For everyone apart from the executive pastor and church bookkeeper, a sermon series on generosity tends to be everybody’s least favorite series of the year.
Everybody knows that Christians are supposed to tithe to their local church, but very few of us actually do it. In fact, according to recent data, only 10-25 percent of American Christians tithe.
The sad truth is that the vast majority of Christians do not financially contribute to the mission of their local church in any substantial way––at least not on regular intervals.
In light of that reality, pastors and church leaders are rightfully concerned that their people are not being discipled in such a consequential aspect of their lives. So an annual sermon series dedicated to the subject of generosity is a good place to start.
The bible leaves no question as to whether Christians ought to be generous, or whether the focus of that generosity should be furthering the mission of the gospel through the local church. That’s a given.
The question I have is whether Christians are mandated in the bible to tithe.
If so, should the ten percent be taken after taxes or before? Should Christians accept the tax deduction at the end of the year along with all their other charitable donations? But to be sure, these more tactical questions are mute if tithing isn’t a New Testament mandate meant for the Church.
What’s more is that there isn’t a single bible verse that we can cite that explicitly commands it. Nevertheless, just because we don’t have a single chapter-and-verse to justify something, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important biblical principle.
Let’s take a look at how the bible presents tithing, starting with its first mention in the book of Genesis.
The Biblical Origins of Tithing
The first time we see the concept of a tithe is shortly after Abram returns from a military victory he had become involved in to save his nephew Lot from captivity. As Abram returns from battle with considerable spoils from his defeated enemy, he meets a somewhat mysterious King-Priest.
“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,
‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”
Abram’s actions here aren’t necessarily meant to be taken as prescriptive. But as the patriarchal figure of Israel, his tithe to a priest of God is a precursor to and foreshadowing of how God would command his people to tithe to the priesthood. Abram gave a tenth of his spoils to Melchizedek, because Melchizedek had apparently been interceding with God on his behalf.
Since the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) were written at the same time, this was likely the very purpose for which the author chronicled this event: to tie God’s command to tithe back to the actions of their nation’s patriarch.
Tithing Becomes Law
Hundreds of years after Abram gave a tenth of his spoils to the King-Priest Melchizedek, we see God institutionalize the practice of tithing in the Mosaic Law.
“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.” (Leviticus 27:30)
God commanded the people to give a tenth of their harvest to the Levites, who were the priestly tribe of Israel. Instead of working the land or in other trades, the people from the tribe of Levi tended to the Temple, and the priests served as mediators between Israel and the people through the offering of burnt sacrifices. Therefore, the rest of Israel subsidized the Levites’ physical needs through tithes. Some of that income went directly to the burnt offerings, and the rest was given to the Levites.
What’s more is that when we take a closer look at the tithing commandments of the Old Testament, it wasn’t as simple as an annual 10 percent donation. Different bible scholars come to different conclusions, but the people of Israel were commanded to give between 12 and 14 separate tithes over the course of every seven year period. This means that their overall contributions were almost 20 percent of their overall income (as Thomas Schriener explains here).
So if we use Old Testament tithing as a one-to-one commandment for Christians to give to their church, the math gets a little more complicated and the required donation is higher than most of us realize. (But perhaps this is beside the point.)If we use Old Testament tithing as a one-to-one commandment for Christians to give to their church, the math gets a little more complicated and the required donation is higher than we realize. Click To Tweet
Tithing and Conditional Blessings
When it came to God’s command for Israel to tithe, it was anything but optional. Like many other parts of the Mosaic Law, God’s blessing on the people was directly tied to their adherence to his commands. And if they failed to obey, curses were sure to follow.
“Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe 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.” (Malachi 3:8-10)
When Israel refused to tithe, God saw it as a violation of what was contractually owed to him––because it was. Therefore, God would unleash a curse on them. On the other hand, God invites Israel to test his faithfulness. He promises them that if they bring the full tithe, he will bless them until they have no more need.
In other words, if they fulfill their end of the deal, he will over-deliver on his.
While these verses have an application for Christians, they have often been used to spiritually abuse Christians, particularly by prosperity preachers who threaten misfortune and promise financial abundance on the basis of how much their congregants bring to their multimillion dollar coffers.When Israel refused to tithe, God saw it as a violation of what was contractually owed to him –– because it was. Click To Tweet
Jesus and Tithing in the New Testament
At the crux of this discussion is whether these commands (along with their promised blessings and curses) are universal and enduring for Christians today, or if they were meant only to apply to the people of Israel in the old covenant. A look at the New Testament helps us to discern if that’s the case.
Tithing isn’t mentioned by name very often in the New Testament. In fact, we only see it twice. And those two mentions are actually two accounts of the same interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees, where he has some pretty stern words for them.
“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.” (Matthew 23:23, cf. Luke 11:42)
So Jesus appears to be affirming the command of tithing, in addition to justice, mercy and faithfulness.
But Jesus was a Jewish man speaking to Jewish men. Jesus’ resurrection is the pivot point in the biblical narrative (an understatement, I know). After Jesus died and rose from the dead, the Mosaic law was fulfilled, and his followers were no longer bound to it.
Therefore, there are Old Testament commandments that Jesus would have assumed his followers adhered to that he would not have commanded them to continue keeping after his resurrection. For example, the rite of circumcision and dietary restrictions were no longer necessary to be considered part of God’s people.
The Church wrestled with these issues for a number of years after Jesus’ ascension. Ultimately, they determined that non-Jewish believers were not obligated to keep these commandments from the old covenant (Acts 15:1-35).
Tithing is not mentioned in their discussions or decisions. But that begs the question as to whether non-Jewish Christians were tithing to the Temple. If they weren’t (which seems like a reasonable assumption), then it wasn’t a big enough issue for the Church leaders to bring it up.Jesus was a Jewish man speaking to Jewish men. Click To Tweet
Tithing is not Apparently a New Testament Mandate
After Jesus’ mention of tithing in his condemnation of the Pharisees, we don’t ever see tithing mentioned again in the New Testament, whether descriptive or prescriptive. There is no explicit command (or apparent expectation) that followers of Jesus would transfer their tithe from the Temple to the Church.
The new Temple where the Holy Spirit resided was now Christians themselves (1 Corinthians 6:19). Followers of Jesus no longer needed to offer regular animal sacrifices, because Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice has forever removed our guilt and ushered us into the constant presence of God (Hebrews 10:1-18). There is no levitical priesthood to mediate between God and man. Jesus is our mediator, and every believer is a part of his priesthood (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9).
In the age of the Church, tithing, as it was understood in the Old Testament, seems somewhat obsolete.
That doesn’t mean that followers of Jesus weren’t called to be generous, though. That never has been and never will be obsolete.
But if not tithing, what is Christian generosity supposed to look like? I’ll tackle that question in my next blog post.There is no explicit command (or apparent expectation) that followers of Jesus would transfer their tithe from the Temple to the Church. Click To Tweet