As long as the Christian Church is In the world, it will need money in order to accomplish its tasks.
There is no shame in that; after all, even Christ himself had a treasurer (Judas Iscariot, no less!) to manage the disciples’ finances. But, like everything else in this world, churchly expenses have also continued to soar. Faced with mounting debts, many congregations have increasingly emphasized tithing on the part of the membership. It only seems natural to do so, since tithing is a Biblical idea, and there have been many financial success stories as a result. One might think of the mega-churches, particularly those that make their appeals through the mass media, that seem to be awash in funds. However, at what theological price has this outward success come? From God’s point of view, just how “successful” is a church whose members, when they hear the word “church,” immediately think of the word “tithe” instead of Christ? What happens in the process to the Gospel of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, the doctrine upon which the Church really stands or falls? What happens to the Gospel when offerings become a matter for a pocket calculator instead of a heart that is moved by the Gospel? These questions are terribly important, because a church that does not have the Gospel has nothing at all, no matter how rich it might be. To answer these questions, we shall undertake a brief survey of the Biblical evidence for tithing followed by some practical suggestions for the Christian congregation.
Tithing in the Old Testament
The first mention of tithing is when Abraham give a tithe to Melchizedek, the priest to the true God at Salem (Gen 14:20). Two generations later Jacob promised a tithe of his possessions to God in response to the vision of the ladder reaching up to heaven (Gen 28:22). Where did these men get the idea to tithe 500 years before tithing was legislated at Mt. Sinai? Their spontaneous acts were probably suggested by the fact that tithing was a common practice among pagan religions in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, and all over the world. Just like with animal sacrifices – which the people of God offered long before Mt. Sinai – tithing may have seemed like “the thing to do” when someone wanted to worship his God.
God’s Mt. Sinai legislation regarding tithing is spelled out in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Although many Bible students see some overlapping, there are as many as three separate tithes that can be distinguished:
- An annual tithe for the support of the Levites, the tabernacle/temple workers (Lev 27:30-33; Num 18:21-24).
- This was the only visible means of support for them, since they inherited no land when Canaan was conquered under Joshua.
- The Levites, in turn, passed along a tithe of this tithe to the priests, the highest echelon of worship leaders (Num 18:26).
- An annual feast tithe, which apparently went for the support of the house of God and its services (Deut 14:22-27).
- A “social ministry” tithe, received every third year, for helping the poor and needy (Deut 14:28; 26:12).
The whole legal code for tithing appears to have been quite complicated, and even the most knowledgeable Bible scholars admit that many questions about the details remain unanswered. This fact alone should be remembered when the modern-day preacher confidently proclaims that he has worked out all the fine points of tithing like a Christian CPA. It should also be noted that the Old Testament tithing code specified the bare minimum amount to be contributed; it commanded the starting point for giving, not a goal toward which the worshipper should strive. The tithing code presupposed an agricultural existence, targeting the offering of grain, wine, oil, and livestock.
It is helpful, when considering tithing, to maintain the traditional distinction between the Old Testament moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, which applies to all people of all times, and the laws which pertained specifically to the Old Testament people of God, the civil and ceremonial laws. The tithe, since it was used for the support of both the “church and state” in Old Testament Israel, was actually a blend of civil and ceremonial law. But in neither case, in neither the civil nor ceremonial area, would tithing be considered binding upon the New Testament Church. The point is: if a preacher today wants to insist on tithing as a legal requirement, then he needs to be consistent by also requiring in his congregation the offering of animal sacrifices, circumcision, and Old Testament inheritance laws. He is not free to arbitrarily pick and choose which civil and ceremonial laws he will follow and which he will not.
If one wants to be coldly calculating with his offering to God, then let’s run the numbers for a moment. The Old Testament tithe was originally designed for the support of a theocracy, the direct rule of God, in which the church and state formed a single entity. Basically the tithe paid for everything needed in the day-to-day operations of the people of God. When one adds up all the contributions of the typical Israelite – the basic tithes, firstfruit offerings, special almsgiving, prescribed sacrifices, specially vowed offerings, dedicatory offerings, free-will offerings, sacrifices, thanksgiving, and the half-shekel temple tax – it is conservatively estimated that the Israelite gave 33% of his income. Now consider modern times, in which the church and state are separated. When one adds up all the income taxes and sales taxes at the federal, state, and municipal level the average U. S. citizen pays out roughly 40% of his income, and that amount supports only the state with nothing going to the church. If these hard numbers are left to speak for themselves, that means that every church member should be getting an annual 7% rebate from his congregation! At the very least one might wonder if a tithe today should be computed on before or after-tax Income. The prophet Samuel, In fact, warned Israel that if they would be given a king (as they requested) to run the government, that king would be requiring a “tithe” of his own (1 Sam 8:15).
