TITHE? GIVE? — WHAT SHOULD I DO?
by Sandy Fiedler
A compliant lady in her eighties recounts a story from the early days of her marriage. "We didn’t have much money, don’t you know, and I was worried about something. I told my husband that I understood that we must tithe, but I wanted to save a little money, so I thought we should tithe from our net income. My husband thought we should tithe from our gross.
"We went to the pastor and asked him to tell us what was right. He assured us that we should tithe off our gross. So we did. I didn’t like it much, but we did it from then on."
How did the pastor justify his assertion that the tithe should be given from the gross? Where is the scriptural basis for us in our time and culture? How did he justify requiring a tithe at all?
In evangelical churches, generally, pastors are teaching members to give a tenth, or a tithe, of their income to the church and to give offerings above the tithe to special causes within the church or wherever they want to. To give a tithe is expected, taken for granted in passing references. This belief crosses denominational barriers and travels well in independent and charismatic churches. It is one thing they can all agree on. In requiring and depending on the tithe from a certain percentage of members, church boards can figure their budgets, just like the businesses of the world do.
But is it scriptural? Let’s examine the scriptures most commonly used to validate the doctrine of tithing.
The OldTestament Tithe and Its Purpose
The first mention of the word "tithe" is when Abram meets Melchizedek, the King of Salem or King of Righteousness, who brought out bread and wine (a type of Christ’s body and blood?). He was the priest of the Most High God. He blessed Abram by God Most High, possessor and maker of heaven and earth. Melchizedek’s priesthood has no beginning or end (Heb. 7:1).(More on Hebrews chapters 7-8 later.) Speculation has it that Melchizedek could have been a theophany, an appearance of Christ on earth in bodily form, or possibly a highly respected human king. Abram responds by volunteering a tithe of the spoils of battle, vowing not to take anything for himself (Gen. 14: 20-24). It is crucial to remember that this took place about 2100 BC, long before the Levitical priesthood was established in Moses’ time about 1500 BC.
Lev. 27:30-32—Institution of theTithe in Mosaic Law
The tithe is next mentioned in Lev. 27:30-32. The book of Leviticus is a handbook of rules for the priesthood. Among the laws that describe the burnt offering, the grain offering, dietary rules, ritual cleansings after childbirth, treatment of leprosy and slavery, the feasts, and the year of jubilee, there is instruction to give a tithe of the land and of the flocks. It is the last thing listed and it is not emphasized more than the rest.
The tithe established at the time of Moses was originally a tenth of the produce of the earth set apart for special purposes. It was not money, but goods. There were provisions for redeeming tithes of goods for money when warranted. Levitical law, according to one source, required a Jew to pay not one but three tithes of his property: one for the Levites (who had no inheritance in the land), one for the temple and feasts, and one for the poor.
Num. 18:21-28—Further Explanation of the Levitical Priesthood
The purpose of the tithe is illustrated in Num. 18:20-21. "The Lord said to Aaron, "You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites. I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting." The tithe fed them and their families.
When the Levites received the tithe, they were to set aside the best portion of the tithe or gift for God and give this tithe of the tithe to the High Priest Aaron and his family for their necessary food and drink.
Deut. 14:22-29—The Annual Tithe
Every year Israel was to take a tithe of the increase of that which was sown. In the presence of God in the place He had chosen to give his name a home, they were to eat the tithe of the corn, wine, oil and the firstborn of the herds and flocks. If the place God had chosen was too far for some to travel with their bundles of goods and their livestock, they could turn the tithe into money and go to the place of God’s presence and there spend the money for whatever they desired to eat or drink. They were to rejoice with their household, always including the Levites who lived in their cities. As you can see, the annual tithe was a collective consumption of good things that God had blessed them with during the year. Who consumed it? The people who brought it. (You probably never heard a sermon on this chapter.)
Deut. 26:12-19—Third-Year Tithe
God commanded Israel to give all the third-year tithe of the increase to the Levites, the strangers, the orphans and widows. When they had eaten, the tither would make a declaration that he had given all that had been consecrated to God. He would ask God to bless Israel and the land.
Laws concerning the tithes are confusing to the modern reader, but the important question for us is this: Why do we pull that one point of the laws concerning the priesthood out of all the rest and apply it to today? We shall investigate further.
The Often-Used Malachi 3:10-11 (374 BC)
"‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’" (Mal. 3:10)
This passage from the last book of the Old Testament is taken from a longer chastisement of Israel because their hearts had grown cold toward God. God’s word to Israel was that even as their fathers had done, they, too, had turned away from his ordinances. The animals they brought to the temple were stolen, lame, or sick. They were to return to God and He would return to them. One way to return was to bring all the withheld tithes and offerings to the storehouse in the temple. As usual God promised a blessing for their obedience. In this short book God is reiterating His original instructions given to Moses.
