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What is the Biblical Teaching on 'Tithing' ?
A Preliminary Survey
by Paul A. Sue
May 2, 2000
Minor Corrections and Revisions: Jan. 12, 2001
Added Postscript: Feb. 5, 2001
Note: this is a work-in-progress so I will be updating this page as further study and/or feedback warrants. I do not in any way claim that this is a definitive or thorough biblical-theological study on the subject, so I gladly encourage and welcome constructive criticisms.
The Biblical Texts on Tithing
A simple scan of a concordance shows that the majority of the passages on tithing are, not surprisingly, in the Pentateuch. Therefore, our focus in this paper will be primarily on the Mosaic legislative texts as they clearly spell out Israel's covenantal obligations.
The two pre-Mosaic texts occur in the patriarchal narratives and must be carefully examined in their literary, historical, and theological contexts.
The prophetic passages and the post-exilic historical narratives on tithing reflect the common theme of the prophets as enforcers of the covenant, calling the nation to repentance and covenant faithfulness to God.
Post-Exilic History and Prophets:
2 Chron. 31:5,6,12
Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42
A Brief Examination of the Above Passages
(Note: all scripture quotations are from the NASB unless otherwise specified)1. Pre-Mosaic
A common approach that many use to argue for the continuation of the practice of tithing is to cite the examples of Abraham and Jacob as tithing before the Mosaic covenant. However, a careful examination of the context will result in a different conclusion.
If one reads the verse carefully in context, we discover that the chapter is about a war in which Lot is taken captive. Observe the following:
Note: I have recently undertaken a more detailed study of this passage; a copy of my paper, "The Patriarch and the Priest-King: An Examination of Genesis 14:18-20 in its Historical, Literary and Theological Context" is available upon request.
Again, let us make some observations:
These two patriarchal narratives may have functioned as exemplary models for the nation of Israel to obey the Mosaic mandate to tithe. However, it is simplistic, and an injustice to these two narratives, to just lift a verse or two out of their literary context in order to impose tithing on Christians.
Now we come to the "meat of the matter" as far as OT teaching on tithing is concerned, as evidenced by the fact that the explicitly didactic treatments of tithing occur only in these 5 passages. It will be apparent that we should look at the passages in Leviticus-Numbers separately from the Deuteronomic passages, as they in fact reflect two (some would argue for three) distinct tithes that the Israelites were commanded to pay.
The "Levitical" Tithe (Lev. 27:30-32; Num. 18:21-32)
From the passage in Leviticus, we learn that tithing has to do with the land, the produce of the land, and the herds and flocks which graze on the land. (One could redeem (buy back for money) the produce, but not the animals.) Notice that the tithe is said to be "holy to the LORD", i.e., set apart or consecrated to God. When we turn to the passage in Numbers, we learn that God ordained the tithe as food ("wages") for the Levites who served in the tabernacle/temple: "you may eat it anywhere for it is your compensation for your service in the tent of meeting." (Num. 18:31), since they didn't have an inheritance in the land (18:23b; Deut. 12:12,18,19).
Furthermore, the Levites were to give a tenth of their tithes to the priests (Num. 18:26-28) who also didn't have an inheritance in the land (18:20).
What is the theological significance of this tithe? We must remember that Israel was unique as a theocracy among all the other nations. First and foremost, this tithe is to be viewed as an act of devotion to God as King by his vassal-subjects. Essentially, the tithe was rendered as a 10% "tax" owing to God as the owner of the Land. That is why it is described as "holy to the Lord", i.e. as that which belongs to, or is separated to Yahweh for a particular purpose.
Furthermore, it was to serve as a reminder to the Israelites that their livelihood depended on the blessings of God upon the land (in sending rain) and their covenantal obedience to him: "that you may learn to fear [revere] the Lord your God" (14:23b). In stark contrast to the ubiquitous fertility cults of their pagan neighbors, they were to remember that Yahweh alone is the true Lord of heaven and earth.
Lastly, as guardians and servants of God's meeting place, God himself would be the portion of the priests and Levites' inheritance. God in turn, assigned the tithe that was due to him, to the Levites and the priests, who were his representatives.
The "Festal" Tithe (Deut. 12:5-19; 14:22-29; 26:1-15)
Just before his death, Moses addressed the second generation of the Israelites who participated in the Exodus event to re-affirm the covenant that God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai and to expound more specifically the stipulations associated with the covenant before they entered the promised land. This then, is largely the message of the book of Deuteronomy to which we now turn our attention.
