If you are a Christian, chances are you are somewhat familiar with the concept of tithing. In biblical usage, the word “tithing” simply means a “tenth” or “tenth part.” The idea many promote in Christendom is that Christians are obligated to give (or at least they “should” be giving) ten percent of their income to the institutionalized “Church-organization” in which they attend.
Some churches are at the point of making their members even turn in their tax returns to make sure they are giving enough to the institutionalized Church. Unfortunately, the institutionalized Church, at large, has gained the reputation of taking money instead of giving money. But what does the Bible actually teach?
THE FIRST MENTIONING OF TITHING IN THE BIBLE
The first time the Bible mentions tithing is in the book of Genesis (Gen. 14:20; 28:22). In neither of these passages was a tithe required by God. In fact, both passages refer to Abram and Jacob’s free will actions.
Genesis 14:20 implies that Abram gave a tithe of all of the possessions he had gained, not just monetary (Heb. 7:1-10). Jacob made a pledge with God that if He blessed him then he would give a tenth back to God. Based upon these passages, one can see that tithing was not commanded nor was it a regular religious practice before the Law of Moses.
TITHING AND THE LEVITICAL PRIESTHOOD
The tithe was first given as a requirement under the Levitical law in Lev. 27:30-33. In reality, there were several different required tithes (e.g., Num. 18:20-21; Deut. 12:17-18; 14:28-29). Often times, the tithe was not just limited to money but also included land and other possessions (e.g., 2 Chron. 31:5; Lev. 27:30; etc.). When considering all of the tithes under the Levitical law, it really amounts to roughly 22-24% (See: Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life; Moody Press, p. 86). Interestingly enough, a man could redeem part of his tithed possessions back with money, but if he did so he was required to add an additional 20% to buy them back (Lev. 27:31).
THE PURPOSE OF THE TITHE UNDER THE LEVITICAL LAW
The purpose of the tithe should be seen from more of a Jewish nationalistic standpoint. The reason for the required tithe found in Lev. 27:30-33 was so that the Levitical Priesthood, who had no inheritance, could be supported (Num. 18:20-21, 2 Chron. 31:4-6, 12; Neh. 10:37-39). In return, the Levites were to give a tenth of the tithes they received as a heave offering for God to Aaron (Num. 18:25-29).
When we fast forward to the days when Israel wanted a king, we also see a tax of a tenth being enforced (1 Sam. 8:15). Later in history when the Temple was established, Mal. 3:8-10 shows how many of the Jews were failing to tithe at this time; thus, also failing to provide for the Levitical Priesthood and duties associated with the Temple (e.g., “My house”). There also appears to be a different type of tithe (“second tithe”) that didn’t go exclusively to the Levitical Priesthood, but that also went to help the widow, the orphan, and others in need who were “inside the gates” (i.e., Jews; Deut. 14:29; See also: Deut. 12:5-6, 11, 17-28; 14:22-27).
THE CHANGE OF THE LEVITICAL PRIESTHOOD
When Jesus came to earth, He didn’t destroy the Levitical law, He fulfilled it (Mt 5:17). He fulfilled the law by becoming the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world (Heb. 10:1-18). In doing this, Jesus fulfilled and established His New Covenant (Gal. 2:16). The writer of Hebrews said:
“Then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.’ He takes away the first that He may establish the second” (Heb. 10:9).
In fulfilling the Levitical law and becoming the “once and for all sacrifice” (Heb. 10:10), the Levitical system that had been in place was not needed anymore. Jesus is now the true High Priest (Heb. 4:14-15). This meant that there would no longer be the same physical temple duties. The physical Levitical priesthood would be no more under Jesus’ new system.
“For the priesthood being changed, of necessity, there is also a change of the law” (Heb. 7:12).
This point is vital to understand. If the law that once required a tenth to be paid to the temple system and its priests was no longer in effect, and if there were no temple or temple workers in Christianity, then the temple tax and the tithe was no longer in effect, either.
THE NEW TEMPLE AND PRIESTHOOD
The Bible teaches that Jesus become the sacrifice for our sins and is the High Priest (Heb. 4:14-15). All believers and followers of Christ are considered to be a part of the priesthood. Unlike the Levitical system, there is no more hierarchy where some are part of the priesthood while others are not. We are all now “priests” and “priestesses.” The Bible teaches that, instead of a physical temple, we, as Christians, are now the new temple.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
UNDERSTANDING THE “NEW TEMPLE (THE CHURCH)”
The “church” is not a building or institution. While many of us would readily agree with this in theory, many do not apply this idea. The church/New Testament temple consists of all believers (1 Cor. 12:12ff; Eph. 4:4; Eph 1:22-23). It doesn’t matter the physical location where we worship (Jn. 4:21-24). The lives we live all of the time are to be a continual sacrifice offered to God, not just some actions we perform on Sundays or a few times a week (or year) at a “building.” Paul said:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom. 12:1).
While in America, the church has become a business, such was not the case in the first century (and neither is this the way Jesus designed the church to operate). Many have attempted to adopt a hybrid of sorts combining the Levitical system with the new system Jesus established. It is from and through this framework that the idea of a tithe is established and enforced by many today. However, such an understanding is not consistent with biblical teaching or application.
As we saw earlier, the whole point of a required tithe originated from and developed out of the Levitical system. So, if one understands that the sacrificial system is no more, the physical temple system is no more, and the Levitical priesthood is no more, then on what basis does one have the right to enforce a tithe based upon the Levitical system? They don’t.
