It is commonly taught in churches that Christians should tithe (a word meaning the giving of “a tenth” of their income) to their local church. Christians are sometimes told that they owe the first ten percent of their income to the church where they attend, and that any giving to other needy persons or ministries falls into a separate category called “offerings” and should be given only after the first tenth has been given to the church. Preachers sometimes speak as if the Bible actually teaches such a thing, although the Bible nowhere mentions what we today call a “local church,” and the New Testament never applies any duty of tithing to Christians.
Tithing was commanded to the children of Israel for the support of the Levites (Num.18:21). The Levites, who were consecrated to full-time ministry and could not be profitably employed, would enjoy a standard of living that approximated or was slightly higher than the national average. The Levites, in turn, contributed a tenth of their income to the priests for their support (Num.18:26-28). The system was designed to free-up a large number of men to minister in things of the tabernacle/temple and to teach the law to the people. The fraction “a tenth” was not arbitrary, but corresponded to the needs of the number of full-time ministers requiring support.
Ever since God abolished the temple and the Levitical priesthood, there remains no obvious reason why the tithe should continue to define a Christian’s measure of giving to God. The church generally does not release one full-time minister for every ten families (though this ratio would not be excessive), so there is no biblical or logical reason why the same percentage of the Christian’s income should be devoted to the church’s coffers as was required of the Israelites in their support of the temple clergy. This is, no doubt, why neither Jesus nor the apostles ever so much as suggested this duty to the disciples. The tithe was for the support of the ritual system of Israel. These ceremonial aspects of the Law were done away with in the coming of a better covenant.
Sometimes it is argued that tithing did not “go out with the Law” for the simple reason that it was practiced prior to the giving of the Law, and has, therefore, a validity of its own independent of the Law. The total evidence that tithing was practiced before the time of Moses consists of two passages in Genesis. In Genesis 14:20, Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils of his recent conquest against Chedolaomer to the priest Melchisedek. Also, in Genesis 28:20-22, Jacob, awaking from his famous dream, vowed to give God a tenth of whatever prosperity God might give him in the time of his absence from Canaan. Do these passages teach or even hint that godly individuals regularly devoted ten percent of their wealth to God? Two isolated cases cannot establish such a pattern, since we never read of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Judah or Joseph observing any such practice. Nor do we have record of Abraham or Jacob ever doing so on occasions other than these two recorded cases. We have no reason to believe that Abraham tithed regularly.Therefore, none can establish from Scripture that tithing was a recognized or mandated practice prior to the time of Moses. Furthermore, even if we did have a biblical basis for such a teaching, it does not follow that tithing continues as a duty into the New Covenant. Remember, circumcision and animal sacrifices (both commanded in the Law of Moses) were definitely regular practices prior to the giving of the Law, but this does not provide an argument for their continuance after the time of Christ.
Tithing is mentioned in the New Testament in three connections. Hebrews 7 simply recounts the story of Abraham and Melchisedek, without reference to any duty in this matter accruing to others. The Gospels record the saying of Christ that the scribes and Pharisees meticulously paid their tithes, while neglecting “weightier maters of the law” (Matt.23:23/Luke 11:42). Jesus states that they should have done both (i.e. paid tithes and observed the weightier matters), but this only states what was required of the Pharisees as men living under the Old Testament law, and tells us nothing of any ongoing duty for Christian disciples. Finally, we have the self-congratulating “prayer” of a Pharisee in a parable (Luke 18:12), who boasts of paying tithes of all that he possesses, but the parable does not go on to make this man a model for Christians to emulate.
It is not surprising that advocates of tithing do not make much use of these New Testament verses. The preaching usually centers upon the classic Old Testament rebuke of those who neglected to “bring all of the tithes into the storehouse” (Mal.3:10). The argument goes something like this:
“The storehouse is where you go to get your food. Spiritually, you get your feeding from your local church. Therefore, God commands you to give ten percent of your income to the church of which you are a member. Anything over that amount that you give is not your tithe, but an offering.”
