Should a Christian Tithe?

Allow me to begin with a list of prominent preachers, pastors, theologians, Christian apologists, and Christian authors, ranging from the early days of the church up through today. Here goes:

  1. Justin Martyr (AD 100-AD 165): early church apologist, founder of a Christian school
  2. Irenaeus (AD 130-AD 202): early church Bishop, apologist
  3. Tertullian (AD 150-AD 225): early church apologist
  4. Origen (AD 185-AD 254): early church scholar, theologian, writer
  5. John Wycliffe (1330-1384): theologian, Bible translator, reformer, professor
  6. John Huss (1369-1415): excommunicated Catholic priest, theologian, reformer
  7. Martin Luther (1483-1546): theologian, leader of the Protestant Reformation
  8. John Wesley (1703-1791): missionary, preacher, founder of Methodism
  9. Matthew Henry (1662-1714): pastor, legendary commentator
  10. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892): pastor, often called “The Prince of Preachers”
  11. C.I. Scofield (1843-1921): pastor, theologian, author of the Scofield Reference Bible
  12. G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945): pastor, evangelist, commentator
  13. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963): author (The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.), theologian, apologist
  14. J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988): pastor, radio minister, commentator
  15. F.F. Bruce (1910-1990): professor, author
  16. William MacDonald (1917-2007): author, commentator, Christian college president
  17. Charles Ryrie (1925-2016): professor, theologian, author of the Ryrie Study Bible
  18. James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000): pastor, theologian, radio minister
  19. John MacArthur (1939-present): pastor, radio minister, commentator
  20. John Piper (1946-present): pastor, author, theologian, seminary chancellor

Impressed? You should be, and you would be if you knew the full extent of the roles these men have played in the history of Christianity. They didn’t all come from the same denomination. They didn’t all hold to exactly the same doctrinal beliefs. And they didn’t all serve Christ in the same capacity. But they did all have one thing in common. Do you know what it was? They didn’t teach tithing. (By the way, my thanks to for compiling such a list.) 

To tithe is to give a tenth, which means that a “tithe” is a “tenth.” The average Christian in America has heard plenty of sermons on tithing, so much so that he doesn’t think he needs to ever hear another one. However, that average Christian has probably never heard just exactly what the Bible does teach on the subject.

Let’s begin by looking at Leviticus 27:30-34, a passage that describes a tithe God commanded the people of Israel to pay each year. These verses say:

‘And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord. If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it. And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the Lord. He shall not inquire whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; and if he exchanges it at all, then both it and the one exchanged for it shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.’ These are the commandments which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel on Mount Sinai. (N.K.J.V.)

Okay, so God was to receive one-tenth of every kind of harvest and herd in Israel. Deuteronomy 12:5-7 tells us that each Israelite was to bring this tithe to the Tabernacle. Later on, the Jewish Temple was built to replace the Tabernacle, and the tithe was then to be brought there. Malachi 3:10 mentions “the storehouse,” which was a room in the Temple that was used for storing the tithes of crops and animals.

But what was this tithe used for? According to Numbers 18:21-24 it was used as provisions for the Levites, the priests who ministered in the Tabernacle/Temple. This explains why this tithe is known as “the Levite’s tithe.” In a very real way, it was God’s Old Testament way of taking care of the minister. For the record, the Levites themselves had to pay a tithe on the offerings that were brought to them. They paid this tithe by offering up a tenth of the offerings as a heave offering and then giving that offering to Israel’s High Priest. This is all explained in Numbers 18:25-32.

Of course, when the Old Testament talks about tithing, the focus is oftentimes placed on things other than money, things such as herds, grain, fruits, and possessions. Job was the richest man in the East, but Job chapter 1 describes his wealth in terms of 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and a very large household. This brings up a major problem with trying to tithe today: To completely pay a true tithe, a tenth of more than just your money would be involved.

Similar to the description of Job’s wealth, our Leviticus 27:30-34 passage describes tithing one’s flocks and herd. The Jews would line up their animals in single file and mark each tenth animal with a rod dipped in a colored substance. This is what God means by “whatever passes under the rod.” The point is, God was to get each tenth animal. And what happened if a Jew got caught trying to manipulate the lining up so that his best animal didn’t end up tenth in line? God said, “If a man tries that, then I get the animal that should have been tenth in line and the animal that was actually  placed tenth in line.”

