Is it Permissible to Tithe?
Tithing is not a New Testament principle, and despite endless attempts to make it sound like Christians are obliged to tithe, the Good Book simply doesn’t say so.
But does this mean that we must stop people from tithing? Is it spiritually dangerous? Is it like circumcision, about which Paul said, “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal 5:2)?
We have all heard a lot said about tithing, if we’ve hung around churches for any length of time! Tithing is the practice of taking a tenth of our harvest, or newborn flock and giving it to the Temple priesthood. This is a practice carefully and deliberately laid out in the Old Testament and mandated for the nation of Israel as the funding model for the Temple system. Relating it to the New Testament has big problems.
In the New Testament, there is absolutely no requirement placed on believers to pay any fixed percentage of their income to the church. Anyone who says otherwise simply wants your money. To translate the Old Testament concept of “Temple” to the New Testament concept of “church” is badly erroneous, since Paul tells us that we, the believers, are “the Temple” (1 Cor 3:16), and Peter says that we, the believers, are the priesthood (1 Peter 2:5,9). Therefore, to tithe to the temple and to the priesthood would be to tithe to ourselves.
There are, however, some specific mentions of money changing hands in the context of the New Testament church, and those are important. They amount to famine relief, paying the expenses of a travelling preacher while he ministers to you, and supporting widows. These are often used in various ways (out of context), to justify a New Testament mandate to tithe, but it is misleading and inaccurate to do so.
But it was put to me recently that believers should be taught not to tithe, and that tithing at all is a bad thing. I’m not so sure.
Briefly, the tithing conversation contains the following key elements:
- The first tithe was from Abraham to Melchizedek.
- There were two main purposes of the tithe in the Law of Moses: Supporting the Levitical Priesthood, and providing food for the national festivals.
- Malachi appears to link faithful tithing with material prosperity.
- Jesus made several references to tithing.
- Paul made several references to collecting and distributing money.
Without trawling through the whole argument (as many others have done), I will just make brief comments under those headings:
Abraham and Melchizedek
Abraham paid Melchizedek one tenth of his gains from his escapades, not one tenth of all that he owned. His gift was an expression of gratitude to God, not the fulfilment of a legal requirement, and not an attempt to curry favour with God.
The Law of Moses
The Law of Moses provided a system of funding so that the Levites, who were prohibited from owning their own land, would be supported by the community. Furthermore, the Levites were responsible for looking after the temple infrastructure out of that provision. The equivalent in today’s church would be to prevent our church leaders from owning their own property, providing their accommodation, paying them a portion of the income of all Christians, and expecting them to build and maintain churches as part of that arrangement. Clearly, this is not what “tithing” is presented as in today’s churches.
Malachi 3:7-12 has been used by “Prosperity” teachers to suggest that God will financially bless those who faithfully give to the church. The passage, however, is talking about a curse (v9), which relates to cheating on the tithe under the Law of Moses. Such a curse does not apply to Christians, nor does the associated blessings. Both are provisions of Moses’ law, given to the ancient Israelites. Since there is now no temple, no priesthood, and also a new covenant which excludes the blessings and curses of Moses, the passage has no bearing on Christian tithing.
Jesus’ utterances about tithing
Jesus affirmed tithing. Naturally enough, since he was talking to Jews, who were circumcised into the law of Moses. His comments about tithing actually referred to the hypocrisy with which it was practiced, however, not any kind of absolute statement about whether or not everyone should tithe (see Matt 22:22, Lk 11:42, Mk 7:10-12).
Paul’s mentions of money
Paul was concerned to collect money from the Gentile churches, to bring it to Jerusalem for famine relief for the Christians there. The collection was explicitly not a tithe, or to support a priesthood, or to build churches. It was material support in exchange for the spiritual legacy of the Jerusalem (primarily Jewish) Christian believers (Romans 15:27). In 2 Corinthians, Paul spends chapters 8 and 9 talking about that collection. Again, that passage is demonstrably not about tithing.
Paul also affirmed the validity of supporting a preacher/teacher as they minister to the congregation, although Paul himself preferred not to accept money for his services (1 Cor 9:7-18). Because this passage appeals to the concept of the temple, and the priesthood being maintained by the tithe, some have sought to infer that tithing is implicitly included in Christianity because of the heritage in Judaism. But this passage is not about believers and what they should give. It is about preachers and whether they should be provided for. Ultimately, it is only a very loose connection that Paul is drawing to the Law of Moses, concluding, “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (v14).
In his letters to Timothy, Paul mentions that the church provides financially for widows in the believing community (1 Tim 5:1-16), and reaffirms that ministers can be paid for their work (v18). He doesn’t say where this money comes from, however, and he does not instruct Timothy to collect a tithe from the believers.
In Philippians 4:10-19, Paul is grateful for a gift from the church, to meet his needs in prison. He remembers also that the Philippian church sent money when Paul was in Thessalonica (v16). Clearly, the nearest equivalent to this is the support of missionaries, and not tithing.
The New Testament does not teach that tithing applies to Christians. Tithing is integral to the Temple of the Old Testament, relates to the Levitical priesthood, and is predicated by the 11 other tribes living in their allotted parts of the Holy Land in order to produce enough to support the Levites. Tithing is therefore completely irrelevant to the New Testament itself.
