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:
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.
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.
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.