Tithing does appear in the Bible. So, yes, tithing is biblical. But it is not Christian. The tithe belongs to ancient Israel. It was essentially their income tax. Never do you find first-century Christians tithing in the New Testament.
Numerous Christians do not have the foggiest idea about what the Bible teaches regarding the tithe. So let's look at it. The word tithe simply means the tenth part.1 The Lord instituted three kinds of tithes for Israel as part of their taxation system. They are:
' A tithe of the produce of the land to support the Levites who had no inheritance in Canaan.'
A tithe of the produce of the land to sponsor religious festivals in Jerusalem. If the produce was too burdensome for a family to carry to Jerusalem, they could convert it into money.'
■ A tithe of the produce of the land collected every third year for the local Levites, orphans, strangers, and widows.'
This was the biblical tithe. God commanded Israel to give 23.3 percent of their income every year, not 10 percent.' These tithes consisted of the produce of the land—which included the seed of the land, the fruit of the land, and the herd or the flock. It was the product of the land, not money.
A clear parallel can be seen between Israel's tithing system and the modern taxation system present in America. Israel was obligated to support their national workers (priests), their holidays (festivals), and their poor (strangers, widows, and orphans) with their annual tithes. Most modern tax systems serve a similar purpose.
With the death ofJesus, all ceremonial codes that belonged to the Jews were nailed to Christ's cross and buried, never to be used again to condemn us. For this reason, we never see Christians tithing in the New Testament, just as we don't see them sacrificing goats and bulls to cover their sins.
Paul writes, "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for "tithe" is mouser, which means a tenth part. In the New Testament, the Greek word is dekate, which again means a tenth. The word is not taken from the religious world, but from the world of mathematics and finance. Leviticus 2720-33; Numbers 1821-31. Deuteronomy 14:22-27. This is sometimes called "the festival tithe."
Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 26:12-13. Jewish historian Josephus and other scholars believe this is a third tithe used in a different way from the second. Stuart Murray, Beyond Tithing (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 2000), 76, 90; "What (s a lithe?" Questions about
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Twenty percent yearly and 10 percent every three years equals 23.3 percent per year. God commanded all three tithes (Nehemiah 12:44; Malachi 3:8-12; Hebrews 7:5).
of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. . . . Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ."'
Tithing belonged exclusively to Israel under the Law. When it comes to financial stewardship, we see the first-century saints giving cheerfully according to their ability—not dutifully out of a command.' Giving in the early church was voluntary.' And those who benefited from it were the poor, orphans, widows, sick, prisoners, and strangers.'
I can hear someone making the following objection right now: "But what about Abraham? He lived before the Law. And we see him tithing to the high priest Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-20). Does this not overturn your argument that the tithe is part of the Mosaic Law?"
No, it does not. First, Abraham's tithe was completely voluntary. It was not compulsory. God did not command it as He did with the tithe for Israel.
Second, Abraham tithed out of the spoils that he acquired after a particular battle he fought. He did not tithe out of his own regular income or property. Abraham's act of tithing would be akin to you winning the lottery or a mega jackpot, or receiving a work bonus, then tithing it.
Third, and most important, this is the only recorded time that Abraham tithed out of his 175 years of life on this earth. We have no evidence that he ever did such a thing again. Consequently, if you wish to use Abraham as a "proof text" to argue that Christians must tithe, then you are only obligated to tithe one time!10
Colossians 2:13-14, 16-17, nasb; see also Hebrews 6-10.
This is very clear from 2 Corinthians 8:3-12, 9:5-13. Paul's word on giving is this: Give as God has prospered you —according to your ability and means. Gough, Early Christians, 86.
"How We Christians Worship," Christian History 12, no. 1(1993): 15.
The same is true for Jacob. According to Genesis 28:20-22, Jacob vowed to tithe to the Lord. But like Abraham's tithe, Jacob's tithe was completely voluntary. And as far as we know, it was not a lifetime practice. If Jacob began tithing regularly (and this cannot be proven), he waited for twenty years to pass before he started! To quote Stuart Murray, "Tithing appears to be almost incidental to the stories (of Abraham and Jacob) and no theological significance is accorded to this practice by the author."
