What Is the Truth about the Tithe?
I don’t believe that the new covenant believer is commanded anywhere in the Bible to give ten percent of his income to God. If, having read this article, you still believe the Bible specifically commands us to do so, then you should practice and teach it. God will bless you and your church as result. However, I invite you to consider the following summary of the biblical teaching on tithing.
Tithing In the Old Testament
Before the establishment of the Mosaic law there are only two examples of the giving of a tenth. Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils he won in battle (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:4) and Jacob vowed to a give God a tenth of all he owned if God would protect him from his angry brother (Gen. 28:22). While these examples of tithing are commendable, the Scriptures do not command us to follow them, nor should they be considered as establishing obligatory standards of giving for today. Dr. Charles Ryrie, with his trademark logical clarity, explains:
The fact that something was done before the law which was later incorporated into the law does not necessarily make that thing a good example for today, especially if the New Testament gives further guidance on the matter. Not even the most ardent tither would say that the Sabbath should be observed today because it was observed before the law (Exodus 16:23-36), yet this is the very reasoning used in promoting tithing today. The New Testament teaches us about a new day of worship, and it also gives us new directions for giving.[i]
When the Mosaic law was instituted, Israel was commanded to give three different tithes averaging twenty to twenty-three percent per year.[ii]
Levitical Tithe: The first was a Levitical tithe in which ten percent of everything earned or grown was required to support the Levites and priests as they served in the tabernacle. “And to the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting (Num. 18:21). This tithe was necessary because the Levites could not earn their own livelihood and work in the tabernacle at the same time. It was used to support the national priestly program.[iii]
Festival Tithe: The second annual tithe required was a festival tithe in which ten percent of the remaining nine-tenths of one’s income was to be set apart and eaten at the yearly religious festivals in Jerusalem.
You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. And you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the first-born of your herd and your flock, in order that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always (Deut. 14:22-23).
This tithe was used to fund the national religious program.[iv]
Welfare Tithe: The third tithe the law demanded was a welfare tithe in which, every third year, the second tithe, the festival tithe, was not taken to Jerusalem, but was kept at home to feed the Levites and the poor. This was used to fund the national welfare program.
At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do (Deut. 14:28, 29).
Some scholars think this poor tithe was actually a third one required every three years. If so, it would average three and one-third percent per year and the average annual tithe required from an Israelite would be close to twenty-three percent each year! At the very least the yearly tithing requirement was two tithes amounting to twenty percent.[v]
In light of this, if someone wishes to argue for a percentage based on the Old Testament tithing laws, to be consistent he must not press for giving a mere ten percent, but for twenty to twenty-three percent.[vi] When I taught this to my congregation I always assured them that while we believed their interpretation was faulty, if they insisted on giving according to the Mosaic law of tithing they must give not ten, but at least twenty percent–and we would be happy to receive it!
Tithing in the New Testament
When studying the concept of tithing in the New Testament you discover that the word is used only eight times, in the gospels and in the letter to the Hebrews. In the gospels it is used in connection with the tithing of the Pharisees who were fulfilling their obligation to the old covenant, codified in the Mosaic law, which had not yet been abrogated by the death of Christ (Matt. 23:23, Lk. 11:42; 18:12). In the book of Hebrews tithing is mentioned in the discussion about Abraham’s having paid tithes to Melchizedek (Heb. 7:5-9).
It is significant that nowhere in the New Testament is the new covenant believer commanded to tithe. As a matter of fact, there is no text in all of Scripture that commands God’s people to give a mere ten percent to God!
Tithing in Your Church
In light of what I’ve just written, you will probably be surprised to learn that I still believe in using the giving of a tithe as a guideline in leading God’s people into faithful stewardship. When preaching on stewardship in my church I taught that, while the giving of a tenth is not a biblical command, it is a helpful guideline to use in planning our giving. I showed them what the New Testament had to say about generous, sacrificial, and proportionate giving. I then told my people, “I’m convinced that American Christians are so prosperous that if we don’t start by giving a minimum of ten percent of our income to the Lord, we can’t possibly be fulfilling New Testament principles of giving.” It made sense to them. Their giving soared, their personal finances improved, their faith grew, their joy expanded, and our offerings increased by 32% in one year!
[i] Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Balancing the Christian Life. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1969.
[ii] Allis, Oswald T. God Spake By Moses. Nutley, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1951, p. 143.
[iii] Orr, James., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 5, s.v. “Tithe”. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939, p. 2987.
[iv] Unger, Merrill F. “Tithe.” Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1957, p. 1103.
[v] Allis, Ibid., p. 143; Friesen, Gary. Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1980, p. 357; Orr, Ibid., p. 2988; Unger, Ibid. p. 1103; Ryrie, Ibid., p. 89.
[vi] MacArthur, John. Giving: God’s Way. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1978, pp. 63,64.