Essay: Which is scripturally supportable: tithing or Christian giving?
This is the fifth article in The Journal's series 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 third was "How Should Christians Apply Ancient Tithing Practices?," by Steven M. Collins, June 30. The fourth was a reprint from the July 1959 issue of The Good News, published by the Radio Church of God, "How Many Tithes Are There, and How Are They to Be Used?," by Herman L. Hoeh, July 30.
Mr. Westby is founder and director of the Association for Christian Development and publisher of The New Millennium journal.
The ACD is on the Web at www.godward.org. Write Mr. Westby at P.O. Box 4748, Federal Way, Wash. 98063, U.S.A., or email@example.com.
For an interview with Mr. Westby, see "Ken Westby Talks About the 'East Coast Rebellion' of 1974," in The Journal, Jan. 30, 1998.
By Ken Westby
FEDERAL WAY, Wash.--A long time ago, in what now seems another lifetime, I was a foot soldier in the Tithing Wars. There were other issues being fought over, but tithing was a big one, really big.
My church organization at the time (more than 25 years ago) didn't demand just the tithe, singular. It demanded hypertithing, as I labeled it at the time.
No kidding. At maximum it exacted three tithes plus offerings (assuming there was any money left to give). At minimum it claimed two tithes plus offerings.
In those days the tithe was figured on "gross" income for most people, so we were looking at 20 to 30 percent right off the top--plus offerings.
It was a heavy load that many of us gladly bore, thinking that was what God required of us.
Then something strange happened. Some people began to question our tithing doctrine and commissioned a few scholarly types to hound-dog out the biblical facts and write them up. The year was 1973.
The trail of facts led in the opposite direction from our required and firmly established tithing system. The papers presented were well researched, and, if they stood the test of challenge, they would turn on its head our authority to collect money from the membership on the claim of a "tithing law."
That, my friend, was not going to be allowed to happen. The research papers were quickly locked into a vault, so to speak, and that was the end of that.
Nevertheless, thank God for copier machines. Bootlegged copies replicated their way into the ranks. Some of us who were already involved in a reformation movement within the church took the papers seriously and began our own study.
Tithing and tennis shoes
The timing was right for me because I was coming to question tithing: not so much the first tithe initially, but the biblical evidence for a second and third.
I was not alone. Many of us were coming to believe that what our church had was a romanticized caricature of what it envisioned to be ancient Israel's tithing system. We were concluding that not only were we off base on tithing, we weren't even in the ballpark.
When I became convinced our required-tithing system was scripturally insupportable, the plight of the poor in the church became ever more convicting.
Each fall I had witnessed brethren struggling to scrounge up tennis-shoe money to get the kids ready for school. For far too many, the "free will" to give had been usurped by church dictum, and "giving" was done under threat and obligation. Such a sorry state was neither pleasing for the giver nor the recipient: God.
Neither was it good that church bigwigs lived like religious royalty in sumptuous plenty while the people they were supposedly serving were out buying their kids the cheapest shoes in the store or just making do with last year's pair.
The fundamental fault with our church's teaching on tithing (and of other churches that have similar teachings) was simply that it was not biblical.
In 1974, after our reformation movement was crushed (see The Journal, Jan. 30, 1998), we found ourselves outside the old organization and free to pursue biblical truth wherever it led--and to attempt to live by it.
One of the first booklets I published (in 1974) was Christian Giving or Tithing? Portions of it are in this article. The entire text can be read on our Web site, www.godward.org, or can be had in print by writing to the ACD.
In the years since the Tithing Wars, I've learned much about giving, and I'm still learning. I've learned that giving was one of Christ's most frequently discussed topics.
I've learned a lot about myself, because the record of how I spent my money doesn't lie. Decisions we make regarding financial priorities tell where our heart is about as well as anything can. Claims of spiritual progress sandwiched with excuses for not giving to the cause of Christ amount to so much hot gas.
We deceive ourselves if we think we can become like God without becoming generous givers of all we have. Selfishness is not a trait God has, nor is it one He admires in us.
To give or not to give
Do you want to give to God or don't you? This is the most important question before us, more important than the tithing question. The key word in the question is want. I think I can safely assume that you the reader truly want to give to God. You also know that a gift grudgingly offered neither pleases God nor benefits the giver, regardless of its amount or percentage.
I believe we want to honor our great and loving God by being generous in our gifts to His cause. We also want to be found obedient to His Word and follow His specific commandments regarding tithing and Christian giving. Let's proceed on that basis.
Although I do not believe God requires us to tithe, we are free to tithe, and I respect those who do. My comments in this article should not be taken as antitithing; they are antirequired tithing taught as a biblical law. If one voluntarily tithes to God from a willing heart, how can that be criticized? It should rather be praised. It has been my experience that some of the most devout and committed Christian folk I've known have been tithers (though not necessarily hypertithers).
