The Christian and the Tithe

It’s a debate that’s hot even today. Are Christians to tithe? Is it Biblical or unbiblical? Is it under law or under grace? Let’s take a look at this dividing practice.

I’m sure we all know that moment after the praise and the greeting. “It’s time to take our tithes and offerings,” the weekly phrase goes. We all rummage through our wallets or purses for the right amount to plop into that bucket as it goes by. As a kid, I was oblivious to what it all meant as I was too busy colouring on the floor, and even as a teen I often let the bucket pass by without a second thought, giving only when I had leftover change (pretty greedy, huh?). However, as I gained more knowledge of who God was and how He treated His people, I witnessed churches use this practice in disturbing ways. It morphed from an innocent offering to something that felt condemning and fearful.

As the church leaders convicted us of stealing, I remember looking around to those who possessed less than most. Of course, it was taught that God blessed those who blessed Him, but I’m sure it still conjured up worry. So, are we to tithe today, and if so, are we disobeying God when we don’t?

We’ll begin by looking at tithing’s relevancy to the OT. The most common verses I’ve seen regarding this are as follows:

Gen. 14:20 And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.

Gen. 28:22 And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

Lev. 27:30 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 unto the LORD.

Mal 3:10, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”

The context of these OT passages is the support of a particular person or institution (i.e. the storehouse). Interestingly enough, we find Abram tithing in Genesis before the laying out of the Mosaic law. He tithed “with perfect naturalnesses and without explanation as if it were an already accepted and well-understood institution.” (1). Thus tithing isn’t a unique command by God (as most would have us believe), but rather common practice in Ancient Near Eastern culture. In Abram’s example, it was a practice because he recognized a higher authority who had provided His every need (Gen 14:20).

The rule of a 10% tithe wasn’t a direct command of God but a construct of the culture to support the institution of kings and rulers who in turn provided the needs for those under their authority.

But what about the NT? How have things changed? To answer this it would be useful to examine how ancient culture differs from ours today.

Unlike today’s world, where it seems we have inexhaustible recourses and supplies at our fingertips, anything good in the ancient world (whether physical or non-physical i.e. money or honor) was severely limited. Under the honor and shame view of the ancient world, if one held on to an unnecessary amount of limited good they were seen as greedy and dishonorable if they did not share it with those less fortunate. Thus, we find verses such as Luke 3:11 where John the Baptist says,

“…..He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.”

The ancients were to share their goods equally among each other. The one who had an abundance of good was to offer a portion of that to the poor. The poor were never purposed to give to the wealthy, and when we see the example of the widow giving a farthing in Mark 12:41-44, we see Jesus responding with great gratitude and favour not seen with the wealthy. “She, out of her want, did cast in all that she had, even all her living.” Jesus never expected her to give.

There’s another verse used to support tithing that deserves our attention. Matthew 23:23 says this,

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

This verse is often used as an example of Christ approving of tithes. “And to not leave the other undone” supposedly suggests, along with judgment, mercy, and faith, tithing should also come with the package. However, I find it doubtful that this verse applies to everyone, for a few reasons. It can be said that Jesus approved of the Pharisee’s tithe, as they were middle-class citizens, but nowhere does it suggest Jesus demands everyone, including the poor, to regularly give 10% of their good. Additionally, the Pharisee’s served the temple system under the old covenant. This would be rendered void after the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D, so this verse has no basis to support tithing today. It instead demonstrates our fault by following the easier practices of the law to produce a vision of righteousness over the more important, often more difficult aspects (i.e. loving our enemies and showing mercy to those who wronged us).

Another important point I want to touch on are the televangelists of today. These folks are often seen as money-hungry, and when it comes to atheism’s view of modern Christianity, they present the broad picture of the religion itself. To be clear, I don’t support these people for the sole purpose of how they spend their money (private jet planes!!), but to critic sincere ministries who humbly ask for support (because Jesus never asked) is misguided.

Nowhere is it recorded that Jesus asked for money, nor did He ever ask for it to support His ministry. However, this wasn’t because Jesus was trying to show humility, it was because He didn’t need to ever ask for it. In the NT world, ancient rules of hospitality demanded that those sent out on missions were fed, clothed, and provided for. But by who? Luke 8:3 tells us,

“And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.”

In other words, it was the wealthy who paid for Jesus’s trips. This calls back to John’s words in Luke 3:11. Those travelling didn’t have an abundance of food or clothing, so those who had more than was needed were expected to offer what they didn’t need. We can conclude here that Jesus did ask for provision, but unlike some ministers today, He never expected the poor to provide such needs. Those who demand (emphasis on the “demand”) ministry provision from the general congregation are out of line.

In the end, there is no Biblical evidence to suggest tithing ritually is required under service to God, nor is there any evidence that suggests it must always be to a church. If any decide to tithe, it should be seen as honorable (if they do so discreetly, of course), but when it comes to those struggling for a day’s needs, the burden of the tithe is simply unsupported and unbiblical. Those who give should do so out of the abundance of their heart. Most importantly, our offerings should be given where they are needed, whether that be a struggling member of a congregation or a friend. There are people with real needs and real problems sitting in the church, and if your church would rather pay for a new paint job than support the body of Christ it may be time to look elsewhere.

References: (1) Principles of Biblical Living: Arvan G. W p.6.