I have been asked to write on this issue and so give my assessment of what scripture says on it. At the outset I must tell you that there is NOTHING in the New Testament in support of tithing for Christians. I have read a variety of arguments in support of modern tithing from well-known Christian writers (e.g. Pink), but, despite their fame, I find their arguments very unconvincing, because their use of texts is not according to strict interpretation.
The matter of tithing has already been discussed with some in our church, so what I put here is an expansion of what I said. I should point out straight away that I do NOT teach that tithing is wrong. Nor do I teach against it in any way. What I am showing in this paper is simply that there is no New Testament command to tithe, but there IS a command to help each other as we see fit and as circumstances prove the need to do so.
Tithing comes from the Jewish religion, and this is clearly depicted in New Testament passages that deal with the subject. Broadly speaking, a modern demand to tithe as per Old Testament, is tantamount to removing the freedom of Christ and the prompting of the Holy Spirit in this particular area of living. My understanding of Christian life is that we ought to believe and act according to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not be forced to do so by duty or rite.
Original Tithe Was NOT Money
A tithe is a ‘tenth part’ – ma’aser. Leviticus 27:30 tells us that the tenth part of ALL edible plants and fruit “is the Lord’s: it is holy unto the Lord”. It also applies to herds/flocks of animals (verse 32). They are ‘holy’ in that they were set apart or consecrated for the Lord’s use.
In numbers 18:26 we find that God also set apart a tithe of the tithe... a tenth of the tithe. The tithes were given to the priests, who used it for sacrifices, but God allowed one tenth of the tithe to be given to the priests themselves, who would then offer it back to the lord as an heave offering (contribution).
The Hebrews had to give a tithe based on the increase in their crops (Deuteronomy 14:22). Though a different word is used (‘asar) in this text for ‘tithe’ is essentially means the same thing (it is the part meaning ‘to tithe’). Note it is the latter portion of the usual word for ‘tithe’, an Aramaic word that has commonalities with other semitic languages, because tithing was practised throughout the known world. this is why tithing existed amongst the Hebrews before Mosaic law.
In Genesis 14:20 we read that Abraham paid a tithe of his war spoils to Melchizedek, after the high priest pronounced a benediction on him. God was promised a tithe by Jacob after his ladder dream. However, the Mosaic law gave structure to what was really a voluntary tithing by the ancients.
What Tithing Was
In the law the subject of tithing was attended to – anything grown in agriculture and any increase in animal husbandry, but did not include the firstfruits, which had its own rule concerning giving. The tithe was ‘across the board’; that is, it was not the lesser quality one did not wish to retain, but top quality. A herdsman would just count every tenth animal coming out of a fold, and this animal was given to the Lord, regardless of its status. A farmer could translate his crop into cash if it was easier for transport purposes – but he would have to add another 5% on top of the cash value, so that he did not conduct the sale for his own profit.
The law stated to whom the tithe was given. See Numbers 18:21-32. The Levites were not given land for their use, and to compensate God gave them the tithe as a reward for their services to the Lord (verse 21); they were then to give their own tithe to the priest, taken out of the tithe given by all of Israel (verse 26).
The third part of the law on tithing defined where the tithes were to be given. See Deuteronomy 12:1-14 and 14:22-29. Yahweh would choose a place to take the tithes, where the tribes were. This became Jerusalem. When the tithes were presented, a special ceremonial meal was eaten, shared by the Levites. Every three years tithes could be distributed locally to the poor and defenceless. Some experts argue there were three tithes involving three-tenths, but the details are argued.
Later Jews perverted the tithing requirement, so that they held too strictly to the law, making it onerous. Others neglected the tithe altogether, robbing God. The reality was that tithing was meant to be a joyous expression of love for God, worship, because everything belongs to God anyway. It was, then, a sign of submission and of reliance on God alone. Those who were given the tithes were the Levites, so that they may live, because they had no other income. The third-year tithe, though, was given to the poor.
That, then, is the Old Testament meaning of ‘tithe’. It began as a voluntary act by individuals, and then took a formal shape under Mosaic Law, simply because the Hebrews were now a new nation, and the servants of God, the Levites, needed to be kept because they did not do commercial work.
