Is tithing biblical? Is it appropriate for believers in Jesus Christ today to be asked or required to give at least 10% of their income to their church, or to consider 10% of their income as belonging to God?
For years I assumed that the teaching about tithes was completely kosher. I struggled in my early years after leaving home to live up to it. But I never really questioned it. I read good books about it from respected authors such as Derek Prince, and thought that he made a fairly airtight case for the tithe being not merely an First Covenant phenomenon, but clearly applicable to believers under the Second Covenant as well.
Over time I heard many good sermons about the necessity of tithing - and a few clearly manipulative ones - and almost every time examples were given which proved that if we dare to trust God by giving him the tithe, he would increase our supply. We began to pay the tithe regularly, even though we were living by faith, not having any set or secure income. Many times we had more month than money, but somehow we always survived without going into debt and at times even experienced surprising surplus and provision.
Friends of ours experienced the Lord's amazing supply as they dared to believe that if they would rigorously give him the first 10%, he would make the rest of the money enough for every need. A brother-in-law was even promoted and provided with work through the winter after finally choosing to to out on a limb and obey.
Most of us in evangelical and pentecostal churches have heard similar stories.
As the Lord began to teach me much more in depth what his plans and purposes are, and especially after I started getting answers to my questions about how much of the Torah, the Law of Moses, applies today, I started to have little doubts whispering in the back of my mind that something having to do with the tithe didn't add up.
The first thing that really stood out to me, is that most churches will proudly teach that we are no longer under the law in the New Covenant. Yet other than the ten commandments, there is one law and regulation of the Law of Moses that almost all of them teach: the tithe.
I do not intend to offend, but we do need to be brutally honest with ourselves on this point. Could it be that we have resurrected the tithe as practically the only item of the mosaic law to survive into church practice only because we so desperately need it? If not for the teaching of the tithe, many churches believe that they would not survive financially.
I also noticed that Jesus and the apostles ignore the tithe, even though they do teach about giving. In one passage we have Peter asking Jesus what to do about the temple tax. Jesus answers by asking a question. "From whom do the rulers of men raise taxes, from their own sons, or from others?" "From others," answered Peter. "But so that we don't cause unnecessary offence, go fishing, and in the mouth of the first fish you catch, take the coin and pay your tax and mine."
Now this tax was not part of the tithe, but it is interesting how Jesus related to it. Jesus was being very consistent with his own identity by neglecting to pay the tax for the temple. He himself WAS the only real temple on earth at that moment in time. And apparently Jesus included Peter with himself in saying that such things as religious taxes do not apply to them. This gives us perhaps a first hint about the attitude of Jesus and the apostles towards the financial obligations of the old system. A change was coming, a change based on relationship to the King.
Since I was already asking questions, I was greatly interested to read a book I found by Prof. Dr. Rudolf Edenharder, "Der Zehnte in der Bibel und in Freikirchen," "The Tithe in the Bible and in Free Churches". Dr. Edenharder displays the main verses dealing with the tithe in their true context in a way which makes the question of their validity for today crystal clear.
What follows from this point is a mixture of what I learned from Dr. Edenharder and a few things I learned on my own. As this book has not been translated into English, to my knowledge, it may be a great help to the English speaking world!
The strongest argument that I hear time and again for the tithe is that it is an eternal principle that pre-dates the Law of Moses. While Cain and Abel's sacrifices are sometimes mentioned, they were offerings, not required gifts of food or money, so they don't truly come into question.
What is always pointed to is the tithe that Abraham presented to Melchizedek after returning from the defeat of the 4 kings and their armies who had sacked Sodom and taken Lot captive. Since Abraham paid this tithe to the king of Salem, a non-Israelite priest of the Most High God, then it proves that the tithe was a God-given concept that Abraham was aware of.
But let's look a little closer to what really took place.
What Abraham paid here was 10% of the plunder stolen from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to Dr. Edenharder, it was a pagan custom of the time for victorious armies to give 10% of war plunder to the local deities, whoever they may be. Abraham recovered the loot stolen from the decadent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and took the chance to give the plunder tithe to the one priest in the region who still believed in the true God.
Did you notice what Abraham did not do? Abraham did not pay one cent out of his own income. Abraham did not excuse himself to go home and do an inventory so that he could come back and tithe 10% of all the sheep and goats in his herds. No, the tithe he gave did not even belong to him! It cost him nothing! He was not exhibiting his faith in God to provide for him if he gave. It wasn't his!
In what way does this occurrence validate the tithe in churches today?
The modern tithe is supposedly patterned after the tithe in the Law of Moses, the Torah, yet when we say that we think of 10% of our income being tithed. The true tithe was more like 23%.
In fact, there were 3 tithes.
There is one more thing to pick up on here. I've already mentioned it, but you may not have noticed it. The only people who paid the tithe were farmers.
That's right, the tithe was only required of those who worked the land, either with flocks or with grains, wine, oils or other produce. This is stated explicitly. Hand-workers, construction workers, carpenters(!), smiths and other occupations were exempted from the tithe. The tithe never consisted of money, it only ever consisted of agricultural produce.
The tithe was not a tax to support the institutions, it was food to make the ministry of the Levites and priests possible.
We come now to the passage most often and most poignantly used to drive the point home, that if we do not give the tithe, we are stealing from God. According to most teaching on this text, Malachi 3,8-10, the tithe belongs to God, not to us. If we could only trust him and give the tithe, then he would be able to pour out blessing on us. If we don't, we are in effect robbing God. Let's look at these verses:
"Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How have we robbed you?' In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need."