New Testament Teachings
Matt: 23:23—Pharisees and Tithing
The New Testament has little to say about the tithe, but when it speaks of it, it is in reference to the old covenant tithe. Because so little is said, preachers often have to fall back on the best New Testament reference they can find. Let’s take a look at it.
Matt. 23:23 is used to justify the tithe because in it the word "tithe" passed Jesus’ lips; however, look at how He is addressing the Pharisees. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." (Matt. 23:23-24)
Jesus is condemning the religious leaders in the strongest language. He calls them hypocrites, devourers of widows houses, sons of hell, blind guides, fools and blind, whitewashed tombs, serpents, brood of vipers. He accuses them of taking power over others, wanting fame and recognition, being murderers of prophets, engaging in extortion and self-indulgence, hypocrisy and lawlessness. Jesus sounds like an Old Testament prophet. He has nothing good to say to them. Surely in the midst of this tirade and sweeping condemnation, he is not giving instruction to his followers about tithing. The example of the Pharisees clearly demonstrates that people can tithe and be evil—then and now.
John Wesley's sermon "Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount" points out that Jesus confronted his followers with these words: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:20) Did Jesus mean that to become righteous we ought to exceed the two tithes (one-fifth) the Pharisees gave, one to God and one to the poor? No, Wesley explains, Jesus meant that their legalistic giving did not work real righteousness for them at all.
Wesley goes on to say that righteousness for the Pharisee was of the external man, while righteousness for the Christian is in the internal man, the attitude of the heart. Indeed, for Christians, 100 percent of our money, time, and goods belongs to Him anyway, not a measured amount.
Jesus plainly taught His followers to help the poor. John Wesley states, "Fall not short of a Pharisee in doing good. Give alms of all thou dost possess. Is any hungry? Feed him. Is he athirst? Give him drink. Naked? Cover him with a garment. If thou hast this world's goods, do not limit thy beneficence to a scanty proportion. Be merciful to the uttermost of thy power."
In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20), Jesus compels his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Where did Jesus command the disciples to teach tithing?
Jesus knew that the Levitical system was on its way out. The system couldn’t be reformed. It had to be done away with. He came to reform men, not the system. Tithing had been instituted when there was a need—when the priesthood came into being. It was dissolved when the priesthood was dissolved along with the rest of the ceremonial laws, the burnt offerings, the grain offering, dietary rules, ritual cleansings after childbirth, laws concerning leprosy and slavery, the feasts, and the year of jubilee. In Matthew 24, Jesus looks over Jerusalem and to his disciples rightly predicts the imminent and horrific destruction of Jerusalem including the Temple. This was fulfilled in 70 AD. Everything was gone. All rituals. A new covenant was born.
What Does Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, Say About the Tithe?
In all his letters to the churches that comprise so much of the New Testament, Paul doesn’t mention it, not once.
Is Paul the author of Hebrews? His authorship can only be assumed, not verified. Even so, following is an examination of the references to tithing in Hebrews that show that the author is not teaching tithing to the Christian Hebrews, but rather explaining the differences between the old and new covenants.
Hebrews Chapters 7-8—Explanation of the Law of God and the
Priesthood, Comparing the Old Covenant with the New Covenant
Let us clarify what is meant when we speak of God’s law. By This Standard by Greg L. Bahnsen states, "The most fundamental distinction to be drawn between Old Testament laws is between moral laws and ceremonial laws. … Moral laws reflect the absolute righteousness and judgment of God, guiding man’s life into the paths of righteousness; such laws define holiness and sin, restrain evil through punishment of infractions, and drive the sinner to Christ for salvation." (Emphasis his.) Obviously, God’s moral laws describing man’s attitude toward God and fellow man remain intact, e.g., the Ten Commandments.
Ceremonial laws have two divisions according to Bahnsen: "(1) laws directing the redemptive process and therefore typifying Christ—for instance, regulations for sacrifice, the temple, the priesthood, etc., and (2) laws which taught the redemptive community its separation from the unbelieving nations—for instance, prohibitions on unclean meats…." (Emphases his.) He adds that none of these laws are valid today for the church. The ceremonial portion that was simply a shadow of the Messiah to come has now been fulfilled through the reality of the life of Christ, while the ceremonial laws that separated the Hebrews from the Gentiles are abolished because all who will of any lineage may now be redeemed.
