Are Christians supposed to tithe?

I can still remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck. I was sitting next to my father, listening to the pastor during a Sunday evening service. He had just finished reading Malachi 3:8-10 from the King James Version:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

The look in the pastor’s eye told us that he was deadly serious. Do you want to be guilty of robbing God? Absolutely not! I don’t know what kind of effect he was having on the rest of the congregation, but I was one ten-year-old kid who was going to make sure he faithfully brought his 10% into the storehouse—whatever that was.

Next to the topic of prayer, most of the questions I’ve received since beginning our Taking Root emails have been regarding tithing. Are New Testament believers supposed to—according to Scripture—give 10% of their incomes to their churches? This is a question that requires us to explore some of the historical background and biblical context to really understand what we’re talking about.

What does “tithe” mean?
It’s not uncommon to hear people say that they tithe 5% of their income, or 20%.  While having a planned approach to how you give can be a good thing, this isn’t really a “tithe” the way the Bible uses the word. The word translated tithe in Scripture means “tenth.” So if we want to speak of the biblical idea of tithing, we’re talking about giving 10%.

Early examples of tithing
The first time we see tithing in the Bible is in the 14th chapter of Genesis. Abram’s nephew Lot had been living in the city of Sodom. Enemies had wiped out Sodom’s army, plundered their city and taken captives as slaves, including Lot and his family. God enabled Abram to overtake and defeat the enemies of Sodom, and to recover the captives and plunder. The king of Sodom offers all of the loot to Abram, but he refuses. He takes only food for his men to eat, a share for his allies, and he gives a tenth of all the goods to Melchizedek, who is described as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High.

We should first notice that Abram wasn’t giving a tithe of his own goods, but of the recovered plunder belonging to the city of Sodom. Was this tithe a one-time event, or a regular practice for Abram? We have no way of knowing from the text. And it also seems that Abram’s gift is voluntary, not in response to a command from God. So this story only tells us what happened in this one occasion, doesn’t show a command from God concerning tithing, and doesn’t even have to do with Abram’s personal possessions. This shows us an early example of someone voluntarily giving 10% but not much else.

The next example of tithing is found in Genesis 28. Jacob was on his way back to his own people to find a suitable wife. One night, in a dream, he sees a stairway going up to heaven, angels going up and down the stairway, and he sees God. Overwhelmed, the next morning Jacob vows that if God will be with him and protect him on his journey, provide him with food and clothing, and return him safely to his father’s home, then he would give back to God a tenth of everything that God gives him. The way this vow is emphasized in the story, it seems that tithing was not a normal practice at this time. (Notice that Jacob had not been tithing prior to having this dream of God.) And again, the tithing is voluntary, not in response to divine instruction regarding tithing.

Some have stressed that these examples come before the Mosaic Law, and this is true. But there is nothing in these passages instructing God’s people to tithe, or even showing that the people of God regularly tithed at that time. We don’t want to base a command to believers on unclear examples from narrative accounts. That’s not a proper use of Scripture. (Actually, there’s a clearer pattern in Genesis of returning to one’s own people to acquire a wife—but I don’t know of anyone suggesting this as a model we should follow today!) We can choose to emulate Abram and Jacob in their voluntary tithing, but this would be a personal choice, not a biblical command. For clear instructions on tithing we need to look to the Old Covenant Law.

Tithing under the Old Covenant
Many Christians have an idea the people of Israel regularly gave 10% of their income to God. This isn’t entirely accurate. There are actually three different tithes the Israelites were to observe:

Levitical tithe
Because the tribe of Levi was to be dedicated to serving the Lord and his temple, they were not allotted any land among the other tribes. Instead of actual land, the other Israelites were to bring a tithe of everything the land produced for the Levites (see Numbers 18:20-21). This would have included meat, crops and wine.

Celebration tithe
The people were to set aside another tithe of all their crops—grains, olive oil, wine, and the firstborn males of all their flocks and herds, bring this tithe to a designated place of worship, and “Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). This tithe was set aside for a big feast! Eating, drinking and celebrating as a form of worship to God. What an idea! But don’t laugh this off as just an excuse for a big party. This was a sacred obligation, and the people still had to set aside this additional tithe for this annual celebration.

Charity tithe
Every third year, the people were to collect another tithe for the care of Levites, orphans, widows and foreigners living among them. (See Deuteronomy 14:28-29.)

