Tithing is a touchy topic! While some Christians believe they are governed by a rigid rule which dictates that they give one-tenth of their income to Christian causes, and others take a more flexible approach, many have never seriously considered the Bible’s teaching on the subject.
The key text is said to be one which records God saying, ‘Bring the full tithes into the storehouse’ (Malachi 3:10), but this is a narrowly-focused snapshot.
The full picture becomes clearer when we look at what the Bible says about tithing before the Old Covenant was instituted, during that covenant’s lifetime, and after it was replaced by the New Covenant.
Before the law
There are only two references to tithing before the Mosaic law was established. One is in Genesis 14:17-20, when Abraham (then called Abram) won a military battle and chose to give one-tenth of the spoils of war (not of his own possessions or regular income) to a king called Melchizedek, who as ‘priest of God Most High’ had pronounced God’s blessing on the patriarch.
The second is in Genesis 28:20-22, when, after an amazing experience of God’s presence, Jacob vowed to give ‘a full tenth’ of all that God would provide for him in the future.
Like Abraham, Jacob was under no obligation to do this. His gift was a voluntary and spontaneous thank-offering in response to God’s goodness.
Under the law
Under the Mosaic law, tithing was part of an elaborate system spelled out in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
In an agricultural setting, tithing involved livestock, grain, wine, oil and other products. Probably on a yearly basis, the tithe was to be shared with the Levites, the only tribe that had no inheritance in the land of Canaan, and they in turn were to give one-tenth of what they received to the priests (Numbers 18:20-28).
In addition, another tithe of people’s produce was to provide for an annual religious festival in Jerusalem. Those living far away from the city could sell their produce, bring the money to Jerusalem, and there spend it on food and drink for the festival, which was a time of celebrating God’s goodness to them (Deuteronomy 14:22-27).
Every third year, yet another tithe was to be used for the benefit of ‘the Levite … the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns’ (Deuteronomy 14:29).
Israel was both a spiritual community and a theocratic nation under God’s direct rule, with priests as the nation’s leaders. These three tithes (the Levite, the Festival and what we could call the Social Welfare tithes) were, in effect, taxes levied to support both church and state.
It has been calculated that when other stipulated offerings and taxes are added — Malachi calls them ‘contributions’(3:8) — the average Israelite might give over thirty per cent of his income. Christians who believe this is a strict rule for today may be pretty thin on the ground!
The New Covenant
Tithing in the New Testament has to be seen in two different periods, because during Jesus’ lifetime all the Mosaic law was still in place.
This explains why Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21), dedicated in the temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-32), attended the major religious festivals there (e.g. John 2:13; 5:1), paid the half-shekel temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27); and did not stop Pharisees from tithing (Matthew 23:23).
The situation changed radically after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, because he was ‘the mediator of a new covenant’ (Hebrews 9:15), also referred to as ‘a better covenant’ (Hebrews 7:22).
The Old Covenant sacrificial system had served its purpose and had been replaced by Jesus, who in his death ‘put away sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (Hebrews 9:26). As the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in AD 70, it is obvious that from then it could no longer be the designated place for the nation’s corporate worship, as it was under the Old Covenant.
Nor did believers need priests to act as intercessors, as believers now all formed ‘a holy priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9). The word ‘tithe’ does not appear in the New Testament after Jesus’ ascension; and the giving of one-tenth is mentioned only in Hebrews 7:1-9, when the writer refers back to Melchizedek and to the priests receiving tithes from the Levites.
What is the position today? Believers are directed to be baptised, join a church, pray, study God’s Word, witness and live in a way ‘worthy of the gospel of Christ’ (Philippians 1:27), but nowhere are they commanded to give at least ten per cent of their financial income or resources to Christian causes.
Those who insist that this remains a legal requirement should logically also insist on obedience to Old Covenant inheritance laws and those mandating animal sacrifices and circumcision.
They should comply with laws that forbid eating pork or shellfish and others that give specific instructions about slavery, money lending, the payment of employees, the valuation of property, sheep shearing and eating fruit — to say nothing of burnt offerings, drink offerings, grain offerings, heave offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, trespass offerings and wave offerings.
They should also insist on visiting Jerusalem three times a year and never travel more than five-eighths of a mile on the Sabbath.
Yet this kind of response would deny the glorious truth that, in terms of getting right with God and living in a way that is pleasing to him, believers are ‘not under law, but under grace’ (Romans 6:14).
When the people of Malachi’s day failed to keep their covenant obligations, they were ‘cursed with a curse’ (3:9). Believers are under no such threat today, because ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Galatians 3:13).
The command ‘bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house’; the invitation ‘put me to the test’; and the promise to ‘open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need’ (3:10), all fit Israel’s situation perfectly.
If they repented and tithed as required, God would send sufficient rain to guarantee abundant harvests and also prevent the ‘devourer’ (locust) from destroying ‘the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field’ (3:11).
Malachi’s teaching on tithing says nothing about money, but today many television preachers and other ‘peddlers of God’s word’ (2 Corinthians 2:17) use what he has to say as a bargaining chip.