I believe that most of them offered their tithe willingly to God even though it was tangibly given to some Christian ministry. Almost to a person they will attest that God has blessed and prospered them, and they did not view tithing as an onerous obligation. I also realize, however, that such a positive experience has not been universal.
Before we consider whether tithing is biblically commanded, let's look at the larger context of godly stewardship. Giving to God, of course, always involves giving to a human recipient, whether a minister, ministry or child of God in need. God, for sure, doesn't personally need your money or goods. Nevertheless He wants you to internalize His giving nature and in your giving put His business first.
Several giving principles are illustrated in Scripture. We must note that the "laws of giving" originate in the very character of God, as do all divine laws. God is the great unbounded Giver.
From His gift of this beautiful planet as our home to the endless heavens and to our bodies and all that they can see, taste and love, God overloads us with gifts too precious to price. His gifts are without number and limit.
God does not restrict His giving to 10 percent in our cases. His greatest gift was His only Son, who gave 100 percent of Himself to both His Father and us.
Giving is so much a part of the divine nature of Yahweh that He calls us to become givers like He is: not just givers of things--that for sure--but givers of ourselves. The way of God is an unselfish path. A stingy, selfish Christian is an oxymoron.
Consider a few of the prime giving principles to be found in the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament. I trust you Bible students to add a scripture or two and a biblical example to each one. Each principle potentially holds a higher claim on our resources than a simple 10 percent of either our gross or net income. These also trump whatever legal claim one might attach to tithing. Here they are:
When a true crisis arises in the work of the Body of Christ, such as the occurrences in the aftermath of Pentecost (Acts 4:34-37), whatever it takes to fix it, do it. This high principle requires us to be alert to needs and, when one is brought to our attention, to respond generously from the heart.
Virtually our entire financial life is governed by percentages: 8.4 percent sales tax where I live, so much for FICA, so much for state and federal tax, a percentage for this and that.
These percentages alone must not steer our financial ship. We need to control our ship's direction by setting whatever percentage we think we can consistently give and then dedicate it to God's service. Voluntary tithing (or whatever percentage) fits within this principle. Old Testament tithing, as we will see in this article, was limited to only a few areas of production, yet was proportional giving. The law of firstfruits is likewise proportional (and symbolic).
As you walk the Christian life you will find occasion to blend these principles as warranted by ever-changing circumstances. But one thing is certain: God loves a willing and cheerful giver, and He is generous to those who are generous to Him.
Financing the commission
Christ commissioned His church to carry His message to the world: to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and continuing to teach them in the way of God. Fulfilling that commission is a massive, challenging responsibility that requires financial support.
What should be the source of that support?
Paul asked the Christians at Rome, "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15).
He explained to the Corinthian church that supporting the ministry and the work of the church is a Christian responsibility:
"Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? . . . Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? . . .
"Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:7, 10-11, 13-14).
The Christian way of life, by its nature, involves sharing, serving, giving. It is clear that the financial resources to carry out Christ's commission to His church must come from the church itself.
But by what means?
The financial resources must come through tithes or freely given offerings of Christians who are, from the heart, personally committed to helping carry out the great commission Christ gave us.
Is tithing required?
Some church organizations teach tithing as a means of supporting the work of the church. Many thousands--perhaps millions--of people over the years who have regularly dedicated a percentage of their incomes to God have felt they have been materially blessed as a result.
A businessman who began a small company with borrowed capital develops it over a period of years into a large, profitable enterprise. He credits his success in large measure to his practice of contributing regularly and generously to religious organizations.
A farmer who fares well during a difficult period for farmers attributes, in part, his modest success to faithfully tithing on his earnings each year.
Countless other examples could be cited as evidence that those who put God first in their financial priorities are indeed often blessed physically and materially, as well as spiritually. Without question, the principle of dedicating to God the first of one's substance is right, and it is biblical. God does bless a cheerful giver.
We are told in Proverbs, "Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine" (Proverbs 3:9-10).
Many people who live by that principle attest to its truth on the basis of their own experiences.
But is a Christian required to give a 10th of his income to the church to remain in right standing with God? Is it a sin not to tithe? Do the examples mentioned above and many others like them show there is a tithing law in force that a Christian must obey? Or do they merely illustrate that God blesses those who faithfully follow the principle of committing to Him the first of their substance and put Him first in fulfilling their financial responsibilities?
Further, do the Levitical tithing laws given to ancient Israel, which involved a multiple tithing system, represent universal tithing laws that remain in effect?
Some believe they do, teaching that God requires Christians to devote an average of a quarter or more of their income during their working years as tithes and offerings for religious purposes. But is this view supported by Scripture?
Whether the New Testament teaches tithing, or whether it teaches, positively, another means that supersedes the Levitical tithing laws should become clear as we sort out the facts.
