And perhaps it has become a justifiably heated issue when tithers begin to see the abuse of their tithes and offerings by those they are supposedly "supporting". This has led to an American Senator, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, writing to six of the highest earning American preachers asking for their accounts to be disclosed to the giving public. The Senator asked one of those preachers whether it was true that he had used church funds to purchase two Rolls Royce motor cars. This was soundly denied by the American pastor who answered, "We only have one Rolls Royce which was paid for by donors." Many of these high-flying preachers are literally high-flying preachers- they each own private jets! For one of these travelling pastors, his jet costs $1.5 million dollars a year just to service and maintain it (it costs many times more than that throughout the year to actually fly it)! Little wonder so many people are questioning whether it is right to "tithe" to such ministries.
WHAT IS TITHING?
Tithing is the giving of 10% of income. It was integral to the Old Covenant system of worship where income was nearly always produce or livestock (Lev. 27:30). It was given by Israelites to the Levites who in turn tithed to the Priests (Num. 18:26). Even a casual reading of the Old Testament will reveal that the requirements for giving extended far beyond tithing. In fact, the whole Old Covenant system of worship was founded upon sacrificial giving. Some scholars have estimated that the average Israelite was required to give at least 30% [note- Deuteronomy 12:6 and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock] of his farming income to the Levites (Num. 18:21) to fulfil his obligations to the Law of Moses (the Mosaic Law). But the Hebrew still gave freely knowing that God promised to bless them since obedience to these requirements was conditional for God's promised blessing-
And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God.
The liberal giving of tithes and offerings is described in several places in the Old Testament where the Priests had received more than enough from the people who freely gave to the various appeals that had been made-
and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the LORD has commanded us to do.”
Tithes were never intended to be the only form of giving under the Old Covenant. They were, in fact, associated with additional giving referred to as "offerings". These offerings could be produce, livestock, or currency (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 4, page 861, Eerdmans). Thus, tithes and offerings were not exclusively agricultural- in fact, there was specific provision within the Law to convert the agricultural tithe into currency (Deuteronomy 14:25). Throughout the Old Testament there were also occasional appeals made for additional funds by the priests for the construction of the Tabernacle, then the Temple. Once the Temple was constructed, an additional appeal was made by the priests referred to as the "Temple Tax" which was used to maintain the Temple. Thus by the time of Christ, the giving of tithes and offerings clearly included the giving of currency (which counters the idea that it was only ever produce or livestock and never currency).
In some instances, part of the tithe, consisting of food, was to be eaten by the giver in celebration before the Lord where those less fortunate were invited to share in this meal.
And you shall not neglect...the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
Deuteronomy 14:27a, 29
THE PRINCIPLE OF THE TITHE
Honor the LORD with your wealth
and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
Principles are different to Laws. They aren't bound to culture or time. A principle is only a principle if it is universally applicable. Principles usually under gird laws. For example, "Do the right thing" or, "Be considerate of others" are principles that don't need laws in order to be right, but yet many laws are written which try to enforce these principles. Tithing seems to be a principle. It seems that the giving to God of the first tenth was a principle of worship, honour, and respect that was well-known before it was ever a law. Sacrificial giving is evidenced in the episode of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-4) where they both present their offerings. While many scholars see the sin of Cain as being a bloodless sacrifice, there is textual support for seeing that it was Abel who brought the first of his flock (the essence and principle of the tithe as the first part) while Cain only brought an offering (not the first of his harvest). We then see Abram tithing to Melchizedek in Genesis 14 where he gives this enigmatic priest a tithe. The writer to the Hebrews reinforces the concept of tithing as a principle by referring to this story in Hebrew 7:8 as proof that the giving of tithes was a way of honouring God not the human recipient of the tithe.
Because principles are universal they are usually evidenced in non-Biblical cultures. Don Richardson, one of the world's leading Missiologists, has written extensively about this in many of books where notes how missionaries have arrived in unreached cultural groups only to find them worshiping and magistrating in very Biblical ways, because, Richardson essentially argues, they all trace back to God's original instructions and revelations to mankind. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes-
"Many ancient cultures practiced tithing in some form. Israel was merely one among many ancient Near Eastern peoples who tithed their property, produce, or currency. Egyptians practiced tithing, as did Syrians (1Macc. 10:31; 11:35), Lydians (Herodotus i.89), Babylonians (Oppenheim, pp. 183-198; Milgrom pp. 55-62), and Assyrians. The tithe was known in Ugarit (14th century B.C.) and among the Carthaginians (Diodorus xx.14). Seutonius and Tacitus used Latin - decumo - as a technical military term meaning "take every tenth man for punishment [i.e., decimate ]" (cf. Lev. 27:32f.)."
ISBE, Vol. 4, page 861
It seems that tithing was a universal principle before it was ever a law. As a principle it acknowledges that all things come from God and that ultimately all things are His anyway. Jacob obviously understood this tithing principle.
"...And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
THE REASON FOR THE TITHE
While the practice of tithing provided for the Levites and Priests, its purpose was never to benefit those in the ministry. Tithing was about honouring God. It acknowledged that God was our Source and that everything we have we have received ultimately from Him (James 1:17 - Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.). It therefore taught the tither that God was the Supplier of his needs and that he should therefore fear Him-
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always."
Tithing was a reflection of what was to be in the heart of the worshiper: trust in God. Jesus said, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matt. 6:21).
It seems that the tithing of produce to the Levites meant that they were able to store then retrieve that food for later distribution (among their own community and possibly those in need). This seems to have become an important responsibility of the Levites and Priests. Hence, in Malachi 3, God appeals to Israel to honour their commitment to tithing so that there will be enough food in "My House" -
Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.
