The Myth Of New Testament Tithing
The idea of tithing in the Church is so ingrained and commonplace that it has become part of the very fabric of ecclesial life. The necessity of giving 10% as the tithe is a belief as widespread and accepted as Jesus rising from the dead in bodily form. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to give your tithes and offerings in church, and every envelope says so much on it. This of course tends to get abused very easily, and while it would be tempting to speak of the abuses that money-hungry charlatan pastors engage in, or the manipulation and compulsive pressure that is placed on people who don’t tithe enough, that’s not the thrust of the post. People will use and abuse money all the time, and so the purpose of this post is not to rattle and rant against prosperity preachers [directly anyway] but rather to point out some simple facts about tithing- which is that tithing has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. We are no longer that Old Testament Mosaic Law, and pastors should never teach you that you must tithe.
I don’t think that most pastors are putting their flock under the unbiblical commands and laws on purpose. While some preachers may use the tithe and the false promises that they attach to it as a way to manipulate their congregations, I think the vast majority of them simply do it out of ignorance. The reality that there was no compulsion to tithe before the law, there was a necessity to tithe under the law, and no compulsion or command to tithe after the law. For this reason I would urge every pastor to re-examine the issue, and then tell their congregations that they don’t have to tithe anymore, and that there is a system of giving in the New Testament that is superior to law-based, out of context, Old Testament tithing.
There are people who say that tithing is binding upon New Testament believers. They argue that since tithing was practiced before the Mosaic Law was given it must also be practiced after the Mosaic Law was fulfilled. They point to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, Abram and Melchizedek in Genesis 13, and Jacob in Genesis 28. And yet we see upon closer examination that there was no command from God that they should be tithing. With Abram, it was completely voluntary, being made out of his free decision and choice. Abraham was never commanded to give a tenth on a regular basis and there is no evidence that Abraham ever tithed again. His giving of a tithe to Melchizedek was a voluntary reciprocation for the priestly functions performed by Melchizedek and a thank offering given to God for the success of his military excursion. Indeed, if Abram’s tithing is any kind of model for Christians, it provides support only for occasional tithes of unusual sources of income. Therefore the texts that discuss tithing prior to the Mosaic Law do not portray tithing as a systematic, continual practice but as an occasional, even exceptional, form of giving.
We start to see the actual, legitimate tithe when Moses comes around and the theocracy begins. There are three major passages related to tithing in the Mosaic Law: Lev 27:30–33; Num 18:21; and Deut 14:22–29. Each passage needs to be examined to see whether God commanded the Israelites to render one, two, three, or four tithes. The primary key to identifying how many separate tithes existed within the Mosaic Law is the description of their nature and purpose in the respective passage.
The first tithe is the Levitical Tithe, found in Leviticus 27:30-33. In the Mosaic law the Levites stood between Israel and God, offering daily sacrifices for sin. Numbers 18 and Leviticus 27 declare that the Levites will receive the tithes for their service as payment for bearing this burden and for not getting an inheritance of land. Because the Levites had no inheritance in the land of Canaan like the other tribes, God provided for their support through the tithes of the rest of Israel. The tithes took the form of animals, land, seed and fruit. In fact, while land, seed and fruit could be redeemed with money by adding 20%, animals could not. In this case the offering was compulsory. These tithes were used for the livelihood of the Levites, who would then give one tenth of their tithes to the priests.
The second tithe is the Festival Tithe, found in Deuteronomy 14:22-27. On the prescribed days the Israelites would go to a place determined by God and celebrate the feasts. This was mandatory and no one was to be excluded. They were to bring either their second tithe with them to share and devour. If it was too much and too hard a journey to travel with all their goods, they could sell their for money and then buy whatever they wanted to eat. In this, they were exhorted to share of it with the Levites.
The third tithe is the Poor Tithe, found in Deuteronomy 14:28–29. This third tithe can be distinguished from the previous two by the facts that it was offered every third year and because it was intended for the Levite, foreigner, orphan, and widow. The previous tithes were to be given either every year or during feasts; this third tithe was to be offered every third year. The previous tithes were mostly for the Levites’ sustenance; this third tithe was not for the Levites. It was not to be gathered in Jerusalem, but in their own town. The people of the town were to bring a tithe of their crops and herds and gather them together to take care of the poor of their towns including the alien, orphan and widow.
Don’t even get me started on the butchering, misuse, molestation and out of context scripture twisting that is thrust upon poor Malachi 3 and Luke 21 on a weekly basis by preachers saying that we’re robbing God when we don’t tithe, and that we should give like the widow with her mite.
So here’s the situation. First, it appears that the annual tithe of the Israelites surpassed ten percent of their income, actually totalling more than twenty percent. The Levitical Tithe was ten percent of the Israelites’ income. The Festival Tithe was another 10 percent of a person’s income [or of the remaining ninety percent after the Levitical Tithe had been paid], with both of these tithes totalling twenty percent of a person’s income. Finally, the Poor Tithe averaged 3 1/3 percent every year. This adds up to a total of approximately 23% of people’s overall income. That’s just what was compulsory. When you factor in the involuntary giving, such as leaving gleanings in fields for the poor, helping pay the temple tax, giving on the Sabbath year, and setting aside of debts in the Sabbath year and the jubilee, it’s probably more like 25%. The fact of the matter is that clearly it was much more than just 10%. The whole idea that a tithe is 10% is based on faulty figures and an incomplete number. It only takes one of the three tithes into consideration, making its very foundation biblically suspect.