In all three of the passages that deal with tithing in Deuteronomy (ch. 12,14, and 26), the importance of the divinely appointed location is repeatedly emphasized (Deut. 12:5,11,17,18; 14:23; 26:2). This was to prevent them from turning to Canaanite idolatry, as there were many pagan places of worship that permeated the land (cf. Deut. 12:2-5).
What we have in the Deuteronomic passages is what might be termed a "festal tithe" to be used for a religious feast/festival where families were to travel (probably once a year) to the divinely appointed place to celebrate the goodness of God together by eating their tithes: "you shall eat them [the tithes] before the Lord your God in the place which the Lord your God will choose ". It was to be a time of great joy in the presence of God (Deut. 12:7,12,18; 14:26: "rejoice") as families brought a tenth of their produce (as well as sacrifices and offerings) to remember God's gracious gift of the land, and His abundant blessings on it in yielding a good crop. Therefore it's only appropriate to have a communal celebration2, to enjoy whatever their hearts desired, including "wine, or strong drink" (vs. 26)!!
In Deut. 14:28,29 and 26:12-13, we see what may be a third tithe (a "benevolent tithe"), though it may be just as correct to see it as a special case of the second tithe which was to be practiced every third year (i.e., years three and six in the seven year sabbatical cycle). In any case, the tithes were to be stored in each town, to be distributed not only to the Levites, but also to the needy ones in society: the orphans, widows, and resident aliens; and they "shall come and eat and be satisfied" (14:29). (Notice once again, the mention of the land in vs. 2,3,9,15; in gratitude for God's gift of the land, the Israelite confessed: "I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which Thou, O Lord hast given me".)
We may now reflect on the purpose(s) of this "festal" tithe. The benevolent aspect just discussed is quite obvious; the people were to care for others, remembering how God had cared for them (e.g. in the Wilderness) and blessed their land, and to manifest the same benevolence that flows from the kind and generous heart of God.
But we may further note that another purpose of this tithe was as a preventative measure to ensure proper worship, lest the people fall prey to the multitude of pagan sanctuaries that polluted the land. We have already alluded to the fact that all three of the passages in Deuteronomy place much emphasis on a divinely appointed place of worship, where they were to eat this tithe as a covenant community in celebration of God's mercy and His mighty redemption that He accomplished in delivering them from their bondage in Egypt through the Exodus (see Deut. 26:3-11).
Furthermore, as an act of corporate worship, the eating of this sacred "festal" tithe by the nation would help to strengthen the unity and community of the twelve tribes.
As also mentioned, the eating and enjoyment of this tithe served to remind the Israelites that their prosperity was not due to their superior agricultural techniques or irrigation methods, but on the grace and generosity of God alone.
In conclusion, both tithes served as a constant reminder that Yahweh was their faithful, covenant-keeping God (who fulfilled his promise to Abraham in giving them the land) as well as Redeemer (who delivered them from Egypt) and Creator/Sustainer (in providing rain for the land).3. Pre-Exilic Prophets
It was a time of religious apostasy, moral decay, social injustice, and political corruption in which Amos was sent by God to preach against the northern kingdom.
In Amos 4:4,5, God employs sarcasm and mockery to expose the false worship of the wayward Israelites. Notice how God refers to the tithes as "your tithes" rather than "My tithes" (which they rightfully were) to express his displeasure at their mere outward ritual. The hyperbolic demand to bring the tithe "every three days" instead of annually may indicate that the people were lulled into thinking that increased giving would somehow merit God's favour. But God sees through their hypocrisy, for they are worshipping him (through sacrifices, offerings, and tithes) with false motives and for personal show (vs. 5).
Notice again, how God warned that he would withhold the blessings of rain on the land (4:7) as well as sending other curses upon the land (4:9).4. Post-Exilic History and Prophets
2 Chronicles 31:2-19
This passage is a description of the re-installment of the Levites and priests to their temple duties, which had lapsed under the wicked reign of Ahaz. It follows the cleansing and consecrating of the temple (ch. 29) and the celebration of the Passover (ch. 30).
Once the temple had been purified and the Levites and priests organized once again, it was now time for the people to fulfill their obligations to God in bringing the tithes and offerings. The people brought so much that Azariah exclaimed, " we have had enough to eat with plenty left over " (vs. 10) and as a result, storage rooms (cf. Mal. 3:10) had to be built in the Temple to store the leftovers.