This is usually taken to mean 10% of one’s gross income, given to the church. Just to throw a fact into the pot... if the local church that receives the tithe is corrupt or heretical, then its use of the tithe will also be corrupt and unpleasing to God! Even if the local church is mainly genuine, what it uses the tithe for may be corrupt or heretical or off the mark. So, what, then, of the tithe? Is it given to God? No, it is given to the local church, who uses it for bad purposes. Having said what is obvious, let us continue...
Many who advocate tithing in the churches use Malachi 2:8-11 as proof that it should exist. The text reads thus:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say,
‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.
You are cursed with a curse, For you have robbed Me, Even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse ...”
In my Sunday meetings I try to show those listening the difference between what are texts for the moment – historical and pertaining to the people of the time – and texts that are universal in application, for all people in all times. Those who advocate modern tithing outside of Judaism are confusing the two concepts. As a teacher of strict interpretation I cannot accept this kind of false thinking without challenge.
The interpretation of any text must always be strict. In this text it is this: The warning of God is given to “this whole nation” – Israel. The “man” at the start of the verse refers to the Jews. It is Jews who have robbed God by not giving their tithes, as determined by the Mosaic law. The tithes are linked to the ‘offerings’ – another indication that this is about Judaistic practices. It is therefore a warning to the nation of Israel. Thus, it is not about other nations. Nor is it about those who are Jews saved by grace, who are no longer under Mosaic law. It is bad interpretation to say that this text applies to Christians. It is closer to the wrong practice of spiritualising texts than to proper interpretation.
Are we under the Mosaic law, or not? Or, are we free in Christ? it was the Jews who were commanded to tithe, in order to keep the Levites... so in which way are Christians obligated to tithe in this way? But, some may argue, what about Matthew 23:23? The immediate answer is very simple – what about it? It has no bearing whatever on Christians tithing. Indeed, nor does it have any bearing on Jewish tithing as a practice. Rather, it is to do with the way Jews at the time were abusing the system of tithing. It is bad interpretation to say that tithing can be ‘planted’ into Christian life as if it were feasible or warranted.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier [matters] of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
Who is Jesus aiming this warning at? It is rather plainly put – the scribes and Pharisees. It is these who are the hypocrites in this text, not Christians whose identity was not even formed yet! The Jewish leaders were guilty of paying minute attention to minute things – mint, anise and cumin – but paid no attention to the more serious matter of obeying the Lord in all things. They left these matters “undone”. Therefore, Jesus was condemning them for their hypocrisy, NOT because they did not practise tithing per se. They certainly practised tithing – but did not see the spiritual side of their practise as useful. This is underlined by Jesus reference to the temple and the altar (verses 20,21).
This warning is again aimed ONLY at the scribes and Pharisees, in verses 25, 26 and 27, etc. These Jew-only references are linked to “our fathers” and the “prophets”... the scribes and Pharisees were the “children of them which killed the prophets”. How much clearer can the text be? It only speaks of Jews, and this is further supported by the following verses.
I have been asked why Jesus should warn the Jews about Temple practises if it was all to be disbanded when He died a short while later. It is an irrelevant question. If, say, a nation’s money system is to be changed on July 1st at midnight, it means that any laws concerning the old style money would be in force until the last second before midnight, the month before! The new system cannot be used legally until the old has been disbanded. Until that happens, the old system and laws still apply.
Note: Verses 35 and 36 again show that the text only applies to the Jews... the penalties for their robbery of God is “upon this generation”; Jesus applied it to the Jews who lived in His own lifetime. Obviously, the principles would apply for as long as Judaism was acceptable – and that time period, this was to be just a few months more. Thus, Jesus statement, as it stands, did not apply after that generation. There is no way that we can use the text in support of Christian tithing, when Jesus was talking specifically and only to the Jewish leaders.