Beyond Mt. Sinai, the tithe is seldom mentioned in the Old Testament, surfacing only during the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Chr 31:5), Nehemiah (Neh 10:38), and Malachi (Mat 3:8-12). In those times the tithe was either being abused or ignored altogether.
Tithing in the New Testament
With respect to tithing, the New Testament can be divided into two periods, during the ministry of Christ and after it. While Christ was in the process of fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies about himself, he continued to observe the Old Testament ceremonial laws that pointed to his redemptive work, and he urged others to do the same. For example, he was circumcised and dedicated, he attended the three major feasts in Jerusalem, and he even assisted his disciples in paying the half-shekel tax for the temple (while at the same time asserting their freedom from it – Matt 17:24-27). And yes, he instructed his Jewish audience to continue tithing (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42). On this point, however, it is extremely important to note why the subject of tithing came up: while going to extremes in following the letter of the law on tithing, the Jews had completely forgotten the Gospel motivation for it. The caution and reminder Jesus gave about tithing is needed today more than ever.
After Christ died on the cross for our sins, rose from death on the third day, ascended into heaven to rule all things, and sent his Spirit on all flesh, the situation changed for the New Testament church, because the Old Testament had been fulfilled. The ceremonial laws which pointed to Christ had served their purpose. From Pentecost onward the rite of circumcision, the temple sacrifices, worship on the seventh day, and other observances lost their importance, and along with them, the practice of tithing seems to have fallen by the wayside in the early church. The Jewish historian Josephus states that all three tithes listed above were firmly in place in first century A.D. Judaism, but nevertheless tithing is never mentioned in the New Testament’s description of the first century church.
All three tithes became obsolete. The tithe for the Levites became unnecessary when the Levites were replaced by the apostolic ministry. Concerning the material support of ministers of the Gospel, all the New Testament says is that they should eat what is set before them (Matt. 10:10) and that the church should take care of them (Gal 6:6). Secondly, the tithe for the support of the temple services outlived its usefulness: the sacrifices of the temple, soon to be leveled in AD. 70, gave place to the one Sacrifice for all sin. Thirdly, the “social ministry” tithe was no longer needed because Christian brothers and sisters helped one another by way of special collections, as was the case with the famine-stricken Christians in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16). While giving for the Lord’s work obviously continued in the church, no amounts or percentages are prescribed in the New Testament. All that is said is that early Christians had everything in common (Acts 2:44 – a “tithe” of 100%!), that they gave sacrificially (2 Cor 8:1-3), and that they gave as God had prospered them (1 Cor 16:2).
Practical Applications for the Church
What can be gathered from the Scriptural witness about tithing for the Church today? To answer this question, it is best to ponder the spirit behind tithing rather than the letter of the law regarding tithing. Tithing should be treated in a manner not unlike the approach we take to the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath Day.’ The church does not follow the letter of the Sabbath law – adhering strictly to Saturday worship, linking one’s journeys to less than five-eighths of a mile, or avoiding carrying anything; instead, the Church gets to the spirit of the commandment, urging that all believers devote themselves to the hearing of God’s Word. In a similar fashion, the tithing laws cannot be pressed into service to dictate times and percentages, but we can look at the spirit of tithing, remembering that the God behind the tithing laws was the same God that we worship today.
Even in the Old Testament tithing was never intended to be a mere drudgery or test of obedience. It was a joyful endeavor. It was an expression of fellowship with God, which was freely granted solely by God’s grace. It was the expression of a heart truly thankful to God for all his blessings in this life and the life to come. It was a tangible opportunity to give all glory to God, who allows His people to honor him with their “substance” (Prov 3:9); even their gifts were deemed acceptable by the mercy of God. And, it was a concrete way for fellow believers in the Gospel to express their fellowship with each other and to care for each other in a very specific way. In short, tithing in the Old Testament, in God’s own original design, was a Gospel activity through and through.