It seems fairly straight forward. Yet to understand this passage in its context, we have to recognize what was happening behind the scenes.
The scenario referred to is described in Nehemiah 10:37-38; 12:44 and 13:10-13. In Nehemiah we read that while Nehemiah had been away, the priests had commanded the people to bring the entire tithe to them in Jerusalem. There they put it aside for their own profit and use and emptied out the normal storehouses, giving them over to Tobias and other enemies of Nehemiah. As a result the Levites had no stores or food available for their use when they were doing their two week work shift in the temple.
Consequently, the Levites had been forced to return home in order to work and be able to eat, leaving their tasks in the temple undone. After Nehemiah returned and saw what was going on, he had to step in to restore the tithe to its proper place.
Fast forward now to Malachi. The book Malachi is placed at the end of the First Covenant books, but takes place at the same time as these happenings in Nehemiah, probably just before Nehemiah returned from his journey. If you read carefully the first couple of chapters, you will see that most of Malachi is addressed primarily to the priests, not to the people as a whole.
So the group that God is accusing through the prophet of robbing him of the tithes is not the people of Israel, but the priests! Instead of letting the Levites administer the tithe, and pass on to them the tenth of the tenth that was their due, they had stolen the 90% which belonged to the Levites and added it to their 10%. There truly was a robbery taking place!
God's admonition to trust him and test him, to see if he wouldn't open the windows of heaven to bless them if only they restore the right order, is addressed to the religious leaders, not to the people.
Let me address something quick right now, before we go on.
If you read the quote from Malachi 3:9 carefully, you might be protesting right now, "But it says a curse is on the whole nation of you, not on the priests alone!" This translation is perhaps not quite accurate. In reading it in Hebrew, I found it interesting that Malachi didn't say, "am" - the usual word for the people of Israel - but "goy" - as in foreign people, nation, gentiles, a grouping of. He says "the whole nation (grouping) of you." I think in light of whole context it is clear that he is talking to the whole group or people of the priests, not the whole nation of Israel.
Do you see now how this passage has been turned on its head and aimed at the wrong crowd? Instead of being a warning to the religious leaders - in our situation today it would be the pastors and elder board - not to misuse the money and provisions entrusted to them, it is turned on the people and used as a whip to get them to pay the tithe faithfully.
The people had ALREADY paid the tithe. It was already in the storehouses, it had just been misappropriated through corruption into the wrong accounts.
So what? What's wrong with borrowing the concept of tithing from the Old Testament?
What I hope I have made clear so far, is that we cannot call on our people to give 10% of their income while telling them that it is what the Bible says to do. If we have done this in ignorance, truly believing it to be a biblical doctrine, then there is no shame, no sin. I taught this myself for years. But if we recognize that this teaching cannot in all honesty be defended when we read the passages in their context, then we have to let the tithe die a natural death together with the mediator system of the first covenant, the mosaic priesthood.
There would be no problem at all for a church to decide as a group that, although tithing isn't biblical, that it makes sense for their particular group. They could decide to all contribute 10% of their income to support the programs of their church and there would be nothing wrong with it. Where it would be wrong, is if the leadership said that this is what God says to do!
My family and I no longer are part of an institutional church that has a building and pastoral staff and other overhead to pay. We are part of a smaller group of believers that has no need of these things. So this question doesn't come up for us.
But if we were part of a church with pews, podium and steeple, then I know that we would continue to give a significant proportion of our income to that assembly. We would need to, because we had chosen to belong to it and to benefit from its ministries. For as long as we choose to attend any particular church, we should be obligated to do our part to support it financially. This is only right.
So right now I am going to speak sternly to two different groups of people:
Tithing is not a biblical concept for the New Covenant believer. Giving is the biblical concept for us!
It is important for the health of our soul that we give, if and when and to whom and how much Jesus puts on our hearts to give. And our Lord responds to our choices to give. This is why so many of us have great testimonies of what happened in the past when we finally decided to start tithing. The Lord saw our trembling faith, our willingness to risk all in order to do what we believed He wanted from us.
Opening your wallet can free your heart from stinginess, from selfishness, from fear, from being of small faith. Choosing to give more than you can really afford, if and when your Lord - and not a manipulative preacher - asks you to can open new doors in the realm of faith and trust for you. We have seen this happen ourselves many times.
Have you ever thought to ask the question where the believers in the first century gave their money? If find the answer to be very instructive. Here is where they invested their money:
These people gave their money for the advancement of the Kingdom of God through the establishing of new churches by travelling apostles and through intercessory prayer. They gave to the poor regularly because they loved them.
Love was what motivated them. It should be love that motivates us to give, not compulsion because I am told that the money belongs to God and not to me. As we have seen, the original tithe was meant primarily for the upkeep of the sacrificial system and its priests until the Promised One should come. (Galatians 4:1-7 and Hebrews 8). And it was meant to provide for the poor.
If we have learned to live by the one new commandment of the New Covenant, to love each other as Jesus has loved us, then we need no rule to force us to look out for the poor.
You will have to draw your own conclusions about this matter as you seek the Lord yourself. Your obedience should be to him. For me and my house, however, we will do our best to be led by the Spirit as to who to support, and which poor and needy people to help. These should be our priorities. But as I said earlier, for those who choose to be in a large institutional-style church, they also have a responsibility to help carry the financial load.