While the specific laws have been abolished, the principles of the ceremonial laws remain. For example, under the new covenant there still is a blood sacrifice for sin, namely, Jesus’ shedding His blood on the cross. In addition, the High Priest of the Levitical order has been replaced by Jesus who has taken his rightful place as our High Priest. Likewise, we are to be separated from the world, not by what we eat, but by our holy lives.
In Hebrews, the author is teaching Hebrew readers the revolutionary change in the priesthood. Hebrews 7:11-12 says, "Now if perfection [that is, a perfect fellowship between God and the worshipper,] had been attainable by the Levitical priesthood, for under it the people were given the Law, why was it further necessary that there should arise another and different kind of Priest, one after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one appointed after the order and rank of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is of necessity an alteration of the law [concerning the priesthood] as well." (Amplified Bible) Furthermore, the ceremonial laws were "imposed until a time of reformation." (Heb. 9:10) It follows that if there is a change in the priesthood and the laws concerning it, then the tithe, being one such law, is also changed. However, the principle of the tithe remains—the principle of giving to the work of God and to the poor.
Hebrews 7 explains that the new priesthood is after the order of Melchizedek, who was not a Levite. Unlike the Levites, there is no record of his lineage. Psalm 110:4 says that Jesus would be after the order of the spiritual lineage of Melchizedek. Further contrasting Jesus with the Levites, Christ, our High Priest, sprang from tribe of Judah, not Levi, thus showing that Jesus’s claim to the priesthood is not external of bloodline, but of spirit.
By giving the free-will tithe, Abraham was acknowledging Melchizedek as being higher spiritual order. The higher (Melchizedek, a type of Christ) blesses the lower, Levi. Priesthood under the law was not able to bring the worshipper to perfection. Why? Because Adam and his seed are dead spiritually. Perfection must be spiritual (Jesus); it cannot be flesh (Levites). The law was canceled because of weakness.
Hebrews 8 continues the explanation. Jesus is the better hope. Therefore, we have a better covenant than ever before and it behooves us as modern Christians to find out what it is, and what our participation and obedience are. Trying to go back and recapture one point of the Levitical law is an affront to the sacrifice Jesus made.
Hebrews 8:10 quotes Jeremiah who was anticipating the fulfillment of the shadow of the old covenant through the coming reality of Jesus. "I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people." The way of redemption is written on the hearts of believers. He is speaking of those born again, not of flesh and blood, but of the spirit. He clinches it in verse 13: "In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away."—and with it the priesthood and the need to support the priest. This brings us to examine a common belief held among Christians today.
Is the Pastor/Preacher/Evangelist/ Televangelist/Christian Musician
Equivalent to the Levitical Priest?
To examine those in ministry, let’s use the example of the role of pastor. Nowhere in the New Testament are pastors equated with Levitical priests. Unlike priests, pastors were not forbidden to have land, businesses, or to labor in the marketplace. Paul the evangelist worked as a tent-maker where he could as he traveled spreading the gospel. The pastor in the New Testament is just like everybody else except for his calling as shepherd.
Restoring the Early Church by Mike and Sue Dowgiewicz explains how the early church conducted itself. When the authors visited a kehilat or congregation in Jerusalem based on the early church type, at first they were at a loss to understand who the pastor was. Because so many from the body were participating in testimonies, songs, readings, no one person appeared to be the pastor in the sense that we understand from our American tradition. In fact, they note that of the thousands of documents from the early church period, there are no mentions of clergy, pastor, priest, or minister.
"No heirarchical positions of authority had been established in their synagogues, and none were needed in the infant Church," the Dowgiewiczes write. Jesus pointed out that in the Gentile system, rulers lord over others, "Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave." (Matt. 20:26-27)
Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-4 show that elders, men who were already known as mature, nurturing, proven, reliable, were to pastor or shepherd local congregations. Participants were no longer separated by lineage.
Restoring the Early Church explains that the "Gentile church writers of the third century had begun to interpret the Bible in light of the prevailing Roman Empire government system that they were in the process of adopting…. The gift of pastor developed into ‘clergy,’ vested with ecclesiastical and regulatory power that totally contradicted the servant leadership system of the New Testament. If today’s Christians are honest, the biblical gift of pastor is no longer viewed as a spiritual gift but as a paid professional occupation like the vocations of the world."
The church adopted the Roman Empire form of government reflected in the Roman Catholic Church whose edifices and influences we see even now. It also adopted the impersonal oratory style of the Greeks, a model we still have today when the pastor stands before the congregation to deliver his oration to a passive audience—all foreign to the disciples and early Christians who were accustomed to small intimate interactive groups led informally by elders in private homes.