So, rather than 10%, the combination of different tithes actually equals an annual 23.3%. This was essentially the early tax system for the nation of Israel to support their national priestly tribe and their poor. A couple of other things worth noting: The people didn’t give money; they gave a tithe of their crops and herds. These tithes weren’t voluntary as was the case with Abram and Jacob; they were mandated by Law. So the Old Testament idea of tithing looks very different from the traditional concept most of us have been taught.

Are we supposed to follow the Old Covenant practice of tithing today?
After seeing what the Old Covenant practice of tithing entails, most of us would respond: “How can we?” Are we supposed to all acquire fields and herds so we can set aside a tithe of our produce and bring it once a year to the, um, temple so that the . . . Levites can have food and wine? And should Christians today set aside another 10% of their crops and herds to gather with the people of Israel in a designated place and celebrate together? (If we’re worried the Malachi passage above is warning us not to rob God, then this is what we need to start doing because this is what the passage is talking about.)

Some who are reading this right now are thinking of ways to apply these ideas to the church, but be careful. We can’t change the Law that God gave to the people of Israel. It is very specific about the nature of these tithes, what was to be set aside and how it was to be distributed. We don’t have the right to alter these commands. But are these commands given to us?

To whom was this law given? To the nation of Israel. Are we part of the nation of Israel? No, we’re not. We still study the Old Covenant because it teaches us about God, how he interacted with his people, and how his grand plan developed in the Old Testament period. But the Old Covenant isn’t our covenant. We are part of the New Covenant people of God. Christ accomplished the purpose of the Old Covenant law (Matthew 5:17) and superseded it (Galatians 3:19-25; Hebrews 7-10). We are no longer under the Old Covenant Law of Moses, but the New Covenant Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-21; Matthew 22:34-40).

In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles affirm the unchanging moral requirements of God (not worshiping other gods, not murdering, not committing adultery, etc.). But the legal requirements that were peculiar to the nation of Israel are now obsolete (keeping the Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.).

The life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is a time of transition, when the Old Covenant is coming to an end and the people are being prepared for the New Covenant. The New Covenant isn’t actually established until Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 22:20). This is why, though Jesus seems to go out of his way to flaunt the traditions of the Jewish leaders, he never violates the Old Covenant law itself during his earthly ministry. We have to understand that his teaching to the Jewish people is still in an Old Covenant context. If we don’t realize this, we’ll misinterpret many passages.

This explains why Jesus would give instruction on offering one’s sacrifice at the Temple altar (Matthew 5:23-24), why he would tell those whom he had healed of leprosy to go show themselves to the priests (Luke 17:14), and why he would tell the people to listen to the Pharisees because they ‘sit in the seat of Moses’ (Matthew 23:1-4). This also sheds light on Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees that it was good for them to carefully tithe, but that they should be more focused on the weightier matters of justice and loving God. We have to remember he was speaking to people still under the Law of Moses.

But beginning with Acts and throughout the letters to the churches, we don’t find even a hint of tithing as a practice of the New Testament churches. It seems clear that mandatory tithing was an Old Testament requirement for the nation of Israel that is not affirmed as a requirement for the New Testament church. Instead, the principle seems to be, as expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7:

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”

So is tithing wrong?
There’s nothing at all wrong with setting aside 10% of your income to give back to God. But it’s simply not biblical for us to teach that Christians must meet this requirement. Our monetary-based system is very different from the agrarian society of the Old Testament. Some believers today are not able to contribute 10%, and many others could be giving much more. Giving is a scriptural mandate, but it’s between the individual believer and God how much they should give. If we try to suggest a standard that all Christians must meet, we’re reestablishing the law for our brothers and sisters, and this is something we are not to do.

What of the common instruction to give to God first, before anything else, whether you’re in debt or not? I know many of you have amazing stories of how you committed to give a certain amount or percentage of your income to God and how he blessed you by meeting your needs. I’ve also heard stories from some of you how you honored your commitment to God, took money that was needed to pay bills and gave it to the church, and suffered serious consequences when the funds you needed didn’t miraculously appear. We need to be careful not to base our practices—or our urging of others to follow these practices—on anecdotes or even our own experiences, but on the clear teaching of the Word.

As a general principle, I would suggest that if you’re past due on money owed to someone else, then this is no longer your money to freely offer to God. It already legitimately belongs to someone else. Is God honored if we steal money from our landlord to give to him? Of course, if God has somehow, clearly directed you to contribute the money anyway, then he will provide the funds needed to pay your debts.