HOW THE CHURCH GAVE
The early Christians didn’t have buildings, they didn’t have “sanctuaries,” they didn’t have employed ministers running each “location,” they didn’t have a paid staff, they didn’t have praise groups/song leaders, and they didn’t have the current business model/Church structure in place among many today, including a bank account full of money to go to the “churches expenses.” On the contrary, the early church functioned much differently than many do today, including how they gave and why they gave.
If you could step back into time and go visit a first-century Christian assembly, you would probably think you took a wrong turn. If you told them that they all had to give a tithe “to the church,” then they would probably stare at you with a confused look. For starters, they would have understood “they” were the Church. Therefore, to tell somebody to give “to the church” wouldn’t even make sense to those believers.
Furthermore, while the church gave, they gave much differently. In the New Testament, we have some examples of the various ways in which Christians fulfilled their obligation to give.
- In Acts 2:45 and Acts 4:32-37, individuals sold their possessions and gave to those in need.
- The Jerusalem Christians gave to the needy widows in their area by enacting a daily distribution (Acts 6:1ff).
- Several churches in Galatia, Corinth, and other areas were commanded to participate in a weekly collection for the purpose of helping the needy saints of the Jerusalem, Judea area (Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1-2).
When studying the context of 1 Cor. 16:1-2, one must realize that this was a time sensitive, limited command. First, it was limited in location—it was specifically given to the churches in Galatia, Corinth, and a few others (1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rom. 15:26). This command was not a universal command given to every church. We know this because Paul said that he was going to go and pick up the collection. Paul didn’t travel nor send somebody to every church in the world to pick up a collection for the needy saints; thus, this contribution was never a command for all Christians.
Second, this method of giving was limited in the designation (meaning it had a specific purpose). It was a “certain” contribution (Rom. 15:26) with the purpose being to help the needy in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:22-23; 2 Cor. 8&9; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). They were not taking up this collection for the preacher, the “building,” utilities, or any of their own needs. They were taking up this collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem.
Thirdly, the contribution mentioned in 1 Cor. 16:1-2 was limited in duration (1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8:6, 11). This command was time sensitive. This command was completed in the first century and no passage teaches that it continued thereafter (2 Cor. 8:6, 11; Rom. 15:25-26).
When looking at how the early church gave, we never read of a required “tithe” forced upon Christians. In fact, we don’t ever read of a tithe or specific percentage at all associated with Christians giving in the Bible. Furthermore, tithing is not mentioned in any of the writings of the early “Church Fathers,” even though giving was important to them. What the New Testament does teach us is that when there was a financial need, Christians were willing to join together to meet the need. The Bible teaches to give of our means, to do so cheerfully, and as different opportunities arise (Gal. 6:10; Luke 6:38; etc.).
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
“I am not speaking by way of command, but am proving through the earnestness of others the genuineness of your love also. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ— that for your sakes He became-poor while being rich, in order that you might become rich by the poverty of that One” (2 Cor. 8:8-9).
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PRINCIPLE?
Seeing the absence of the command to tithe, some Christians fallback on principal. They reason that if, under the Levitical system, they gave a tithe, then shouldn’t we do so today? Some have even argued that we should be giving more since we are under a “better covenant” (Heb. 8:6-13). What are we to make of this reasoning?
It one wants to use ten percent as a general guideline for how much they give, then I believe that is perfectly acceptable as long as they realize that is nothing more than a personal choice. This would only become a problem when they begin to enforce that on others or look down upon those who aren’t giving as much as they think they should give or who (or what) they think they should be giving it to.
What about those who argue that we should be giving even more than ten percent since we live under a better covenant?
This is built upon a faulty presupposition that is nowhere in Scripture (i.e., Christians are somehow more financially obligated under the Law of Christ than the Jews were under the Law of Moses. Such is not the case). If a “Church” truly demands more than the tithe under the Law of Moses, then according to the Bible, they should be tithing all they have (not just money), giving two tithes, and making sure that every third year, the second tithe goes to support the strangers, fatherless, and widows in their town. As noted above, this amounts to 22-24%. So, if one wants to argue that Christians should be giving “more” than the Jews under the Law of Moses, then it needs to be more than 22-24%.
Finally, how much more should one be giving? One percent? five percent? thirty percent? Obviously, this philosophy cannot be upheld by Scripture because it begins with a faulty premise and cannot be taught or applied consistently with Scripture.
I was in a conversation with a preacher one time and he told me that, “If we teach this to Christians, then nobody will give.” What a horrible response this is. This misses the fundamental purpose of where the giving is to come from. It is to be done from the heart (2 Cor. 9:7).
I’m not going to paint with a broad-brush stroke and say that every minister who refuses to teach this is doing so because they are fearful of not getting a paycheck. However, I have met many who are terrified when you begin to say that Christians are responsible for giving to who they want to when they want to, and how much they want to. This takes the control out of the “institutionalized Church” and places it within the hands (or should I say heart) of the individual. It is for this reason more churches are trying to “funnel” all giving through their institution.
Which, this becomes very ironic considering that another key ingredient is also missing from all of this. When it comes to cheerful giving, the Bible says that “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:3). For the institutionalized church (or anybody for that matter) to demand that you must pay a specific percentage to a certain cause is to violate God’s Word and to go “beyond the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 4:6). For lack of better words and as respectfully as possible, they need to “keep their hands to themselves” (Mt. 6:3) and “mind their own business” (1 Thess. 4:11-12).
The bottom line is that the New Testament consistently and simply teaches Christians the importance laid upon each individual to give from a cheerful heart and from their own free will when opportunities arise, with no amount or percentage attached (Gal. 6:6, 10; Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-37; 6:1-7; Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 9:14; 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9; Ja. 1:27; etc.).
– Kevin Pendergrass
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