Should a Christian tithe? Many people think that Christians should tithe 10 percent of their income every month to their local church or at least share it between a number of mission and church agencies. If you’ve spent longer than two Sunday’s in any local church you’d have at least heard the language of “tithes and offerings” in a worship service. For many who haven’t grown up in the church (which is a growing number all the time), the word ‘tithe’ itself is a foreign concept to begin with. So how in the world would you go about doing something that you don’t even know what it is anyways?
Before we go any further in answering the question about whether a Christian should tithe or not, let’s learn (or re-learn) what this tithing concept is first.
Tithing in the Old Testament
Quite simply, a tithe is a percentage portion of something, such as money, or crops, or something else used in payment or as a contribution to a religious organization or even compulsory tax in order to show support or devotion to that religious organization, priest, prophet, or even government.
Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils of war to Melchizedek in Genesis 14:20, and the book of Hebrews appeals to this account to support the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood over Levi’s. God met Jacob at Bethel and promised him covenant blessings; Jacob then promised God a tenth of everything granted him. “And this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” – Genesis 28:22
God established that Israel’s tithe would operate as payment to the Levitical priests for their services. “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.” – Numbers 18:21From the income that the Levites received from the tithe, they were still responsible for giving 10 percent off the top for the chief priests seen in verse 26 of Numbers 18.
Some understand the Old Testament tithe as a method of taxation to provide for the needs of the priests and Levites in the sacrificial system.“But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.” – Deuteronomy 12:5-6
The tithe was not a volitional offering. The 10 percent off the top belonged to God and the Israelites understood this as simply repaying it. But this wasn’t the only obligatory tithe. They also tithed to support a special jubilee festival and took a third tithe every three years to take care of orphans, widows, and the poor. These mandatory offerings averaged out to about 23 percent a year. On top of these compulsory tithes, there were regular opportunities for freewill offerings. These were generous gifts that expressed the Israelites’ gratefulness through voluntary giving in response to their devotion.
At a bare minimum, they gave 23 percent a year, but there was no ceiling on their generosity. They could – and frequently would – give exorbitantly out of their excess. In response to Moses’ call for contributions to the building of the Tabernacle, the Israelites literally gave so much that Moses had to command them to stop giving.
“And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. And they received from Moses all the contribution that the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the craftsmen who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, ‘The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.’ So, Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, ‘Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.’ So, the people were restrained from bringing, for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more.” – Exodus 36:2-7
In that time period, those who didn’t tithe were threatened with a curse, while those who did tithe were promised blessing. “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 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.” – Malachi 3:8-10
THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW
So, the question remains, should a Christian tithe today? Does the Old Testament directive continue into our time and place? I argue the answer is no because the commands stipulated in the Mosaic covenant are no longer in force for believers today. It’s true the moral norms of the Old Testament are still in force today, and we discern them from the law of Christ in the New Testament, but tithing is not among these commands.
In fact, the New Testament not only nowhere commands, it doesn’t even recommend, that Christians submit to a legalistic tithe system. The New Testament only says that gifts should be “in keeping with income”- 1 Corinthians 16:2
Certainly, some defend tithing by saying that Jesus praised the practice, even if he said it was less important than other things. This argument appears strong, but it’s not persuasive. If you think about it, Jesus also mentioned offering sacrifices in the temple, but we don’t think – even if the temple were rebuilt – that we should do that. We must always consider the words in their proper context. Ask what was Jesus’ context, and situation in redemptive history? Jesus spoke about sacrifices and tithing before the cross and resurrection, before the dawn of the new covenant. He used tithing and sacrifices as illustrations when addressing his contemporaries. Further to that, we know that he kept the law because he was “born under the law” – Galatians 4:4.
Jesus was an obedient Jew who kept the law. But we know that he later fulfilled the law and as a result, the rest of us are no longer under the law. In understanding and recognizing the context it makes sense then that we can no more take his words as a commendation for tithing today than we can his words about offering sacrifices.
And then there is the fact that when Christians are instructed to give to the poor, they aren’t commanded to give “the poor tithe.” Instead, they are instructed to be generous in helping those in need. As an example, read what Paul said.
“Now concerningthe collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every 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. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.” – 1 Corinthians 16:1-4
Here’s what I wish to point out to you. This is a passage often cited in popular circles in support of tithing in the New testament church. However, it doesn’t even mention tithing. All Paul is talking about here a one-time gift for poor saints in Jerusalem.
TITHING MAY NO LONGER BE A REQUIREMENT, BUT GENEROUSITY IS
Though we don’t see a requirement for a tithe we do see a requirement to be generous in giving. Just because tithing isn’t required today, it doesn’t follow that believers should hoard their possessions.
As an example, we are commanded to support those who preach the gospel, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain, and, ‘The labourer deserves his wages’.” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18
We’re also called to be generous to those in need, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” – 1 Timothy 6:17-19
Wealth can so easily become an idol, leading us to abandon Jesus and his mission. And since God is to be our treasure, believers are to give generously and freely, as we are able. Sometimes that means giving more than 10 percent; sometimes that may mean giving less. It all depends on the ability of the Christian and the needs of the body of Christ.
Obviously, the New Testament Scripture doesn’t command Christians to give a tenth – and Scripture, not tradition, is our rule and authority. But for those who insist on advocating tithing as a rule to follow, the number in the Old testament was certainly more than 10 percent and closer to 23 percent as noted above. That being the case, I’d suggest that they should probably settle on 23 percent. Just putting it out there if that is you.
In the end, every disciple should diligently pray and seek God’s wisdom in the matter of giving, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” – James 1:5
So, should a Christian tithe? No, because we are no longer under the law. However, a disciple of Jesus’ should want to give gifts and service to the ministry of the church, and to meet the needs of the poor. That being the case, let’s give generously, gladly with pure motives and an attitude of worship to God and service to the body of Christ.
“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” – 2 Corinthians 9:7