‘Tithe’ simply means ‘ten’ or ‘a tenth’. The popular idea of ‘church tithing’ runs something like this: In the bible God commands the Israelites (the Jewish people) to tithe to the storehouse of God (Jerusalem, the Temple). If we ignore the context of the bible and avoid questions like ‘what was the intention of the authors and of God?’ and if we treat the scriptures as a series of ‘universal proposition’, then we may conclude that God commands Christians to tithe to the local church.
With this as our first premise we may then conclude that every reference in the New Testament to ‘giving’ must be understood in the context of ‘tithing’. The logical equation goes like this:
Premise 1: Since tithing is a universal principle enforced in the O.T.
Premise 2: and since the N.T. when it refers to giving it means ‘tithe’
Conclusion: Therefore God commands Christians to tithe
Notice that if either one (or both) of the premises are false than that conclusion cannot follow. I believe that it can be demonstrated that both premises are false if we pay careful attention to context. If we ignore the context of the scriptures while formulating doctrine there will no end to spurious interpretations. The scriptures will then be made to say anything anyone wants’ them to say and we will not know what it is they intended to say in the first place. We shall forever be misled by poor interpretative methods.
Let us then first examine what the scriptures do say regarding ‘tithe’.
Israel: Old Testament Tithe of 23.3% annually
It may come as a shock for many people to discover that in the Old Testament God instituted three (not one) distinct tithes for the Jewish people. Two annual tithes and a third tithe which was collected every three years, amounting to an annual giving of 23.3 percent. What this bit of information means is that, even in the Old Testament, there is no biblical warrant to teach an annual (or weekly!) ten percent giving (strictly speaking). The three tithes are as follows:
There was a tithe of the produce of the land to support the Levites who had no inheritance in Canaan. [Lev 27:30-33; Num 18:21-31]
Another and altogether separate tithe of the produce of the land was to sponsor religious festivals in Jerusalem. If the produce was too burdensome for a family to carry to Jerusalem, they were allowed to convert it into money. [Deut 14:22-27 – festival tithe]
Finally, a tithe of the produce of the land was collected every third year for the local Levites, orphans, strangers, and widows. [Deut 14:28-29; 26:12-13]
As George Barna and Frank Viola point out:
“A clear parallel can be seen between Israel’s tithing system and the modern taxation system present in America. Israel was obligated to support their national workers (priests), their holidays (festivals), and their poor (strangers, widows, and orphans) with their annual tithes. Most modern taxation systems serve similar purposes” (Pagan Christianity, p.173).
It is interesting to note that when the scriptures are addressing each individual ‘tithe’ they refer to it in the singular, but when the scriptures are not speaking specifically of ‘this’ tithe or ‘that’ tithe, then the word tithe is found in the plural, ‘tithes’. A good example is Deuteronomy 14 were two different totally distinct tithes are mentioned one after the other: “Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe…” (verse 22-23a), “At the end of every three years bring all the tithes of that years produce and store it in your towns” (verse 28). The first tithe mentioned here is collected every year, but the second tithe is collected every three years, this means that on the third year at least two separated ‘tithes’ are collected. Notice however, later in Deuteronomy when the third tithe is centered out specifically, the plural moves back to singular: “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe…” (16:12).
I point this out only because later when the scriptures address all the tithes which God commanded the Israelites to give, they simply use the plural ‘tithes’ or they will say the ‘whole tithe’ as a way of referring to all three; Mal. 3:8c, 10a is a good example: “In tithes and offerings… bring the whole tithe into the storehouse”.
Conclusion: (1) The institution of tithing in Israel essentially functioned as their national tax, which only makes sense since they were in fact a nation. Gods’ people are no longer a national ethnic entity which may explain why the New Testament does not teach that Christians are to tithe to the church as Jews were to tithe to Israel (but we’ll get to that). (2) The tithe in Israel was 23.3 percent annually! This is a biggie. If we truly want to be ‘biblical’ in promoting tithing then we must teach it as it is, not 10 but a whopping 23.3 percent per year!
What about Abraham and Melchizedek?
Someone may say that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek before the Law (Gen. 14:17-20 – the first and only pre-Moses example of a tithe) therefore showing that tithing is an established principle. But there are a few things we may wish to keep in mind before we too hastily raise this single account up as a standard to model:
First, God did not command Abraham to tithe. It was a personal decision and nowhere in the text is it suggested that everyone after Abraham should follow his example.
Also, Abraham tithed out of the spoils of battle and not out of his own wealth; a similar example would be to tithe after winning the lottery.
And finally, once and only once in all one hundred and seventy five years on this earth is it ever said of Abraham that he tithed.
So if we are going to hold Abraham up as our standard for tithing then (1) we only have to tithe if we win the lottery or come across a large sum of money; (2) even if we win the lottery, we only have to give if we want to, (3) and finally we only have to give once in our entire lives.