Let's keep in mind from the outset that no human being has the authority to bind a requirement upon others that God doesn't reveal through His Word to be His will. If someone teaches that tithing on one's income is a universal law that is in effect today, he must be able to clearly back up that assertion by biblical proof. The burden of proof falls on his shoulders.
Some may accept tithing more or less on faith, believing it is required even though they might not be able to actually prove it scripturally to others. A person in that situation should, in a sense, bind it upon himself and regularly tithe on his income because of his conscience. After all, "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). He should not defile his conscience. (See 1 Corinthians 8, especially verse 7.)
But he should not judge others or attempt to legislate on others his own personal conscience in this matter.
Some teach tithing as if it were a self-evident truth. Since God owns everything, they say, He requires us to return 10 percent of our total income to him. Failure to do so, according to this line of reasoning, is stealing from God and brings a curse.
Although that premise might sound logical on the surface, it has one major flaw: It isn't supported by Scripture. There isn't one scripture from Genesis to Revelation that commands a tithe of one's monetary income.
Let's review some of the scriptures frequently cited to prove the tithing law has always been in effect.
Example of Abraham
What about the example of Abraham mentioned in Genesis 14 and Hebrews 7? Didn't his giving a 10th of the spoil to Melchizedek on that one occasion show the tithing law has always existed?
Notice the account of that incident in Genesis 14. Abraham (then called Abram) had just returned from rescuing Lot and retrieving the goods that were stolen from Lot and from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (verses 11-16). He was met by Melchizedek, the priest of God.
Here is how the Jewish Publications Society's translation renders the last part of verse 20: "And he [Abram] gave him [Melchizedek] a tenth of all."
Hebrews 7:4 makes it clear that what Abram gave was a 10th of the spoil. The rest he returned to the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:21-23).
Was Abraham, in giving that 10th of the spoil to Melchizedek, obeying some universal tithing law that was later outlined to the Israelites as a part of the Old Covenant?
When the children of Israel spoiled the Egyptians as they left Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36), there was no indication they were required to tithe on the spoil. This is especially noteworthy since the spoil was, in a sense, back wages that were due them for their years of servitude. One would think that, if any spoil were subject to a universal tithing law, that spoil would have been.
The Israelites were later asked to give an offering for the tabernacle, however, and they responded generously (Exodus 35:5; 36:5).
Later still, after a battle in which they had taken spoil, they were given specific instructions regarding the amount that was to be given to the priests and Levites (Numbers 31:26-30). They were not commanded to tithe on the spoil. The priests were to be given one 500th of half of it, and the Levites were to be given one 50th of half of it.
These examples show Abraham was not obeying any universal law that required him to give a 10th of the spoil to Melchizedek. What he gave would more properly be regarded as a thank offering for the deliverance of the men and for the retrieval of the stolen goods. A 10th was a natural fraction of the whole.
What our hands hold is contained in 10 fingers. A 10th is a representative minimum that when given first off the top is an acknowledgment that the recipient is in some important way responsible for the whole.
Without reading more into it than is actually there, this brief reference in Genesis, which was later used in the book of Hebrews to make a specific point about the superiority of a pre-Levitical priesthood, does not prove that Abraham was obeying a specific tithing law.
It merely shows what Abraham did on that particular occasion.
Another example that some might cite as proof of a universal tithing law is in Genesis 28, when Jacob was on his way to Haran.
Jacob slept at Luz and had the dream of angels ascending and descending and of God pronouncing a blessing upon him.
In the morning he vowed that if God would bless him and protect him so that he would return to his father's house in peace, "then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth" (verses 20-22).
Notice that Jacob's statement was a personal vow. He promised to give God a 10th if God blessed him as He said He would and caused him to return in peace.
If tithing were a universal law, Jacob would have been obligated to pay a 10th to God whether he was prospered and returned in peace or not. But Jacob was making a special vow: a promise to give a 10th to God if he were protected and blessed. He wasn't fulfilling an obligation like paying income taxes. He was making a deal with God, a conditional agreement.
If Jacob were giving a 10th in obedience to a specific tithing law, surely he would have taught his children to tithe as well. Notice Hebrews 7:9: "One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham . . ."
Hadn't Jacob's son Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek in his own lifetime? Apparently not, because Abraham's giving a 10th of the spoils on that one occasion was cited as evidence of Levi's paying tithes (figuratively) to Melchizedek.
Jacob's example in promising, conditionally, to give a 10th to God does not prove he was acting out of obedience to a tithing law that was then in effect and cannot in any way be used to bind such a requirement on New Testament Christians.
But should we ignore the example set by two of God's faithful servants, Abraham and Jacob?
By no means.
The Old Testament was written and preserved for us that we might learn and be admonished by the example of others (1 Corinthians 10:11). We would do well to consider the examples of Abraham and Jacob.
