The Tithing Question
by Bob Burridge ©2015
There are different views about the principle of tithing our income to the church. Confusion about the nature of Old Testament law has left some uncertain about how the tithing principle fits in today in the ages after our Lord’s finished work on the cross.
Some see the giving of the tithe as a remnant of the old Levitical system given to the Jews through Moses which was done away in its New Testament fulfillment. Some dismiss this practice as “Legalism”. But that’s not an accurate use of the term. Legalism is the reliance upon our works to remove our guilt, or to improve our fellowship with our Creator. Legalism doesn’t mean having a high regard for moral principles God teaches us to obey. Legalism is condemned in God’s word, but not everything called “Legalism” is accurately labeled. It’s not legalism when we want to obey what God instructs us to do in worship, prayer, marriage, respecting life and property, and such things. The same is true about how God directs us in our giving to the church.
A fair study of Scripture is the only way we can gain a more sound understanding of how the practice of tithing should be viewed in this era of the church.
The Bible teaches us some basic economic principles.
Basic to everything else is the fact that the Creator is the Lord over everything. God owns all things because he made everything that exists, including each of us humans. Psalm 89:11 is just one of the passages that makes this very clear. It says, “The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all its fullness, You have founded them.”
God created us to joyfully display his glory. One way we are to do that is to be faithful caretakers of his world. He assigns each of us certain things for which we are responsible. Genesis 1:26-28 tells us that we humans were created to rule over God’s world, and therefore to have dominion over it. We are held responsible for how we manage it all for his glory. We are to use what he gives us to provide for our daily needs, to advance God’s Kingdom, and to show his compassion by how he transforms us unworthy sinners into those who show our respect for God, and care for the legitimate needs of others.
This means that our ownership is a “stewardship”, a management situation. However, those things God entrusts to individuals really become in one sense theirs. The Eighth Commandment forbids stealing. That means there is real secondary ownership of the things God entrusts us to take care of as his representatives.
What we grow or make is ours, it becomes our personal responsibility. Since God is the primary owner of everything, he alone can set the rules for how our ownership of things can be or should be transferred from one person to another.
When we are employed to help others produce or do things, what we earn from them becomes rightly ours. 1 Timothy 5:18 says that “the laborer is worthy of his wages.”
Things we own can be traded, sold, or given to other people. Those actions change ownership and responsibility for the things that change hands. As long as it was not done fraudulently those transactions cannot be taken back without the consent of the new steward of them.
Taxes are another way we legitimately transfer what God gives us. It becomes the responsibility of the governments God raises up to rule over society according to the principles of Romans 13. Their duty as ministers of God is to provide for civil justice and national defense. When Jesus taught that what is Caesar’s belongs to Caesar, he was referring to taxes.
At death your ownership can be transferred to your loved ones or friends as an inheritance. The ones chosen by the owner when he is alive become the legitimate and responsible managers of these entrustments from God.
Sometimes you get compensations for your things if someone steals them or damages them. The restitutions they pay become yours in the eyes of God.
When you bring your offerings to the church, they become the rightful property of God’s Kingdom. The management of them and the giving of them is regulated by what God has described in his word.
The Tithe in the Bible
There are many passages in God’s word that mention the “tithe”. The word “tithe” means “ten percent”. In the Old Testament it is represented by the Hebrew word ma’aser (מעשר). In the New Testament it is the Greek word dekatae (δεκατη). Both of those words mean “tenth”.
Before we try to decide among the various current views it is important to trace this principle through its uses in Scripture.
This basic economic principle of giving God a tenth of your gains seems to have been known to God’s people in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis. Even though very few details were recorded about daily life in that period of history, God’s word mentions the giving of a tithe in those first chapters of his word.
Genesis 14 — Abram tithed the spoils of war to Melchizedek who was not only the King of Salem, he was also a Priest of God. Abram did this to honor God as the “Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:20-22).
Genesis 28 — Jacob was promised prosperity and blessing by God. In gratitude he vowed to be faithful in tithing all God gave him.
Awareness of this principle clearly predates the Levitical laws given many centuries later through Moses. We are not told how God made them aware that this was a right amount to give. The Bible does not record all he directed his people to do in those early days before there was a written Bible. We do not know what means God used in communicating the mandate to pray, to worship, to cease labor on the Sabbath, to help our needy neighbors, and other such things. They were clearly understood by those in the long ages before the time of Moses.
It appears from these early examples that tithing was a percentage understood by God’s people in those earliest moments of recorded history. We call such things “Creation Principles” since they were part of our duties to God from the very beginning. These are not redemptive activities centering on restoring God’s people from their fall into sin. The focus is the recognizing of God as Sovereign, Holy, and Glorious Lord and Creator.