The Chronicler wrote to the post-exilic Israelites, and he undoubtedly hoped that the account of Hezekiah's reforms would encourage and exhort them to be faithful to God. Unfortunately, as we shall see from Malachi's message, the people eventually became indifferent.
Neh. 10:32-29; 12:44; 13:5,12
Ezra and Nehemiah record the efforts of the returning remnant of Judah from Babylonian exile, to rebuild the temple, repair the wall, and reform the social and spiritual condition of the post-exilic nation. Along with the post-exilic prophets, their main theme was covenant renewal. The remnant, having been brought back to the land from which they were exiled, had to be reminded that they must obey the covenant stipulations or once again face God's judgment.
With this background in mind, in 10:32-39 the remnant promised to fulfill and obey the covenantal duties pertaining to worship, which of course included giving "the tithe of the ground to the Levites" (vs. 37).
In Neh. 12:44, arrangements are made for the care of the Temple storehouses (chambers) for the tithes and offerings. Notice that the writer reminds his readers that the tithes were "required by law for the priests and Levites". Once again, we see the mandatory nature of the tithe under the Mosaic Covenant.
The mention of tithes in 13:5 is incidental, as the passage has to do with an improper use of one of the Temple chambers. In verse 13:12, the people are rebuked for failing to render the tithes to the Levites who had previously served in the Temple.
Note: the disagreements about the historical order of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi does not significantly impact the argument.
It would seem that the reforms initiated by Ezra and Nehemiah had begun to wear off, and hence, Malachi is sent to rebuke the priests (1:6-2:17) and the people (3:6-12) for their sins.
Notice how Malachi alludes to the Land motif implicitly in the opening of the book, as he describes the inheritance of Esau (Edom) as a "desolation for the jackals of the wilderness" (1:3). Since he says, "I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau" (1:2b, 3a), the implied statement is that the promised land is just the opposite. Ironically, the book closes with a threat to "smite the land with a curse" (4:6), in keeping with the Mosaic covenant-curses (see Deut. 28:18, 21-24, 38-40, 42).
The passage we are considering begins with a declaration of God's immutable covenant faithfulness (vs. 6) in contrast to the nation's unfaithfulness (vs. 7). In light of the Pentateuchal passages we have examined on tithing, it is no wonder that God asks rhetorically and bluntly, "Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me!". The people in their insolence and indifference dared to ask, "How have we robbed Thee?" The answer was plain: "In tithes and offerings", as required by the Law.
God then demands that the whole tithe be brought into the Temple storehouse (vs. 10) so that there would be enough food for the priests and Levites. How faithful and unchanging is God! Despite the sins of the Levites and priests, God remains true to his word (Num. 18:24,28). If the people will repent and respond in obedience, then God promises to bless3 the Land by:
Then the Land will become "delightful" (vs. 12) !!
Summary of OT Teaching
Matt. 23:23 (Luke 11:42)
The polemical context of this passage in Matthew's gospel (and the parallel in Luke) concerns the "woes" that Jesus pronounces upon the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. In Matt. 23:23,24 Jesus condemns the Pharisees' hypocrisy in their failure to understand the spirit of the Law. They went beyond the requirements of the Law in tithing even garden herbs (some of which are exempt from tithing in later rabbinical writings), while failing to practice the "weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness" (cf. Mic. 6:8).
Jesus' remark that they should have done these things "without neglecting the others" (i.e. tithing) is quickly seized on by proponents of tithing. But in determining the meaning of any passage in the Bible we must ascertain the historical setting, audience, and intent of the author. In the passage before us, Jesus is speaking to a Pharisee living under the Law (the Mosaic covenant was still in effect). As such, it is only natural that Jesus should say that the Pharisees should not neglect tithing as tithing is mandatory under the Law. Furthermore, Jesus is not concerned here about the abiding validity of the OT practice of tithing; he's simply saying that if the Pharisees want to be scrupulous in their religious practices, that's fine, as long as they aren't hypocrites and forget about the more important matters.
However, Christ's death/resurrection has inaugurated the New Covenant, having fulfilled the Law's righteous demands that sinners could not keep. As such, the old Mosaic covenant has been abrogated and is no longer binding upon us (see Hebrews 8-10). As we have seen in our examination of the OT passages, the tithe was inextricably linked to the Levitical priesthood and the tabernacle/temple. However, the book of Hebrews makes it plain that this priesthood was only transitory and that the whole OT system of sacrifices and the tabernacle were just copies of the heavenly reality as revealed in the person and work of Christ (Heb. 9:23-25).
