Throughout the history of the Christian movement the approach to Tithing (one tenth) has been far from unanimous, demonstrating many diverse views (see below).
To find clarity on this contended and sensitive issue we must go back to some foundational theological and interpretative principles to discover, with some measure of accuracy, what the Bible teaches.
Our Interpretive Filter: the cross
The basic principle is that the cross serves as the interpretive filter of what comes through from the OT to the NT. This determines for us the law-gospel relationship, which when properly understood will resolve the tithing question.
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) is the earliest definitive answer. Provoked by a Judaistic reaction to Paul’s impact among the Gentiles, the apostles and elders gathered to consider the epochal question of whether the law of Moses concerning circumcision was necessary for salvation; and thus, more broadly the relationship of the law to the gospel in the new covenant era. After much debate, the council concluded that the Gentile Christians were to abstain from idolatry and immorality, plus nothing, except to remember the poor (Gal 2:10); it was, in effect, a reinstatement of God’s moral law as revealed in the Ten Commandments.
So, all else that is not grounded in the moral law of God is now either: (1) A matter of individual conscience concerning foods and holy days etc., Paul allowing space for the weaker conscience in this regard (Rom 14) or (2) Fulfilled in Christ who is now sacrifice, priest, and temple; the OT sacrificial system (and thus the ceremonial law) foreshadowing his atoning work (Rom 3:25; Heb 8-10). Christ is therefore the “end (telos) of the law” (Rom 10:4) as a salvific economy that ultimately proved incapable of overcoming sin (Rom 7-8).
Nonetheless, as we will see, both Jesus (Lk 10:7) and Paul (1 Cor 9:14) reinstate the principle of supporting those who are vocationally called to ministry in the new covenant. Paul does this not by “human authority” (1 Cor 9:8) but by God’s authority in his “law” (v 9). He then appeals to the principle of the Levite living from the temple (i.e. by the tithe) as the model for the minister of the gospel living by the gospel (v 13-14). This demonstrates that the financial support of God’s ministers (and of the poor) was not merely grounded in the ceremonial law of Israel, having been fulfilled in Christ and thus filtered by the cross, but in the moral law—the Ten Commandments.
Continuity between OT and NT: the moral imperative
While Paul teaches that the discontinuity between OT and NT is between letter (also flesh) and Spirit (i.e. inability to obey vs. ability to obey; see Rom 7:6 and 2 Cor 3:1-6) the continuity is found in the moral imperative—that is, “the righteous requirement of the law to be fulfilled in us” (Rom 8:4). Although the old economy of the letter (law) was unable to change the human condition (the flesh) the new economy of the Spirit (the gospel) now enables us to fulfil the “righteous requirement” of the law (Rom 6-8)—the moral imperative of the law flows through into the new covenant; as Paul poses: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31).
So, is tithing a “moral imperative”?
To answer this we must appreciate the three-fold function of the law: moral, ceremonial and civil.
The moral law is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, which are clearly restated by Christ and the apostles in the NT. However, the ceremonial and civil law are premised in the moral law; that is, both the former are the practical specifics and application of the latter. This means even the ceremonial law, and thus the whole sacrificial system, was premised in the moral law of God; it is God’s moral nature that cries out for justice and thereby atonement for sin. This means that there is overlap between the three functions of the law and this is the case with tithing. While tithing as a part of the ceremonial law supported the cultic (ceremonial/sacrificial) life of Israel it was also rooted in the moral imperative first of not having any other gods before Yahweh (Ex 20:3) and second in not stealing (Ex 20:15). This explains why the withholding of tithes and offerings is portrayed as “robbing God” (Mal 3:8) and why Jesus taught that we are unable to serve both God and Mammon (Mtt 6:24). By obeying the Lord in our finances, through a heart set free by the Spirit, we not only render to God what is his but we also break the control of Mammon over our lives, ensuring that we serve no other gods before him.
It is also important to note that using anecdotal evidence (positive testimonies of tithing) to support tithing is not a sound hermeneutic (principle of interpretation). There will always be stories to support one view or another. Truth is not established pragmatically; this is a view that says, “Truth works!” This sounds like common sense but is not the test of what is true. The Word of God must stand alone in determining truth.
Let’s look at the usual proof texts used to support NT tithing:
- Mtt 23:23 – What is the point of this statement? It is predominantly a rebuke to the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier issues of the law while scrupulously tithing; thus clearly showing a hierarchy of ethics and the potential of tithing with a wrong heart. Only secondarily could it be viewed as perhaps an implicit endorsement of tithing. Even so, the Pharisees were still living under the OT economy.