You might also have noticed that the passage mentions the possibility of a tither redeeming (buying back) some of his tithes. What’s that all about? Well, let’s say that a Jew wanted to keep for himself something that he should otherwise use as part of his tithe. That tither could “buy back” that something from God. He did this by bringing the full value of the thing and then adding one-fifth of that value. In other words, the tither had to bring 100% of the thing’s value and then add an extra 20%.

Before leaving this passage, let me pull one last point from it. Please don’t miss the fact that the last verse says these commandments are ones which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel on Mount Sinai. You see, this commandment to tithe is found in the book of Leviticus, and it was a part of God’s law for the people of Israel. Don’t try to make it God’s command to anybody else. All of the Bible was written for us, but not all of the Bible was written to us. We Gentiles are not Jews, and we do not live under Jewish law.

Alright, we’ve now looked at one tithe the Old Testament Jews were to bring. That tithe was brought to the Tabernacle/Temple and went to the upkeep of the Levites, the priests who ministered in the Tabernacle/Temple. But now let me tell you something that most people don’t know: The Jews’ tithing didn’t stop at the paying of that one tithe. To read about a second tithe that God commanded them to bring, let’s now look at Deuteronomy 14:22-26:

“You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the Lord your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the Lord your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.” (N.K.J.V.)

These verses describe a second round of tithing the Jews were to pay each year. But whereas the first tithe went to the Levites, this second tithe was enjoyed by the tither himself. He and his household were to go to the Tabernacle/Temple with this tithe and eat a feast out of the tithe. That’s why this second tithe is known as “the festival tithe.”

Here again, though, we see some of the complexities involved with true tithing. The Jew was to pull this tithe from his flocks as well as his yearly harvests of grain, new wine, and oil. He was to load it all up and, with his family, make the journey to the Tabernacle/Temple. If, however, he lived too far away to allow for the safe transport of the tithe, he could sell the tithe for money, make his journey to the Tabernacle/Temple, and there buy whatever his heart desired to ensure that his family’s time of feasting from this tithe was a joyous, celebratory time.

And so each year the Jew was to pay “the Levitical tithe” and “the festival tithe.” But would you believe the Old Testament law commanded a third tithe? This third tithe was not a yearly one. It was, instead, paid at the end of every third year. We read about it in Deuteronomy 14:27-29:

“You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you. At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates.  And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (N.K.J.V.)

At the end of every third year, the Jew was to bring a special tithe to a designated place in his home city or town. Once there, this tithe went to feed the local Levites. The Levites operated in rotating shifts at the Tabernacle/Temple, and they had homes when they weren’t on duty. Just as they were supported by the Levitical tithe when they were on duty at the Tabernacle/Temple, they were supported by this third-year tithe when they were at home, not on duty.

Also, this third-year tithe went to support the needy strangers, fatherless, and widows of the city or town. Therefore, this tithe is known as “the poor tithe.” It was different from the other two tithes in that it was only paid once every three years and wasn’t to be taken to the Tabernacle/Temple. It was, instead, to be taken to the designated place in the city or town.

Well, by now, I trust that you are beginning to see that tithing under the Old Testament law was complex. First, the tithes involved a tenth of not just money but also livestock, oil, wine, fruit, and grain. Second, the tithing got to be much more than 10% because God required at least two tithes each year and a third tithe every third year. So, you see, we grossly oversimplify a very complex system when we say, “If you make $600 a week, you should put $60 in church.” Furthermore, God pronounced a curse upon the nation of Israel if the Jews weren’t faithful regarding their tithes. This curse manifested itself by way of failed crops and empty harvests (Malachi 3:8-12). Does anybody want America to be held to that same bar of judgment today? I certainly don’t.

But now let’s look at what the New Testament has to say about giving. We find it in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. The backdrop for these verses involves the dire financial straits in which the Christians in Jerusalem found themselves at that time. The situation was so desperate that it led the apostle Paul to ask the various churches to which he ministered if they would take up a love offering for those Christians. As he writes to the church of Corinth:

Now concerning the collection for the saints (the love offering for those Jerusalem Christians), as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week (Sunday) let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. (N.K.J.V.)

