Essay: How should Christians apply ancient tithing practices?

This is the third in The Journal's series of essays on tithing. The first was "What Does the Bible Say About Tithing?," by Garry D. Pifer, in the April 30 issue. The second was "Tithing Is a Fundamental Doctrine of the Church of God," by Leon Walker, May 31.

The writer of this month's essay is a Church of God member and author of the book The "Lost" Ten Tribes of Israel: Found! Comments to The Journal are welcome. Write Mr. Collins at 3901 S. Crescent Dr., Sioux Falls, S.D. 57106, U.S.A.

By Steven M. Collins

SIOUX FALLS, S.D.--This article examines the biblical and historical origins of tithing and examines the ancient tithing practices that can be applied in our modern culture, which differs so radically from the culture of ancient Israel.

We can expect some surprises because important biblical and historical facts about tithing have been overlooked. Several serious questions about tithing arise that the Churches of God have been reluctant to discuss or address.

Our goal must not be to take sides on this subject, but to determine the will of God on tithing. Just as the early church came to understand God's will through an iron-sharpening-iron process in Acts 15, so we must be willing to examine tithing from various perspectives before the whole subject can be understood.

As Jesus said in John 8:32, the truth will make you free. Churches and individuals alike should agree that we will be blessed if we are in harmony with God's will on the tithing issue.

How important is tithing?

Jesus stated in Matthew 23:23: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites! for you pay tithe of mint, anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: these ought you to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (emphasis added).

Jesus indicated that tithing is of no spiritual value if the character traits of judgment, mercy and faith are neglected. Although Christ said tithing "should not be left undone," He shows here it was not a "weightier matter of the law." It is also worth noting that tithing was not included in the Ten Commandments, which list the major points of God's law.

Historical records disagree

One reason for differing opinions about tithing is that even the historical sources disagree. Let's start with common reference sources. Collier's Encyclopedia states tithing was "adopted in principle by the Christian church from apostolic times."[1]

However, Encyclopedia Americana says tithing "was not practiced in the early Christian Church but gradually became common by the 6th century."[2]

The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: "The analysis of tithe-legislation in the books [of the Bible] ascribed to Moses is a complicated problem."[3]

Jewish sources also disagree. Josephus mentions three tithes,[4] and the NIV Study Bible declares: ". . . It appears that Israel . . . had three tithes."[5]

However, Maimonides, a respected and authoritative rabbi in the 12th century, asserted there was no third tithe.[6] The Jewish Encyclopedia records that rabbinic literature discusses "three kinds of tithes," but the same source says no more than two were ever assessed in a single year.[7]

New Unger's Bible Dictionary summarizes: "Of these opinions, that which maintains three separate and complete tithings seems improbable."[8]

According to Harper's Bible Dictionary: "Discrepancies between regulations on tithing . . . resulted in the Mishnah's adopting two tithes. The first was for the Levites and the second was to be eaten by the people."[9] It adds the Mishnah was "created about A.D. 200."[10]

Encyclopedia Americana notes the Mishnah is "the first part of the Talmud, the compilation of postbiblical Jewish law . . ."[11] These sources record that "second tithe" was a "postbiblical" Talmudic interpretation that was not even codified until about A.D. 200.

The above barely begin to describe the conflicts and problems encountered on the subject of tithing. When historical sources disagree, some think they can prove a doctrine by citing only the source material that agrees with one's own views and ignoring other evidence. For the truth, however, we need the whole picture.

Letter or spirit?

The letter of the law must not violate the spirit of the law. If the letter and spirit of a law come into conflict over time, the letter must yield to the spirit. An overzealous effort to preserve the letter of the law can lead to confusion and error.

Intertestamental Judaism made the mistake of focusing too much on the letter of the law as times changed. This is exactly the point made by Jesus when He told the Pharisees in Matthew 15:3 that their letter-of-the-law traditions transgressed God's law (the spirit of the law).

Ancient Israel was an agricultural theocracy with tithing laws designed to support a system of animal sacrifices. God designed ancient Israel's tithing laws for that society at that time. He did not give the ancient tithing laws to a secular society for which animal sacrifices were irrelevant.