This brings us back to that oft-quoted text in Malachi 3. What was God saying there? First, this passage was directed to ancient Israel when they were under the Mosaic Law. God's people were holding back their tithes and offerings. Consider what would happen if a large portion of Americans refused to pay their income taxes. American law views this as robbery." Those found guilty would be punished for stealing from the government.
In the same way, when Israel held back her taxes (tithes), she was stealing from God—the One who instituted the tithing system. The Lord then commanded His people to bring their tithes into the storehouse. The storehouse was located in the chambers of the Temple. The chambers were set apart to hold the tithes (which were produce, not money) for the support of the Levites, the poor, the strangers, and the widows.'
Notice the context of Malachi 3:8-10. In verse 5, the Lord says that He will judge those who oppress the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger. He says, "So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me" (NIV).
The widows, fatherless, and strangers were the rightful recipients of the tithe. Because Israel was withholding her tithes, she was guilty of ignoring the needs of these three groups. Herein is the heart of God in Malachi 3:8-10: He opposes oppression of the poor.
How many times have you heard pastors point this out when they preached on Malachi 3? In scores of sermons I have heard on tithing, I was never told what the passage was actually talking about. That is, tithes were given to support the widows, the fatherless, the strangers, and the Levites (who owned nothing).
I realize that some Christians believe that it is perfectly legal to refuse to pay income taxes. However, not a few of those people are in jail right now for acting on this belief!
Nehemiah 12:44, 13:12-13; Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 26:12.
The New Testament urges believers to give according to their ability. Christians in the early church gave to help other believers as well as to support apostolic workers, enabling them to travel and plant churches." One of the most outstanding testimonies of the early church has to do with how generous the Christians were to the poor and needy.' This is what provoked outsiders, including the philosopher Galen, to watch the awesome, winsome power of the early church and say: "Behold how they love one another.""
In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage was the first Christian writer to mention the practice of financially supporting the clergy. He argued that just as the Levites were supported by the tithe, so the Christian clergy should be supported by the tithe.' But this is misguided thinking. Today, the Levitical system has been abolished. We are all priests now. So if a priest demands a tithe, then all Christians should tithe to one another!
Cyprian's plea was exceedingly rare for his time. It was neither picked up nor echoed by the Christian populace until much later." Other than Cyprian, no Christian writer before Constan-tine ever used Old Testament references to advocate tithing.18 It was not until the fourth century, three hundred years after Christ, that some Christian leaders began to advocate tithing as a Christian practice to support the clergy.' But it did not become widespread among Christians until the eighth century." According to one
Helping other believers: Acts 6:1-7, 11:27-30, 24:17; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, 9:1-12; 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Supporting church planters: Acts 15:3; Romans 15:23-24;1 Corinthians 9:1-14, 16:5-11; 2 Corinthians 1:16; Philippians 4:14-18; Titus 3:13-14; 3 John 1:5-8. There is a close connection between the wallet and the heart. One out of every six verses in Matthew, Mark, and Luke have to do with money. Of the thirty-eight parables in the New Testament. twelve have to do with money. A telling and moving historical account of third- and fourth-century Christian generosity is found in Kreider, Worship and Evangelisni in Pre-Christendom, 20. See also Tertullian's testimony of Christian charity in Johnson, History of Christianity, 75, and Tan, Lost Heritage, 51-56.
Tertullian, Apology 39:7; Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, CT: University Press, 1984), 79-82.
Cyprian, Epistle 65.1; Murray, Beyond Tithing, 104.
Murray, Beyond Tithing, 104-105; Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 86.
Murray, Beyond tithing, 112. Chrysostom advocated tithing to the poor in some of his writings (pp. 112-117).
