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!