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What the Bible Says About Tithing

Tithing is an interesting subject, and often one of controversy. While tithing is certainly a biblical concept, some churches teach that it is commanded of Christians, and some teach that it isn't. What does the Bible teach regarding tithing under the New Covenant?

In order to understand how tithing fits (or doesn't fit) into the life of a Christian, we must first examine tithing as it was originally commanded, it's purposes, and it's meaning. For this we go to the Old Testament.

The word "tithe" simply means "tenth," and as it is used in the Bible, it refers to giving a "tenth" to God. "A tenth of what?," you might ask. This will be discovered as Scriptures regarding the tithe are studied.


Abraham and Jacob Tithe Before the Law

The first time a tithe is referred to in Scripture is in Genesis 14:18-20, where we read:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.
Abram had just returned from defeating several kings to rescue his nephew Lot who had been taken captive, as well as goods that were taken. When Melchizidek blessed Abram, Abram gave Melchizidek a tenth "of all." This "tithe" is not limited to income, but clearly includes a tenth of all of Abram's possessions. A similar tithe is seen with Jacob, in Genesis 28:10-22, where Jacob pledges that if God blesses him, he would give a tenth back to God. In both of these instances, the tithe is made before the law to tithe is given, but this offering is made in response to blessing, out of thanksgiving.


Institution of the Tithe Under the Law

The tithe is first given as law in Leviticus 27:30-33. This consisted of "all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree" (vs.30); specifically, it consisted of livestock, grain, fruit, and the like. If desired, a man could "redeem" part or all of his tithe with money, but if he did so, he was required to add 20 percent ("a fifth" - vs. 31) of the value to it (in other words, a man wishing to "redeem" his tithe [keep it for himself] was required to pay 120 percent of the value of the tithe). This apparently only applied to the tithe from the land. It seems that animals could not be redeemed. Animals were to be chosen by counting every tenth, and not deciding between "good" or "bad" animals - almost a random picking based on the animals passing before the shepherd and choosing every tenth animal. If a man wanted to substitute an animal for one of the animals to be set aside for the Lord, both animals were then considered holy, and neither could be redeemed. (The entire 27th chapter of Leviticus focuses on dedicating things to the Lord, and concludes with the tithe).


Purpose of the Tithe, and the Second Tithe

In Numbers 18:20-32, God gives the reason for the tithe seen in Leviticus 27 - to support the Levitical priesthood (cf. Nehemiah 10:37-39). Since the Lord specified that the Levites would "have no inheritance" among the Israelites, the tithe was given to them "for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation." (Num. 18:21,31). Aaron himself was told that he would have no inheritance among the Israelites as well, but that God was his share and inheritance (Num. 18:20). God then specifies that the Levites were to give a tenth (tithe) of all the tithes they received to Aaron (Num. 18:25-29) - this was "the Lord's portion".

Deuteronomy 12:5-6,11 tells us that the tithe was to be brought to "the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put His Name their for His dwelling" (Deut. 12:5). Deuteronomy 12:17-28 continues along this line of thought, then speaking of the tithe being eaten. Specifically, verses 17 and 18 say:

"Thou mayest not eat within thy gates the tithe of thy corn, or of thy wine, or of thy oil, or the firstlings of thy herds or of thy flock, nor any of thy vows which thou vowest, nor thy freewill offerings, or heave offering of thine hand: But thou must eat them before the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD thy God shall choose, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates: and thou shalt rejoice before the LORD thy God in all that thou puttest thine hands unto."
Seeing as this is addressing the entire nation of Israel (vs. 12 makes that clear - note that the list includes the Levites, hence it is not directed toward the Levites alone), it is apparently a second tithe, since the first tithe was to be given entirely to the Levites. Deuteronomy 14:22-27 expands upon this concept by commanding the people to "eat before the LORD thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks" (Deut. 14:23). The purpose of doing this? "...that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always" (Deut. 14:23)

Continuing in this context, if the person could not get to the place "which the LORD thy God shall choose to set his name there" (Deut. 14:24), then the person was to convert the tithe to money and take the money "unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose" (Deut. 14:25). Once there, the person is commanded to buy "whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth" (Deut. 14:26), and again, to eat it there before the Lord. This again is evidence against this being the first tithe, as it is not given explicitly and completely to the Levites.

