Giving To and Through the Church (Part 5)

[See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 in this series.]

Part 5: Another Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church

Unless I follow up on your comments and questions, this is my second-last post in this series on giving to and through the church. Some of you might be surprised that I’ve barely mentioned tithing yet. So, here we go!

But first, a brief review: In my first post I clarified my goals for this series and quoted two early Christian writings about giving (you may wish to review what they said about tithing). In my second and third posts I discussed three primary NT reasons for church giving: (1) to support needy local Christians, (2) to send relief to distant Christians, and (3) to support gospel proclaimers. And in my fourth post I discussed a controversial topic: church buildings and their expenses. On this last topic, we discovered that the normal NT pattern was for wealthier Christians to open up their homes to host church gatherings. When Christians needed more room, they met in public spaces, such as the Jerusalem temple or rented lecture halls.

Onwards to tithing. I will not attempt to summarize the range of current Christian beliefs and practices about this topic. I’m neither qualified nor particularly interested to do so. Rather, I want to present my own understanding of what the NT says on the matter, then invite your feedback.

The first thing to say about tithing in the NT is that the NT doesn’t say much about it. This is why I haven’t said much about it so far. To have featured it in my first post about church giving would not reflect the preoccupations of the NT writers as they wrote about giving.

We only have record of Jesus mentioning tithing twice:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23; see parallel passage at Luke 11:42)

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” (Luke 18:11-12)

These are the only times tithing is explicitly mentioned in the Gospels. The first instance is a command; the second is a description from a story. What should we make of these verses? Based on these verses, must Christians today tithe? I don’t think so.

Here’s why. Consider the first passage. First, Jesus is speaking to Jews. He is not speaking to Gentiles, nor even to Christian Jews. Second, Jesus bases his command on “the law,” that is, the Law of Moses. Under this Law, the Jewish tithe was designed in part to support the Jewish system of tabernacle and temple worship. Third, Jesus is speaking before his own death and resurrection which brought an end to temple worship, inaugurated the new covenant, and birthed the Christian church. So the audience, the rationale, and the timing all suggest the same thing: this command alone is not a good reason for commanding Christians to tithe.

The second passage contains a remarkable description (albeit a self-description) of a man who is truly outwardly righteous. He not only faithfully tithes according to his duty as a Jew, but he also keeps the “weightier matters of the law.” So here we have a description of a good Jew (though a self-righteous one). But we do not necessarily have a model for Christian imitation (that is found in the repentant tax collector). Or do you think we should also command all Christians to fast twice a week?

The only other place that tithing is explicitly mentioned in the NT is in the book of Hebrews, in the middle of a fascinating passage about Melchizedek:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything… See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. (Heb. 7:1-2, 4-10)

What can we learn about tithing from this passage? First, it was an ancient practice that preceded the nation of Israel and the Law of Moses. Second, in the event described here, tithing was voluntary. Third, tithing under the Law of Moses was designed to support the Levitical priests. (It was also designed to support “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow”; see Deut. 14:28-29.) Fourth, the Law of Moses with its ceremonies and commands is inferior to the New Melchizedek, Christ. This last point is the central point for the author of Hebrews. Immediately after the above passage we find this:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well… For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (Heb. 7:11-12, 18-19)

Can you picture the author of Hebrews writing this and then turning around and insisting on tithing? “I know there’s been a change in the law, but be sure you keep the commands about tithing! I know the law is weak and useless, but you need to tithe or else you’re robbing God!” (“Robbing God,” of course, comes from what is probably the most famous passage on tithing: Malachi 3:8-10. I’m not discussing such OT verses here because I’ve already argued that Christians are not directly bound by such commands from the Law of Moses. If I had space, however, valid and valuable lessons could be drawn from such passages.)

There are plenty of places in the NT where tithing could have been mentioned if it is required of Christians. Why don’t we read of it in Acts 4 and 5, where the apostles distributed the gifts of the first Christians to needy believers? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul emphasizes Christ’s command to support gospel proclaimers? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Timothy 5, which describes how the church maintained a list of needy widows to support? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Corinthians 16, where Paul urges believers to “put something aside” on a weekly basis toward giving?

In the longest passage about giving in the NT (2 Cor. 8-9), Paul pulls out all the stops as he tries to motivate the Corinthian church to give. Well, almost all the stops. He piles up stirring examples of generosity upon theological expositions about God’s “inexpressible gift,” upon borderline flattery of his readers, upon assurances of his own plans to handle donations with utmost transparency, upon psychological moves that will motivate his readers to avoid public shame, upon reminders of eternal rewards, upon assurances of God’s abundant provision, upon grand descriptions of how their giving will bring glory to God, upon… you get the picture. But there is one thing Paul does not do: “I say this not as a command” (1 Cor. 8:8).

