If you did not tithe your initial investments into Social Security or Medicare, it makes sense to tithe all the money coming back in retirement.

If you did tithe on these payments during your working years, then consider it done. For at least the first many retirement years you are receiving back money that you already tithed decades before. It is virtually impossible for anybody to determine at what age they have received their original money back so they can start tithing the excess! Analysis of typical scenarios shows that if we live to our expectancy we will receive Social Security and Medicare benefits that modestly surpass the amounts we paid in. So if we live much beyond the actuary tables we can resume tithing - but by that time many of us won't remember it anyway!

What about IRA & 401k accounts?

Many Americans also fund retirement by investing pretax dollars into IRAs, 401Ks, annuities and the like during their working years. As with Social Security/Medicare, if we didn't tithe on our retirement account contributions during our working years, it makes sense to tithe on the money as we draw it out. 

If we already tithed our retirement fund contributions, that's great! However, unlike in the case of Social Security, we may have accumulated substantial gains on these original investments and whatever is left in these retirement funds when we die is part of our estate. So if we're up for an accounting project, we can estimate what percentage of the money at retirement came from gain on those original investments. Then as we draw the money out we can tithe on the gain portion. If we can't find enough data to estimate the gain, we'll just have to ask the Lord for guidance. Another way to handle this is by tithing this portion in your estate plan. 

God certainly does NOT want us to become like the Pharisees and develop elaborate rules on what exactly is the tithe. Jesus made this clear in the New Testament. God's Plan A for financing his earthly Kingdom is the generosity of his people. And he knows it's good for us because it helps us keep money in perspective, but tithing once on income is enough. When we're not sure, ask the Lord for guidance. He promises to provide it (James 1.5)

Wills and Trusts?

Finally, for American Christians fortunate enough to never outlive our retirement funds, let's be generous with our church and other Kingdom ministries through our estate plan. It's our last opportunity to tithe on some of the income that may have slipped past us during life - especially things like missing on tithing retirement income, home sales, business sales.


Special thanks to four people who reviewed this web page and provided very useful feedback, most of which I incorporated. These are Dr. John Calhoun (District Superintendent of the Northern California Church of the Nazarene), Ron Knepper (long time friend who has served as treasurer of many churches as well as a Nazarene district campground in New York), Carryl Keenan (long time colleague who is the Northern California Nazarene District Treasurer), and Kenneth Dirks (long time friend and parishioner from New Life Church, Cupertino, CA). Thanks so much to each of you.

And a very special thanks to my parents, who without realizing it taught me the most about managing the Lord's money.


For more on this subject, click Stewardship Resources.

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