Ibid., 107. The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380) support tithing to fund the clergy by arguing from the Old Testament Levitical system
(pp. 113-116). Augustine argued for tithing, but he did not present M as the norm. In fact, Augustine knew that he did not represent the historic position of the church in his support of tithing. Tithing was practiced by some pious Christians in the fifth century, but it was by no means a widespread practice (pp. 117-121).
Hatch, Growth of Church Institutions, 102-112.
scholar, "For the first seven hundred years they [tithes] are hardly ever mentioned."''
Charting the history of Christian tithing is a fascinating exercise.' Tithing spread from the state to the church. Here's the story. In the seventh and eighth centuries, leasing land was a familiar characteristic of the European economy. The use of the tithe, or the tenth, was commonly used to calculate payments to landlords. As the church increased its ownership of land across Europe, the 10 percent rentcharge shifted from secular landlords to the church. Ecclesiastical leaders became the landlords. And the tithe became the ecclesiastical tax. This gave the 10 percent rent charge new meaning. It was creatively applied to the Old Testament law and came to be identified with the Levitical tithe!" Consequently, the Christian tithe as an institution was based on a fusion of Old Testament practice and a common system of land-leasing in medieval Europe.'
By the eighth century, the tithe became required by law in many areas of Western Europe." But by the end of the tenth century, the tithe as a rent charge for leasing land had all but faded. The tithe, however, remained and it came to be viewed as a moral requirement supported by the Old Testament. The tithe had evolved into a legally mandatory religious practice throughout Christian Europe."
To put it another way, before the eighth century the tithe was practiced as a voluntary offering.' But by the end of the tenth century, it had devolved into a legal requirement to fund the state church— demanded by the clergy and enforced by the secular authorities!"
n Murray traces its entire history in Beyond tithing, ch. 4-6.
,J! Hatch, Growth of Church Institutions, 103. The pseudo-Isodorian Decretals prove that tithes evolved from rent payments for the use of church lands. The Council of Valence in 855 states that this "decree deals with the payment of tithes as rent, about which some of the lessees of church lands appear to have been slack, and then urges their general payment by all Christians" (pp. 104-105). See also Murray, Beyond tithing, 138.
Beyond tithing, 137. Murray writes, "Many aspects of Christendom emerged from just such a fusion of biblical and secular elements, Old Testament motifs and practices with Roman and pagan institutions and ideas."
Ibid., 134. Charlemagne codified tithing and made it obligatory throughout his enlarged kingdom in 779 and 794 (p. 139); Durant,
Age of Faith, 764.
Murray, Beyond tithing, 111, 140.
The exception to this was in Gaul during the sixth century. The Synod of Tours in 567 made tithing mandatory in the region. The Synod of Macon in 585 threatened those who refused to tithe with excommunication. For a short but detailed discussion on Christian giving in the patristic church, see Kreider, Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom, 34-35. Murray, Beyond tithing, 2, 140. Theologians and legislators worked out the details of the tithing system.
Today, the tithe is no longer a legal requirement in any nation." Yet the obligatory practice of tithing is as much alive today as it was when it was legally binding. Sure, you may not be physically punished if you fail to tithe. But in many ministries you will either be told or be made to feel that you are sinning.
In fact, in some churches, if you are not a tither, you will be barred from holding a ministry position. A friend of mine was considered for eldership in one well-known congregation. However, because he believed in giving anonymously (he didn't use checks), he was barred from being an elder. The reason? He was told that the church had to know who was obeying God by tithing and who wasn't. This was the across-the-board policy of that particular denomination. Only tithers could be elders.
As far as clergy salaries go, ministers were unsalaried for the first three centuries. But when Constantine appeared, he instituted the practice of paying a fixed salary to the clergy from church funds and municipal and imperial treasuries." Thus was born the clergy salary, a harmful practice that has no root in the New Testament."
There is no doubt that it is imperative for believers to support the Lord's work financially and to give generously to the poor. Scripture enjoins both, and the Kingdom of God desperately needs both. The issue under scrutiny in this chapter is the appropriateness of the tithe as a Christian "law" and how it is normally used: to fund clergy salaries, operational costs, and church building overhead.
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