Many people who regularly contribute at least a 10th of their income toward the work of the church do so, not out of compliance to a tithing law, but because they have determined this to be the amount they personally desire to contribute in their particular circumstances. In comparison with the 25 percent or more that some feel obliged to commit, that amount would not seem unreasonable. But this is a matter strictly between them and God.
To use Abraham's and Jacob's example, though, in an attempt to legislate tithing as a requirement upon God's people today is improper. It is a misapplication of Scripture. There is a vast difference between someone who willingly and cheerfully, from the heart, decides to follow those examples and contributes 10 percent or more of his income toward carrying out Christ's commission and someone who is commanded to do so or made to feel guilty or somehow weak if he doesn't.
Levitical tithing laws
The Levitical tithing laws of the Old Testament that some seek to use as a pattern in establishing a tithing system for today didn't specifically require 10 percent of one's total income. Those widely misunderstood laws were given to a specific nation under a specific set of circumstances for a specific purpose. By dispelling certain misconceptions about the Levitical tithing laws--ideas that have no basis in Scripture or fact--it will become plain that those laws are not applicable to Christians.
The first place in the Bible where tithing is shown to be a law is in the book of Leviticus. "A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord" (Leviticus 27:30).
Leading up to this, in chapter 25 God gave Moses instruction regarding the Israelites' conduct when they entered the Promised Land. He began by saying, "When you enter the land I am going to give you . . ." (Leviticus 25:2).
Chapters 25, 26 and 27 have instructions that were to apply when they came into that land. The tithe mentioned in Leviticus 27:30 was referred to as "the tithe of the land."
What land does this refer to?
Clearly it refers to the Promised Land, which they were to inherit. The context indicates this is the meaning, and this is how they understood the tithing law, according to historical evidence. They understood the tithing law as applying only to the land God had given them.
When they were dispersed widely in predominantly gentile areas centuries later, they did not consider the produce of those gentile lands to be tithable according to the law. It was considered "impure" and not suitable for use in supporting the temple service. (See Judaism, Vol. II, p. 71, by George Foot Moore, and The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, p. 9, by Alfred Edersheim.)
What was to be tithed?
The tithes of the land involved the "seed of the land"--the grain and vegetable produce--and the "fruit of the trees." Verse 32 goes on to say, "The entire tithe of the herd and flock--every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's rod--will be holy to the Lord."
The items delineated as tithable fell into two categories: the tithe of the land, including grain, vegetable produce and fruit, and the tithe of animals.
M'Clintock and Strong's Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, in its article "Tithe," states: "As the Mosaic law does not define what things are subject to the tithe, but simply says that it is to consist of both vegetables and animals (Lev 27:30), the Jewish canons enacted that as to the produce of the land 'whatsoever is esculent [edible], though still kept in the field, and derives its growth from the soil, is tithable.'" (See the Mishna--Maaseroth I, 1--on this point.)
Nothing is mentioned in the Scriptures about a tithe of money, fish, mining or commerce. God had specifically given Israel the land of Canaan, and He designated a 10th of the produce and animals of that land as "holy." It was to be given to the Levites. When the Israelites failed to pay that tithe, God considered such nonpayment to be stealing from Him (Malachi 3:8-9).
The references to a special festival tithe and a special poor tithe in Deuteronomy 12 and 14 verify the agricultural nature of the tithe in ancient Israel. Whether these additional tithes were two distinct additional tithes or whether the festival tithe was merely set aside as a poor tithe in the third year is unclear from the context. Jewish authorities differ on this point. (See Unger's Bible Dictionary under "Tithes" or other Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias on this point.)
This question is not necessarily pertinent to the discussion at hand but should at least be noted for those who might want to do further study.
Notice Deuteronomy 12:17, concerning the festival tithe: "You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil . . ."
Also Deuteronomy 14:22: "Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year."
Note that the tithe was to be on the increase of the seed that the field brought forth.
Further: "At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns" (Deuteronomy 14:28).
The context clearly shows this to be increase of the land: food. It was to be laid up within the person's gates, and the Levite, stranger, fatherless and widow were to come and eat of it (verse 29).
2 Chronicles 31:6-11 refers to tithes in the time of King Hezekiah. Note these tithes were of the produce of the land and animals. They were laid up in heaps and stored in specially prepared chambers in the temple.
In every case, without exception, the tithe commanded of Israel was a tithe of produce or animals. There is no reference to a tithe of monetary income from the selling or trading of wares or from other sources.
Purpose of the tithe
The purpose of the Levitical tithe is explained in the book of Numbers. "I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting" (Numbers 18:21).
That 10th, or tithe, in Israel (which is explained elsewhere as the tithe of the produce and animals) was a special remuneration for the service the Levites performed in the tabernacle and later in the temple at Jerusalem.
The tithe of the land was not the Levites' only means of support, nor did their Levitical responsibilities consume all their time. They lived in various cities in Israel and took turns going to the tabernacle, and later the temple, to perform their duties. Just as the priests had "courses," or orders, the Levites took turns carrying out their Levitical duties. The rest of their time could be devoted to other endeavors.
