Tithing and the New Testament
As a pastor and “theology guy,” I get asked lots of questions about the topic of giving when it is discussed in the church, questions like, “Am I supposed to tithe off of my net income or my gross income?”, “What about if I am self-employed and thus my tax payments are different than others because of self-employment tax, can I reduce my tithe then?”, “Do I tithe off of birthday presents if I know the person tithed on their income -- and do I need to tithe on a gift card I receive?”, “Does the New Testament command Christians to tithe and must this tithe go to the local church rather than a missionary or another group, or can I split it?” and perhaps most appropriately “What is a tithe?” as that is a word that we only seem to hear in church (I remember hearing tithes and offerings growing up and thinking it was ties and offerings and wondering if the men would put their ties in the offering plate!).
To get at the root answer for some of these questions, let’s start by defining the word ‘tithe,” which literally means one-tenth and refers to the giving away of one-tenth of one’s earnings or income. In the Old Testament, the people of God (the nation of Israel) were commanded to give one-tenth of their income to help support the priests who led the religious life of the people (see Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21-24). There were also another “tithe” that was to be used for a sacred meal in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 14:24-26) and another tithe every 3 years to support the Levites, aliens, widows, and orphans (Deuteronomy 14:28-29), so the people of Israel were likely giving 19% every year and 27% every three years (if they tithed on what was left after the first tithe and my math is correct!). God’s people are often rebuked for failing to do this, robbing God of his tithes (Malachi 3:8-12).
Do we see the tithe commanded in the New Testament and practiced in the early church? This is something that Christians are divided over, with some saying that it is a command that continues (like Billy Graham) and others says that the tithe was part of the Old Testament law (see this recent article by Sam Storms). In my studies of the issue, I do not see a direct command in the New Testament for Christians to tithe and there does not seem to be any direct examples of the early church tithing, but rather of sacrificial giving that actually may be more than 10%.
Jesus only talks about tithing twice. He rebukes the scribes and Pharisees for giving a tithe on all sorts of little things but not tending to the matters of justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23-24; Luke 11:42) -- while affirming their practice of tithing, this act was done as part of following all the regulations of the Jewish law and did not reflect the changed heart that God seeks; it is unclear if Jesus says his followers should tithe in light of it. Jesus also talks about tithing in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9-14, see 18:12), with the tithing Pharisee the one condemned for his self-righteousness. Jesus thus never commands nor commends tithing among his followers; instead Jesus focuses on the idea of sacrificial giving, whether applauding the poor widow who gave out of her poverty (see Mark 12:41-44) or his command to the rich young ruler to sell everything (Mark 10:17-31). Jesus also spends much time warning his followers about the dangers of wealth and how its deceitfulness can take us away from the gospel (see e.g., Matthew 6:19-24; Matthew 13:22; Luke 12:13-20).
While never seeing the early church tithe, we see the early church giving in great ways. The first Christians in Jerusalem sold their possessions and sought to help each other so that none had need (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37). Paul does not say how much the Macedonians gave, but he notes that they gave out of poverty and “beyond their means” to support fellow Christians (2 Corinthians 8:3). The amount they gave was not defined but was something that should be done as one had decided and with joy (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). Early Christians gave to help support those who were laboring in ministry [pastors and missionaries] (1 Corinthians 9:1-14), giving honor to those who teach the word (1 Timothy 5:17). The Corinthian church, as in other churches, were to set aside money on the first day of the week “as they prospered” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2) for an offering. Christians were warned about the dangers of wealth and encouraged to be generous (1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-18). They gave to support ministry and fellow believers, and they gave sacrificially and joyfully, albeit with no set amount. Christians in the New Testament never asked, “Is this enough?” but rather “How much can I give,” taking to heart the words of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
So, when people ask me if Christians have to give 10% of their income to the local church, I typically answer with “no, but we should give in a way that is regularly, willingly, and proportionally,” with 10% to the church as a good baseline with good symbolism; I encourage Christians to either start there or work their way towards that and then beyond that. We give to the local church first because that is the mechanism of God’s movement in the world, with the local church typically also supporting missionaries and ministries that help those in need; in and through the local church, one is able to give in a variety of ways. I thus echo Kevin DeYoung’s statement: here: “Whether the Old Testament requirement is a binding prescription or not, I find it hard to imagine that Western Christians who have seen the glory of God in the face of Christ and enjoy great prosperity, would want to give less than was required of the poorest Israelite. Statistics consistently show that Protestants give less than 3% of their income to their churches. A tithe, for most churchgoers, would be a huge step in the right direction”
Don’t worry if your giving is 9.9%, if you realize that there was a small check you received from someone and forgot to tithe on. God is not an IRS agent trying to get his due; he is after your heart and wants us to experience the joy of giving (as God is a generous God!) and to protect us from the deceitfulness of riches. Therefore, the question should not be how little can I give, treating giving to God and his purposes like taxes in which we see how many loopholes we can find to give to less, nor should giving be viewed as a transaction, as if God is our financial planner who is owed 10% of all of our earnings (and occasional bonus!), but rather how much can I give to help others with their spiritual and physical needs. As Christians, we are called to excel in the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:7), as we have the Lord Jesus as our example and motivating force: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Can we find ways not just to give 10% but even more, not just to the church or even Christian ministries and organizations but to people who are in need whom God places in our paths? While giving and being generous is a lot more than giving of our treasures, where and how we spend our money is a good sign of where our true treasure is at and where our heart is, a heart that has been bought and redeemed by our gracious God.
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