Count the tithes

The tithing laws of ancient Israel are given in Leviticus 27:30-32 and Numbers 18:21:

". . . All the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's . . . concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord."

"I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance . . ."

These scriptures verify a "first tithe." Some churches have seen a "second tithe" in Deuteronomy 14:23:

". . . Thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall choose, . . . the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and flocks . . ."

A few see a third tithe in Deuteronomy 14:28-29:

"At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year . . . And the Levite . . . and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied . . ."

The above scriptures all refer to the tenth, or the tithe, as a singular entity. Terms such as festival tithe and third tithe appear nowhere in Scripture. Are three tithes discussed here, or was God describing different aspects of a single tithe?

Historical sources indicate the second tithe first appeared in written form in the Mishnah around A.D. 200. Since the Mishnah was part of "postbiblical Jewish law," these sources acknowledge that the concept of a second tithe originated not in the Bible but in the Talmud. The Encyclopaedia Judaica describes the Talmudic origin of second tithe:

"The rabbis, taking it for granted that both laws [see passages beginning with Numbers 18:21 and Deuteronomy 14:22] are of Mosaic origin, . . . interpreted them as two different tributes: one to be given to the Levites, 'the first tithe,' and the other to be brought to Jerusalem and consumed there, 'the second tithe' . . . However . . . the implementation of these laws was almost impossible. The excise of 20 percent of the yield was too high . . ."[12]

When Josephus mentioned three tithes in the first century, he cited the traditions of the Pharisees. Jesus, of course, blasted the traditions of the Pharisees. Matthew 23:4 is an example: "They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne."

In Matthew 15:3-9 Jesus declared the Pharisees' traditions woefully out of touch with God's original laws and intent.

Since it is apparent that the concepts of second and third tithe originated not in the Bible but in the Talmud and the Pharisees' traditions, Christians need to consider whether triple tithes were ever demanded by God or whether they are part of the "traditions" denounced by Jesus Christ as being "hard to be borne."

One tithe?

Can all scriptural usages for the tithe be satisfied by a single tithe? In ancient Israel the answer was yes. When we keep the Feast of Tabernacles today, we think of the expense associated with airplane trips, rental cars, motels and tourist attractions at Feast sites.

However, the Feast of Tabernacles that God gave to ancient Israel was an inexpensive event. The Israelites brought their harvest tithe to the Feast, ate from it while they were there and then went home, leaving all the rest of the tithe with the Levites.

In Leviticus 23:39-42 God told the Israelites to keep a Feast in temporary "booths" made with tree limbs. Their Feast was an eight-day no-frills camp-out. If you kept the Feast as a no-frills camp-out at a site near your home, would you need 10 percent of your entire annual income to fund it? Of course not, and neither did the ancient Israelites.

Ancient biblical rules can conflict with each other when applied to our society. For example, Deuteronomy 16:13 states the Feast occurs after the harvest, but Leviticus 23:34 says the Feast must begin on the 15th day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. Observing the Feast in North America according to the Hebrew calendar requires some farmers to ignore Deuteronomy 16:13.

Also, how do you apply these rules in the northern and southern hemispheres where harvest seasons are reversed? It is impossible to literally apply all of ancient Israel's practices (including those on tithing) to our modern world.

Levitical and priestly ways of life

God designed the theocratic tithing system so the receivers of the tithe enjoyed a standard of living equivalent to that of the tithe payers. Even the high priest lived at an economic level similar to the people's.

When Samuel the high priest visited Jesse's family (1 Samuel 16:1-4), he walked or rode an animal because he could go no faster than the heifer he had brought with him. There is no indication that Israel's priests and Levites ever had private chariots, mansions or salaried retainers funded from the tithes of Israel.

In the New Testament church the apostles did not enjoy a standard of living better than that of the people they served. Paul did not make use of chauffeured chariots and private yachts on his journeys. He walked or made use of transport methods available to the public (Acts 21:2).

Jesus charged the leaders of His church to be the servants, not the lords or masters, of His flock (Matthew 23:10-12). We read of no biblical precedents that God intended the receivers of tithes to enjoy a standard of living better than that of those who paid the tithes.

The Bible does mention one group of tithe receivers who enjoyed a higher income than tithe payers': the Pharisees. They exalted themselves over the people (insisting on "chief seats" and "uppermost rooms") while imposing "heavy burdens" on others.