What about Malachi?
How many sermons have been delivered and applied to the Church on Malachi 3:8-10 which I will here quote at length:
“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.’”
Yet I have never heard this passage preached (as it should be) in the context of the immediate preceding verses (5-7).
“I will come near to you for judgment… against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice… return to me and I will return to you… But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’” [then the text begins] “will a man rob God? Yet you rob me…”
This entire passage is so dense with Covenantal Theology that I must strive to reserve myself (3:1). The point to be noticed here is that in verse 5 we have reached the heart of God for everything which follows; that the widows and orphans and aliens are being oppressed. God is a God of justice who cares for the helpless as the whole of scripture makes abundantly clear. He is coming in judgment to the Israelites because they are breaking the Covenantal Law (vs. 6) of God established by Moses (Deuteronomy in particular). The law in question here has to do with the national tax (tithe) which had the explicit purpose of taking care of the helpless and needy (vs. 5). Because Israel was continuing to break the law of God, they were (nationally) falling under the curse of the law (vs. 9: “You are under a curse – the whole nation – for robbing me” – remembering of course Deuteronomy 28:15ff)
Yet if they are obedient to the laws of God – particularly the law of tithing here – God will bless them so much that they will not be able to contain it (vs. 10) and what’s more important, the nations will call Israel blessed because theirs “will be a delightful land” (vs. 12). The overtones here to Deuteronomy 28:1-14 are too great to ignore. Just as God pronounced warnings of curses over the Israelites for failing to keep Gods laws in Deuteronomy 28:15ff, so also he has promised to bless Israel with prosperity in their land – as a testament to the God of Israel it is important to note – if they obey the law of the Covenant. So this entire passage is grounded in the Mosaic Covenant and should not be considered a ‘universal proposition’!
Jesus and the Tithe
It should be noted that Jesus, in addressing Pharisaic legalism, comments on tithing, but only as an afterthought and only on two occasions.
In Luke 18:12 Jesus very clearly portrays tithing in a negative and legalistic fashion. It is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, where the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the tax collector and boasts that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets. The moral of the story? The tax collector, not the tithe paying Pharisee, went home justified before God.
In Matt 23:23 (cf. Luke 11:42) Jesus again confronts Pharisaic legalism, this time not in a parable but in a ‘woe’. He says, “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.” What is important to observe here is that Jesus is not instructing the disciples on tithing. This passage is dealing specifically with the leaders of Israel who were tithing (half heartedly in a ‘since I have to’ sense) while neglecting the more important aspects of the law – love. This passage by the way would make for an interesting comparative study with Malachi, specifically 1:8, 13-14; 3:5-7.
Conclusion: Jesus does not once teach or promote tithing to his disciples. Only when addressing specifically the leaders of Israel does he – almost as an afterthought – tell them they should not neglect their tax (tithes) – of course Christ had not died yet and the Old Covenant was very much alive during his earthly ministry and we Gentiles are not a part of the nation of Israel.
It is curious to note that it seems Jesus and his disciples did not tithe during Christ’ three years in the ministry. When Peter was asked by collectors whether Jesus paid the temple tax, Peter lies; “Yes, he does”. Jesus is aware of the encounter – what with being God and all – and defends his right not to have to pay the temple tax, but then he tells Peter (so that they do not offend) to go fishing, and the first fish he catches will have enough coins in its mouth to pay for both of their tithes! This of course indicates that neither one were tithing (Matt. 17:24-27), and it seems to have been a onetime occurrence. WWJD? Jesus did not make a habit out of tithing.
Tithing: From Acts – Revelation
This section is going to be short and sweet: Acts – no mention of tithing (see that was easy). The Pauline corpus from Romans to Philemon – again, no mention of tithing. James, Peter, Jude and the final books of John (the epistles and Revelation) – you guessed it, no mention again of tithing or any variation of it. Only in Hebrews chapter 7 is tithing brought up, and even here tithing is not the point. The point of the text is to show that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, that he was the greatest priest of them all. By doing this, the author of Hebrews is very cleverly setting up Melchizedek to show that Christ is in fact even greater than Melchizedek and thus Christ is truly greater than all other priests! In short, Hebrews 7 no way promotes tithing, tithing is not event the subject, the greatness of Melchizedek, and how Christ is even greater then he, is the subject.
Having now quickly surveyed the entire body of scripture pertaining to this subject how is it possible to teach that Christians must tithe – according to the Bible – ten percent of their weekly income to their local church? How is it possible to equate tithe with ‘giving’, ‘love offering’ and the such as a biblical mandate?
Having now shown (I hope) how tithing is not supported by the scriptures I will now attempt to outline a biblical approach to giving within the body of Christ. I believe very strongly and passionately in giving! My wife and I give every single week, we work it out in our budget and we support our church, the ministries that go on in it and of course I am thrilled to support the salary of my pastor.