Question: "If you have a lot of debt, can you temporarily stop tithing while paying off the debt?"
Answer: It is permissible to stop tithing while paying off debt. Paying debts is a duty; tithing is “optional” for the simple reason that the command to tithe was part of the Mosaic Law, and Christians are not under Law. Please do not misunderstand—giving to the Lord’s work is very important. Sacrificial financial giving is part of God’s calling for every Christian. If it is truly impossible to pay off the debt and continue tithing/giving at the same time, it would not be wrong to decrease giving or stop giving entirely, temporarily, in order to pay off the debts that are owed.
Our one unalterable duty toward other people is that we love them, dealing with them as we want them to deal with us (Matthew 7:12). All of us want people to pay the debts they owe us. Therefore, as Christians, we should “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8–10).
The tithing law of the Old Covenant was God’s provision for meeting the material needs of the priests from the tribe of Levi. They needed support in order to minister in the temple and meet the needs of the poor (Numbers 18:26; Deuteronomy 26:12–15). Therefore, when the Israelites failed to give the temple tithe, God warned, “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings” (Malachi 3:8).
The tithe was a tenth of a man’s income: “Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, their brothers—even though their brothers are descended from Abraham” (Hebrews 7:5). The Levitical priesthood continued to serve in the temple throughout the earthly lifetime of Jesus, and the tithe was required. But after the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus, things changed: “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law” (Hebrews 7:12). Christ is now our High Priest. Christians are now God’s temple and His royal priesthood (Hebrews 4:14–15; 1 Corinthians 6:19–20; 1 Peter 2:9–10).
Our High Priest ministers the New Covenant to us (God’s law written on our hearts) by giving us the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 12:24; 10:16). This law operates powerfully, causing us to love others with Spirit-produced love (Galatians 5:22–23). That is why John writes, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17–18). God’s love compels a true Christian to give, but none of the New Testament epistles command or even recommend that Christians pay a tithe or any other percentage. Christian giving is the result of Christian love.
Christians may, if they choose, give a tithe (a tenth) of their income to the church, meeting spiritual and material needs in their needy world. Some will choose to give less than a tenth; some will choose to give more. Paul recommends giving to the church on Sunday: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income” (1 Corinthians 16:2a).
Christians shouldn’t hoard but give as much as God directs. It is God’s money. His rewards outweigh the cost. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:6–8).