Numbers 35:1-8 explains that the Levites were to inherit certain cities and the open land around those cities for their cattle, substance and beasts. That property was to be their perpetual possession (Leviticus 25:34). Having their own cities, open fields and cattle enabled the Levites to support themselves to a degree.
The Levites were obviously not the wealthy of the land of Israel basking in the opulence of one 10th of the total income of the nation in addition to the sustenance from their own land and cattle. They were listed along with the stranger, fatherless and widow as being eligible for extra support from the poor tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
During the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, after the return from the Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah had to require extra support for the service of the house of God in addition to the agricultural, Levitical tithe. That extra offering--a temple tax of one third of a shekel per year--was clearly in addition to the tithe of the land (Nehemiah 10:32, 35-39).
If the Jews had been tithing all of their income, in both produce and money, is it logical that an annual temple tax of one third of a shekel would have been necessary?
Summary of Levitical tithing laws
In summary, there is no scriptural evidence that the Levitical tithe of the Old Testament was a tithe of one's total income. It was a tithe of the produce and the animals and was only a portion of the Levites' sustenance. It was specifically given to them for their service in the temple.
The tithing laws given to Israel under the Old Covenant were tailored specifically to fit the needs of that nation. Israel had Levites and priests serving in the tabernacle; the nation had seasonal convocations that all males were required to attend at the place where God set his name (Jerusalem, after the time of David); and it had no other taxes to support widows and orphans besides the poor tithe. The tithing system God gave Israel was designed to fit those circumstances.
An entirely different set of circumstances prevails today. Trying to require Christians to conform to the tithing laws that were given to Israel under the Old Covenant is like putting new wine in old wineskins or sewing new cloth onto an old garment (Mark 2:21-22).
Some cite Malachi 3 to attempt to prove that tithing is a universal law. This chapter supposedly pronounces a curse on anyone who doesn't pay tithes today.
We can certainly learn from Old Testament examples, which Paul said were written for our benefit (Romans 15:4), but we need to apply them properly and not wrest from context what is being stated (2 Timothy 2:15).
In Malachi 3 God asked through the prophet Malachi: "'Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, "How do we rob you?" In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,' says the Lord Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it'" (verses 8-10).
Notice God was addressing a nation. He had expressly commanded Israel to set aside as holy, dedicated to His temple service, a tithe of the land He had given them. Because they didn't obey, there was no meat in His house (verse 12). They were "robbing God" by keeping that tithe for their own use.
One could apply this section of Scripture in principle to show that a Christian who neglects to fulfill his financial responsibility to help support the work of Christ's church is guilty of negligence toward God, not toward men.
Also, in principle, it certainly shows that someone who neglects his financial responsibility cannot expect to be financially prospered through any special blessing or help from God.
One could also point out as a principle the positive assurances that were given to Israel in those verses if they would fulfill their responsibilities.
However, to lift that section of Scripture out of context and apply it literally and specifically to any nation or anyone today who doesn't contribute to the church a 10th of his total monetary income would be a misuse of Scripture.
The time setting of the book of Malachi is the land of Judah during the era of Ezra and Nehemiah, after the completion of the temple. It mentions the altar of the temple (Malachi 1:7), the priests and the Levites (Malachi 2:1, 8) and the days of their fathers and disobedience of God's ordinances (Malachi 3:7). It is addressed to a nation: a nation that is cursed for not bringing in the tithes God commanded.
Note the tithes were to be brought to the storehouse. This was tithe on agricultural produce that was to be brought to the storehouse at the temple at Jerusalem.
Though the first few verses of Malachi 3 are prophetic, Malachi was plainly addressing chapter 3 to the nation of Judah of his day: a nation that was under a curse because its people were not tithing. It hardly applies, literally and directly, to a New Testament spiritual "nation" of Christians (1 Peter 2:9).
Tithing in the New Testament
With a proper understanding of the Levitical tithing laws God gave to ancient Israel through Moses, we can more easily understand what the New Testament has to say about tithing.
Jesus admonished the Pharisees, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former" (Matthew 23:23).
Christ pointed out the Pharisees' error of scrupulously tithing every tiny herb while overlooking what was really important. Although it was not the main point He was making, He did say the Pharisees shouldn't neglect to tithe on those specific agricultural products.
There were still Levites. The temple was still standing, and the priests were continually offering sacrifices. The Pharisees and every other Jew in that land at that time should have been tithing his produce and animals in accordance with the Levitical tithing laws.
But Jews today don't tithe according to those Old Covenant laws.
They do not tithe simply because there are no Levites and priests serving in the temple. There is no temple. It would be absolutely contrary to the tithing laws given to Israel for anyone other than a Levite to receive the Levitical tithes.