Jesus was so repulsed by the Pharisees' self-indulgent ways that He warned them in Matthew 23:33: "How can you escape the damnation of hell?"

Given Christ's dire warnings about the coercive and self-serving practices of the Pharisees, modern church leaders and tithe receivers should bend over backwards to avoid emulating the excesses of the Pharisees.

Because Micah 3:11 warns about priests who "teach for hire," ministerial positions should not offer salaries so high that money is a factor in attracting people to those jobs.

On the other hand, some Christian denominations pay their ministry so little that their ministers are as poor as proverbial church mice. Luke 10:7 says the laborer is worthy of his hire, and Deuteronomy 25:4 adds: "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treads out the corn."

When churches make a decision to employ a full-time ministry, they owe pastors and their families a full-time, living wage. What constitutes a living wage varies widely in different areas, but churches need to find a balance between the Bible's warnings against paying too much or too little.

A mathematical tithing model

A mathematical analysis of ancient Israel's tithe laws supports a conclusion that God commanded only one tithe. Israel and Judah were food exporters even during the divided-kingdom period when they were usually disobedient to God (Ezekiel 27:17).

Their harvests must have been immense during obedient years in the theocracy, but let's consider a lean scenario: a year when the Israelites produced just enough to feed themselves. Assuming a 360-day year, one tithe of their agricultural production would equal a 36-day food supply. When the 36-day food supply (one tithe) was brought to the Feast, all tribes would eat from it for eight days, leaving the remainder with the Levites.

After the whole nation ate eight days' worth of food, the remainder of one tithe still constituted a 28-day food supply for the entire nation. But that 28-day national food supply was reserved for only one tribe: the Levites.

Since Levi was one of 13 tribes (counting Ephraim and Manasseh as separate tribes), we multiply a 28-day national food supply by 13 to approximate how long one tribe could live off the rest of a single tithe after the Feast. This computation reveals the Levites had enough food to sustain them for 364 more days (enough even in a lean year).

Of course, if the Israelites were obediently keeping the festivals, Israel would have produced much more food than assumed in the above scenario, and the case for a single tithe would be even stronger. The New International Version Study Bible (cited earlier as mentioning three tithes) also includes a statement that supports the view that one tithe was sufficient for both festival observance and the Levites' annual needs:

"Annually, a tenth of all Israelite produce was taken . . . for distribution to the Levites. At that time, at an initial festival, all Israelites ate part of the tithe. The rest, which would be by far the major part of it, belonged to the Levites."[13]

Although the Levites and priests were in a sense paid in agricultural produce, they likely converted some tithed foodstuffs to money to purchase other essentials such as clothing, tools and household items. This would have been necessary because the Levites were (in modern terms) not actually paid a salary, but were given room and board for their services. Room constituted the 48 cities given to the Levites by God, and board was the agricultural tithe given to them by the rest of the tribes.

If God intended for an entire second 10th to be consumed at the Feast, it would have required "all Israel" to eat a 36-day food supply in eight days. Such gluttony would have made everyone ill. To survive the Feast, many Israelites would have had to become bulimic.

Even in a lean year, eating a 36-day food supply in eight days would require each Israelite to eat more than four times the usual three meals a day every day for eight days in a row. That is impossible.

Mathematical analysis confirms that one tithe was enough both for festival observance and the Levites' annual needs. Today one can spend an entire 10th of one's annual income at the Feast simply by living it up. But that was not God's original intent or requirement in ancient Israel.

More evidence for single tithe

In Leviticus 27:32 God instructed: "Concerning the tithe of the herd or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth [animal] shall be holy unto the Lord."

In modern terms the tithe consisted of every 10th animal that passed through a cattle chute. If two tithes always existed, God would have commanded two animals out of every 10 to be set aside each year. If a third tithe existed, God would have commanded them to consecrate three animals in the third year.

However, since God's law stated that giving one animal in 10 satisfied all tithing obligations, this further supports the existence of a single tithe.

Third tithe?

Deuteronomy 14:28-29 says: "At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year, and shalt lay it up within thy gates."

