Tithing in the Bible
"But nothing that a person owns and devotes to the LORD—whether a human being or an animal or family land—may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the LORD. “No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; they are to be put to death. A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the LORD." -Leviticus 27:28-32
According to Smith's Bible Dictionary, a "Tithe" or tenth is the proportion of property devoted to religious uses from very early times. Instances of the use of tithes are found prior to the appointment of the Levitical tithes under the law.
Tithing first appeared in the Bible when Abraham gave one-tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Gen 14:18-20). The writer of Hebrews presumed that tithes were paid to a higher authority and inferred that there was a greater priesthood than Aaron's (Hebrews 7:4-9). Tithing as a tribute to God appeared later in Genesis when Jacob promised to give a tenth to God if he returned home safely. But these tithes were spontaneous and no details were given.
Jesus refocused attention on inward attitudes. He criticized some who went so far as to tithe tiny grains of spice — not because they tithed, but because they neglected the weightier matters of the law (Matt 23:23). He regarded stewardship of finances as an indication of trustworthiness with spiritual things (Luke 16:11), which were more important (Matt 6:19-20).
Nowhere does the New Testament require Christians to tithe in the sense of giving 10 percent, but it does reiterate many things associated with tithing: those who minister are entitled to receive support ( 1 Cor 9:14); the poor and needy should be cared for (1 Cor 16:1; Gal 2:10); those who give can trust God, as the source of all that is given (2 Cor 9:10), to supply their needs (2 Cor 9:8; Philippians 4:19); and giving should be done joyously (2 Cor 9:7).
The New Testament directs that taxes be paid to the state (Romans 13:6-7), which replaced Israel's theocracy. Paul's vocabulary and teaching suggest that giving is voluntary and that there is no set percentage. Following the example of Christ, who gave even his life (2 Cor 8:9), we should cheerfully give as much as we have decided (2 Cor 9:7) based on how much the Lord has prospered us (1 Cor 16:2), knowing that we reap in proportion to what we sow (2 Cor 9:6) and that we will ultimately give account for our deeds (Romans 14:12).
What Is a Tithe?
A tithe is really an Old Testament term. It was the gifts that the Israelites were required to, really the tax that they were required to pay. Nowadays we generally use it as just a way of saying give 10% of your income to the church. There's nothing in the New Testament, in the sort of new covenant understanding of what it means to be God's people, that encourages us to think that we're required to give 10% of our income to the church.
In many ways the standards of the New Testament are a lot stricter in some ways, or a lot loftier, let's put it that way. So we're required to give generously, to give sacrificially, to see the relief of the poor, the support of the ministry, the spread of the gospel through all nations. So I don't know. There may be some people for whom giving 10% is unwise. There are probably many people in America for whom giving 10% would be actually pretty easy, and in fact it wouldn't really be sacrificial or generous.
Does Tithing Apply to Christians Today?
The reason why tithing is an important theme for Christians is because it really is a symbol of how God calls us to live our lives as stewards rather than owners.
I come from a legalistic background where I used to be afraid not to tithe, or I used to be proud of tithing. My fear was if I didn't tithe, my tires would fall off my car. My arrogance was if I tithe then God had to bless me with prosperity. But really to reflect upon tithing in the context of the gospel, what we begin to demonstrate or see is this ... that the more the law of God is transformed by the grace of God in our lives, we move from a sense of duty to a sense of delight. This is why really in the New Testament you don't hear a whole lot about tithing, not because believers are not expected to give, they're just expected to be a lot more generous because of the fullness of the work of Jesus that we celebrate.
Paul demonstrated this in writing to believers in Corinth and reflecting upon a group of very poor Christians in Thessalonica. And he wrote to believers in Corinth because he was trying to generate their interest in caring for a ministry to the poor believers in Jerusalem.
And here's the way he motivated them, said, "We want you to know about the grace that came to believers in Macedonia, who, out of their extreme poverty and suffering, did not do as we expected. They gave themselves to the Lord, and then they asked us for the privilege of sharing in this offering."
Now what Paul does there is this, he doesn't shame believers in Corinth into tithing. He simply says, here's what the Gospel does when it grabs hold of your heart. You don't think just in terms of giving the excess, but you're showing up in God's story, which is a story of redemption and restoration. A story that frees me from defining my life in terms of what I own, rather who owns me, which is Jesus.
So in many ways, tithing is kind of the entrance level into a life of grace. The more the grace of the gospel captures my heart, the less I'm gonna ask, "How much do I have to give," but more, "How can I live more fully missionally, generously to the glory of God," because of the lavish love, the great generosity, God's lavished upon me in Jesus.
Does All of My Tithe Have to Go to the Church?
If I were to get to summarize it in a nutshell, I would say please do whatever you can to be a part of a church where you would be comfortable giving 100% of your offering to that church. I want to start with that, but let me unpack that. I think the word tithe is not so helpful in discussing Christian giving anymore. If we go and look at what happened under the Old Covenant in the Old Testament, a godly Hebrew man would've given anywhere from 30% to 35% of his income to the support of the temple, the support of the poor, the support of the priests. I mean, it was a pretty hefty tax, if you will, to be part of the Kingdom of God under the Old Testament.
Well, when you get to the New Testament, the command to tithe is not there. What it's been replaced by is what I would call grace-giving, which is exactly what Paul says in Second Corinthians eight. He refers to giving as an act of grace. You go to Second Corinthians nine and he talks about cheerful giving. And there are so many other places in the gospels. I think Luke 12, where you get this idea that because God has given us so much, we should be willing to give everything over to others.
So in the New Testament, you have this idea of grace giving. Not only that, but in the New Testament you have this idea that ground zero for Christian ministry is the church, Acts 1A. You see this great commission at work to bring the Gospel to Jerusalem and Judea and Sumeria into all the ends of the earth. And then what do you see? The Gospel is planted, churches sprout up, and then churches now bear the responsibility of planting the gospel throughout the world. So the church is ground zero for Christian ministry.
So to someone who comes to me and says hey, do I have to give all of my tithes to the church, what I want to say is what I want you to do is be a part of a church that you see is so faithful to the Bible, has a heart for the nations, has elders who are really worthy of double honor, and I want you to have the heart to give everything to that church. But having said that, I think you're absolutely free to give to Godly para-church ministries that are serving the Lord, especially ones that you may be personally involved in or personally excited about. You're free to give to those ministries.
So I guess I'm not directly answering the question. We give out of grace because we love the Lord. We give to a church that is doing the work of the Lord. And above and beyond that, we are absolutely free to give to other good, solid ministries.
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