As I have said to others, I am not teaching against tithing, but against the notion that it is mandatory on Christians. There is nothing at all in the New Testament to support the demand for tithing. Indeed, given that the whole point of the Gospel is to free men from the demands of the Jewish law and its punishments, and for men to be free in Christ, voluntarily obeying and loving the Lord, such a demand would not be in keeping with the New promises given by God that separate Judaism and the Gospel. The many compulsions under Mosaic Law simply do not translate into Christians under grace. Rather, as in the case of Christians eating meat and observing certain days as holy – if an individual Christian has the inner compulsion from God to do these things, then let him do it. It is up to him! But, it is not compulsory for him, nor is it compulsory for anyone else.
The evidence in the New Testament is that Christians must help fellow Christians in need. But, this, in itself, does not provide proof that they must tithe. The tithe was for the temple and the Levites. And the Levites paid their tithe to the priest. None of these exist today! So, to whom do tithes go? Since when does ‘local church’ equal ‘Temple’, and ‘pastor’ equal ‘Temple priest’? I do not care how eloquent a famed preacher is – he cannot translate Judaistic practises into Christian church beliefs!
“that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency ...” (2 Corinthians 8:2-4).Does this not speak of willingly giving of one’s substance to help others? It is certainly not a ‘standing order’ so that local churches could gather money for some future unknown need!
This individual conscience angle is also found in this text:
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: (2) On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections ...” (1 Corinthians 16:1,2). Note that the man does not give his money to the local church, but makes sure he always has money set aside to help other Christians.
Christians should observe this about giving: they must give willingly from the heart, they must not give grudgingly; they must not give of compulsion; they must give cheerfully (2Cor 8:12; 9:5, 7). This is very different from the rigidity of Judaistic giving, which was often done grudgingly. The simple truth is – EVERYTHING belongs to the Lord and so NOTHING we have can be counted as our own. When this is understood, we can give willingly and graciously and in abundance, because we are merely ‘shifting around’ what belongs to God anyway!
This is another text used by Christians who wish to retain tithing today. But, again, Abraham giving a tenth of the war prize to Melchizedec does Not ‘translate’ into Christian belief and action. It is what Abraham did AT THAT TIME. As a stand-alone action it was simply an historical fact, not a universal command.
Very often Christians do not read a verse in its whole context. The context of Hebrews 7: 1-10 is to do with the human priest, Melchizedec, and not with Jesus. The text overall shows that the priest was superior to Abraham, and the New Testament of Christ superior to the Old. In the text tithing is incidental, not primary. We are shown that the Old Testament has been completely removed by Christ and replaced by His own spiritual laws.
Another ‘proof text’ used by pro-tithing Christians is Galatians 3:17,18, even though it has nothing to do with tithing as a practice. It is to do with God’s promises to Abraham. The life of a Christian belongs to God totally, including finances. And our High Priest is Jesus Christ, not an human agency or church. How, then, do we give one tenth to the High Priest, Christ? It is given to those in need and to any enterprise founded by Him. Not given to a cat’s home, or a dog’s charity! Not to people living far away who we do not know and who may even hate the Lord!
Our family always comes first (including needy parents), but other believers in need are the major receivers of fellow Christian generosity, as are those who are given the task of preaching and teaching, etc., if their tasks prevent them from working commercially. No man genuinely called by God to preach or teach should have to go outside the churches to seek help to live (e.g. Matthew 10:41,42). I suppose it comes down to how important and valuable individual Christians view the work of God.
To finalise, then – Christians must give generously to those things and those men called by God. They must be ready to give of their substance to fellow believers in need – not to unbelievers who hate God. Such monies (or other things) are held by each individual Christian until such a giving arises.
The New Testament speaks of such giving as according to one’s ability, simply because, for example, one tenth of a rich man’s money is far less in real terms than one tenth of a poor man’s money. In my own life, when in dire poverty, I still willingly gave my money to the church. One some occasions even when it left me with nothing, causing my family to have no food, clothing or rent. Is this right? I do not think so, especially when the monies given were usually kept in a bank account.
Giving in the New Testament is shown in the following text. THIS text is the proof text to use:
“every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give, not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
In this text we see that giving is according to individual conscience, not a tithe.
Also read my Bible study on Matthew 23, Ref. No. C-01-23
© November 2012
Published on www.christiandoctrine.com
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