This discusses "three years," not "three tithes" (that is, a different method of distributing the tithe in the third year of a seven-year cycle ending with the year of release). A rabbi, Maimonides, taught that this alternate distribution method applied during the third and sixth years of the seven-year cycle.[14] The Encyclopaedia Judaica notes that Deuteronomy 14:28-29 describes an alternate means of distributing the tithe in the third year of the cycle:

"Every third year . . . the tithe has to be left in the local settlement, for the benefit of the Levite . . . and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. After giving away the tithe . . . the owner has to proclaim a confession in which he declares he has given it to the indigent . . . [Deuteronomy 26:12-14]."[15]

God simply established a modified method of distributing the tithe every third year. Some Jewish interpretations saw an alternate use for the second tithe in the third years. However, such interpretations developed during the post-biblical, Talmudic period. This article is attempting to determine God's original intent in the theocracy when the tithing laws were first given.

The year of release

Those who believe the tithing laws for Israel's agrarian theocracy can be applied today have major problems. One example is that Leviticus 25 commands a land sabbath every seventh year and a jubilee year every 50th year.

The Jewish Encyclopedia states that "no tithing [was] permissible" during Sabbatical years.[16] Literally applying Israel's tithing laws in our society would require church members to stop tithing during eight years of every 50-year cycle. Modern churches are not eager to discuss or implement this aspect of God's tithing laws for ancient Israel.

1 Samuel 8:7 records that Israel rejected God as king. The Israelites decided that He "should not reign over them."

Did God nullify the tithing laws?

God warned them via Samuel that if they chose a human king they would be subject to whatever tithes or taxes their human kings implemented (verse 7-18). God warned that, instead of "the tenth" going to the Levites, human kings would give it to the "king, his officers and his servants" (verses 15-17).

God also warned that future tithe or tax systems designed by their human kings would become oppressive and that "he would not hear them" when they complained about it.

We easily forget that, when God was Israel's King, the tithe was Israel's civil tax system. Can you grasp what happened in 1 Samuel 8? When Israel rejected God as king, God nullified parts of His theocracy, and He especially declared that Israel's future tithe and tax policies would be decided by Israel's new human kings. The Jewish Encyclopedia succinctly states the following about the dramatic shift in tithe policy that occurred in 1 Samuel 8:

"Subsequently, the tithe became the prerogative of the king . . ."[17]

After 1 Samuel 8 God remained Israel's God, but He was no longer their King. God transferred many administrative responsibilities to Israel's human kings (one of which was tithe and tax policy). God warned the Israelites they would be stuck with whatever tithe or tax system their kings chose to impose on them. This brings up the question: When God transferred tithe and tax decisions to Israel's human kings, were any theocratic tithing laws binding thereafter?

God warned that Israel would be financially oppressed by its kings. Indeed, the Israelites became so oppressed by taxes and assessments for King Solomon's building projects that they revolted against his son, Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1-16). The Levites were cut off from financial support.

The Encyclopedia Judaica records: ". . . There is no evidence concerning the Levites and their cities after this period [the end of the united monarchy], and it is quite possible that the priestly law was not implemented at all after the disruption of the monarchy."[18]

Ancient Israel's theocratic tithe system expired when Israel chose human kings. Israel's and Judah's future kings rarely made any provision for Levites and priests. Since we still live under human rulers, it is a valid question to ask how God's tithing system designed for a theocracy can be applicable in modern, secular societies that, like the ancient Israelites, have also rejected God as their ruler.

Will a man rob God?

Centuries after the events of 1 Samuel 8, God told the residents of a Jewish enclave in Jerusalem that they had "robbed God" (Malachi 3:8-11). Note verses 10-11:

"Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house [the Temple] . . ."

Do we have a conflict between 1 Samuel 8, where God transferred the tax and tithe decisions to Israel's kings, and the above passage, where God again refers to "tithes"?

When we place each event in its proper context, we have no conflict. In the 11th century B.C. the Israelites "rejected God as king," and God delegated many administrative decisions to human kings.

In the time of Malachi the situation was reversed. By then the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had fallen, and Jewish captives under Ezra and Nehemiah reestablished a small enclave in Jerusalem. The Jewish returnees had no Israelite king, and they were rebuilding the temple. They consecrated Levites and priests to offer burnt offerings and carry out priestly duties (Ezra 6:16-20), making the collection of the tithe a necessity to support the Levites and temple priests. God's words were intended for a specific situation in their culture at that time.