- 1 Cor 9:7-14 – Paul’s reference to the priests and Levites living from the altar (v 13) is a major support for the right of the minister of the gospel to derive their living from the gospel. This was done through the tithe under the OT. Here Paul explicitly reinstates the principle of levitical service for the new covenant, entailing the covenant community’s financial responsibility. Nevertheless, it is not an explicit or categorical reinstitution of tithing (ten percent) for the new covenant, although, at best, it could be possibly read as implicit.
- Heb 7:2, 8-10 – Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (a type of Christ’s eternal priesthood). Unfortunately Abraham only tithed once, which doesn’t do a lot for the tithing argument; the type (re. tithing at least) collapses somewhat. Additionally, if it is argued that Abraham tithed prior to the Law, it can also be argued that he was circumcised prior to the Law and yet the gospel teaches that the latter is superseded in the new covenant. Also the mention of tithing is merely incidental to the main argument that Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood is superior to Levis’: it is not an explicit teaching re-establishing tithing; it is merely implicit at best.
- Mal 3:8-9 – A curse for robbing God by withholding tithes and offerings. While the covenant sanctions (blessing or curse) apply to both old and new covenants, the latter provides a new way of obedience by the Spirit, leading to blessing. Nonetheless, by relying on the “works of the law” for justification (i.e. “browny points” with God) will bring us under a curse (Gal 3:10). Therefore, how we do “tithes and offerings” makes all the difference.
How to contribute financially in the new covenant
So, where does this leave us? The primary law of the NT is a law of love (Mtt 22:37-40; Jn 13:34). Nevertheless, as John points out: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Even though the new covenant sets us free we are commanded not to use our freedom as “an opportunity for the flesh but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). Law-keeping clearly flows through into the NT.
It is important to appreciate that the same primary law of love also applied in the OT.
When Jesus was asked to encapsulate the OT law he restated the shema of Deut 6: “You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbour as your self” (Mtt 22:37-40; Mk 12:30); and thus “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10)—that is, every specific application of and obedience to the moral law of God is motivated by love for God and our neighbour.
Both the Great Commandment of the NT (Mtt 22:37-40) and the Ten Commandments of the OT (Ex 20) are summary statements; that is, they condense numerous other laws into one or several all-encompassing statements. For example, the Ten Commandments break down into the first four, which relate to our relationship with God and the following six, relating to our relationships with one another; all the other more detailed commandments of the OT then flow from at least one of those ten summary statements (e.g. “You shall not steal” is a summary statement of all other OT laws that relate to money and property, including tithes and offerings). The NT Great Commandment is merely a reiteration of the Ten Commandments and its twofold nature: 1. Love the Lord (first four commandments) 2. Love our neighbour (last six commandments).
So, what is the difference between the OT and the NT in regard to the law? The moral requirement of the law remains the same—it comes through the cross into the new covenant. What has changed is the spiritual power to now fulfil that moral requirement. The law is now written on our hearts by the Spirit, not on tables of stone; it is now not of the letter but of the Spirit (Heb 8:10; Jer 31:31-34; 2 Cor 3:1-8).
Before the new covenant was introduced we were incapable of fully obeying the Lord and his law-word: “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law nor can it do so” (Rom 8:7). In fact, the law was designed as a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal 3:24); the “end (telos, meaning ‘goal’) of the law is Christ” (Rom 10:4). The whole of the OT economy was always designed to culminate in Christ. The failure of Jew and Gentile (all humanity) to obey the righteous requirement of God (Rom 1-3) now forces us into Christ for the answer to humanity’s moral failure (Rom 4-8).
And so, “in Christ” we are no longer “in the flesh” but now “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9-10), which not only entails the spiritual enforcing of the law (Rom 3:31; 7:12, 14), but also the spiritual empowering to obey it:
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
There are therefore two different ways of doing tithes and offerings: one is according to the “law of works” (i.e. by the letter) and the other the “law of faith” (i.e. by the Spirit). Paul’s epistle to the Romans explains these two dynamics in chapter 3 verses 27-28.
The “law of works” is fleshly—a self-justifying, self-effort, religious performance that became Israel’s fatal flaw (Rom 9:30-32). The problem was not the law – which Paul affirms as “holy, righteous and good”, in fact as “spiritual” (pneuma) – but rather the problem is with us: those who seek to obey it apart from faith (i.e. in the flesh, not by the Spirit). The NT reinforces the moral requirement of the law but under a new dynamic—that of a transformed heart empowered by the Spirit (2 Cor 3); that is, according to the “law of faith”.