What’s important to see here is that Paul doesn’t say to those Christians of Corinth, “Bring your tithe to church on Sunday and let it count towards the love offering for the Christians in Jerusalem.” Actually, the truth is, you can search high and low but you will not find any New Testament passage where Christians are commanded to tithe. The reason is easy to understand: The tithe was a part of God’s law for Israel, and Christians do not live under that law. Paul himself frequently talked about Christian giving (1 Corinthians 9:1-14, 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:8-15, 9:6-15; Philippians 4:15-20; and 1 Timothy 6:17-19), but he never used the word “tithes.” (The only possible exceptions would be a handful of references back to Old Testament tithing from the book of Hebrews, if indeed Paul was the unnamed author of Hebrews.)

And so what is the New Testament’s standard of giving? It is giving in accordance with one’s prosperity. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:2, “…let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper…” Some people prefer the old King James rendering, which says: “…as God hath prospered him…”

We see this same standard of giving taught in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, another passage from Paul. This time he says to those Christians of Corinth:

But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. (N.K.J.V.)

Here again we find that Paul makes no mention of tithing. What he says is, “Every man should give as he purposes in his heart.” Let it be known, though, that Paul’s intent was to get Christians to be more generous in their giving, not less. We know this because he adds in the solemn reminder: “He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” That doesn’t sound like a man who is trying to get Christians to give less, does it?

Now, to be fair to those who teach that tithing is mandatory for the Christian, let me mention that there are a couple of Old Testament, pre-law examples of tithing. First, in Genesis chapter 14, the Bible gives us the story of how Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils of a certain battle to Melchizedek, God’s priest in those pre-law days. And since that story has nothing to do with the Old Testament law, some take it as evidence that God has always wanted His people to pay a tithe and still does. Really, though, a careful study of Abraham’s life will show that God never commanded him to tithe, and he never practiced any kind of regular, systematic tithing.

Second, in Genesis chapter 28, the Bible gives us the story of how Jacob vowed that he would give a tenth of his possessions back to God if God would keep him safe and give him food and clothing as he made his way from Canaan to Padan Aram and back. Again, though, Jacob never practiced any kind of regular, systematic tithing. For that matter, there isn’t even a followup passage that says that he kept his vow and paid his promised tithe when he came back to Canaan. I figure that he did, but there is no Bible passage to confirm it.

What am I saying? I’m saying that God never commanded anybody to regularly and systematically tithe until He built that command into the body of law that He gave to the people of Israel. I’m saying that the Jews were the only people who were ever commanded to tithe.

Along these same lines, I should mention that Jesus spent His earthly life as a Jew living under Israel’s law. Therefore, it isn’t one bit surprising to find Him saying to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23:

“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.” (N.K.J.V.)

Someone says, “Aha, right there it is. Jesus said the paying of tithes ought to be done. ” Yes, He did say that, but He said it to Jews who, like Himself, were living under the Old Testament law. Everything would change following His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.

Listen Christian, Jesus doesn’t want you to live under any kind of forced legalism involving tithing. What He wants you to do is make Him Lord of every penny and possession you have. He wants you to seek His will in where to work, what to buy, what to finance, and (yes) how much to give as an offering. You don’t even have to have a fixed, set amount that you always give as an offering. Some weeks you might be able to give more than other weeks. Some months will be tougher than other months. The key is to get in tune with the Lord on this matter of giving and let Him guide you concerning every offering.

You see, when you come to a right understanding of New Testament giving, you can begin to approach your giving in an entirely different way. For example, when you get your car paid off, you won’t just immediately start looking for a new one and a new payment. Why not? It’s because God might burden you to drive that paid-off car for a while and have a season of putting more money in church. Or, when you finally get your house paid off, God might say to you, “Now I want you to really bump up your offering.”

As we all know, there are ebbs and flows to life, and if you are hopelessly tied to the idea of always giving a tenth, you will sometimes give more than God wants you to give and sometimes less than He wants you to give. I do believe that a tenth can be a good general reference point for how much you should give, but it shouldn’t be an end-all-be-all kind of deal. Don’t allow yourself to become a robot in your giving, always stoically paying your weekly or monthly tithe like you’d pay your union dues or property taxes. God wants you to become much more spiritually minded with your giving as you join Him on the great adventure that He calls the financial part of your life.

You say, “But Russell, if I based my giving on what you are describing, I would have to think about what to give and pray about it.” YES, THAT’S THE IDEA! Now you’re getting it! Never forget that Christianity is about liberty, not legalism. We’ve got far too many man-made rules in our churches today, and I’m sad to report that the rule of tithing is one of them.

This entry was posted in Giving, Money, The Old Testament Law, Tithing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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