Do we have a physical temple? Do we need Levites to sacrifice animals? Does the Christian church need human temple priests?

The answer to these questions is no. The entire tithing issue in Malachi belongs to a different culture and administration of God's laws. To try to lift God's words to that society out of their ancient context and apply them to our society thousands of years later is a leap of logic. We should be wary about applying Malachi's words to a modern situation different from the one to which they were addressed.

Two passages confirm the agricultural nature of God's tithing laws. Deuteronomy 14:22 states: "Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year."

Tithable and nontithable income

Also, notice Leviticus 27:30-32: "And all the tithe of the land whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree is the Lord's . . . And concerning the tithe of the herd or of the flock . . . the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord."

Harper's Bible Dictionary records that Judaism "stipulated that all things used for food, which . . . grew from the earth, were subject to tithing . . ."[19]

The Jewish Encyclopedia adds that items were tithable only if they were (1) edible, (2) a product of the soil and (3) an individual's property.[20] The Bible nowhere states that nonagricultural income was ever tithable in the theocracy.

Why were only agricultural items tithable in the theocracy? The answer to that question is simple.

When the Israelites went into Canaan, God gave them their estates without charge, without interest and with rights of perpetual ownership (via jubilee-year laws). Those who enjoyed this unusual blessing had God as their landlord and guarantor.

Typically the oldest son would inherit the estate and would be responsible for tithing the crops.

However, the majority of the men who were not eldest sons had to find other livelihoods. They possessed no guarantee from God that they would always own land in Israel, and their livelihoods were at risk. Therefore, God did not expect as much from them.

Since many historical sources agree that only agricultural produce was tithable, shopkeepers, craftsmen and wage earners did not tithe on their wages. They simply "appeared before God" at the feast days and offered three offerings a year, with each man giving "as he was able" (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). They gave a freewill offering instead of the mandatory tithe given by the estate owners.

If God did not require shopkeepers, craftsmen and wage earners to tithe on wages even during the theocracy, why would wages become tithable in modern, secular societies?

Also, today's farmers have no jubilee-year guarantees about owning their lands in perpetuity. Why should they tithe when the unique theocratic protections for farmers and ranchers no longer exist?

The Bible lists other nontithable items. At harvesttime a part of the crop was left behind for the needy to glean (Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Ruth 2:4-19). Gleaning was an annual welfare program in ancient Israel. Since tithes were paid on what farmers actually harvested for themselves, they did not tithe on crops left for the gleaners. Applied to our society, this principle indicates that people need not tithe on that portion of their income they give for charitable or welfare purposes.

God required restitution for crime victims (Exodus 22:1-7; Leviticus 6:1-5). The Bible nowhere states such restitutions were tithable. Applying this principle today, legal settlements or payments to compensate a person for damages would not be tithable.

On the other hand, if someone receives unusual windfall income, such income may be tithed, since we have the example of Abram tithing on a windfall, although it could also be argued that he earned his booty by fighting for it (Genesis 14:13-20).

God's other financial commands

Tithing is not the only financial command in the Bible. God has many other commands pertaining to our use of money, such as:

  • Provide for your family's needs (1 Timothy 5:8).
  • Help the needy (Proverbs 19:17; Matthew 25:34-40).
  • Provide an inheritance for your children and grandchildren (1 Chronicles 28:8; Proverbs 13:22).
  • Enjoy the fruits of your labors (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
  • Pay your taxes (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:7).
  • Pay your debts (Psalm 37:21).

In our society, with national, state and local taxes, few could do all the above and pay three tithes. When Christ acknowledged a dual secular and spiritual financial obligation in Matthew 22:21, He avoided quantifying either obligation for people living under human rule who are subject to secular taxes. 1 Timothy 5:8's command is a powerful mandate to place family needs first on financial priority lists. God is not a Pharisee, and He knows everyone's financial abilities and limitations. Therefore we must use judgment in allocating financial resources.

