What About Tithing?
In this book I am reviewing various concepts related to Christian stewardship. In the previous chapter I spoke about motivation and the role that it plays in our giving to the Lord. In this chapter I would like to consider the matter of tithing and clear up some misconceptions we may have about this practice and then examine some of the teachings found in the New Testament about giving to the Lord.
The previous point stressed was why we give, this time I want to explain how we, as Christians, give.
Tithing in the Old Testament
Many denominations use the word "tithing" when they refer to the giving of money to the church. This word refers to the Old Testament practice of giving one tenth of the Jewish people's produce and cattle to support the priests and Levites in their work at the temple and ministry on behalf of the nation. The word "tithe" literally means 1/10, and so tithing is the giving of a one tenth share of something.
Tithing as a religious obligation is older than the Law of Moses and was observed by many nations long before it was introduced into Jewish culture. For example, in Genesis 14:17-20 various pagan kings gave Abraham one tenth of their spoils of war for having saved their people in a battle against several of the regional powers of that day.
When the Law was given by Moses, this concept was included as a way of supporting the Levites and the priests who served the spiritual needs of the people. In the book of Joshua chapters 13-21, we read that Joshua divided the land given to the Jews by God (called Canaan at the time) and assigned each tribe their portion of territory. The tribe of Levi (from which came the Levites), however, had no land inheritance and instead were given the responsibility of caring for the Tent of Meeting (the place where Jewish animal, food and drink sacrifices were prepared and offered) and later care for the Temple, built for this same purpose, in the city of Jerusalem. Their livelihood, therefore, came from the tithe of produce and animals given by the nation. The priests also lived in this way. The Levites received a tenth of the produce and animals offered in sacrifice by the people and they, in turn, gave a tenth of what they received to the priests thereby maintaining their own and the priests' livelihood in this way.
The people were instructed to count out one tenth of their crops, fruit, and herds and give it to the Levites; this was done three times a year. Later on, zealous scribes and Pharisees added complex rules demanding that even seasonings had to be tithed, down to stalks and leaves (but this was human law, not Mosaic Law). The Pharisees said that everything that was eaten, watched over or grown had to be tithed. This, of course, was the type of excess that Jesus accused them of when He said, "You tithe mint, dill and cumin, but ignore the mightier matters of the Law..."
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
- Matthew 23:23
Because the Jews gave significant meaning to different numbers, one tenth or 10 percent was an important symbolic portion offered to the Lord. The number ten represented wholeness, fulfillment, ripeness, readiness or completeness. Therefore, ten percent was a mature, complete and full offering to the Lord. The idea was that your gift, your thanks, your offering was itself complete, mature and whole because when you gave a tenth you knew you had given what God had commanded and did not second guess yourself in the practice of giving.
The Meaning of the Gift in the Old Testament
The fact that the Jews gave the first 10 percent portion of their crops, fruit, herds (which represented their wealth) was done to signify an important idea. In Exodus 19:5 God said, "... all the earth is mine."
Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine;
- Exodus 19:5
The point here was that they had no just right to use anything because it all belonged to God. The point of giving the first 10 percent to God was a way of signifying that everything they had belonged to Him and the portion given was a way of acknowledging this truth or reality. The Jews understood that by giving the first full portion (10 percent) to God and thus acknowledging His ownership, God was permitting and blessing them in the use and disposal of the remaining 90 percent. The point was that all the produce and herds should have been given to God because it rightfully belonged to Him, but by giving Him the first full portion (10 percent was considered a full portion and thus eliminated doubt as to what a proper and acceptable portion should be) God gave back the remaining 90 percent and blessed its use.
Tithing in the New Testament
There are many religious groups and denominations who have carried over the idea of tithing into the present time. There are even some Churches of Christ who carry on this practice. They may be well meaning but they have no New Testament basis to support this practice. The concepts of giving, giving regularly, generously, even sacrificially have all been carried over from the Old Testament to the New Testament, but the requirement that each individual's acceptable portion must be 10 percent has not.