In the New Testament the Church appears to have continued many of the established Jewish practices which presumably also included tithing. This is reasonably presumed because those characteristics of tithing under the Old Covenant system of worship are observed in the New Testament. This includes-
- The Church had the resources to make distribution to those in need (note the implication of 1Timothy 5 where Paul implies that the Church was regularly redistributing resources to those in need). This was a function of the Old Covenant tithe.
- The Church had a regular component to its worship service where it received offerings (1Cor. 16:1-2, "Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.") This was clearly integral to the Old Covenant practice of tithing.
- The Church was able to financially support its ministers (1Cor. 9:7-10, "Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop." 1Tim. 5:17-18, "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages." ”) This was also an aspect of the Old Covenant tithe.
THE BLESSING AND CURSE OF THE TITHE
One criticism about the validity of tithing or today is that it cannot apply to Gentiles today since it was only ever applicable to Israel under the Old Covenant. Tithing, these critics claim, was integral to the Old Covenant that Israel had with God. Therefore, like any other aspects of the Covenant between Israel and God, obedience brought blessing and disobedience brought curse (Deut. 11:26-27 “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today"). But tithing was being practiced as an act of worship by other nations and people prior to it being prescribed in the Mosaic Law. It therefore appears that the argument that tithing was only an Israelite practice is not historically or Biblically correct.
The additional argument that Jesus never endorsed tithing for the Christian is based on the assumption that what Jesus taught prior to the Cross was only for Jews. For example-
“How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest part of your income, but you ignore the important things of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but you should not leave undone the more important things."
But this assumption is grounded in "Dispensationalism" which teaches that the ministry of Christ was not during a time of transition between Covenants, but rather was entirely a continuation of the Old Covenant. Therefore, anything Christ taught was actually only meant for Jews. But this is totally illogical. If that is true then we have no teachings of Christ that are applicable for today since we are under the New Covenant! This then makes the Great Commission absurd since Christ commanded that His followers teach everything He had commanded. When we read in Matthew 23:23 that Jesus endorsed tithing we cannot simply dismiss this as inadmissible evidence. In fact, based on the charge in the Great Commission we need to take it very seriously.
Since tithing is a principle which honours God and causes our hearts to trust and fear Him it seems reasonable to consider that since God says He would bless those who tithe that this blessing is available today. But it raises the issue of how we understand "blessing". Based on the principle of Deuteronomy 8:18, tithing is done because we are blessed not to be blessed.
You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
"Blessing" is God's provision. Blessing does not mean opulence. Blessing does not mean excess. You might however be experiencing both of these conditions. To you the Scriptures have some dire warnings about what you trust and where your heart is (1Tim. 6:17, "As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy."). But it would be wrong to think that unless you are living in opulence and excess you are not being blessed by God. The great G.K. Chesterton once walked past an obviously extremely wealthy man and was then heard to remark, "There but for the grace of God go I." We should not equate being wealthy as necessarily being blessed. Neither should we think that if we only have enough to get by and just a little to be generous that we are not prospering. Prosperity is a blessing that looks like God meeting our needs and using us our channel of blessing toward others.
We therefore don't tithe to prosper, but because we are prospering.
THE NEW COVENANT EXCEEDS THE OLD
Some Christians object to tithing because they appeal to the New Covenant being about grace and not Law. This assumes that the standards of grace are lower than the standards of the Law, or worse still, that grace-received has no obligations. This assumption completely misses the direction of the New Covenant- it is not a move away from Law, but the fulfilment of the Law and move toward the essence of the Law- loving God and therefore loving others.
For example, the Law said Do not murder, but the New Covenant says, Don't be angry in your heart toward another person (Matt. 5:21-22, “You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Do not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the high council. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell."). Jesus made it clear that the demands of the Law were not to be "relaxed" (Matt. 5:19), and that His followers were to "exceed" the standards of the Old Covenant. This doesn't mean that we should sacrifice (more) animals for our sin under the New Covenant because Christ has fulfilled the demands for blood sacrifice that the Law demanded. But it should mean that what was "right" under the Old Covenant (and was done out of a sense of duty) is still "right" under the New Covenant and should now be done out of sense of heartfelt worship. For a brief treatment of "Grace-Giving" I recommend watching Randy Alcorn's Youtube video on the subject [watch].
Randy Alcorn says that tithing is the "training wheels" of giving. In other words, because 10% was what the Law prescribed as the minimum tithe (and we have seen that the overall figure was at least 30%), it would be a backward step to consider that Grace has a far lower standard than the Law. For the person who rejects the idea of New Testament tithing and yet espouses "grace-giving" we should assume that they are giving at 11%.
WHERE SHOULD THE TITHE GO?
Every believer should belong to a local expression of the Church. Since the local church is where the believer is pooling their time, talent and treasure to help fulfil the Great Commission and to build a community of Christ-followers, it is here that the believer should tithe. The fact that Paul could write to local churches and instruct them on the use of their funds implies that these New Testament local churches were the recipients of their congregational members' tithes. Many churches also seek additional funds to fulfil their foreign missions program, their building construction/maintenance programs, special projects and relief programs. Church members should support these initiatives. Other churches encourage their members to tithe the minimum into the local church and then find missional organisations to financially support directly. If you are uncomfortable tithing into your local church then why are you going there?
In my own church I have always strived to be the most generous giver in the church. As the pastor, I feel it is my leadership responsibility to set the right example by being a generous giver. In addition to this giving, my family gives to several other missions and relief organisations including World Vision and Compassion. I do not live in opulence. I live in a modest home and drive a modest car. I receive a modest wage. But I am blessed and prospering. I am no worse off for giving my tithes and offerings, in fact, I am fairly convinced (based on the evidence so far) that I am actually better off.
Dr. Andrew Corbett, 4th December 2007