Collecting tithes in the theocracy

Numbers 18 lists God's laws on collecting and dispersing tithes in the theocracy. The headquarters of ancient Israel was the temple (or tabernacle), where the high priest and sons of Aaron served.

In verse 21 God commanded that "the tenth" was to be given to the local Levites, not to the national priests. The local Levites (who lived among the people in 48 cities) were to collect and count all tithes, keep 90 percent of them for their local use and then pay "a tithe of the tithe" (the other 10 percent) to the priests at Israel's national headquarters (verses 26-28).

Today we have neither temple nor Levitical priests, but can modern Christians apply the spirit of the law God established in Numbers 18?

Many modern church organizations have a local ministry and a national office. To apply the spirit of the law in Numbers 18, they could collect tithes (or donations) in local congregations, use 90 percent of such funds for local pastoral and church needs and send the remaining 10 percent to a national office or outreach effort. This would closely follow the spirit of the law in Numbers 18.

Dennis Luker's recommendation

It is this author's understanding that the Church of God (Seventh Day) is closest to following this principle. However, the United Church of God came close to implementing part of the Numbers 18 tithing principle when it was formed. The May 5, 1995, issue of In Transition included this report from the Indianapolis founding conference:

"One of the most visible changes in the . . . United Church of God involves tithes and offerings. Dennis Luker, a member of the Transitional Board of the UCG, explained the new policies . . . Church members will send their tithes to their local church instead of to the home office . . . The recommendation is that 'all local church expenses be paid from these tithes and offerings, then the rest be sent to the home office.'"[21]

Although the proportional split of tithe money between local areas and the UCG home office was not specified, the above shows the UCG almost implemented part of God's tithe-collection principle in Numbers 18. However, this step was not taken.

What is clear in Numbers 18 is that God did not institute a system under which Israelites tithed directly to a national headquarters, with the high priest then hiring a big staff, enjoying a lavish standard of living, setting salaries for the local Levites, etc. God established local control over the tithe in His theocracy by directing the Levites to collect and tally all tithes, forwarding only a tithe of the tithe (Numbers 18:26-28) to the priests at Israel's national headquarters.

There was no confusion in God's tithing system; local Levites used their 90 percent of the tithe as they saw fit, and national priests used their 10 percent as they saw fit.

It was noted earlier that historical sources do not agree about ancient tithing practices. Harper's Bible Dictionary adds:

"Reconstructing a clear picture of . . . tithing in biblical times is extremely difficult due to the conflicting accounts concerning tithes . . . Apparently, tithing was understood and practiced differently at different times."[22]

Judaism later faced the question of how to apply tithing laws when circumstances changed radically. The Encyclopedia Judaica records that rabbis reinterpreted the tithing system because the old laws "did not fit the new reality."[23]

Jews and Christians alike have realized that it is impossible to implement an ancient theocratic tithing system in secular societies that bear little resemblance to that of ancient Israel. We need to humbly acknowledge there are grounds for different viewpoints on this subject.

The new Melchizedek priesthood

Paul wrote in Hebrews 7 that the Levitical and Aaronic priesthoods were abolished and that "the priesthood [was] changed."

Some assume that changing the priesthood means Christian churches are to receive Levitical tithes, but Paul nowhere made that statement. A careful reading of Hebrews 7-10 shows Paul proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the new High Priest "after the order of Melchizedek" at God's very throne (Hebrews 7:11-15) and that no more human priesthoods existed.

Nowhere did Paul or the other apostles and elders claim they were the new Melchizedek priesthood. Far from it! Paul taught the risen Christ had resumed the divine Melchizedek priesthood, which both preceded and supersedes all human priesthoods of mortal men. If this is true, then no human ministry can claim the tithes that were paid to abolished priesthoods.

Paul wrote that the priesthood had changed from mortal humans to the immortal Jesus Christ. Paul did not say the priesthood had been given to a new group of mortal humans, but to Jesus Christ, who had the "power of an endless life" (Hebrews 7:16).

Melchizedek was clearly a spirit being (Hebrews 7:3), and David added that the spirit being at the right hand of God in heaven was "a priest after the order of Melchizedek" (Psalm 110:4).

Biblical examples indicate only spirit beings serving in the Melchizedek priesthood. Revelation 20:6 shows the saints will become priests when they are resurrected to become spirit beings.

