Churches didn’t just come up with the offering idea, as a way to keep things going. The idea of religious donations has a long history.
Tithing, or giving one tenth of your income is a very ancient practice, even predating the Mosaic Law. Abraham tithed to the mysterious King Melchizedek, and Jacob promised to give God a tenth of everything when he had a vision at Bethel. In the Pentateuch the tithe is presented as a way of supporting the Levites and priests, who were unable to provide for themselves because of their religious duties.
There were also other tithes and offerings prescribed, so that ancient Israelites were probably giving more like twenty-five percent of their income, which would be in grain, animals, and produce.
An important thing to remember is that ancient Israel was a theocracy, a rule by God, as it were. So, supporting their religion, and it’s “clergy” was also supporting the government. It was like paying your taxes, and like paying our taxes, it wasn’t optional.
Through the ages, governments have found ways to demand a tithe from its citizens, and some governments still collect a church tax to support government approved churches, usually around 1-2% of income.
Unfortunately hordes of pastors through the ages have equated their local church to ancient Jewish Temple to try to keep the concept of tithing alive. That is a gross, but common abuse of Malachi 3:8-12.
“Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do, says the lord of Heaven’s Armies, ‘I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease. Your grapes will not fall from the vine before they are ripe,’ says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. ‘Then all nations will call you blessed, for your land will be such a delight,’ says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”
Preachers loved to equate not tithing with cheating God, while promising blessing to the tithers.
Jesus had a different take in Matthew 23:23-24.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!”
He condemns the meticulous and legalistic mindset of the Pharisees who were great at tithing, but lousy at practicing justice, mercy, and faith, which of considerable greater importance.
When you get into the New Testament letters, most of which were sent to churches in various locations in the Roman Empire, there is marked absence of exhortations to tithe. But there are instructions about giving.
The most complete of those New Testament instructions lies in 2 Corinthians 8-9. Paul was encouraging the church in Corinth to give to support the persecuted and struggling Christians in Jerusalem. He refers to the church at Macedonia as an example in the way they supported them.
Though they were actually poor themselves, they gave willingly, and generously, above what they could afford. The Apostle Paul never gets heavy handed with them, or tries to pressure them. He said they gave out of love, exceeding all expectations. They truly were cheerful givers. They considered helping these needy people a privilege. As a result of their generosity, he writes, many people will thank God. He mentions how this kind of generous outpouring has its origins in the grace of Jesus, who gave up so much for us so we could experience his riches.
From a practical perspective, he encouraged people to give based on what they have. The amount is not a one size fits all kind of thing. It’s individually and privately determined, proportionate to one’s personal financial situation.
The Apostle John makes the connection between love and charitable action. In I John 3: 17-18
“If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”
Expressing our faith through giving is a personal thing, determined the need of who were are giving to and our own ability. Yet, a selfless, generous gift, given cheerfully out of a loving heart is a beautiful thing that honors God and encourages others.