Therefore God’s grace and Spirit will bring us to the willing financial support of those who serve the gospel in preaching and teaching and from whom we receive (1 Cor 9:11; 1 Tim 5:17—elders that preach and teach worthy of “double honour”, literally double compensation): “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Rather than this being an outwardly enforced law through a religious system, it is now internally empowered through the Spirit; thus Paul’s servant-hearted relinquishment of his right as an apostle to financial support while in Corinth is now explained, despite the moral authority of the law to do so (1 Cor 9:1-18). So, for a religious system to enforce tithing through any form of coercion or guilt manipulation is contrary to the apostolic heart and spirit of the new covenant. Nevertheless, it is no longer a question of whether the Spirit will lead us to financially support the work of God, but rather, whether we will obey.
The OT Tithe: a model
In Israel the purpose of the tithe was three-fold, to fund:
- The Levites (Num 18:20-28): those without “an inheritance in the land” who serve the temple, including instructing Israel in the law (i.e. they are without land [capital], and thus a source of income). It is significant that the tithe was an “inheritance”—a gift, replacing the tribe of Levis’ inheritance in the land (i.e. capital), not a salary for service.
In the NT this corresponds to ministers of the gospel, particularly those given to the ministry of the Word as worthy of “double honour [i.e. compensation]”(1 Cor 9:7-14; 1 Tim 5:17-18; Mtt 10:10).
- The Feasts (Deut 12:17-19; 14:22-27; 26:10-16): these tithes were brought up to Jerusalem, to the three great feast days (Passover, Pentecost, & Tabernacles) and there consumed by the worshiper. They were reminded not to neglect the Levite in this tithe “as long as they live in the land” (Deut 12:19).
In the NT this could correspond to annual convocations (conferences, worship celebrations etc.) and/or annual holidays.
- The Poor (Deut 14:28-29; 26:12-13): every three years this tithe supported widows, orphans, strangers, and the Levites. It is significant that the Levites were classed with the poor.
In the NT this corresponds to supporting the poor, including levitical-type ministry (Gal 2:10; see Levites above)
Matthew 5:42; 6:2-4; 19:21; 25:31-46; 26:6-13; Mark 10:21; 12:41-44; I4:3-9; Luke 6:30; 10:30-37; 14:12-14; 16:1-13; 21:1-4; Acts 6:1-6; 20:33-35; 24:17; Romans 12:13; 15:26-28; I Corinthians 13:3; 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:1-24; 9:1-15; Galatians 2:10; Ephesians 4:28; I Timothy 6:17-19
Matthew 10:9-10, 41-42; Mark 9:41; Luke 8:3; 10:7; I Corinthians 9:7-14; 2 Corinthians 11:8-9; Galatians 6:6-10; Philippians 4:10-19; I Timothy 5:17-18; 3 John 5-8; James 2:15-16; 1 John 3:17-18; Hebrews13:16
Tithing in the history of the Christian movement
In the Ante-Nicene period and writings (100-325) there was nothing taught about tithing as a binding obligation; it was not a focus of discussion and only mentioned incidentally. In general the Ante-Nicene Fathers expected the people of God to give generously, regardless of percentage. The earliest church polity document, the Didache (dated between 50-120), likewise, did not teach tithing but did teach the principle of 1 Corinthians 9:14 that ministers have the right to live by the gospel. The only exception in this period was Clement of Alexandria (150-215) who advocated tithing, but also understood that the ethical force of the law (including Moses’ civil and case law) was in harmony with the gospel and relevant for both church and civil society, a perspective with which the present writer concurs.
Much more was said about tithing in the Nicene and Post-Nicene period (325-604). Those who advocated the tithe included Basil of Caesarea (370), Hilary of Poitiers (366), Jerome (385), Augustine (400), Ambrose (374), and Chrysostom (375). Nevertheless, both Jerome and Augustine believed it was a compromise on the command of Jesus to abandon everything and the liberality of the New Testament. Conversely, Epiphanius (370) concluded that like circumcision, tithing was not binding. Gregory of Nazianzus (365) refers only to the principle of first-fruits, while Gregory of Nyssa (365) makes no reference to tithes. During this period giving by Christians decreased until in 585 the Second Synod of Macon instituted tithing as church law.