Many confuse the basic tithing principle with the extra Levitical tithes, the added complex rules for their management, and the other required offerings added at the time of Moses. The added laws and ordinances were primarily redemptive. They centered on the covenant promise of atonement and salvation through the coming Christ. The Levitical laws were directed to Israel as God’s theocratic nation. It is these laws, not the creation principles, which were brought to a fulfilled state in the work of our Savior.
It appears from those brief passages that the tenth of what someone comes to own through his labors is the portion that God called them to return as part of the worship of their Creator and Provider. It was to be used to support the preservation and presentation of God’s truth and ways, to provide for worship, and to offer counsel, comfort, and material help for God’s community of people.
If a person kept back his tithe to use it for his own needs, pleasures, or investments it was called stealing from God in Malachi 3:8. There our Lord says, “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.”
Stealing is when someone violates these legitimate transfers of ownership. That was one of the devastating sins in the time of Haggai. The Prophets often warned the people not to neglect the tithe. Whenever Israel stopped tithing they faced economic hardships. The text in Malachi is an example of that. Each time reformation came, the tithe was immediately restored by the repentant people, and the economic hard times ended.
Jesus only commented on the tithe once, but showed support for it. In Matthew 23:23 he said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
Though Jesus criticized them for neglecting the other “weightier” laws of God, he made it clear that all he mentioned (specifically the tithes) were things they should not have left undone.
The tithe continued in the Apostolic Church. Hebrews 7:1-5 uses the giving of the tithe to Melchizedek by Abram to illustrate how Jesus is to be honored in a greater, not a lesser way. Tithing is never criticized, condemned, or set aside anywhere in the New Testament.
Giving God his due portion was an important issue in the New Testament to provide for the survival of the church, and for the early spread of the gospel. While additional tithes connected with the Levitical system no longer bind us, the basic creation principle was never directly abrogated in God’s word.
The tithe was so generally accepted in the early church that it was not a topic debated as one of its controversies. As early as Irenaeus (120-202 AD) the whole line of early Christian leaders constantly spoke of the tithe as a continuing obligation.
Regular tithing in the early centuries made it possible for churches to establish hospitals, clinics, schools, programs for the needy, support for the arts, and many other efforts that truly helped the community while giving all the glory to God as provider. It was a key economic element that led to a prospering and booming civilization.
The Reformers, and those who let the Bible set their priorities, have consistently recognized the biblical mandate of tithing for Christ’s church in the post-resurrection era.
There is an important caution we should add here. Though the Tithe is what we ought to give to God from all we produce and earn, there is no mechanism for its enforcement by the church. We do not see the Elders authorized to investigate or to receive reports about individual and family income.
The judgment that fell upon Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 was a special act of God. Their sin was an intentional lie about their giving beyond the tithe. Information was received by the church in that case through special revelation, not by any mentioned investigation or audit. Individuals and families are left to their own conscience and love of the Lord to honor this Creation Principle.
No one person can give to all the needs and ministries in God’s Kingdom. Choices have to be made. Our decisions must be based upon principles in God’s word. We need to know what God would have us do with what he entrusts to us. We only have so much to give, and there are many ministries to be supported.
Most people are unaware where their money goes once they give it. Studies show that a large portion of contributed money goes to running the charitable organization, not to the needy or to the purpose of the charity. Even the best known and trusted charities at times use donated money to support projects a Christian would soundly oppose.
Even when a secular charity does what appears to be good, it is not done for God’s glory as Christ said it should be. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Many charities direct the praise of their good works to the givers or to the organization itself, but with no attempt to bring glory to our Father in heaven.
The Pharisees ran the merciful social agencies of the time, but Jesus wept over their shallow and empty efforts. Their deeds were not done to honor God’s revealed ways and his sovereign grace. When God is not glorified in Christ, the creature robs the Creator’s glory. This is not really “good” regardless of the material relief it might bring to individuals.
As God’s children we care about real social needs. When charities call or come to our door, we need to keep these biblical principles in mind.
The tithe was for carrying out
the duties of the covenant community.
The tithe supported the ordained ministers. Those entrusted with the ownership of land were to work it. The work of worship was to be supported from what that labor produced (Numbers 18:21-28). Under the Mosaic system this principle is seen in the fact that the Priests and the Levites were not given land to work. As explained in the commentary by Keil and Delitzsch, their job was to “be the guardians and promoters of the commandments, statutes, and rights of Jehovah”. The Levites received the tithe and were to give a tenth of the tithe to the Priests for their income. Dr. J. D. Michaelis calculated that this was a considerable salary. If the tithes were faithfully brought in, it would mean that each priest received a portion equal to about 5 Israeli working families (Keil & Delitzsch commenting on Numbers 18:32).