Paul's mention of tithing in Hebrews 7 made the point that Jesus Christ's Melchizedek priesthood was far superior to any human priesthood that had received tithes under the Old Covenant. Peter used the term priesthood to refer to the entire body of saints (elders and laity) that God was building into a "spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:5-9), but Peter didn't discuss tithing in that passage.

The financing of Paul's ministry

Levitical tithing was alien to Paul's gentile converts, so it would have been a hot topic in Paul's letters if Paul had imposed a tithe on them.

The Jerusalem conference did not include tithing in the list of practices to be observed by gentile churches (Acts 15:23-29). Indeed, Paul wrote that none of his churches tithed to him and that only the Philippians sent donations (Philippians 4:14-18). When we realize that (1) only agricultural items had ever been tithable to the Levites and priests and (2) Paul taught that the Levitical and Aaronic priesthoods were abolished, we see the question of tithing was a nonissue in Paul's churches.

Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:17 that elders who serve well were worthy of "double honor," but the Greek word translated "honor" does not usually denote money. Paul mentions "wages" in 2 Corinthians 11:8, but the English word wages comes from a Greek word that refers to a soldier's rations.[24] That indicates a subsistence allowance, not a highly paid job.

Although Paul praised the Philippians for sending donations (Philippians 4:14-18), he chided the Corinthians for contributing nothing to him (1 Corinthians 9:9) while he likened himself to a "muzzled ox . . . treading out the corn."

Paul even worked to support himself and his ministry when donations were lacking (Acts 18:1-4; 20:33-34). In 1 Corinthians 9 he nowhere asserts a right to demand "a tithe," but he maintains a right to expect some donations from those he served.

Paul was loyal to God's law (Romans 3:31), and he did not hesitate to warn churches about sin in their midst (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Therefore, it is noteworthy that, even though Paul acknowledges his churches gave him little or no financial support, he never told any church that its nonpayment of tithes constituted a sin.

This argues that, while Paul asserted a right to accept donations, he never expected or demanded a tithe from anyone. To postulate that Paul knew it was the law for Christians to tithe but that he voluntarily excused his churches from doing so puts Paul in the position of granting indulgences to break the law.

Modern Feast of Tabernacles

One question facing the modern Churches of God is the issue of how to keep the Feast of Tabernacles if no second tithe existed in ancient Israel. Whereas ancient Israel's no-frills Feasts could be kept without spending any money, today's Feasts can be expensive. We still have God's commands to keep the feast days. It is clear the early Christian church kept them, and Zechariah 14 confirms that the feast days will be kept in the Millennium.

Our situation is like that faced by Judaism in the post-exilic period, when the rabbis realized the old theocratic laws could not fit their new reality. For a time they adopted a second tithe for festival purposes. However, as the Encyclopedia Judaica notes, the two-tithe system was dropped by Judaism because it was "too high" an assessment on the people. Why should modern Churches of God continue to impose a Talmudically developed system of tithing that was abandoned even by Judaism?

Although we have God's command to keep the Feast of Tabernacles, the Bible reveals no command or precedent that Christians must annually travel great distances to attend expensive festival observances. The gentile converts in Paul's churches likely kept all the festivals in their own areas. Indeed, Acts 21 confirms gentile converts would have been most unwelcome at the Jerusalem feasts!

The gentile churches obviously did not need a "festival tithe" (10 percent of their annual income) to observe the feasts in their local areas.

On the other hand, in our time--when long-distance travel is readily available and if one can afford to travel to a distant site--such a journey can be tremendously rewarding from a spiritual perspective. Acts 2:1-12 confirms many people periodically made long trips to Jerusalem for the annual days.

From the author's own experience, nothing compares to the uplifting sense of pilgrimage one feels when one travels to a different area for the Feast of Tabernacles.

Even traveling a moderate distance to a Feast today involves significant expense. However, biblical and historical facts do not support the idea that the Bible requires everyone to spend 10 percent of his annual income every year on a Feast. A reasonable spirit-of-the-law judgment would be that people should set aside whatever funds they will need to keep the Feast at the site they choose to attend.

