This post began as a letter to a visiting speaker at a conference I attended.
He began on the first morning by speaking of the tithe as an obligation on Christians. I do not find any such obligation in the scripture. As most teachers do who teach tithing, he quoted Malachi 3. Verses 8-10 say,
“Will 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 tithes 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.”
But what are these tithes and contributions? First of all, they are an obligation of the Mosaic law. Every passage requiring people to pay a tithe is from Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and relate to the national life of Israel and the system of the temple in Jerusalem and the Levites in the towns of Israel. We are not entitled to invent a law for the church which is not even found in the law of Moses!
Next, the tithe is only of agricultural produce:
“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD's; it is holy to the LORD. If a man wishes to redeem some of his tithe, he shall add a fifth to it. And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman's staff, shall be holy to the LORD. One shall not differentiate between good or bad, neither shall he make a substitute for it; and if he does substitute for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.” Lev 27:30-33
There is no mention of the earnings of labourers, nor of merchants nor craftsmen. One may suppose that they chose to give to the temple, like the widow whom Jesus commended for her giving of two mites which was “all her living” (Luke 21:1-4). But this was her free-will contribution, not an obligation. The tithe was paid from the produce of the land of Israel, which is God's land (Lev 21:23).
The Levitical priests were entitled to a share of all the offerings and the firstfruits:
Then the LORD spoke to Aaron, “Behold, I have given you charge of the contributions made to me, all the consecrated things of the people of Israel. I have given them to you as a portion and to your sons as a perpetual due. This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs, every grain offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs and every guilt offering of theirs, which they render to me, shall be most holy to you and to your sons. In a most holy place shall you eat it. Every male may eat it; it is holy to you. This also is yours: the contribution of their gift, all the wave offerings of the people of Israel. I have given them to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it. All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the firstfruits of what they give to the LORD, I give to you. The first ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours. Everything that opens the womb of all flesh, whether man or beast, which they offer to the LORD, shall be yours. Nevertheless, the firstborn of man you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar and shall burn their fat as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. But their flesh shall be yours, as the breast that is waved and as the right thigh are yours. All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the LORD I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and for your offspring with you.” And the LORD said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel. Numbers 18:8-20
The Levites too had their specified contribution, which was Israel's tithe:
“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.” Numbers 18:21-32
Note that what the Levites received was to be counted as if it were agricultural produce from their own inheritance in the land of Israel, and so they had to tithe from it to the priests:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. So you shall also present a contribution to the LORD from all your tithes, which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the LORD's contribution to Aaron the priest. Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the LORD; from each its best part is to be dedicated.’ Therefore you shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be counted to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the winepress. And you may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. And you shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have contributed the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, lest you die.’”
But in Deuteronomy we see that the tithe for the Levites was in fact the tithe of every third year, and the rest was to be used for the tithers themselves to eat or drink before the Lord in Jerusalem. The third of the tithe for the Levite was also for the poor: the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow:
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you. “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. Deuteronomy 14:22-29
Again:“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled, then you shall say before the LORD your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the LORD my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ Deuteronomy 26:12-15
Amos rebuked Israel for paying the tithe with evil hearts, but the passage also shows that the tithe was in every third year:
“Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning your tithes every third year; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord GOD. Amos 4:3-4
Under the kingdom, we see again that the tithe was of agricultural produce, and that faithful paying of it brought blessing to the land:
The contribution of the king from his own possessions was for the burnt offerings: the burnt offerings of morning and evening, and the burnt offerings for the Sabbaths, the new moons, and the appointed feasts, as it is written in the Law of the LORD. And he commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, that they might give themselves to the Law of the LORD. As soon as the command was spread abroad, the people of Israel gave in abundance the firstfruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field. And they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. And the people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been dedicated to the LORD their God, and laid them in heaps. In the third month they began to pile up the heaps, and finished them in the seventh month. When Hezekiah and the princes came and saw the heaps, they blessed the LORD and his people Israel. And Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps. Azariah the chief priest, who was of the house of Zadok, answered him, “Since they began to bring the contributions into the house of the LORD, we have eaten and had enough and have plenty left, for the LORD has blessed his people, so that we have this large amount left.” 2 Chronicles 31:3-10
The conclusion from these passages is that the tithe was an obligation on those who cultivated the land of Israel, and was designed for the support of the Levites and priests and of the poor. The priests also benefited from their share of the sacrificial offerings of the people.