During the Middle Ages (604-1517) tithing moved beyond church law to become a requirement of the state. Charlemagne (779), Offa, king of Mercia (8th century), William the Conqueror (1066) and Bernard of Clairvaux (1139) all advocated tithing. However, support for tithing in this period was not unanimous. John Wycliffe (1328-1384) protested its abuse and claimed that the New Testament did not warrant it and that tithes should instead be a freewill offering. John Huss’ (1373-1415) thoughts were similar.
The Reformation period (1517-1648) saw many opponents to tithing. Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Anabaptists and the Separatists all opposed compulsory tithing. Both Zwingli (1484-1531) and Calvin (1509-1564) were equivocal in their writings on the matter of tithing; no major Reformer unambiguously advocated it.
The Post-Reformation period (1648-1873) is marked by disparate views. John Milton (1659), the great English poet and political activist, wrote forcibly against tithes, believing they were ceremonial and abolished. John Owen (1680), theologian and chaplain to Cromwell, opposed tithes but encouraged generous giving as an act of worship. Many resisted the tithe in 17th century England including Parliament itself and Cromwell. The Separatist and Independent traditions in particular resisted the compulsory aspect of the tithe, emphasising that it was not part of the gospel or supported by Scripture. John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards were all somewhat ambiguous in their approach to tithing. Finally, in 1936 the tithe laws of England were abolished.
The Tithing Renewal
Initially in America the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists had no tithing system. Ministers were supported by the voluntary contributions of the congregations with the Puritans and Pilgrims providing the model from the early 1600s. However, as time progressed the latter did pass laws in New England that compelled the whole community in ministerial support, although not without attempts to retain voluntariness. By the end of the 17th century tithes were compelled through taxation; although in the first half of the 19th century Connecticut and Massachusetts reversed this situation with the separation of church and state.
Nonetheless, mid-19th century America experienced a renewed emphasis on tithing with a proliferation of writings that gained traction. Accompanying an emphasis on missions and practical theology – while beneficial in themselves – the ability for critical thinking was lost in the seminaries and churches. Tithing gained broad support in tandem with an emphasis on practical stewardship and by 1895 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution supporting tithing. The 20th century saw a similar development but not without dissident voices.
As the foregoing discussion and the following list demonstrates, history does not indicate a prevailing view. List of the differing view’s of tithing.
Theological and Practical Conclusions
- The diverse views and lack of consensus throughout the history of the Christian movement suggests that tithing was never intended by God to be a primary doctrinal emphasis. God is not the author of confusion. We are unwise to teach explicitly what the NT only references implicitly, although the implicit nature of tithing in the NT is explained by a covenant hermeneutic (interpretation)—the NT writers assume continuity between covenants (refer to point 2 below); therefore tithing did not need to be explicitly reinstated. Nonetheless, tithes and offerings as a second tier issue in God’s hierarchy of ethics is signified by Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law” while scrupulously tithing on “mint and cumin”, which by-the-way Jesus reinforced, albeit under the old economy. We have made more of tithing though in the “Tithing Renewal” than the new covenant warrants, resulting in pharisaic exactitudes (i.e. rigorously tithing on mint and cumin), provoking numerous imponderables: whether tithing is gross or net of tax (including social security) and/or business expenses and how that might be calculated if the tax rate is confiscatory (i.e. more than 10%); whether there are three tithes, two or one; whether tithing is to the local church or para-church, either or both; whether non-tithing is a disciplinable offence; whether the tithe is on capital or merely increase; whether sabbatical years should be allowed and tithe-free as there would be no increase in that year; whether the poor tithe in the third year is in addition to or replaces the Levitical tithe in that year; whether in view of the three tithes the rate is 10%, 20% (if factoring in the sabbatical year), 23.33% (if not factoring in the sabbatical year, or 30%; and so forth.
- A biblically holistic view of the covenants demonstrates that God has made primarily one covenant with various administrations (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, Mosaic, Messianic). There is thus a greater continuity than discontinuity flowing from the old covenant to the new. In this light, rather than teaching that only those things continue that are clearly reinstated by the NT, a covenant hermeneutic (interpretation) teaches that everything continues unless clearly rescinded by the NT. In other words, contiunuity is the general case, discontinuity is the exception. All that the NT rescinds is Sacrifice, Priesthood, and Temple (ceremonial laws), including Ethnic Separation laws (e.g. food laws, land promises etc.). Nonethless, they do continue under a higher and different administration—from type to anti-type, from shadow to substance as spiritual realities in Christ’s priestly ministry and the church’s moral separation from the world. God’s nature as moral governor of the universe does not change. Therefore the moral force of the old covenant flows through into the new, providing a clear ethic for social relationships. Tithes and offerings therefore fall into an ethical category in the new covenant, thus carrying moral weight in the ecclesial—into the new covenant community.