Christ certainly did not receive tithes during His earthly ministry. He was a Jew, of the tribe of Judah, not a Levite. Rabbis today cannot lawfully receive Levitical tithes. The tithe commanded under the Old Covenant belonged to the Levites and the Levites only.
What did the apostles teach?
Did any of the apostles collect tithes?
Notice what Peter told Ananias and Sapphira about the money they had received for selling their land: "Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?" (Acts 5:4).
Peter said the money they received from the sale of their land was theirs to do with as they wanted. There is no mention of 10 percent belonging to God, no divine capital-gains tax.
In 1 Corinthians Paul explained to the Corinthians he had the right to collect money from them to support his ministry. What law did he cite to substantiate his claim?
"Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn't the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.' Is it about oxen God is concerned?" (1 Corinthians 9:8-9).
Why didn't Paul cite the laws about tithing? If they applied in his New Testament ministry, he most certainly would have referred to the tithing laws rather than the law about not muzzling the ox. Paul, of course, knew he had no authority to ask for tithes.
Later, in another letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, "I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you" (2 Corinthians 11:8).
If those in the other churches Paul mentioned were required by a tithing law to give a 10th of their income to the church, Paul would not have felt he was "robbing" them. He would have been merely receiving what they owed anyway.
Paul, educated in the law and of the tribe of Benjamin, realized he had no claim on any tithe based on the Levitical tithing laws. He and the other apostles were supported by the voluntary offerings of God's people. There is no scripture in the New Testament that indicates the early disciples ever received tithes or taught tithing.
Support of early church
Rather than seeking to bind authoritatively on God's people what He has not revealed through His Word as bound in heaven, we should explain and expound the positive New Testament instruction about how Christ's commission to His church is to be financed.
The Bible is a positive book. Although it is negative toward sin, its overall thrust is positive. The Christian way of life is taught straightforwardly and positively. Christ gave His church a positive commission embodying a concern for others. How that commission is to be supported and financed is likewise taught in a positive way.
The early disciples clearly understood how the work of the church was to be supported, and the method they used is the one we should use.
Because there was no confusion or misunderstanding regarding this matter in the early church, however, the New Testament doesn't directly address, from a negative standpoint, the matter of how the work of the church is not to be financed.
The question of whether that support should come from a tithing system supposedly patterned after the Levitical tithing laws apparently never arose. That idea must have been totally foreign to those early disciples.
Origin of post-Levitical tithing
Hastings' Dictionary of the Apostolic Church states: "It is admitted universally that the payment of tithes or the tenths of possessions, for sacred purposes, did not find a place within the Christian Church during the age covered by the apostles and their immediate successors."
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, tithing was not practiced by the early church. It explains, "The Christian Church depended at first on voluntary gifts from its members."
The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits: "The early Church had no tithing system . . . It was not that no need of supporting the Church existed or was recognized, but rather that other means appeared to suffice."
How, then, was a tithing system introduced as a means of financing the work of the church? Early-church history shows that, just as the Catholic Church, by its own authority, made other far-reaching changes that have been carried down in the Christian-professing world, that church is responsible for much of today's misunderstanding on the subject of tithing.
The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge explains that, when the tithing concept was adopted by the Catholic Church, it was voluntary in nature. But, at the Synod of Macon in the year 585, payment of tithes was made compulsory under threat of excommunication. Secular authorities were then used to enforce this demand.
M'Clintock and Strong's Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature states in its article "Tithes":
"In the early Christian Church the custom of consecrating to religious purposes a tenth of the income was voluntary, and it was not made obligatory until the Council of Tours in 567. The second Council of Macon, in 585, enjoined the payment of tithes under pain of excommunication."
The historical record, as well as the New Testament Scriptures, proves that obligatory tithing was not taught or practiced by the primitive Christian church.
Can church authority require tithing?
Can any church receive God's backing in requiring tithing on the basis of "church authority"?
A correct understanding of Matthew 16:19 gives us the answer to that important question. The New International Version translates this verse: ". . . Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
The best translation of the Greek, however, according to many scholars, and one of the few translations that is consistent with the rest of the Bible in placing only God in the supreme position of legislating right and wrong, is this: "Whatever you forbid on earth shall be what is already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth shall be what is already permitted in heaven" (Williams Translation). (See also Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 58.)
Far from giving the apostles blanket authority to bind burdens on the church, Christ was actually restricting their authority to bind or loose (forbid or permit) that which was already bound or loosed in heaven.
No church--past, present or future--has the authority to bind anything on Christians unless it can show from the Scriptures that it has already been bound in heaven.
Unless tithing can be proven from the Bible to be obligatory on Christians, it cannot be required by "church authority."
Explanation of Hebrews 7
Before we go into the positive New Testament instruction regarding the principles of Christian giving, we should consider one other section of Scripture that is sometimes misunderstood and misapplied in an attempt to prove tithing as a requirement for Christians.
Does Hebrews 7 give authority for Christ's ministers to receive the tithes that formerly went to the Levites?