There is no mention of any such system for the church!
The New Testament speaks of giving for two purposes, the relief of the poor, especially of brothers in Christ, and the support of teachers and elders. Our information comes almost entirely from Paul, who prided himself on never making any demands of the churches to which he was ministering, preferring to depend on support from elsewhere, or on the work of his own hands. (1 Cor 9:15)
Since we have seen that the tithe was made from the agricultural produce of the land of Israel, it is in fact impossible for the system to apply to the church living outside Israel. Does the New Testament impose any equivalent obligation? No. There is no mention of any such thing.
First of all, when the Judaizers attempted to impose circumcision and the obligations of the Mosaic law on the Gentiles, the council of the apostles and elders and the Jerusalem church and the representatives from Antioch decided, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that God was not imposing any such burden on the Gentiles. The only demands made on them were to keep from things strangled and from blood, from sexual immorality and from idols. If there was any obligation on them, deriving from the Mosaic law, to pay a tithe, this is where it should have been stated.
Second, the only command about tithing in all the New Testament is when Jesus said of the Pharisees that they tithed mint and dill and cumin, but neglected the weightier matters of the law. (Matt 23:23) If tithing were an important principle for the church, it would be mentioned in the New Testament. The church is not Israel and the laws for Israel do not apply (as such) to the church.
In fact, we know that not only we Gentiles but all believers are dead to the demands of the law (Romans 7:4-6), for which reason there is no obligation on the church to tithe, any more than there is to keep the sabbath or the laws of ritual purity.
So what demands are made of believers? First, we have an obligation to support other believers who are in need. That is the point of the contributions that Paul organised for believers in Judaea (Acts 11:27-30; 12:25; 2 Cor 8-9).
2 Corinthians 8:10-15 So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”
2 Corinthians 9:6-15 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction. The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Even here, Paul does not state an obligation but rather encourages a desire to help. If we should want to support those who are far away, how much more should we want to support those who live nearby and are in need. This is so obvious that the scripture does not need to state it, except under the general heading of remembering the poor. (Galatians 2:10) The principle here is not of giving a tenth, but of equality between people who are all relatively poor. (2 Cor 8:12-15) Allowing for the greater demands on us in the West, with taxation and obligatory expenditure, that suggests a much greater target for wealthy believers than a tenth, or maybe even a half. On the other hand, those who are poor are not expected to be burdened with legalistic demands for a tenth of their income, when they already may have trouble feeding their families. It does no honour to God for his poorer people to be subjected to demands from churches for a tenth of an inadequate income, in order to pay for pastors' luxury cars; but this is common in Nigeria, for example, and in other countries infected by the American prosperity gospel.
The other obligation of believers is to share all good things with someone who teaches them the word:
Galatians 6:6-10 One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
It is also clear that those who work for the gospel are entitled to support.
1 Corinthians 9:4-15 Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the ploughman should plough in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
However this is not a tithe to be imposed on every believer. Again I must emphasise that the New Testament knows no such thing. God wants his people to give out of the love in their hearts for their elders, for their brothers and for the poor whom God loves; he does not want people giving out a sense of duty. There is a reason why English has a saying, “as cold as charity”. Of course, God does indeed promise to bless those who give, but here we come back to the manner in which the speaker asked for money. Although his words said the opposite, and he spoke of giving only what God told you, he was working up a sense of guilt in order to manipulate people into giving. This is wrong!