A widespread cynicism toward giving exists in our culture. Some nonprofit organizations have mismanaged funds. Thus, many people are reluctant to support these organizations with their donations. But the cynicism extends even to the Christian community. Some unscrupulous televangelists have given tithing a bad name, so many believers do not contribute to the work of the church. This, I believe, is a significant error, for the Bible commands Christians to be good stewards of their resources for the sake of the kingdom of God.
The whole concept of stewardship begins with creation. Creation is celebrated not only in Genesis but throughout Scripture, especially in the Psalms, where Israel celebrated God’s ownership of the whole universe. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein“ (Ps. 24:1). God is the author of all things, the Creator of all things, and the owner of all things. Whatever God makes, He owns. What we own, we own as stewards who have been given gifts from God Himself. God has the ultimate ownership of all of our “possessions.” He has loaned these things to us and expects us to manage them in a way that will honor and glorify Him.
The steward in the ancient culture was not the owner of the house. He was hired by the owner to manage his house affairs. He managed the property and was responsible to allocate the resources of the home. The steward’s job was to make sure that the cupboards were filled with food, the money was taken care of, the lawn was tended, and the house was kept in good repair.
Humankind’s stewardship began in the garden of Eden, where God gave Adam and Eve full dominion over the entire creation. Adam and Eve were not given ownership of the world; they were given the responsibility of managing it. They were to ensure that the garden was tilled and cultivated and not abused or exploited, and that the goods God provided were neither spoiled nor wasted.
In our own households, we learn that if we spend fifty dollars on clothes, that’s fifty dollars we no longer have for other purposes. Everyone, even billionaires, functions with limited resources. Every time we use a resource, we make a decision, and that decision reveals what kind of stewards we are. That’s where God holds us accountable. He held Adam and Eve accountable for how they took care of the garden. God is interested in how we take care of our ministries, personal lives, homes—every aspect of life. All of these areas deal with managing and allocating resources.
At the center of the biblical concept of stewardship is the tithe, which first appears in the Old Testament. The word tithe means “tenth.” The basic principle was that every person was to return one-tenth of his increase to the Lord on an annual basis.
The beauty of the tithe is that it precluded class warfare and the politics of envy. It prohibited unequal taxes from being imposed wherein one group of people paid a higher percentage than another. When that happens, economics becomes politicized, and it creates vested interest groups where justice is ignored for the sake of power.
In Israel, everyone gave the same percentage but not the same amount. In this structure, a person who makes $10,000 per year returns $1,000 in tithe. The person who makes $1 million per year returns $100,000. The rich person returns far more money, but it is the same percentage that the poor person pays.
Trouble developed in the Old Testament when the people held out on their tithes. They were not obedient to God’s law. Malachi 3:8–10 tells us:
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.