(Previously a guestpost on onemoneydesign.com) I have been at this awhile now, and I have to admit- nothing stirs the pot like the word “tithe”. For some, the word encompasses their entire understanding of Biblical finance, for others its a manditory action of all “true” believers, to another group it is planting a “seed of blessing”, and yet to another the word is nothing but a legalistic, manipulative ploy of greedy pastors taking advantage of their congregation. And all of these thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg! There is a lot of confusion around the topic because many people view the practice differently. I will do my best to give a balanced interpretation of the tithe for the modern Christian.
What was the tithe?
The simple answer to this question is this: ”Tithe” literally means “Tenth”. In the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to give a tenth of their produce and livestock to the Levites who performed the work of the temple. (Deu. 14:22) Plain and simple: a tenth (or tithe) ”is the Lord’s.” (Lev. 27:30)
The more complicated answer to this question is that there actually were three separate tithes. One, described above, is a contribution to the Levites to do the work of the Lord. The second was a tenth of all to be set aside and consumed during the various feasts and religious ceremonies throughout the year (Deu. 12). The third was collected every third year to help provide for the Levite, alien, orphan, and widow. (Deu. 14:28-29)
What should a new covenant Christian think of the tithe?
Now we know what it is, but what to make of it? The answer is not an easy one. Interpreting what the tithe means for Christians has gone in countless directions. Some of the divisons are just differences of opinion and interpretation, and some are downright heresy. I will do my best to separate the two.
First, the continuance of the tithe is never directly confirmed or rejected in the New Testament. There is no direct statement in the New Testament that we are to continue or stop tithing. So we can’t say absolutely that Christians are supposed to mimic the tithe concept or abandon it all together. Christ said that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17-18). So how did Christ fulfill the command to tithe?
We aren’t Israelites, we aren’t supporting the Levites, we aren’t farmers, we don’t live in the promised land, and on, and on, so what should we think about the tithe? As Christians, we must believe that the Old Testament is still God’s word and still written for our instruction (Rom. 3:31, 15:4). Therefore, we must ask: what was God trying to teach us in the practice of tithing? What was the heart, or principle, behind the command? After all, we didn’t throw the ten commandments out the window because Christ came, so is there something in the tithe practice that should continue on? It is easy to see that the animal sacrifices of the old covenant are fulfilled and finished in the blood and sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 9), but is the call to support the ”house of the Lord” fulfilled, over, and a matter of the past? It doesn’t seem so. The New Testament confirms this line of thinking. Verses like Gal. 6:6, Rom. 15:27, 1 Cor. 9:11-14 (and many others) relate this principle: The new covenant Christian is commanded by scripture to support those who are ministers of the Gospel. Where to go from here is where the division begins:
Acceptable interpretations of tithing:
1. Historically, many Christians have chosen to obey the command to support those who “get their living from the gospel” by following the Old Testament model. They conclude that they are going to give a tenth of their income (product of their hands) to the Lords’ work/church. Hence, the Christian who does this “fulfills the law” not by abandoning the practice of tithing, but by doing it willingly. In essence, the law “required” a contribution, and Christ in us fulfills this legality by putting generosity in our hearts in a way that we gladly, and willingly give a tenth–and perhaps much more–to support the work of the Lord. Obedience has transitioned from external to internal. Obedience is not just physical, it is spiritual–from the heart. In this, the Law is “fulfilled”.
2. Many Christians argue that the temple is no more, the Levites are no more, we are not farmers, we are not living in the promised land… so therefore, the practice of tithing is fulfilled in Christ and no longer relevant (it has been fulfilled in a manner similar to animal sacrifices, for example). We are free in Christ to take this stance, but not in a manner that disposes of giving altogether (as explained above). In essence, tithing is a thing of the past (along with the tenth/10% number), and now Christians are free to prayerfully discern how to go about supporting the work of the Lord.
I don’t think these two camps disagree on as much as they think they do. Both approaches can be spiritually mature and take seriously the call to support the work of the Lord, and both can be manipulated by sin. Option 1 shows signs of self-discipline, dedication, and consistency, but can be twisted towards legalism and forced contribution. Option 2 shows signs of freedom, grace, and Spirit-led giving, but can be twisted towards license and non-contribution.
Unacceptable interpretations of tithing:
Tithing is a requirement of all believers. The commandment to tithe is not directly stated anywhere in the New Testament. Therefore, we can’t say that all Christians are required to tithe. In the freedom of Christ, a believer may choose a different approach to giving. That being said, this freedom is not license to avoid giving all together. The New Testament commands us to give. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)
Giving is now optional. I do not believe that the freedom of the new covenant permits us to make a giving a matter of personal whim. Grace did not appear to make obedience optional. True, God desires our giving to be from a willing heart–but that has everything to do with transforming our heart, not excusing us from obedience. If you use your freedom found in Christ to justify keeping 100% for yourself, I think you have a distorted understanding of grace. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21)
Tithing is necessary for salvation. This is ridiculously unbiblical. Nothing of ourselves can save us, only Christ. This is reminiscent of the people whom Paul confronted in Galatians that said you had to be circumcised to be saved. We are not saved by our contributions: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20)
Tithing is a seed of blessing. We are to give from the heart out of a desire to build God’s kingdom, not to build our portfolio. Giving so that God will bless you materially is completely backwards–this takes generosity and makes it self-revolving. God does explain in His word that He often chooses to bless the generous, but He also said He gives and takes away (and this blessing is so that the generous can continue to be generous, just on a larger scale- not so that they can gorge themselves on the surplus). The notion of backing God into a corner He has to pay His way out of is ludicrious. ”The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
I hope this post does something to bring a Biblical balance back to the church. Regardless of what we may think of tithing, if our interpretation is correct, it should point us and others towards Christ. “Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:5)