Some conclusions

This article barely scratches the surface of the many questions about tithing that we have ignored for far too long. Jesus was more comfortable with publicans and sinners than with religious leaders who enjoyed power, privilege and wealth at the expense of the people they were supposed to serve. Since Jesus Christ hasn't changed (Hebrews 13:8), churches who exhibit the attitudes or doctrines of the Pharisees can hardly expect Jesus Christ's blessing or presence.

We find strong evidence that God never commanded a second or third tithe in ancient Israel. Second tithe originated many centuries later in the Talmud, and the Pharisees imposed three tithes. Some Churches of God have suspended third tithe because it clearly extracts too much money from people.

This article provides evidence that third tithe should be permanently discarded. It also has documented that only agricultural income was tithed in ancient Israel and that serious questions need to be asked about whether the early Christian church ever tithed at all.

Those who say ancient Israel's tithing system applies today are left with this reality: It must be paid by farmers and ranchers who enjoy jubilee-year rights to their land. They would pay an agricultural tithe that would be suspended eight out of every 50 years. All others would give an offering "as they are able" three times a year at the feasts.

However, no one enjoys jubilee-year property rights anymore, and Paul taught in Hebrews 7 that the human, tithe-receiving priesthoods were abolished when Jesus Christ reoccupied the divine Melchizedek priesthood.

There is a New Testament ministry of elders, but there is no biblical evidence that the elders demanded or received tithes in the early church.

However, Paul did assert that he had a right to expect donations from the churches he had raised up and served. Therefore, it would be consistent with Paul's writings for modern churches to be funded with donations and offerings, not mandatory tithes.

Jesus warned us not to judge each other (Matthew 7:1; Romans 14:4), so churches and individuals must not condemn the sincere beliefs of those who hold divergent beliefs on tithing. Romans 14:23 tells us to live according to our own faith, so each person must act in accordance with his personal convictions regarding tithing.

Also, Jesus made it clear in Matthew 6:1-4 that all acts of giving must be private matters between individuals and God, with no public proclamations about the gifts.

Given Jesus Christ's command that giving must be "secret," I wonder what He thinks when modern Churches of God loudly and publicly proclaim how much each festival site gives per person at the Feast?

When we do this, are we any different from the Pharisees, who sounded a trumpet about their giving? Maybe some changes need to be made so we can please our Lord and Master in how we finance church organizations.

When I began researching the subject of the 10 tribes for my book The "Lost" Ten Tribes of Israel: Found!, I was impressed by how strongly the biblical and historical evidence supported the traditional teachings of the old Worldwide Church of God on that subject. My book supports that traditional teaching.

However, in researching the tithing issue, the opposite occurred. I was surprised at the weakness of the old WCG's tithing doctrines, both from biblical and historical viewpoints.


1. Collier's Encyclopedia, 1975, Vol. 18, "Tithe," p. 584.

2. Encyclopedia Americana, 1988, Vol. 26, "Tithe," p. 788.

3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1943, Vol. 22, "Tithes," pp. 252-253.

4. Josephus, Antiquities, IV, VIII, 8, 22.

5. The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 10th edition, 1995, footnote for Leviticus 27:30, p. 182.

6. The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1988, "Tithe," p. 1291.

7. The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, Ktav Publishing (1901), "Tithe," p. 151.

8. The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1988, "Tithe," p. 1291.

9. Harper's Bible Dictionary, "Tithe," p. 1079.

10. Ibid, "Mishna," p. 642.

11. Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 19, "Mishnah," p. 225.

12. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Vol. 15, "Tithe," 1161-1162.

13. The NIV Study Bible, footnote for Deuteronomy 14:22-29, p. 259.

14. The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, "Tithe," p. 1291.

15. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Vol. 15, "Tithe," 1160.

16. The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, "Tithe," p. 151.

17. Ibid., p. 152.

18. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 15, see "Tithe," 1161.

19. Harper's Bible Dictionary, "Tithe," p. 1079.

20. The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, "Tithe," p. 151.

21. In Transition, May 5, 1995, "Policy Differs on Tithes, Offerings," p. 9.

22. Harper's Bible Dictionary, "Tithe," p. 1078.

23. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 15, see "Tithe," 1160.

24. Young's Concordance, 1978, "Wages," p. 1029.

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