Many who teach a modified form of the Levitical tithing laws for Christians misunderstand and read into the 7th chapter of Hebrews what is not there. They mistakenly believe it describes a change in the tithing law that transfers the authority to receive tithes from the Levites to Christ's ministers.
But Hebrews 7 doesn't say that at all.
A careful reading of that chapter in context will show that the subject being discussed is the change in the priesthood that was established in the law God gave Israel. Tithing is introduced only to illustrate the superiority of Christ's priesthood over the Levitical priesthood.
Notice the context in which tithing is mentioned.
Abraham had given Melchizedek a 10th of the spoils he had taken on a certain occasion and had been blessed by Melchizedek (verses 1-6).
The point being made (and the only reason the subject of Abraham's giving a 10th to Melchizedek is brought up) is expressed in verse 7: "And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater."
As descendants of Abraham, the Levites had figuratively given tithes to, and had been blessed by, Melchizedek. This showed that the Melchizedek priesthood, as a forerunner of Christ's, is superior to the Levitical priesthood (verses 8-11).
The verse often misunderstood is verse 12: "For when there is a change in the priesthood, there must be a change of the law."
This is not the tithing law specifically. That was not the subject in question. "The law" in this context is the entire body of law that is sometimes referred to as the "law of Moses." Notice verse 11: "If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people) . . ."
And verse 19: "(For the law made nothing perfect) . . ."
Finally, verse 28: "For the law appoints as high priests men . . ."
Obviously the law being discussed in verse 12 and in this entire section of Scripture is not the tithing law at all. Rather, it is the body of law God gave the Israelites through Moses as a part of the Old Covenant.
Another key verse is verse 18, in which a particular section of that law is singled out. "The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless . . ." The Phillips Translation makes the meaning clearer: "Quite plainly, then, there is a definite cancellation of the previous commandment because of its ineffectiveness and uselessness."
The commandment that was disannulled, or canceled, was referred to in verse 16 as a "carnal" (fleshly) commandment. It had to do with the setting up of a physical priesthood (of Aaron's sons) that offered animal sacrifices. The commandment was weak and unprofitable in the sense that the sacrifices those priests offered could not remove sin or justify anyone before God. They perfected no one (verse 19).
The instructions in the law of Moses authorizing a human priesthood were therefore disannulled, or set aside, in favor of the priesthood of Christ (verses 19-28).
Rather than showing that the tithing laws were modified so tithes should now be given to the church, the 7th chapter of Hebrews shows there has been a "disannulling"--a cancellation--of the laws concerning the Levitical priesthood.
The entire book of Hebrews centers on and further explains this subject: the demise of the Levitical priesthood and the ascendancy of Christ's priesthood, the Old Covenant vanishing and the preeminence of the New (Hebrews 8:6, 13).
There is no Scriptural authority whatsoever for carrying over modified (almost beyond recognition, as some have done) agricultural, Levitical tithing laws given under that Old Covenant.
New Covenant liberty
It is clear that the Levitical tithing laws God gave to Israel do not specifically apply to the Christian under the priesthood of Christ.
The Old Covenant, with Moses as the mediator between the people and God, was made with a nation. It had a physical priesthood that offered animal sacrifices, supported in part by mandatory tithes on the animals and produce of the land.
The New Covenant is made with individuals, with Christ as the Mediator. He is also our High Priest who has offered the perfect sacrifice and has sat down at the right hand of God the Father as our Advocate.
The New Covenant is described in Hebrews as "superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises" (Hebrews 8:6).
The New, therefore, supersedes and takes precedence over the Old, as explained in verse 13: "By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear" (Hebrews 8:13).
In the book of Galatians Paul contrasted the Old and New Covenants by comparing them to Abraham's two sons: one by Hagar and one by Sarah.
"For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: this is Hagar" (Galatians 4:22-24).
We are not under bondage to laws of the Old Covenant such as circumcision, sacrifices, a multiple-tithing system and many other Old Covenant requirements that were specifically given for that day and time.
Paul went on to say: "Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 4:31-5:1).
But Paul, realizing the human tendency those Galatians would have and any of us has, cautioned: "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13).
This caution applies to any facet of life in which we would be tempted--by the liberty of the New Covenant in comparison with the rigorous rules and immediate penalties under the Old--to live "after the flesh" rather than seeking first God's righteousness and his Kingdom.
This caution would unquestionably apply in the area of "Christian giving," where there are no hard and fast rules on the amount we should give, only spiritual principles that one either follows or doesn't follow on the basis of the extent to which God's laws are written in his heart. It is a matter that is between a person and his God.
One who uses the liberty of not having a specific percentage delineated by God for offerings as an "occasion to the flesh" is really hurting only himself. One who fails to give regularly and generously to support the cause of Christ is depriving himself of a vital dimension of what Christianity is all about.