Every third year, this tithe (the second tithe) was to be kept in the local towns (wherever the person tithing lived) for "the Levite, (because he hath no part nor inheritance with thee,) and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within thy gates" (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). This is restated in Deuteronomy 26:12-13. Again, this can be assumed to be the second tithe first from the context, and secondly because it is not set aside solely for the Levites.


Other Old Testament Tithing

In 1 Samuel 8, when the Israelites desired a king, the Lord told Samuel to tell the Israelites that when a king was set in place over them, this king would take a tenth of their grain, their vintage, and their flocks among other things (1 nbsp;Samuel 8:10-18). This is not specifically called a tithe, however, since Israel was a theocracy, this shows a sort of 10 percent taxation that would be set in place to support the theocracy, and can probably be considered a tithe (which would make this a third tithe).

2 Chronicles 31:4-6,12 illustrates the Israelites tithing to the Levites. In this instance, there was so much to the tithe that it took four months to assemble. However, this was not a new tithe, but the first tithe, since it was given specifically to and for the Levites. This time, we find that the purpose was "that they [the Levites] might be encouraged in the law of the LORD" (2 Chron;31:5).

Finally we come to Malachi 3:8-10, a seemingly favorite camping ground for those who wish to impose the tithe on Christians. This seems to refer to the first tithe, since it says "that there may be meat in mine house" (Mal. 3:10, emphasis mine), and also since it says "you are robbing Me [God]" in verse 9. So again, this is a tithe specifically commanded for the Jews in order to support the Levites.


The Tithe in the New Testament

It is interesting to note that the "tithe" is mentioned very few times in the New Testament, and of the times it is mentioned, none is in the context of a command.

Jesus scolds the "scribes and Pharisees" in Matthew 23:23-24 as having tithed but having "omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith" (verse 23; cf. Luke 11:42), thus showing that there were other parts of the law considered "more important" than the tithe. He then continues, stating that "these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." Notice however, that when Christ says this, "ought ye to have" is past tense. This is what they should have done. Also note that Jesus is speaking to Jewish Pharisees and scribes, not Christians, so this cannot be used to support the idea that Christians should tithe.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee boasts of his tithing, among other things, and the tax collector simply asks for mercy (nothing is mentioned of tithing in the case of the tax collector). Yet in this parable, the tax collector, not the Pharisee, goes away justified (of course, the primary focus of this parable, as stated in verse 14, is a lesson in humility - nonetheless, the principle of being justified without tithing, or not being justified despite tithing, is still present).

Hebrews 7:1-10 gives a picture of tithing through the story of Abraham and Melchizidek as seen in Genesis 14. Though it is described here, allusion is made to the first tithe (to the Levites), but it is not commanded of Christians, nor does the writer seem to imply that this is an example to follow. This passage is simply a picture, using Melchizidek, to show what kind of high priest we have in Jesus, as opposed to the Levitical priesthood which has been done away with (this can be seen by reading the rest of Hebrews chapter 7).


The Analysis

We've seen that the first tithe was instituted to support the Levitical priesthood (Numbers 18, 2 Chronicles 31:4-6,12). However, there is another aspect to the first tithe as well: thanksgiving.

You'll note that Abram gave a tithe to Melchizidek because Melchizidek (and God had) blessed Abram (Genesis 14). This could easily take us off course into the realm of give-to-get theology, however, it should be readily apparent that this giving was done as a matter of thanks in response to blessing already received, not in order to receive blessing. Jacob also said he would give a tithe to the Lord in response to what the Lord had done (would do) for him (Genesis 28).

Next we see that God says we tithe (this was in relation to the second tithe - this also referred to eating it where He chose for "to place His name there") "that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always" (Deuteronomy 14:23). So the tithe was a matter of helping the Israelites to learn reverence for the Lord.

Again, the third year tithe (the second tithe collected every third year as described in Deuteronomy 14:28-29) was in order to feed the Levites, strangers, fatherless, and widows among the Israelites.