The five divisions of leadership in the church as given by God were apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers to equip and perfect the saints (Eph. 4:11). They were chosen from among the body of believers to function in their calling from God according to their ability, not their lineage. Can you see any priesthood in the early church to whom a tithe should be given? There is none.
Is the Church Building Equivalent to the Temple?
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, no other temple was or should be built. It was integral to the old covenant but had to be destroyed when the new covenant was established. In the New Testament, where is the instruction to build a building for the church body, much less fellowship halls and kitchens?
Believers are the living temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are." (I Cor. 3:16) To rebuild the Jerusalem temple or to claim that the church building is the new temple of God is to dishonor God and what Jesus did.
I Peter 2:5 says, "you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." This new concept was revolutionary to Jewish readers—no temple, no animal sacrifices.
What Is the Current Teaching?
The tithing teaching seems to be relatively new and is seen in fundamental and evangelical Protestant churches. Just who went back and began applying this one Levitical point is not clear. The popular teaching provides a safe, predictable way for churches to manage their business. Isn’t this the economic system of the world? Churches today love to have successful businessmen on their financial committees, but are they looking at the men’s faith and maturity in God?
Although this article is about tithing, a popular teaching that piggybacks off tithing could be addressed here because of its pervasiveness especially in media "ministries." The Word of Faith movement teaches that people are to "give to get." The vast majority of sermons by Word of Faith teachers is on money and they claim that God wants all Christians to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. Is this really the message of the Bible, or are they reading their presupposition into every verse they see?
If fact, some preachers today go so far as to teach that if you have serious financial problems, a rebellious child, or a troubled marriage, it has come upon you because you have not been faithful in your tithes and offerings. If you straighten that out immediately, they instruct, God will stop punishing you and everything will become smooth. This is like buying God’s favor, a pagan concept.
There is only sparse anecdotal proof of that giving to get works to the extent that they claim. If it worked like they say, there should be droves of people proudly holding up their financial records to show that they have become permanently wealthy. Where are the charts and graphs to demonstrate the effectiveness of the teaching? To demonstrate a material truth ought to be easy.
In reality, the ones who benefit most from the "prosperity teaching" are the "preachers" of it for two reasons:
1. They can appeal to the greed of a mass audience. If a man can only appeal to a small local non-media congregation and the prosperity message is all he preaches, the congregation would soon look around and see that it doesn’t work like he says. In the vast TV audience, however, we somehow think that there are people out there who are getting rich, but that we just haven’t met them. It is an illusion. And in such a huge market, there are enough new buyers of the prosperity product everyday who send in money that the purveyors of it never run out of customers.
2. That vast audience is in present-day America, a culture so prosperous that it is an anomaly in the world’s history. Would the prosperity doctrine work in rural Mexico or the Sudan?
Detriments of the Tithe Teaching
- The church’s tithe teaching can cause tithers to have an erroneous feeling of self-satisfaction, a feeling that they have "paid the bill" and placated God. This can become akin to a superstitious practice of "pleasing of the gods" we see in pagan cultures. Are tithers in some cases even attempting to buy their way into heaven? Wouldn’t this be the same as buying spiritual favor by purchasing indulgences? This practice was soundly condemned in Martin Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses."
- Mal. 3:8 says, "’Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.’ But you ask, "How do we rob you?" ‘In tithes and offerings….’" This verse is used prior to the passing of the offering plate in many church services to coax the congregation to get out their wallets. But, contrary to the meaning of the verse under the old covenant to which it refers, today people ARE robbing God, not of tithes, but of proper New Testament giving to the work of God and to the poor. Didn’t Jesus say that a cup of water given in His name is given unto Him? When people "pay their bill" to the church, they aren’t as apt to give that cup of water, or $20 to a needy person around them in Jesus’ name. Therefore, they have robbed God by neglecting opportunities to minister to Him in the form of the poor. People write out tithe checks in a dogged, joyless manner as if in bondage. They, too, are robbed. They are robbed of the joy of giving to real needs they can see with their own eyes.
- Tithing can cause an undue financial burden on givers. Young families with children often are living hand to mouth anyway. So are many single parents, college students, and the elderly. They themselves are actually the poor who need help occasionally, yet by sitting in the church, they are told that they must give up ten percent to a church that often is wealthy.
- This brings us to the next point. It is not uncommon today for the incomes of churches (some of whom teach tithing and some of whom don’t), especially large ones in America, to have such enormous incomes that they have investment portfolios. They hire experts to help them manage their funds to make it grow. Why? So they can give to missions or the poor? So they can build more buildings, gyms, bowling alleys, climbing walls? So they can have huge paid staffs? Daycare centers? What WOULD Jesus do? Would He build any buildings at all? The kingdom of God has nothing to do with buildings. The early church grew by great leaps without buildings. "The kingdom of God is not meat or drink." (Rom. 14:17) The kingdom of God is people.