I realize this has been somewhat technical this week. I’ve tried to make it as painless as possible! We’ve discussed the intricacies of the Old Covenant practice of tithing, but we haven’t really looked at how we should give as Christians. There’s a lot more to discuss so, next week, we’ll look at New Testament principles of giving.

Related posts:

New Testament principles of giving

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

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27 Responses to Are Christians supposed to tithe?

  1. russkelly says:

    Tithes are never firstfruits either.

  2. Curt Parton says:

    That’s true. Thanks, Russ.

  3. Francia says:

    sorry, I know this topic is a couple of weeks old but I am just getting to the bottom of all my emails and finally found the time to really enjoy this read. Although, I have always been a firm believer in tithing and have also enjoyed doing so, I do find at times that I actually feel guilty when I can’t tithe as much as I would like. This whole sense of, if I didn’t do this, I could figure out a way to tithe more. For those that really love the Lord, I think we never feel our giving is adequate, there is always so much more we can do whether it is checking in on a loved one, helping a child or giving money to a church or person in need. We are taught to GIVE and be GIVING, I think this is the point we are missing.

    Love your Taking Root emails…keep up the great work!

  4. Curt Parton says:

    Thanks, Francia! (The latest Taking Root post has more on giving in general.)

  5. Daniel says:

    Gotta say that this is the best explaination of tithing and why its not required of the church that I have ever read. Its clear, concise, and very organized.

    What strikes me is why so many of our Pastors today just don’t get it. Is it because they do not understand the rules of historical and dispensational context (isreal, church, law, grace)? Is it because they are poor interpreters of biblical text? Or do they continue to promote modern day tithing as a requirement, despite knowing the truth, out of fear that people will not give unless threatened with a curse?

    I have heard Pastors say (even at my own church) that if you do not tithe 10% that your money is cursed (I thought Jesus redeemed us from any curse associated with OT law?) I have heard them say that we should give 10% and keep 90% that is blessed than 100% that is cursed. The curse of mammon is an oft used phrase from the pulprit of my church, especially duing the collection time. I have heard them say that as per Malachi, if we do not give tithe on a regular basis (every pay week) that we are robbing God. I have even heard them say that we are in violation of God’s commandments if we pay the mortgage instead of give our tithes during a particular week.

    Brother Parton, I just dont get it. The truth about titihing is so very obvious, but so many of our spiritual leaders here in the U.S. propagate the incorrect view of it. Why?

  6. Curt Parton says:

    Thanks, Daniel. I appreciate your encouragement, and I understand your frustration. I think there are a combination of problems. It does seem that many pastors and teachers fail to recognize the discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New. This is partly the fault of poor training, but also can be attributed (at least at times) to pastors wanting to use OT texts in a way that will ‘preach well.’ All too often sound exegesis is sacrificed for the sake of ‘powerful preaching.’

    Exacerbating the problem is a tendency for many pastors—even non-traditional ones—to simply rely on what they’ve been taught without reevaluating everything according to Scripture. Some pastors emphasize tithing so much because that’s what was modeled for them by their pastors. It’s easy for us to fall into a ‘this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it’ kind of thinking. We all need to periodically consider why we do what we do (and the way we do), and make sure we’re really basing our beliefs and practices on clear biblical teaching.

    I’m sure there are areas where we all need to grow closer to a scriptural norm. Thankfully, many pastors and leaders have relinquished their traditional concept of tithing because they came to realize it’s just not biblical. There are more and more churches teaching a biblically sound approach to giving, and I find this encouraging.

    Blessings,
    Curt

  7. Larry says:

    Fantastic post! I am pretty new to this blog, but have very much enjoyed the well reasoned biblical approach brought to the discussion of these topics.

  8. Curt Parton says:

    Thank you, Larry! I appreciate the encouragement.

  9. Ronald says:

    This is truly a blesssing..basically im just learning more about grace andbhow we are not under the law.. alot of your teachings coincide with what i have been learning so far and the blog about.the 10 commandments were excellent… in the church i go to alot if the teaching we receive is based off of the same >this is what i have been taught so if something good comes out of it then it must be true i understoodtood grace but i only was taught to use it to obey the law.. never to be free from the lae.. ive bee saved since around 15 or 16 but alot of my understanding came from what i was taught.. but God always had me to challenge alot of traditions in search of biblical truth.. which alot of the traditions werent even scriptural.. but i dont blame them we all was in the same boat we only did what we were tauht and to us rhis was truth.. but thanks again for the blogs… God bless

  10. Ronald says:

    Oh yeah im 31 years old now and i cant believe si many of thw bible truths were right there plain and simple .. but we let tradition and what we have been taught override the real truth…

  11. Curt Parton says:

    Hi Ronald, I’m glad this was a blessing to you. I’m also glad you’re getting some sound teaching now, and that it’s helping you overcome the legalism you were subject to before. May God continue to bless you!