Read 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 for yourself sometime. If you’re not motivated to give generously after you’re done, then commanding you to tithe certainly won’t help. If pondering “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (“though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor”) doesn’t move you to “excel in this act of grace” for yourself, then no amount of “compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7) will produce any gospel fruit.

I’ve argued strongly that tithing is no longer commanded for NT saints. However, the NT does draw an implication from OT tithing for believers today. Remember that tithing was commanded under the Mosaic Law in order to support temple workers. Then remember that we, the Body of Christ, are now a new temple. Then return to 1 Corinthians 9 and consider Paul’s logic:

Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:13-14)

First, Paul mentions offerings and alludes to tithes, reminding us how these supported OT temple workers. Then Paul makes a comparison (“in the same way”), saying that gospel proclaimers today should receive similar support. Is this an implicit command for Christians to tithe in order to support their pastors? I don’t think so, given everything else we’ve considered. But I think Paul is saying this: NT gospel proclaimers are the temple workers of the new covenant, and they have just as much right to material support as what OT temple workers had.

So, if you want to fulfill the OT commands to tithe, give a generous gift to someone who has proclaimed the gospel to you! Or give something to an immigrant, an orphan, or a widow. And if you make a personal choice (as I normally have) to devote a certain percentage to give away systematically, go for it. Just don’t command others to give a certain percentage. And don’t assume that your personal choice to tithe fulfills your Christian duty—no, opportunity—to imitate the generosity of Christ.

What do you think? Have I caught the heartbeat of the NT regarding tithing? Share your thoughts and questions below!

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13 thoughts on “Giving To and Through the Church (Part 5)”

  1. I really appreciate how you’ve handled this – we give out of gratitude for what has been done for us, not in an effort to earn right standing or rewards. While there can be and often are a range of blessings because of generous giving, it concerns me when I hear the admonition to give because God will give rich blessings in return. When that is the case, then we respond with even more gratitude to God, but we need to remember that God is not a slot machine. The prosperity gospel is more insidious than we like to admit, and can influence our thinking in ways we may not realize.

    Thanks for another great post in an enjoyable and thought-provoking series.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jordan!

      Ah, the prosperity gospel. Yes, that is a huge problem. I want to be careful, however, that in running from it we do not fall into the opposite ditch.

      For example, I am not quite comfortable with John Piper’s strong distinction between God and God’s gifts, and his emphasis that we should love God for who he is and not for his gifts. (At least that is the way many understand Piper on this point; he’s a bit hard to follow on the topic sometimes, given how passionately he emphasizes each point in turn.) I’m more comfortable with Randy Alcorn’s emphasis on “the treasure principle,” where he notes that Jesus repeatedly invokes self interest in urging people to give. (Treasure in heaven, friends who will welcome you into their homes, give and it will be given to you, all these things will be added to you, etc.) Paul does the same in 2 Cor. 9 and Gal. 6, where he invokes the law of sowing and reaping to urge readers to generosity.

      I think the best response to the prosperity gospel is not to discount or disparage the rewards for giving, but rather to teach the eternal perspective on life and its rewards that Jesus emphasized (and both Randy Alcorn and John Piper promote). The rewards for giving will be greater than we can imagine, though perhaps not as soon as we’d sometimes wish.

      God is certainly not a slot machine. But he is just as certainly generous beyond calculation with his children. Does that make sense? (Interestingly, John Piper also critiques gratitude as a motivation for moral living, but that’s another topic! I like both gratitude and rewards as motivations for living and giving.)

  2. “All scripture (both OT and NT) is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. ” 2 Tim. 3:16

    The tithe, from its origin in the OT, has always been an outside testimony of what is in the heart.

    In Deut. 14:22-23 he lists all the things they should tithe, and follows it with the purpose it served: …”so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.”

    In Matt. 23:23 Jesus wasn’t really rebuking the tithe, but their legalistic attitude.

    I believe Jesus came to fulfill the law, but instead of deleting all the old laws, he simply taught the reasons why they were a good idea in the first place. We have the freedom to choose how we will apply them, but his blessings will certainly follow one who has a heart of love and obedience for God and his Word. A tithe is a testimony of God’s ownership of my possessions.

    2 Cor. 9:6 sums it up, ” He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. ”

    Also, Hebrews 13:16
    “Do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”

    There are still plenty of NT scriptures to teach the principles of the tithe. 🙂 But, it is always good to reexamine our reasons for our beliefs.
    Thank you for digging into this important subject. I enjoyed reading your take on it, and agree with your conclusion. And now Hebrews is on my next-to-read list.