Some people confuse pledging and tithing:
- Pledging is when a member of the church examines his resources and pledges/promises to provide the church a certain amount of money over a period of time. Of course this is done with the understanding that keeping the commitment is based on whether or not the Lord will continue to provide life and resources. "If the Lord is willing," a certain amount will be given over a certain period of time. This type of giving helps the person and the church plan their work and financial commitments. Some are against pledging as a way of giving because they do not see it practiced in the New Testament. In I Corinthians 16:2, however, Paul tells the church to prepare and set aside an amount for a certain purpose and day. This was a form of pledging in the early church. Some are even against the use of pledge cards, but again, this is just another way of organizing our giving, work and budgeting.
- Tithing on the other hand, is a requirement that each person must give a certain amount to the Lord. There is no choice, not to do so is a sin. Tithing is easier and more profitable for the budget but cannot be supported by any Scripture, example or inference in the New Testament.
There is still giving in the New Testament, but the way we give and some of the reasons we do so are are different.
New Testament Teaching on Giving
As far as "how" one should give, the New Testament has a much more simplified approach to the actual giving itself. I Corinthians 16:2 teaches us the "how to" of New Testament giving:
On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.
- I Corinthians 16:2
- We give regularly (first day of the week). The church provides a convenient time for monies to be collected during the weekly worship period on Sunday. Paul, in this passage, is speaking about a special offering he was collecting for the saints in Jerusalem, but in so doing provides the only information we have concerning the "method" used to collect funds in the church. One instruction and example in the Bible is enough, however, to guide our actions today.
- Each one gives. Every single member is responsible for giving. There is no such thing as a Christian who feels that he or she is not included in this process. If you have income of any kind, on the first day of each week, you should be giving to the Lord.
- Each person prepares his or her offering. No one tells you what to give. No one dictates the amount, this is your decision. However, Paul says that it is not a last minute thing or an afterthought. Each person should come with the intention of giving and giving an amount that has been thought about and prepared in advance.
- Give according to what you have received. In the Old Testament the Law said that the Jews had to offer 10 percent of their harvest and herds whether there were good or bad times. This limited them in a way because 10 percent of a little was not a lot, and when they had a lot, 10 percent was not much for them to give. In the New Testament, Jesus frees us to give generously at all times by tying our giving to our appreciation of what we have. For example, a poor man may feel he is truly blessed because of his family and good health and wants to give the Lord a generous portion of what little he owns to show his gratitude, an amount which may be quite generous in proportion to what he actually possesses. A rich man, on the other hand, is free to give in excess of 10 percent so that his giving is both meaningful and sacrificial (he feels it). Ten percent would be the required amount offered (according to Old Testament teaching), but for the rich it would not be a sacrificial amount. Jesus' teaching helps us deal with the ups and downs of life. In good years if we offered 25 percent of our wealth we might still have plenty left to live on comfortably. However, when personal disaster happened it might be that 5 percent would be the most we could give based on what we had. The New Testament enables us to grow in good as well as bad times with regards to our giving.
The rest of this passage shows that in the matter of money great care was given that the collection was well accounted for by several in the congregation. It also demonstrates that it was spent on specific needs of the church for ministry (e.g. we see in Acts - to evangelize, to provide for the poor and widows, to enable the work of the ministers).
In addition to this Jesus taught that when it came to giving, discretion should be to order of the day, not a time for a show.
But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
- Matthew 6:3
There are other teachings about giving as far as attitude and the benefits of giving, but in this section I merely wanted to look at the "how to" of giving:
- On the first day
- Each person gives
- A prepared amount
- Tied to our gratitude and wealth, not Law
In the New Testament church, therefore, when it comes to the giving of money we see several concrete teachings about this subject. As Christians we follow and do what we have been taught, and eliminate all other things. For example, this is why we do not have bake sales or raffles to raise money for church use. It isn't because the New Testament says these type of activities are sinful. We eschew these money making activities because the New Testament provides us with clear teachings and commands about what we ought to be doing in this area of our Christian service. When the Bible tells us what and how to do something, this eliminates all other options. In other words, the teaching of what we are to do eliminates man-made options that have no basis in Scripture.
Every week, therefore, each of us contributes a portion of our means according to our wealth. We give it freely and cheerfully and once given it is the responsibility of the church to use it wisely for the work of the Lord. This is the simple teaching of Christ and the Apostles to the church on the matter of Christian giving which we are to faithfully follow.