They tell their hearers that, if they sow ‘seed faith’ (by sending money to the preacher’s ministry or giving to their church), God will reward them with riches that will clear their debts, repay their mortgages and meet all their other financial needs.
This slanderous nonsense has no biblical basis. Believers should be motivated not by the potential for personal gain, but by ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The New Testament gives two particular guidelines for Christian giving.
It is to be done freely and willingly
‘Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or grudgingly, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). Although Christian giving is not an option but an obligation, there is no compulsion here as to the amount to be given.
As Christians are free to give whatever they choose, this cannot be a legal percentage, as was the Old Testament tithe. The Greek word translated ‘cheerful’ is hilaros, the root of our English word ‘hilarious’.
This reflects the Old Testament proverb, ‘Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed’ (Proverbs 22:9), where the word ‘bountiful’ means ‘good’. The picture suggests someone with a gleam in his eye as he gives, because it is something he loves doing.
The nineteenth century American theologian Charles Hodge went so far as to say, ‘Unless we feel it is an honour and a joy to give, God does not honour the offering’.
It is to be done regularly and proportionately
In raising funds for hard-pressed believers in Jerusalem, Paul told church members at Corinth, ‘On the first day of the week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come’ (1 Corinthians 16:2).
As this passage is about an emergency relief fund, it is not a perfectly detailed template for the practice of taking up weekly offerings in church (and many churches make other arrangements), but it does point to some important principles.
Truly Christian giving is a response to God’s gift of salvation, and as churches meet ‘on the first day of the week’ their services present an obvious and appropriate opportunity to make financial gifts as part of a corporate act of worship.
In addition, the givers — ‘each of you’ — can join with other worshippers in thanking God for his gracious provision of their own needs and in praying for his blessing on their gifts.
Although the New Testament nowhere directs believers to give a tithe of their income to God’s work, no right-thinking Christian will use this as an escape clause and an excuse to be tight-fisted.
The American preacher, James Montgomery Boice, points out that New Testament obligations are generally greater, not less, than those under Old Testament legislation and goes so far as to say, ‘So while we are not required to give a specific tenth of our income, it is hard to think of a normal Christian, blessed with the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, doing less. Under reasonable circumstances any true believer should give more than the tenth, for all we have is the Lord’s’.
Key words in what Boice says are ‘under reasonable circumstances’. Some Christians are so hard-pressed financially that they may be able to afford only a tiny proportion of their income for God’s work; others could comfortably give one-tenth of what they earn; and there are others who could give even more without feeling the pinch.
The guideline in 1 Corinthians 16:2 is ‘as he may prosper’. This takes into account any changes in a person’s financial situation, including unemployment, redundancy and retirement on the one hand, and promotion or some other increase in income on the other.
The Bible is totally realistic about this: ‘If the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have’ (2 Corinthians 8:12). Nothing could be clearer.
Regular giving in a church will be used in part to maintain that church’s ministry and, in particular, will include the honourable support of those ‘who labour in preaching and teaching’ (1 Timothy 5:17).
Beyond that, both for individuals and churches, there is open-ended scope for giving to support missionaries and biblically sound para-church ministries, as well as to help the poor and those suffering as the result of war, natural disasters and man’s inhumanity to man.
It is a matter of individual conscience, not law, as to how believers’ total giving should be divided, though this does not give us warrant to ignore the abiding value of the law of Moses as a guide to godly living.
Writing in the September 2011 issue of Evangelical Times, my close friend and fellow preacher Peter Anderson asks a highly relevant question: ‘Surely genuine love for the Lord should find expression in faithful stewardship? You cannot serve God and money, but you can serve God with money. How you respond is a significant indication of your Christian discipleship’.
Ways and means
In practice, today’s believers can give to Christian causes in many ways, including by the internet, by bank standing order and by making use of government concessions (such as gift aid in the United Kingdom).
The all-important principle is that a Christian’s giving should be regular and proportionate, not spasmodic and unrelated to the Christian’s own means.
Quite apart from regular giving, there are times when an emergency or a special project calls for additional funds. For one particular Old Testament project, people gave so generously that Moses had to stop them giving any more (Exodus 36:1-7)!
Paul wrote of believers who at a time of special need gave ‘according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will’ (2 Corinthians 8:3).
Nobody is called upon to deny their family members’ basic necessities or to run into debt, but there are times when special needs call for special action and Christians should seek God’s guidance in how to respond.
My own testimony may be an encouragement to some. Back in the 1960s, when an earnest Christian friend in Guernsey pressed my then fiancée Joyce and I on the subject of tithing, we took his simplistic line and each began to give one-tenth of our gross income to Christian causes, and when we got married we tithed our joint income.
The accounts for our first month as a married couple include these two entries: ‘Two salaries £73.12.3d … tithe £7.6.0d’. Even when raising five sons on what would be considered a shoestring by many, we were enabled to keep giving at least the same proportion, treating it as a floor, not as a ceiling.
When we grew in our knowledge of Scripture and discovered that we were not legally bound to do this, we saw no reason for cutting back and, throughout even the most difficult of years, we found that God unfailingly supplied all our needs, ‘according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19).
This article is edited from the author’s book Major points from the Minor Prophets (EP Books; 288 pages, £9.99; ISBN: 9780852347829).