What Does God Expect?
The New Testament guidelines for giving are clear and beautiful. Jesus says, "Give and it shall be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Luke 6:38) Clearly, Jesus (in the context) is teaching about giving with the proper attitude of love according to one’s own decision, not tithing a measured amount. When He says "it shall be given to you," is Jesus promising that wealth will be returned to his hearers? Or needs met? The law of reciprocity is built into the system, whether it is kindness, love, help, or finances.
Speaking of giving, Paul says, "It is quite superfluous that I should write you; for I am well acquainted with your willingness [to give]." He doesn’t pressure, browbeat, or tell them to tithe. Referring to the offering that was being taken up for the needy saints in Jerusalem, Paul writes
Let each one [give] as he has made up his own mind and purposed in his heart, not reluctantly or sorrowfully or under compulsion, for God loves (that is, He takes pleasure in, prizes above other things, and is unwilling to abandon or to do without) a cheerful (joyous, prompt-to-do-it) giver—whose heart is in his giving.
And God is able to make all grace (every favor and earthly blessing) come to you in abundance, so that you may always and under all circumstances and whatever the need, be self-sufficient—possessing enough to require no aid or support and furnished in abundance for every good work and charitable donation.
As it is written, He [the benevolent person] scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his deeds of justice and goodness and kindness and benevolence will go on and endure forever! (II Cor. 9:7-9 Amplified Bible)
"As he purposed in his heart" after prayer. The head of the household knows his family’s needs. So does the Holy Spirit who also knows the unexpected future. Moreover, we are not to give recklessly out of emotion or to be seen of men. Fourth-century church father St. John Chrysostom said that in doing good deeds, "If thou obtain not the impulse that is from above, all is to no purpose." Prayer, prayer, and more prayer is needed, because proper giving comes out of relationship with God.
If churches suddenly ceased to preach tithing, how would they survive? First of all, perhaps they would reevaluate which programs, buildings, and staff members are truly of God. If they had to look to God for support instead of carefully prepared budgets, they might be forced to be honest before God and search the scripture to see what it teaches about the ministry of the church.
In addition, if people were taught proper giving, the ministries that are truly of God might not have to beg like they do now. Churches might actually be limiting their income by teaching tithing.
A Roman Catholic woman explained her particular congregation’s position on giving. In her explanation, she described the New Testament view of giving: give what you feel you are able to for the church’s work and remember the poor. She says money is seldom mentioned from the pulpit. Nothing is required, and no percentage expected. She states, "It is a privilege to support the church as I can. Giving is one way that Christianity is put into action. God blesses you and he sees your heart and your sacrifice."
Jesus had nothing but condemnation for the Pharisees and nothing but commendation for the widow who gave the mite, her entire financial substance, and for the woman who lavished her entire box of expensive oil on His head. They unselfconsciously gave their all, not a percentage, voluntarily. Churches could more easily make a case for giving ALL your income and assets than for tithing. These two women illustrate the New Testament principles of giving in action as well as in attitude. Their attitude was love — love for God and love for man, love that needs no recognition or payback.
Summary and Challenge
To sum up,
- We have seen that the purpose of the Levitical tithe was to meet a need, that of the old covenant Levitical priesthood and to help the poor.
- We have seen the canceling of the old covenant and the institution of the new when Jesus, the Son of God, came in the flesh, died, was buried, and resurrected. The Levitical priesthood and all laws pertaining to it were done away with, including the tithe. The temple, where Levitical ceremonies took place, was destroyed in 70 AD, not to be rebuilt.
- We have seen that the New Testament does not teach tithing as part of the new covenant.
- We have seen that the New Testament offices or callings of pastor, etc., are not the same as the Levitical priesthood, which was based on lineage and the Mosaic ceremonial laws, and that the church building is not the same as the Temple.
- We have seen that there are detriments to teaching the tithe to the church.
- We have seen that while the Old Testament law of the tithe, or tenth, does not bind the Christian church, nevertheless, the principle of this law remains: we are to give. Motivated by love for God and man and purposing in our hearts, we are free to know the true joy of giving to spread the gospel and to help those in need.
Believers are responsible to measure church teachings in the light of the truth of the Bible. It is our duty to recognize error.
If you don’t agree with that this teaching is scriptural, then start with your Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and look up all references to "tithe" and "tithing" and see for yourself how paltry a case can be built for modern tithing. Then the question is this: Do we choose to follow scripture or doctrines of men?