In these respects nothing has changed for the people of God today. Under the cross of Jesus Christ, giving for the Lord’s work is still a joyous privilege, flowing from the Gospel itself. It expresses our thanksgiving to the God of all grace and gives all glory to him. By faith it recognizes that Christian giving is a sign of our totally undeserved fellowship with God, but certainly not a cause of that fellowship. With their hearts moved by the Gospel, we can give cheerfully (2 Cor 9:7) and as spontaneously as Jacob, for whom there was absolutely no law about tithing. As God has accepted us through the forgiveness of sins, he also accepts by the same mercy our meager gifts and uses them in his kingdom. With the love of Christ constraining us (2 Cor 5:14), our offerings express our love for those who bear the name of brother and our concern for those who do not yet know Christ.
What else might be gleaned from the Old Testament practice of tithing? What else might a Christian latch onto without sacrificing the precious freedom he enjoys in Christ? The believer can see how the tithing system presupposed the basic truth: everything the people had actually belonged to God, and by their offerings they were simply returning to God what was properly his. One gets the picture of loving parents who graciously accept from their child a Christmas gift purchased with the allowance the parents had given him. The believer might individually gain (No new laws, please!) a certain sense of proportion with Christian giving; on the one hand, he might see that his gift to God might be more thoughtful and substantial than the 25 cents he found stuck between the seat cushions in his car; on the other hand, he might avoid giving so much that he neglects the needs of his own family in the process (Matt 7:9-13). The believer might also see that his gift to God, by God’s gracious condescension, can become more substantive and tangible than mere pious thoughts and warm feelings (Rom 12:1). Finally, the believer might realize that, in remembrance of Christ’s incarnation, there is no shame in the fact that the Church needs money in order to operate in this world and that the Church might occasionally mention that fact without losing its grip on the Gospel. In the sanctified life that flows from the Gospel, money is not the last stronghold of Satan that requires a hushed, hands-off policy by the Church.
What should not be gathered from the Old Testament practice of tithing? It was stated earlier that the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is literally the lifeblood of the Church, the teaching by which the Church stands or falls. Without the Gospel, the Church has nothing. What, then, must be avoided at all costs? Any mention or use of tithing in a congregation that confuses, beclouds, obscures, or calls into question, even for a minute, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To be avoided is anything that threatens to turn the grace of the Gospel into a law, old or new, anything that makes the Gospel a law that kills (2 Cor 3:6) and leaves members in doubt about their salvation. It would be better for a congregation never to mention tithing at all than to lose its grip on the Gospel.
The Gospel is obscured when preachers, by way of a gross misinterpretation of God’s call to faith in Malachi 3, entice people into greater giving by appealing to their fleshly, selfish desires: “If only you would give more money to church, you would have unparalleled business success and two new cars in your garage.” Such talk turns Gospel giving into a business deal – “If you do this, God will do that” – and striking a deal with God is totally contrary to the Gospel. Even worse, business-deal language smacks of manipulation, the thought that God can be manipulated into doing this or that through one’s own activity. This kind of divine manipulation characterized all the pagan Canaanite religions that surrounded the nation of Israel.
Following upon the previous point, the Gospel is obscured when the giver himself starts to view tithing as a means of improving himself or his lot in life. The congregation is then looked upon as a self-improvement center, like a spiritual “health spa,” and accordingly the giver may very well start to wonder if he is getting enough personal “bang for his buck” that he has placed in the offering plate (as occurred in Mal 3:14). Contrast this self-centered, acutely law-oriented approach to the offerings of the 75 year old man who is avidly supporting a parochial school, a program that will afford him no direct personal benefit. Only the Gospel can inspire giving like that.
The Gospel is obscured when tithing is made into a new law, thereby turning the grace of the Gospel, in the final analysis, into no grace at all. The extreme (but true) example is given of the preacher who went to a non-tithing member’s home and “repossessed” his car from his driveway in the name of Christ! But congregations have far more subtle ways of turning tithing into a new law without baldly proclaiming this heresy from the pulpit. For example, members may be barraged by “testimonies” of the truly faithful, who turn up the heat by saying, “I tithe to the church why don’t you?” When tithing is made into a law, one of two anti-Gospel outcomes can result: 1) the individual member fails, and 2) the member succeeds. If the member fails to tithe, his conscience may become burdened to the point of despairing of God’s grace. If a member does tithe, he faces the distinct danger of taking pride in his accomplishment to the point of considering the grace of God irrelevant. (This has been known to happen – Luke 18:12)
One of the oldest tricks in the book (not the Book) is often pressed into service in order to get people to tithe or even force them to do so. If someone were to ask you, “What assurance do you have of your salvation?” the correct Gospel response is: “I am sure of my salvation, because I trust my powerful and merciful God, and I know that all his promises are sure, absolutely sure.” But now for the trick. Are you sure of your salvation? Pay close attention to the following phony response so that you can recognize it if you should see it:
“Are you sure you’re going to heaven? You know – only believers are going to heaven. So now the question is: are you really a believer? How can you be so sure? The only way to reassure yourself that you have a saving faith is to look for evidence of that faith in the conduct of your life. Look at yourself. How committed are you? Can you prove by your level of commitment that you are a Christian?”