Therefore, understood in its redemptive-historical context, Jesus' remark to the Pharisees in Matt. 23:23 and Luke 11:42 cannot be used to insist that tithing is binding on New Covenant believers.
|For an insightful study on Matthew 23, the reader is referred to:|
David Garland. The Intention of Matthew 23. NovTSup 52. Leiden: Brill, 1979.
This verse is part of a parable concerning a Pharisee and a tax collector, where tithing is mentioned incidentally as one of the things that the Pharisee boasted of. The whole point of the parable has absolutely nothing to do with tithing, and as such, is not relevant to our discussion.
In chapter 7, the writer's purpose is to demonstrate the superiority of the Melchizedekian priesthood over the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood, and to argue therefore, that Christ's priesthood is superior and eternal. In establishing this, as part of his argument he quotes from the Genesis narrative concerning Abraham's encounter with Melchizedek. It is clear that the passage in Hebrews has nothing to do with tithing at all, other than to show that since Melchizedek the priest-king received a tithe (a tenth of the spoils of war) from Abraham and representatively speaking, from the Levites (since Abraham was their ancestor), therefore, his priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood.
Hebrews 7 is not instructing Christians to follow the example of Abraham, but rather, expounds the superiority and eternality of Christ's priesthood and the finality of his sacrifice. Christ alone is our Great High Priest forever "who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom and priests" (Rev. 1:5,6; cf. 1 Peter 2:5,9).
Jesus is the true Temple of God (John 2:21; cf. Acts 7:46-50) and we as Christians are also the Temple (1 Pet. 2:5; 1 Cor. 3:16,17 [corporately]; 1 Cor. 6:19 [individually]) by virtue of our union with Christ. Of course, the physical temple itself was destroyed in 70 A.D.
Lastly, the NT goes beyond the promise of physical land as our inheritance (cf. Gen. 12:7). In fact, even Abraham looked beyond the earthly Promised Land to an eschatological home, desiring "a better country, that is a heavenly one" (Heb. 11:16; see also vs. 13-15). Our inheritance is a heavenly one "that cant be destroyed, corrupted, or changed" (1 Pet. 1:4; ISV). Rather, we look forward to a renewed cosmos (Rom. 8:19-22), where we will experience resurrection life in the New Heavens and New Earth.
With Christ alone as our High Priest who offered himself as the final, sufficient sacrifice, and we together with Christ as the true dwelling place of God which the earthly temple pointed to imperfectly, and with the promised land also only a type of the true inheritance of the saints, we ask: how can one argue for the continuing practice of tithing (which is linked to the land, the Levitical priesthood, and the tabernacle/temple) under the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13)?
After an examination of all the passages in the Bible on tithing, I submit the following observations:
This is not to say that the New Testament has nothing to say about one's possessions. On the contrary, just as God was sole owner of the promised land which he gave as a gift to Abraham and his descendants, so too, God owns all that he has blessed us with. Of course, ultimately, everything is God's, since he is the Sovereign Creator of the universe.
Unfortunately, this paper is far too long as it is, so I cannot look at the various NT passages on possessions and giving (e.g. Matt. 6:19-21; Luke 12:33; Acts 2:45; 2 Cor. 9:6ff, etc.). However, such a study would also require a comprehensive study of the broader themes of discipleship and stewardship. In the final analysis, it is Christ and his redemptive act on the Cross upon which all of my Christian life is based, and as far as giving is concerned, 2 Corinthians 8:9 is the paradigmatic passage for me.
I would therefore sum up my understanding of giving as "Grace Giving":
Therefore, even though I cannot agree that the OT teaching on tithing remains binding upon Christians today, I affirm emphatically that the NT teaching on giving and material possessions is far more radical in its demand. As such, I am responsible to be a faithful steward of all that God has given me, including my treasures, time, and talents; and by God's grace, I shall seek to be obedient to his Word and its teaching on giving (including hospitality, an oft-neglected topic).
Perhaps the most deplorable aspect of the vigorous promotion of tithing is the damage done to the total concept of stewardship. Whenever the church intensifies the obligation of tithing to the level of divine law, it is almost inevitable that tithing will become the dominant form of stewardship The theology of stewardship is buried under the legalism of tithing.