  3. Thank you for sharing this!

    I think some people get nervous when someone says, “the Old Testament Law has passed away”. But the fact that the New Testament has instituted some similar laws to the OT Law, does not mean that as NT Christians we still keep some parts of the OT Law.

    For example, before the American Independence, I’m assuming the people were ruled by British law. After Independence, did Americans say they practiced American law, and a bit of British law as well because some laws were similar? I don’t think so.

    Romans 7:6 speaks about an emancipation that occurred when the New Covenant was ushered in. “Now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter”.

    I think the Bible is very clear that not only did the glory of the Ten Commandments pass away, but also the Ten Commandments were abolished, as 1 Cor. 3:7 and 11 explain it: “If the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away…For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious” (the only Law written in stones were the Ten Commandments, but by other Scriptures we understand that the whole Law was abolished, ceremonial or otherwise).

    In the same way that imposing on ourselves the law of circumcision makes us debtors to the whole OT law, so does binding ourselves to the law of tithing or the Sabbath make us debtors to the whole Law.

    However, we should be rejoicing that in taking away the old covenant, God established a superior covenant: “[Christ] is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (Heb. 8:6). Today we keep Jesus’ commandments (Jn. 14:15). Why would anyone wish to go back to something that is less than “better”?

    Thanks again, Dwight. I have enjoyed reading your other posts, as well (sorry for being so long winded! I didn’t have time to say it in less words 🙂 !!).

    1. Well stated, Eddie! I agree with your comments, including your observations about the Ten Commandments and the danger of binding ourselves to tithing and Sabbath keeping.

      Or perhaps to nuance it slightly: I think it is possible to honor God while observing such commands personally, if we see them as an expression of saving faith in Christ and of a way to express gratitude to him, and not as a way of earning righteousness (see Rom. 14). But to feel bound to them is a sign that our faith is still weak and that we haven’t yet grasped the full freedom of the gospel. And if we attempt to bind others to such commands we are directly contradicting the gospel and leading others into slavery to the Law.

  4. Well said. And I agree with your reasoning, but let me tell you a story.

    I hadn’t read your article yet, but while we were at the restaurant this afternoon settling up the bill and after our server had walked away, I commented tongue-in-cheek to my wife, “Yeah, we give the waitress 15% and God gets 10%.” That’s when she asked me if I had read your latest posting.

    I agree–and did agree with your viewpoint before reading what you had written–but growing up I was taught to tithe. And I’m glad that I was. While I don’t look at tithing in a legalistic sort of way, it is nevertheless a benchmark for me. It helps me see whether or not I am being a good steward of the wealth God has entrusted to me. At tax time I always compare my “charitable giving” with my income. Ten percent is my minimum standard. Though I don’t always meet it, it helps me evaluate where my money has gone in the past year.

    Having said that, I’m glad that I was taught as a child to tithe for another reason. I have never considered that money was mine–the tithe belonged to God. Hence, I never had to adjust my spending from 100% mine to only 90% mine. If I had had to do that as an adult, I think it would have been a difficult transition to make.

    In actual fact the 90% isn’t mine either. All of it belongs to God, and I am just a steward of it.

    1. Dave Kinsey, good to hear from you! 🙂

      Thanks for the story. Mine is similar, and I’ve used the tithe for similar purposes–not as a law to fulfill but as a way of ensuring I do in fact give more than a pittance. I suspect that’s perhaps inferior to simply living a life of continuous spontaneous giving. But the same critique could also be leveled at daily Bible reading and prayer times, yet many of us still find them useful for similar reasons.

      One thing I never discussed in my post: There were actually multiple tithes in the OT. Prorated annually, they actually added up to 23.3%, not 10% (at least as most Jews in Jesus’ time understood the laws). However, it is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison with our own giving, for some of that 23.3% was consumed in part by the donors as they celebrated the annual festivals. Nevertheless, 10% is probably on the low side if we want to use the OT law as a loose guide for our giving.

      In addition, Jesus’ teachings would seem to hint that those with more should be giving a higher percentage than those with less. Craig Blomberg has good teaching and testimony about this in his book Christians in an Age of Wealth ($3.79 on Kindle at the moment):

      “In actual fact the 90% isn’t mine either. All of it belongs to God, and I am just a steward of it.” Amen!

    1. Yes–that, and to support “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (see Deut. 14:28-29). Those latter purposes carry through unchanged under the new covenant, and the former is fulfilled when we support gospel proclaimers (see 1 Cor. 9:13-14).

      1. Yes, it establishes the principle that those who are called to be busy in the Lord’s work should not have to worry about the necessities of life just because they don’t have time to ‘make a living’.

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