If one applies this faulty, totally unscriptural reasoning to the subject under discussion, there is only one inescapable, but equally faulty, conclusion that can be reached – Real Christians tithe. If one goes down this primrose path all the way, he might even wind up saying: “For me, tithing is ‘Exhibit A,’ the single piece of proof-positive evidence that I really am a Christian. Thus, tithing provides the proof and assurance that I am on my way to heaven.” It is hard to imagine that any minister of the Gospel would spell out such a horrendous conclusion in so many words; however, he may not object if you draw such a conclusion on your own. But where is the Gospel in all this? Where is the gracious work of God? Reassuring yourself? Even though this line of reasoning may have started (way back when) with the Gospel, it has ended up in sheer, terrifying law. At first one demon of legalism may have been swept from the house, but seven other legal demons have moved in to replace it (Matt 12:43-45).
The Gospel is obscured when tithing is presented as an extra boost which is necessary for the continued financial health of the congregation. The implication is that the Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel, does not have quite enough power to do the job, that the Gospel comes up short as the impetus and motivation for the Christian life. In this regard, congregations should be wary of outside professional fund-raisers and should think twice about hiring them. These agencies are not particularly famous for their firm grip on the Gospel. In God’s eyes, a congregation is much better off remaining in debt and remaining forever indebted to the grace of Jesus Christ.
A Few Thoughts for Further Reflection
The Gospel is the free gift of God in Jesus Christ. (If it were not free, it would not be a gift!) If you really think about it, the fact that God’s salvation is free is often reflected fiscally in the life of a congregation. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that for the specific task of spreading the Gospel they would always have everything they need (John 14:13). What does your congregation really need for the hearing and spreading of the Gospel? Usually, precious little is needed. For example, how large a chunk of the congregation’s budget is used up by the evangelism committee? How much does it cost to hear a sermon? How many items on the budget are just accouterments, extraneous to the spreading of the Gospel? By the same token, how much more could not be expended for world-wide mission work, if the accouterments were minimized? If all the extra frills in your budget are sinking your congregation into the red, it probably means that in God’s eyes you do not really need them. What does a Gospel-based congregation truly treasure, anyway? The members of a congregation that had just completed a state-of-the-art building were asked: “What time in the congregation’s history do you remember most fondly?” The overwhelming response was: “The days when we heard the Gospel in the local funeral home? Yes, It was a time when they had no building at all!
A preacher will often try to offer Gospel comfort to his congregation by saying, “Don’t worry about things like money; they are no big deal.” But then, that same preacher will turn around and worry constantly about the church’s money and even get obsessed about it. His own worries may lead into all sorts of high-pressure tactics. Although he has never been legalistic about tithing, he may secretly wish that the members think tithing really is a law. If the pastor (and the lay leadership) want to teach freedom from worry, they should do so by word and example, too.
In the Old Testament some offerings were required, but others were free-will, over-and-above offerings. In view of the sacrifice of Christ, all offerings in the Church today fall under the category of free-will offerings. Interestingly enough, the required offerings in the Old Testament had to be perfect, but the voluntary offerings were supposed to be perfect, too! (Lev 22). After all, the same gracious God was the recipient in either case. Giving motivated by the Gospel can surely lead God’s people to give their first and best.
Some people in the Church will give less than a tithe, and obviously, because of the Gospel, they will remain full-fledged recipients of God’s grace. But there will be others in the Church who will be moved by the Gospel to give a tenth of their income. The Church truly rejoices that there are such people. The Church needs them and gives thanks for them. We would be remiss if we did not express these thoughts. And who knows? There may be some people who wind up giving more than a tithe like the widow who gave 100% (Luke 21:4) or Zacchaeus, who gave far more then what was expected (Luke 19:8). You never know what is going to happen when the Gospel is at work.
By Dr. James Bollhagen