Three important facts to glean from these verses is that 1) Abram and Jacob gave out of thanks for blessings received, 2) the tithe supported the priesthood, and 3) it was done so that the Israelites could learn reverence for the Lord.

From these passages, it should be noted that if a Christian wishes to "tithe" according to the Bible, they should be tithing of all they have, giving two tithes, and making sure that every third year, the second tithe goes to support the strangers, fatherless, and widows in their town, as well as their pastor and ministers. However, tithing is not commanded for Christians in any passage of the Bible.


New Testament Giving

In the New Testament, for Christians, giving took on much the same purpose as the tithe for the Israelites; however, it was not according to any laws. An Old Testament passage gives excellent insight into Christian giving. Deuteronomy 8:10-20 is about giving thanks to God for what He has blessed us with, and making sure we do not become proud, but humbly recognizing that all that we have is by God's hand and not our own. We must also realize that what He gives us is not because of our righteousness or faithfulness (Deuteronomy 9:6 and surrounding context).

Paul writes some instruction regarding Christian giving in 1 Corinthians 9:14, where he states that, "...the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel." In other words, preachers should be paid to preach. Where does this money come from? In Galatians Paul tells us, "Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things" (Galatians 6:6 - this can be better understood from another translation: "And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches" (NASB). We see this same concept again in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 where Paul writes, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward." Therefore, we should be giving to support those who teach us faithfully.

In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul tells the Corinthians that each man should set aside a sum of money on the first day of every week, "as God hath prospered him", for a collection to be taken to help the saints in Jerusalem. He follows up on this subject in 2 Corinthians 8, where he explains how the Macedonians gave overwhelmingly, even though they were impoverished; and the Macedonians' giving was marked by their joy, and the feeling that it was a privilege to be able to give. Thus, he encouraged the Corinthians to make good on their promise to give. So we see, this giving was due to a promise made of their own volition, not a legalistic method of tithing. This point is again reinforced by Paul's statement in verse 8 that "I speak not by commandment..." Notice in verse 12 that "if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not." Implicit in this verse is that the gift is not acceptable if the willingness is not there. Paul further explains that this giving is so that there might be equality among the saints (apparently, many among the saints in Jerusalem were impoverished).

Moving on to chapter 9 (which is a continuation of chapter 8), Paul states that his reason for writing about this is so that they will be ready when the time comes to collect the money to take to Jerusalem (verse 3). He continues by stating that he wants it ready so it will be "that the same might be ready, as a matter of bounty, and not as of covetousness" (verse 5 - that it is given willfully, not grudgingly). This again enforces the idea that giving should be done willingly. Paul continues to reinforce this thought in verse 7 when he states, "Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give ; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver." Paul also states that God gives us what we need to be able to give (verse 10), so we can continue to give generously. He again gives reason for the giving in verses 12-15. Therefore, we should give to help the saints who are in need.

Still we have not seen any instance in the New Testament where people were urged or commanded to tithe. You would think that if a command to tithe would be given, it would be given to those who were new to the faith, especially Gentiles, who would not necessarily be aware of the Jewish laws and customs. However, when a question arises how to deal with Gentiles who were being added to the church, the apostles and elders met together, and led by the Holy Spirit, decided on some requirements for the Gentiles. Their requirements were four-fold: "... abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:20). They then wrote a letter "unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia" (verse 23), stating that these requirements came from the Holy Spirit (verse 28), and restating "that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication" (verse 29). Surely this would have been a most appropriate time to institute a tithe among the churches, yet the Holy Spirit, the elders, and the apostles did not.


Conclusion

In light of all of the evidence presented, tithing is not a principle which Christians are subject to, but was part of the Mosaic law. Rather, Christians should give out of the willingness of their heart, and thanksgiving to and reverence for God, both for who He is and for the blessings He has bestowed upon them. Giving is done in response to the good teachings which Christians receive, to support those who teach, and to support saints in need. By following these teachings, and the examples set by New Testament Christians, we may always give willingly and joyfully, and please God with what we have and bring to offer.

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