That’s just biblically speaking. Historically speaking, Judaism around the time of Christ understood the Old Testament as prescribing multiple tithes Josephus wrote concerning tithing that “in addition to the two tithes which I have already directed you are to pay each year, the one for the Levites and the other for the festivals, you should devote a third every third year to the distribution of such things as are lacking to widowed women and orphan children” (Ant. 4.8.22). The Mishnah, for its part, describes three tithes: First Tithe, Second Tithe, and the Poor Tithe.
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that the tithes were given to the Levites. Since there are no Levites in the church today, the argument is sometimes made that pastors have taken the place of Levites and that they should therefore be the primary beneficiaries of the tithe. Yet no one else besides the Levites had the slightest authority to receive that tithes. More importantly, the priests, a group within the Levites, served as mediators between God and people, yet the New Testament teaches that there is only one mediator “between God and people, the man Christ Jesus”. For this reason it is deeply problematic when pastors are said to replace priests in the New Testament church, not the least because this compromises the New Testament teaching on the priesthood of all believers.
If someone truly wants to tithe according to Scripture, he/she would have to do the following: 1) Quit their job and buy a farm so that they can raise herds and grow crops; 2) [No one ever tithes money in the Old Testament] Find some Levitical priests to support; 3) Use their crops to observe the Old Testament religious festivals like Passover, Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; 4) Begin by giving at least 20 per cent of all their crops and herds to God; and 5) Expect God to curse them with material deprivation if they were unfaithful or bless them with material abundance if they were obedient. That’s neither feasible, practical, or commanded under the New Covenant of Christ. And so I make the case that it is a myth that we should be giving tithes in the Church today. In fact, the scant few references to tithes in the New Testament are always descriptive, never prescriptive.
So as I’m against giving tithes to the church today, does that mean that I think that it should all be free and that the pastor should preach for free and that we shouldn’t be giving? Not at all! I think the worker deserves his wage, and that there ought to be people in the local church who regularly go to the pastor to make sure that all his and his family needs are met, above and beyond whatever his set salary is. We should be upkeeping the building, giving to missions, have a relief fund for the poor, funding programs, and whatever else a church wishes to spend money on. What I am saying though, is instead of telling your congregations that they should be giving an unbiblical tithe, that you should exhort them to just GIVE in general. Don’t beat them over the head with threats of curses because they’re robbing God by failing to bring tithes into the storehouse. Don’t withhold the Eucharist from them if they don’t give their income tax money. Don’t point to the widow who gave all she had and tell us we should do likewise. Don’t manipulate them using out of context, dead, mosaic covenant demands.
Instead, tell your people about the glorious riches of Christ Jesus, the absolute majesty of Jesus and how he had intimate fellowship with God the father for eternity past, and yet laid down his life for sinners. How He added sinless human nature to himself. That He died on the cross for our sins, and the sins that we had He suffered under the wrath of God to completely absorb our sins. And how he was raised as victor over death sin, hell, and how he has adopted us into his family, and how we have been saved from our sins and the glorious nature of the Gospel. If you teach your people that, they’ll give. Someone who is overwhelmed by God’s grace will be generous, and will grow in generosity the more they come to see how good that grace is.
The New Testament never gives a certain percentage point as an obligatory and required standard for our giving. The Bible especially doesn’t give us 10%, which I think is a confusing and unhelpful baseline anyway, as it supposes that people who can’t afford and shouldn’t be giving 10% should give it, and that those who can give much more can give only 10% and feel like they’ve done their giving duty. Instead, the Scriptures declare, “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” [2 Corinthians. 9:7]. The Old Testament tithe was required by law and was pegged at 23%. The Jews were under compulsion to give it. The New Testament teaching on giving focuses on its voluntary character. “For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord” [2 Corinthians 8:3]. This voluntary giving is exactly what Abraham and Jacob were doing before the institution of the Law, and is what all Christians are to be doing today. We are to be free and joyous and hold our money loosely by give sacrificially and cheerfully. Truth be told, many of us are probably not even doing that.
Believers today are free to give the amount they choose to give. If you want to give 10% as Abraham and Jacob did, then go for it. You’re perfectly free to do so, but don’t do it because you consider that some sort of tithe. And as a freebie, you should know that you’re never blessed if you give a tithe. He blesses you because you give, but not if you go back to the Mosaic Law which Ephesians 2 has destroyed. You’re blessed when you give, even if you mistakenly think it’s a tithe, but there are no blessings inherent and associated with giving what you consider the Old Testament tithe. However, if you decide to give 3% or 11% or 20% or 50%, then you may do that as well. Only you know how much you should be giving. The standard of giving is not a fixed percentage point, but the example of our wonderful Savior “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” [2 Corinthians. 8:9]. Our standard of giving is Christ Himself, who did not give mere percentages of himself, but rather gave everything He had, including His very life in order to redeem us.