Marvin Tate, "Tithing: Legalism or Benchmark?", Review & Expositor 70 (Spring 1973): 161
Questions for Further Reflection & Dialogue
An inability (or unwillingness) to seek like-mindedness over the meaning of Scripture is a primary cause of division within the so-called Christian Church Why is there such discord over the interpretation of Scripture? What are believers supposed to do when disagreements in matters of interpretation arise? Should they simply "agree to disagree" and avoid any further discussion on the disputed passage?
If a local assembly of believers is going to "reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature" (Eph. 4:13), such disputes must not be left unresolved. It is vitally important to the spiritual growth and oneness of the body that believers take as long as it is necessary to come to agreement and thereby regain the "unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). And what is needed in order to confirm the Spirits leading is body consensus not simply a successful majority vote.
Whether in matters of faith, practice, or fellowship, or ministry, or biblical interpretation, it is imperative "that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no division among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought." (1 Cor. 1:10) To apply the Hermeneutic of the Body to the interpretation of Scripture, therefore, is to recognize that the discernment and implementation of biblical truth is not just a private matter.
Cliff Bjork, "Hermeneutics: Six Essential Principles of Biblical Interpretation You Won't Find in the Textbooks"
(Searching Together, Vol. 22:1-4; 1994), p. 57,58,60.
In light of my study of tithing in the Bible, I cannot in good conscience sign the membership application form when it states that one of my responsibilities is "to practice the truth of tithing willingly". If it were to be restated as "I promise by God's grace to be a faithful steward of all my money, possessions, time, and spiritual gifts, since God owns me and all I have" or something similar, I would be more than happy to sign. Would this be acceptable? If not, why not?
Please consider prayerfully what I've written and let us keep the dialogue process open as we all seek a clearer understanding of God's Word on this subject.
Appendix: Learning from Others
The giving that Christians do for the local church should be the 'desire' of the one giving the gift (2 Cor. 9:7) and not a 'requirement' of the one receiving the gift based on some measurable standard
Many people in today's church believe that tithing is the only way to give to the local church and that giving to the local church is the only way to determine their own level of godliness or faith. In fact, some pastors teach that a person's spiritual growth is determined by simply looking at whether or not monetary tithes are given. This ideology distorts the meaning of Christian responsibility. In addition, it prevents church support on a much larger scale since material blessings of all kinds should be shared with one another (1 Jn. 3:16-17).
Michael L. Webb & Mitchell T. Webb, Beyond Tithes and Offerings, (On Time Publications, 1998), from the Introduction
Here lies the beginning of our harlotry. We cherish our lovely buildings. We give payola to our pastors and missionaries so they will accept the spiritual responsibility and release us to acquire things.
We are part of a Christian world that the worship of money has infiltrated more widely than most of us could ever dream. The church has become unfaithful because its religion has become an industry. It is itself big business.
John White, Money Isn't God: So Why is the Church Worshiping It? (rev. ed.) (IVP, 1993), p. 38, 39
Part of our problem here is that I believe our view of Christian stewardship is wrong. The standard teaching in most Protestant churches is tithe stewardship. This approach tends to fragment our sense of responsibility. Understanding the Old Testament origins of the tithe, a growing number of New Testament scholars tell us that there is no basis for ten-percent stewardship in the New Testament. The call to follow Christ in the New Testament is a whole-life proposition.
Dualistic Christianity typically teaches that after you bring your tithe (or some part of your tithe) into the storehouse, you can pretty much do what you want with the rest. You can buy whatever toys you want and live as lavishly as you want, as long as you don't get a materialistic hang-up with all your things. It is amazing how many American Christians seem to be able to live palatially without ever getting hung up with materialism. Too often our Christian leaders in the United States are the pacesetters for this upscaling.
What isn't taught very often is that the issue isn't just one of materialistic hang-ups. We are part of the international body of Jesus Christ. There is something profoundly wrong when some of us live lavishly and other Christians in our world can't keep their kids fed. The only way in which the church has any hope of reversing the decline in our giving patterns is to enable people to find creative ways to become whole-life stewards. I think we all realize if God were controlling all the switches of our daily lives, our time and money would be used very differently.
Tom Sine, Mustard Seed vs. McWorld (Baker Books, 1999), p. 202.
The bottom line is surely one of attitude are we convicted in a healthy way that leads us to ask what more we can do to divest ourselves of our unused or unnecessary possessions, to exercise self-control and delayed gratification out of thanksgiving for all that God has blessed us with that we never deserved?
Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 252
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