  12. Hello Mr. Parton, This was God’s conformation for me because for the last few days I’ve been sort of confused about tithing because my husband doesn’t do so( with money but other ways) and everything I’ve read here is what god had him to explain to me yesterday was your confirmation to me today. 2 Peter 2:1-4 and Mathews 11:25-26 were a few of the scriptures that God showed me to better understand why people teach the way they do. So I say to that is to read it for yourself then that way you will rely on no one’s words but Gods.

  13. Curt Parton says:

    Thanks, Quantina. I’m glad this was helpful to you. I agree that we all need to do the work of studying the Scriptures for ourselves so we can verify what they actually teach. Blessings to you.

  14. James says:

    Thank You Mr Parton,
    I really did enjoy your teaching and that has really given me an insight into the issue of tithing. I just committed myself to paying tithe after reading the book of malachi. Even though I do understand that it should not be an obligation I want to still continue with it. My suggestion is we individually have to commit to something that we can afford and stick to it. This is because currently I don’t have a enough bills to pay, but however I can go take upon myself any fanciful or worldly possession which will require me to pay bills that I cannot even afford. In that situation I will not have any remaining money left to be able to give to God. This creates the tendency for us to fall in love with the world (ie love material things than contributing to God’s course for the gospel to spread) and become enemies of God. Because of this I think each one must still commit to what he or she can and pay that even before bills. Once that is done I will have a clear mind to invest or do something relaxing if I have extra. Thanks

    James

  15. Curt Parton says:

    Thank you, James. We all must seek to be wise and God-honoring in the way we handle the financial resources he entrusts to us—and you’re doing that. Thanks for your comment. You might appreciate the follow-up post on New Testament principles of giving (linked to above).

    Blessings,
    Curt

  16. SO thankful I found your website! I was researching a few Bible topics and finally found some answers that give me peace. :) I will stop by here more often to complete our studies… THANKS!!

  17. Curt Parton says:

    Hi, Songbird. (What a great name!) I’m glad some of these posts are helpful to you. If you have any questions, let me know.

    Blessings!
    Curt

  18. What if a person tithes but is only a pretender or he/she may tithe for impression that they are tithing .Can it be accepteable to Almighty GOD?IAM 21YRS.

  19. Curt Parton says:

    Hi, Friday. If anything we do isn’t motivated by genuine faith, then it’s not pleasing to God and it doesn’t benefit us spiritually. Hebrews 11:6 tells us it is impossible to please God without faith.

  20. Emmanuel says:

    this teachings are so wonderful,and i wish to follow up pls update my email

  21. Curt Parton says:

    Thanks, Emmanuel. If you want to follow the blog, just enter your email address above and to the right—where it says “Email Subscription”—and then click “Sign me up!” You’ll get an email every time I post something new.

  22. Lorie says:

    Thank u for your message I’ve been debating about the tithing even though I was sure that we should give what ever God puts in our heart if it’s ten percent then good if it’s more it’s even better but if it’s less that’s also good as long as u give it with a clean given heart of faith.

  23. Curt Parton says:

    Thanks, Lorie.

    Blessings!
    Curt

  24. RWL says:

    Perfect timing! I was just listening to a mega church pastor, telling my wife and I (actually he was speaking to the whole congregation), that if we don’t give God his 10%, then we are sinning, and our blessings will be put on hold and/or be cursed. Thanks for the info (and yes, we do need to read and study the bible everyday)!

  25. Curt Parton says:

    Thanks, RWL. I’m glad this was helpful.

  26. Robert says:

    I am a father I bless or give my son not because he gave me money. Looks like a bribery. I bless my son because i love him and freely gave him all things he needed. God is our Father how much more he will freely give us all things I’n Christ. Father God is the giver and we are the receiver to bless the needy, the orphans and the widow and to share the Gospel.

  27. Curt Parton says:

    Good thoughts, Robert. Thanks.

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