But is it ok to do it anyway?
The term “tithe” derives from “tenth”. The principle is that a tenth of the produce from the land (which was given to the people by God) should be returned to God’s chosen priestly tribe, and that they should tithe from that into the temple treasury (Num 18:28, Neh 10:38). Without a priestly tribe, and without a temple treasury, the system is profoundly broken. Is there still value in taking a portion (let’s call it a tenth), and giving it, in some way, into the religious infrastructure?
I would offer three benefits – one spiritual, one temporal, and one which is a bit of a combination:
Spiritual Benefit of Tithing
The system of tithing had its practical application in maintaining the priesthood and the temple, but it also played into the spiritual teachings of the nation. People had the opportunity to learn certain spiritual truths in this system, and those truths are timeless.
The central spiritual truth is that what we have has come from God. To take the “best” part of what we receive, and return it to God, is to express gratitude for God’s provision, and implicitly, confidence in his continuing goodness. It still serves us well to see all of our temporal riches as having been made possible by our good God, and to express faith by returning a substantial portion.
The caution is that the Prosperity crowd play on this, misrepresenting our confidence in God’s ongoing provision. They teach that God’s ongoing provision is somehow contingent on our shows of gratitude, citing Malachi 3:7-12 and 2 Cor 9:6-11 as promises that God will actually repay more than what we give. This is a ridiculous way to understand the Scriptural message. The spiritual benefit is not derived in replacing and increasing what has been given, but in learning to be content without it.
Just as we derive the essence of our faith from Abraham and not from Moses (Gal 3:7-9), our approach to tithing can be that of Abraham tithing to Melchizedek, and not that of the people under Moses’ teaching.
Temporal Benefit of Tithing
When we deliberately reduce our income by giving away a substantial portion of it, the first effect is that it focusses us on our finances! This is a commitment to generosity, not an obligation. It is therefore different to the car payments, or the mortgage. This money is voluntarily removed from us before we begin to work out the rest of the budget, and because it is “first” in this way, it defines a purpose for the whole process of budgeting.
Most people have no sense of purpose to their finances. In generations gone by, it was more or less necessary to save for significant purchases, and such savings were therefore a necessary part of life. Now, consumer credit has made saving-up seem irrelevant. If we want something, we simply buy it. We then consider how long we will take to pay for it.
By tithing, our concept of finances can start to swing back around to a deliberate planning of saving and purchasing. It can begin a process of taking control. If this is the effect, it’s worth the expense because we end up “paying” 10% on everything (once), instead of 10%, 20%, 30% per year for everything we put on credit. It’s a good deal…
The Mixed Benefit of Tithing
Participating in a local church is an important part of the Christian experience. In our modern context, this almost invariably involves a church building, paid staff, and various facilities. All those things cost money, and it is reasonable for the people benefitting from it to contribute to the expense!
In doing so, the temporal benefit is an enhanced sense of belonging. We call it “ownership”, in an abstract way: not that I own the church, but that I am a stakeholder in that community.
A key spiritual benefit mirrors that temporal one. Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21, Lk 12:34). This was not an expression of the temporal benefit of feeling like we “belong”, it was a specific reference to the spiritual benefit of the person giving, which is called “treasure in heaven” (Matt 6:20, Lk 12:33).
Again, this “treasure” is derived from the lack of what has been given. It is not an expression that suggests we will be repaid in any meaningful sense of the word. Just as it is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), to give is a blessing in and of itself. To give is our treasure.
Expressed again in the negative
As a final note, in answer to the question, “Is it ok to tithe?” I would suggest that any prohibition of tithing would be just as spiritually dangerous as an imperative to tithe. The very nature of the New Testament is that we are free, not only “from” the Law of Moses, but also free to enjoy its rituals if we so choose. By way of example:
Paul teaches vehemently against those who insist that Gentile believers should be circumcised: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal 5:12). He went as far as to say, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal 5:2), and yet he circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). The point being that the Galatians were submitting to circumcision as an expression of faith under the Law of Moses, whereas Timothy’s circumcision was “because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3). Timothy was in danger of being persecuted because the churches they were heading to were yet to hear “the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4), which pertained to circumcision. In no way was Timothy’s circumcision a submission to the Law of Moses in the way that the Galatians were contemplating.
In other words, circumcision is fine in and of itself, but if it is an expression of faith in the setting of the Law of Moses, it is a rejection of the Gospel.
Similarly in Romans 14:1-18, Paul goes to great lengths to explain that, whilst it is alright to eat meat, it is also alright to abstain (v2-4), and whilst it is alright to bypass the Sabbath obligations, it is also ok to observe the Sabbath (v5). These are summarised in v6.
The same principle applies to tithing. It is not required of us, but it is quite acceptable to participate in it. Just as with vegetarianism and with Sabbath observance, there are wonderful spiritual lessons that can be learned by these practices, and we should not prevent anyone from enjoying those benefits. The only caution is that none of these things are the quintessential “kingdom of God” (v17).
Just as Jesus defended the sinful woman who anointed his body with expensive perfume, we should not prevent churchgoers from anointing his body, the church, with their own expensive gifts. Jesus said, “leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6). It’s ok to tithe.