Reaping what we sow
In the same context of the verses about Christian liberty and the caution about not misusing that liberty, Paul wrote,
"Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:6-8).
Paul used the same analogy in discussing the subject of giving with the Corinthians.
"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" (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).
Is this a promise of physical blessings for a "cheerful giver" or spiritual blessings--or both?
There is no question that one who is doing his part in supporting the church's work of advancing the gospel benefits spiritually. It truly is spiritually rewarding. There is an unequaled joy in sharing God's truth with others.
Just as one experiences the positive, good fruits of living God's way and having God's laws written in his heart, one who is fulfilling his Christian responsibility to help support God's ministry and help preach the gospel to a world in need will himself reap the spiritual benefits.
But physical blessings come as well. Of course, one can't give with the primary motive of getting in return and expect to be blessed of God. But, for those who are giving with the right motivation, cheerfully and generously, God does offer physical blessings as a kind of fringe benefit.
Jesus taught: "Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38).
This principle of reciprocation, like reaping what we sow, applies in every area of life, but it particularly applies in the realm of Christian giving. This is a living, spiritual principle that is as much in effect today as in the days of Solomon. He expressed it in different words: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again" (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Authority to receive support
It is clearly a Christian's responsibility to support the ministry of the gospel and to give to those in need.
Paul showed in 1 Corinthians 9 that, although he had the authority and right to receive support from the Corinthian church, he had not used that power. He had forgone that right to keep from giving offense. He worked to support himself in Corinth at times (Acts 18:3) and even received wages and expenses from other churches so he could serve them (2 Corinthians 11:7-9).
Corinth was a weak church. But he clearly had a right--a power that he could have used--to be supported by the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:4, 11-12).
Also notice Paul's clear instructions in 1 Timothy 5:17-18. Christ's ministers today have that right, and every spiritually mature Christian who is seeking to live in accordance with God's way will fulfill his Christian responsibility to help support the work of the authentic ministry of Christ.
God certainly doesn't intend that we "prove" our righteousness by starving or not properly clothing our children in order to give. He is a God of mercy, not sacrifice.
But few of us are faced with extreme problems of that type if our priorities are straight. There might be emergencies or unusual circumstances when giving the full amount we've set would work a real hardship. But, as a usual thing, we should be regular and consistent.
One caution we find over and over in the Bible is to avoid letting ourselves get too involved in material concerns. One of God's Ten Commandments deals with the human problem of covetousness. None of us is immune to it, and we shouldn't overlook how spiritually devastating covetousness can be. Paul called it idolatry (Colossians 3:5) because it results in putting God in a secondary position.
As Christ said, you cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24).
Covetousness is often responsible for people not repenting and turning to God when they hear the gospel preached, and it can stifle and stunt our spiritual growth, as Christ showed in the parable of the sower and the seed (Mark 4:18-19).
Example of the Philippians
A prime example of what we have just described is found in the book of Philippians. The Philippian church seems to have been more spiritually mature, with more of God's love and the fruits of God's Spirit, than some of the other churches Paul dealt with.
The tone of Paul's letter to the Philippians, though full of instructions and admonitions, is warm and reflects a positive confidence that the church is generally on sound footing spiritually. The tone is quite different from that of the letters to Corinth.
Is it significant that the Philippians, more than any other church, were faithful in supporting Paul, even when he was in other areas and rightfully should have been supported by others?
Paul wrote: "Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:14-19).
The Philippians set a fine example, and the positive assurance Paul gave them that God would supply their needs applies to anyone who is spiritually mature and fulfilling his Christian responsibilities before God.
Under the Old Covenant adultery could be punishable by the adulterer being stoned to death. Under the New Covenant we aren't stoned, but if we even look on someone with lust we are guilty of adultery.
In a way the New Covenant is more merciful--for God is a loving, merciful God--but our responsibility before God is far greater. The potential reward--eternal life--is greater, and the spiritual rewards now, through God's Spirit bearing fruit in our lives, are greater. But so is our responsibility.
So it is with Christian giving in the Body of Christ. No one stands over us to see we contribute a set amount, but the spiritual responsibility is far greater than if we were complying with a specific rule. Our true colors will show.
God is interested in our hearts, not in our pocketbooks, but, as we see, they are connected.
God wants us to give the amount that reflects, in our particular circumstances, a commitment to put Him first and a desire to share His truth with others.
This world needs, perhaps more than at any other time in history, the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. The powers of the World to Come have invaded this age through Yahweh's Spirit-led church. The doors of salvation are flung open, and we carry Christ's invitation to a world in need.
That message provides access to God and to His Spirit, making it possible for Christ to dwell in us and for us to experience the positive fruits of His way of life (Galatians 5:22-25). It is a way of life that can bring us the happiness, peace and joy that everyone desires--and eternal life in the future.
Through the grace and mercy God has shown us, we have that message to give.
Truly it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God