IS TITHING TAUGHT IN THE BIBLE?

Yes, but only in the Old Testament. The word “tithe(s)” is used thirty-nine times, including three times in the gospels and four times in Hebrews 7. The Hebrew and Greek words for “tithe” mean “a tenth.”. It is used of a Pharisee who is bragging about his spirituality–in his prayer! Jesus used the word only once (recorded in two gospels) in a hard-hitting rebuke of religious teachers for ignoring heart issues of the law. They proved meticulous about the details (obeying the command to tithe their “crops”) but blind to ethical ramifications. Hardly a mandate to tithe.

Paul does not use the word. Not once. The only other place in the New Testament the word is found is in Hebrews, where the writer is addressing the issue of the excellency of Christ. To the natural children of Abraham, struggling over two different covenants, the giving of tithes showed the superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham. The author then went on to say that Jesus is like Melchizedek, and the Melchizedek priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood. He was not giving a teaching on tithing, and he didn’t use the word anywhere else in his thirteen-chapter message, although he was writing to Jews schooled in the practice. If he was teaching on tithing, he did a poor job, because Abraham tithed only this one time, and it wasn’t produce as was commanded in the law but the spoils of battle. So Jews who were well acquainted with the practice would not have considered Abraham’s singular tithe as reflecting their custom.

The rest of the thirty-nine references come from the Old Testament. Here is a representation:

“A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord…The entire tithe of the herd and flock–every tenth animal…will be holy to the Lord” (Lev. 27:30,32). So if people didn’t own property (land or herds), were they required to tithe? Doesn’t sound like it. Call it an income tax!

“When you [the Levites] receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord’s offering” (Nu. 18:26). So even those who received a tithe tithed.

“Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year…And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns…” (Deut. 14:22,27). If they didn’t tithe, the priestly system, which undergirded the whole culture, collapsed, which did happen too often in Israel.

“Bring the whole tithe [they were commanded to give three different ones] into the storehouse [a literal room in the temple to store food for the priests, the poor, and the sacrificial system], that there may be food in my house [they tithed what they possessed–crops and animals]” (Mal. 3:10). If the crops failed or the animals died, they had no tithe to give. This verse is often used in a coercive way to urge people to give so they don’t come under a curse (v. 9). The New Covenant does not reflect the strict, linear blessing-cursing outlook given in the Deuteronomic Law. The tithe was given for the sake of the poor, and the poor end up the biggest casualties of financial finagling with relation to the tithe. They are hoping to get out of debt or pay their rent, and when the preacher promises financial reaping for financial sowing, they buy in!

So what does the Old Testament teach about the tithe?  It was done for the care of the priests, who were not property owners.  Tithes were also given and stipulations made (such as gleaning) for the care of the poor.  Offerings (not tithes) were received for other projects, like the building of the tabernacle and temple. (Normal length–this one is longer).

What does Jesus say about finances, if He doesn‘t ever talk about tithing? Have you heard it said, “They’re always talking about money?” Well, Jesus did!  He said that when it comes to money matters, money matters. Put your money where your heart is, not your mouth.

And what does Paul say about money?  Our giving encourages others to give (2 Cor. 8:1-4).  Our giving blesses God (5-7). It is godly to give because it is like God to give. Giving is an investment–for spiritual dividends, not for greater material wealth (2 Cor. 9:9). We don’t give to get riches; we give to get righteous. That’s a far cry from telling people to sow generously so they can reap financial gain. Paul was not manipulating people, but some leaders today are.

And what does Paul not say about money. He gives two whole chapters on finances (2 Corinthians 8 & 9), and yet he never mentions tithing. He doesn’t ask them how many tithers the Corinthians have in their church, but he urges them toward generosity.

A simple guide for giving from the apostle: Care for your family, give to meet the needs of the saints, especially in the local church, give to what God is blessing, and don’t forget the poor.

So should we teach on the tithe? I regard it as an Old Covenant carry-over that does not apply to New Covenant Christians but can provide a positive example for giving. At worst, it could become a standard of performance or an occasion for pressuring to give. We are not properly dividing between the Old and New Covenants when we teach tithing. If tithing still applies, so do a lot of other laws that we are not practicing.

However, if I were a part of a church that taught on the tithe, I wouldn’t make a big deal over it unless I felt that they were using it for religious manipulation. We can derive principles from the Old Covenant that apply in the New, like supporting spiritual leaders (I Tim. 5:17) and caring for the poor.

I don’t think it is wrong if people want to use the tithe as a place to begin or as a personal discipline. But if we followed the tithe in a strict Old Testament way, we would give about 23%, since Jews gave three different tithes, one to the priesthood, one to cover the festivals, and one that came up every three years for the poor.  Most evangelicals give 2 to 3%, so, as I said to my kids, “We’re not there yet.” I told the young adults in our community that God is not happier with them if they tithe than if they don’t. He, however, wants His children to imitate Him, and He is extravagantly generous. If we take our cue from Jesus and Paul, we will encourage some kind of deliberate, proportionate, generous pattern of giving, first to the local church, then to other ministries.

6 comments on “IS TITHING TAUGHT IN THE BIBLE?

  1. Daniel Storvick says:

    I wish the Bible was clearer on tithing. Even so, your teaching here is insightful, freeing, and encouraging. i tithe, and then some. My internship mentor drove a Corvette with a vanity plate: “I TITHE.” I like that, but i still drive a Camry.

    • Love the license plate. Maybe God would give me a Corvette if I tithed. I learned generosity from a father and father-in-law and that works for us. I am sure it works for you as well. Love our connection–wish it was more often. Finishing the end of a great vacation in Southern California.

  2. Robert Ule says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by Deut. 14. The tithe wasn’t given up, but rather dedicated to the Lord. It was a celebration where you purchased whatever your heart desires and hold a feast in God’s honor.

    My interest in the above was it corrected my impression (and I think of many others) that we serve a demanding God. A Lutheran potluck is much closer to true tithing than anything else we do. The story of the Prodigal Son highlights this – the elder brother complains his father never set a feast for him, yet true worship per Deut. 14 is we’re required to throw a feast in God’s honor each year!

  3. Charles Geimer says:

    Paul, how do you deal with Matthew 23:23. I always understood it that we need to add justice, mercy and faithfulness to our tithing.

    • Wow! That one escaped. Good word, a strong one for seeing Christ’s teaching on tithing. He recognized its place under the Old Covenant and saw that it would be neutralized unless godly character stood behind it. Thank you for pointing this out to me, Charlie!

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