In the later days after the captivity, the people were strongly rebuked for withholding their tithe which made the Levites and Priests have to go out and work the fields to provide for themselves.
God has always expected his people to support their ministers faithfully. This Old Testament principle was relied upon as the foundation for how the New Testament church should support its ministers. In 1 Timothy 5:17-18 Paul wrote, “Let the Elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’ ” Paul’s example is a quotation of God’s law in Deuteronomy 25:4. He obviously believed that principle still applied to the New Testament church.
That text from Deuteronomy is also quoted in 1 Corinthians 9:7-9. Then in verse 14 Paul applied this saying, “Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.”
In Matthew 10:10 Jesus sent out the Twelve to be dependent upon the working believers. There he said, “… for a worker is worthy of his food.” The full support of the God’s ministers is to come from the giving of God’s people. That giving was primarily based upon the accepted and previously revealed practice of tithing.
The tithe also covers the material costs for worship. When God started to display his special presence to the tribes of Israel, the Tabernacle and later the Temple had to be maintained. There were costs in providing all that was needed to continue the sacrifices, provide the garments, keep up the furnishings and structures, and so on. Today the costs of worship are different. We need to pay for water, electricity, heating, roofing, education materials, and so on.
The tithe provided relief for those unable to provide for themselves. The Bible does not tell us to simply make sure everyone in society has the same material advantages and possessions as everyone else. However, we should use the tithes and other material offerings to feed, clothe, and aid those truly unable to work, as long as they honored the God whose help they receive.
The decline of tithing in our modern world resulted in growing taxation by governments. The welfare state is the result of a well intended but poorly directed application of the principle of caring for the needy. Social institutions became humanistic under government support and growing regulations. Christian writer Dr. Rushdoony decades ago observed that, “without the tithe, a totalitarian state progressively develops to play god over society.” (Institutes of Biblical Law. p. 510).
Today many believe that only a strong central government can help the poor. Taxes grow. Entitlements increase. More is spent but less is accomplished. Added layers of bureaucracy cost more to operate, impersonalize care, and encourage dependency. In spite of our “war on poverty” one set of official estimates say that a significant and unnecessary percentage of Americans are locked into perpetual poverty. That is a tragic and inexcusable situation.
A whole different social order is possible if tithing was restored in a God-honoring society. To begin with, a more honest standard is needed for identifying the needy. A study was done by Dr. E. Calvin Beisner and published in the Christian Worldview Series edited by Dr. Marvin Olasky. His findings show that by using biblical standards instead of mere income levels, the percentage of those locked into poverty is at a much lower figure, almost a tenth of what current measurements yield. The rest are not unable to become productive if we help them.
According to those studies, if American church members gave a tithe of their income to their local churches (even if based upon only their after-taxes take-home pay) using the governments own inflated statistics on poverty, we could bring every poor American above the government set poverty level, even if they contributed nothing and the church simply gave them their annual income. This study proposed that this would only take 53% of the tithe. The remaining 47% of the tithes would still be much more than the amount currently given to the churches for their own ministries.
Using the more biblical definition of the truly needy, it would only take one one hundredth of our tithes to end American poverty completely even if just church members tithed and no one else. The idea that big government is needed to solve poverty is not consistent with these findings. The Bible instructs us in many ways to help the poor. They were not just handed tithe money to live on. But that is another topic worthy to be taken up at a later time.
Most of our present culture has abandoned biblical principles and rejected honoring the God of Scripture. The resulting economic challenges remind us of the same problems Israel faced in that era when they did not give to the ministries of the church as God had instructed them. Economics was just part of the problem. It was a symptom of deeper spiritual concerns.
The tithes and offerings must be spent properly.
In both testaments management of what was given to the church was the duty of its trained and ordained officers. Before the birth of the Messiah, the Elders of Israel along with the Priests and Levites were in charge of overseeing economic matters. They represented God’s law to the people under that Mosaic system. They were to make sure that what was done was pleasing to the Lord.
When Christ came to complete the sacrifice and temple worship, ordained Elders continued the duty of overseeing church business. The office of Deacon was added to carry out the oversight of what the Elders determined. The book of Acts and the Epistles are filled with such comments (Acts 4:35, 6:1-4, 14:23, 20:28-32, 1 Peter 5:1-3, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Thessalonians. 5:12-13).