One can easily speculate as to the motivation churches might have for teaching along this line. The only thing wrong with the above argument is that there is not one legitimate scriptural point contained in it. First, the “storehouse” was not where the Jews went to get their food. The storehouse refers to the storage rooms in the Jerusalem temple (Neh.10:38) where food was stored for the priests. They ate it there, and any surplus was given to the poor (Deut.26:12), but the idea was not that of a private pantry from which the tithing worshipper provided for his own sustenance. Further, it is not a given that every Christian gets his primary spiritual feeding from his local church. It is the very negligence of such feeding by the churches that has led to the proliferation on non-ecclesiastical ministries (sometimes called parachurch ) to make up for this deficiency. Finally, nothing in the passage is addressed to New Testament believers. The Christian’s standards for giving are defined in entirely different terms.
Those terms are found in the teaching of Christ, that one who would follow Christ must forsake “all that he has” (Luke 14:33/ cf. Matt.13:44-46). The ceremonial law served as a foreshadowing of the Christian revelation. The latter teaches that all of God’s people, having been “bought with a price,” are not their own, but are owned lock, stock and barrel by Jesus Christ (1 Cor.6:19-20). All of the believer’s time and all of his possessions belong to God—a fact foreshadowed in ceremonial law by the requirement of giving Him a representative token of each (one day of his week, and one tenth of his possessions).
In place of “tithing” the New Testament teaches “stewardship” (Luke 12:42; 16:1ff; 19:12-13/ Matt.25:14/ Titus 1:7). The Christian is a “steward”, or “manager,” of somebody else’s (God’s) possessions. He is not in a partnership with God in which God holds 10 shares and he holds 90. In coming to Christ, the repentant sinner surrenders everything to God, and claims ownership of nothing (Acts 4:32). From the moment of his conversion, the believer becomes responsible to manage every asset (monetary or otherwise) in the interests of his Master’s profit. Those seeking to reserve a share of their lives for themselves need not apply (Luke 9:23).
What, then, is the steward’s responsibility? He must discharge his trust in exactly the manner that his Master would do if He were in His steward’s shoes. What would God spend His money on? Well, the Scriptures give us all the guidance we need on this matter. Throughout Scripture, God expresses His concern for the plight of the helpless poor and the support of those who minister the Word of God. A timely gift to the poor is a gift to God Himself (Prov.19:17/Matt.25:37-40), and is the prescribed method of depositing treasures in heaven (Mark 10:21/Luke 12:33). Giving to the needy is merely an expression of the mandate to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27-37).
The support of the Kingdom’s ministers is similarly an expression of our duty to love God, to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matt.6:33). These ministers include those who teach the Word of God (as the Levites were to do—Gal.6:6/1 Cor.9:11/1 Tim.5:17-18). This would include the pastor of one’s church (if he teaches God’s Word) as well as others from whom one receives spiritual direction and nourishment. It also would include traveling ministers and missionaries (Luke 8:2-3/Phil.4:16-18/3 John 5-8). There is such a variety of ministry—some more- and some less-needy, and some more-, some less-worthy of support—that a conscientious steward will do a bit of prayerful research before committing the Master’s funds to a given appeal for assistance. In the end, the discharge of one’s stewardship requires a great deal of prayer and leading of the Holy Spirit. It is nothing like such a simple matter as writing a check to the local assembly (which might be looking to replace the carpeting for the third time this decade) for a tenth of one’s paycheck.
We must also acknowledge that God would provide for the needs of His servants and their families. Therefore, a certain amount of our income must be devoted to the feeding, housing and clothing of our families (1 Tim.5:8). Nor is there any forbidding of a few things for enjoyment alone (1 Tim.6:17). How many such things? That is between the steward and his Master, and is not for another to judge (Rom.14:4). However, we must be on our guard against our own pervasive tendency to judge our own actions (and expenditures) more favorably than the facts would suggest. In eternity, our rejoicing will be proportionate to our self-denial in this life and our generosity to the poor and to the work of God.
In the century following the apostolic age, the Christians understood that tithing had been replaced by full surrender to God. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus wrote, “[The Old Testament saints] offered their tithes; but those who have received liberty set apart everything they have for the Lord’s use, cheerfully and freely giving them, not as small things in hope of greater, but like that poor widow, who put her whole livelihood into the treasury of God.” The Didache (early second century) certainly has Scripture on its side when it counsels, “Do not hesitate to give, and do not give with a bad grace; for you will discover who He is that repays you. . .Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own.”
Updated on January 31st, 2023