- While the ethical force of the law has continuity from the old covenant into the new, there is a discontinuity as to its administration; under the old it was by the letter but under the new by the Spirit. As a second tier issue, this means therefore that the church should not enforce the tithe. It is now through the power of the Word and the Spirit that the obedience of the Christian is realized. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the preachers and teachers of the Word to teach both the law and the gospel in harmony; that is, the moral imperative of the law as it relates to ministerial support and care of the poor, along with the power now made available in the new covenant for the believer to obey. Church leaders must trust the Lord and the life of the Spirit to motivate believers and empower ecclesial affairs. Both the NT and the sub-apostolic era demonstrate that when the Holy Spirit is moving in power spontaneous abandonment to the Lord and his people is the norm, manifesting in sacrificial but joyful giving—the selling of property and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. It is no longer a question of 10% but 100% under the new covenant, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit to call on any amount at any time in addition to regular disciplined giving; both are modelled in the NT (Acts 2, 4; 1 Cor 16:2).
- Based on the foregoing, it is a moot point whether NT giving is called “Tithing” or “Giving”. In view though of the negative history surrounding the former it may be more pragmatic to use the latter, denoting the motivation and spirit of the new covenant that now animates the believer—the joy of giving versus the duty of tithing.
- Both Jesus and Paul teach the principle of levitical ministry and the new covenant community’s moral obligation to undergird financially. Paul appeals explicitly to the law and the temple and thus implicitly to the tithe as God’s authority for this principle. Therefore, it is no longer a question as to whether the individual believer should be regularly giving to ministerial support, but rather a question of how and where—this will be determined by the leading of the Holy Spirit and those life-giving relationships that supply spiritual food from the Word; we bring our substance into the “storehouse” (i.e. the treasury of the temple, now the ecclesia) that there may be “food in my house”—that is, sustenance for the levites, the ministers of the gospel. The body of Christ (the ecclesia) encompasses various expressions including local church and so-called para-church, so they are not in competition. This will be especially so, if one appreciates the distinction between the church and the work (Acts 13 shows Paul and Barnabas being separated by the Spirit from the former to the latter); the church is pastoral and local led by elders, while the work is missional and trans-local led by apostles; their relationship is symbiotic, one cannot thrive without the other. It is significant that the directions regarding offerings in the NT are apostolic rather than pastoral.
- As to the amount, we suggest 10% merely serve as a benchmark for our regular giving with the proviso that the Holy Spirit may direct us to increase this, whether regularly or through one-off sacrificial offerings. Giving should also be proportionate to one’s capacity (1 Cor 16:2)—10% for a wealthy person may be immorally inadequate compared to one of lesser means for whom 10% may be exorbitant (e.g. those dependent on welfare). The OT type provides a pointer for financing apostolic ministry: the ratio of Levites to people in the OT was 1:120. This means it took 120 tithing people to support one levitical worker, despite – mathematically – it only taking ten people at 10% to support one worker at an equivalent level of income! That means the levite receives 12 times more than the average income of the tithers! This is not a salary for service! This is an abundant provision for the work of God and for his servants! As mentioned earlier the tithe was to replace the Levitical inheritance in the land—it was an inheritance, that is, a gift not a wage that is earned. This demands a revolution as to how ministers of the gospel and the work of God is financed—from penny-pinching parsimonious attitudes and methods to Holy Spirit inspired liberality; an abandonment to the high call of God in Christ Jesus! “Your people will volunteer freely in the day of your power!” (Ps 110:3). This is to not only bless the levitical worker, but more strategically to bless the work of God with capital wealth for the advance of the gospel and the kingdom in the world; thus, the character requirement for overseers to be free from the “love of money” (1 Tim 3:3; 6:10). This level of wealth is not toward an excessive lifestyle for God’s servants, but toward funding the ecclesia’s educative mandate (teaching and preaching the gospel) in society, including care for the poor, and thus kingdom advance (Mtt 28:18-20).
A Command with a Promise
9 Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.
6 “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. 7 “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts. “But you say, ‘How shall we return?’
8 “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. 9 “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! 10 “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.
Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure — pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.
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