What we give to the church is to be managed by the Officers God has appointed. They are to examine how it might best be used to promote God’s glory in local worship, in missions work, and in the care of the needy. In fact giving is presented in the Bible as an act of worship. All worship is to be directed by the Elders who are commissioned by God’s word as the ones who represent God to the people and the people to God. Deciding how to spend all that is given in worship is also their responsibility.
When charities contact you for donations be kind to them, but also be firm when you cannot responsibly give to their cause. You cannot support every agency that asks for help. The principle of the tithe implies that our giving should not be directed anywhere but to the church and to the ministries it approves.
If there is doubt that what you charitably give beyond the tithe will promote the glory of Christ, you can politely explain to those who call that your personal conviction is to give through and as directed by your church. You can give your extra offerings beyond the tithe to sound Christian ministries that are approved by your Elders, and that meet legitimate needs in Christ’s name. If charity solicitors cannot respect that position and they persist, you do not have to be rude. Be kind to them but explain that you cannot violate what you believe God expects of you.
Matthew Henry commented on that text of Malachi 3:10 this way, “Bring in the full tithes to the utmost that the law requires, that there may be meat in God’s house for those that serve at the altar, whether there be meat in your houses or no.” “Let God be first served, and then prove me hearwith, saith the Lord of hosts, whether I will not open the windows of heaven.”
In verse 9 God explained that the famine and scarcity of supplies in those ancient days were God’s warnings and punishments. Sadly in those days that time of hardship became an excuse to withhold even more of what was God’s. They “robbed” God! Not just in the money they took from their tithe, but also in robbing him of worship by short-funding the work of the Temple.
There are no excuses. God’s principles are always right, and they work as good economic policy.
Some excuse themselves from the tithe by proudly saying that to them everything belongs to the Lord, not just ten percent. They conclude that this means that all they have is already the Lord’s so they aren’t obligated to bring any part of it to the church to support God’s ministries. Noble sounding excuses often reveal a very greedy heart. Far from a higher view of things, this is a lesser view since it was God who shows us in his word that there is a portion we are to bring to him. It ignores what the word “tithe” represents. What we give is a testimony that God is the owner of everything. It shows the believer’s trust, gratitude, and love for his Lord. God himself set forth these economic principles as the way things should operate in his Creation.
Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 claimed to have sold all they had and gave it to the Lord, but they kept back part of it for themselves. Peter made it clear that what they owned was theirs to do with as they chose as long as it was theirs, but they lied by saying they gave all to the Apostles. As an example to us all God struck them dead. All we have is truly the Lord’s, and he entrusts it to us as individuals and families to manage responsibly and honestly. But the God-appointed portion of the income from our labors should be given to the church to carry out its mission.
Is it possible to tithe if you are poor?
Some ask, “Is it possible to tithe even if you have a small income?” It is, if we believe the Lord is the one who demands it and blesses us.
While examples cannot be proof, they can be used to illustrate what God tells us as true. A young man by the name of William left home at age 16. His parents were too poor to support him. As he left, a friend advised him to remember to tithe from all he received to show God’s lordship over his life, and to show his gratitude for all of God’s blessings. William went to New York and tried to make and sell soap. He honestly packaged a quality product, and tithed everything he earned. His business rapidly expanded. He was soon able to live on even less than his 90% and increased his giving far beyond the tithe to honor the God who blessed him. He wound up a very rich man donating over a million dollars to the church. His name is well known today not as William, but by his last name which was attached to the products he sold. His name was William Colgate.
Similarly John D. Rockefeller, A.A.Hyde (of the Mentholatum Company), Kraft (of cheese fame), Heinz (the pickle man), Hershey (who made the chocolates), Crowell (of Quaker Oats) all worked hard and were known to tithe all they earned. The point is not that the more you give the more you get. That would be a horribly selfish motive. It is not that God promises to make you rich if you tithe. The point is that these who were very poor as they started out worked their budgets in ways to honor God’s principles. They lived off of what was theirs, not taking from what belonged to their Creator and Provider.
The Lord doesn’t say “After I have poured out financial blessings, begin tithing.” He commands; “You tithe, I bless.” The balance between what God promises and what we must do is maintained by simply trusting God and taking him at his word.
If you give to godless charities, or if you withhold the tithe to spend it on your own comfort and goals, you fail to properly use what God has entrusted to you. The church will struggle as it did in those times of the Old Testament, and will not be able to fulfill its responsibilities as it should.
If when you determine to honor God first with a portion of what he entrusts to you, a new era can begin, not only for your church and your society, but for you as an obedient and thankful child of God.
(Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)