Posted by: Mark | January 18, 2013

Is tithing a cop out for Christians?

In this blog post I don’t want to so much answer a question as pose a lot more questions that go around in my mind when I think on this topic. It is not my aim to undermine what others believe but open discussion on what is in the Bible. Surely this can only be a healthy thing 🙂

I will tackle this under three headings:

  1. The traditional teaching I have heard
  2. The references to tithing in the New Testament
  3. So what does New Testament biblical giving look like

1. The traditional teaching I have heard

Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! Malachi 3.8-10

I am going to take the above verse as a starting point. It is the verse I have most heard as a defense of the stance that we are to bring a tenth of our income to the church where we worship and then God will bless us. The traditional way I have heard this verse tackled is that the tithes (or tithe in some versions) refers directly to 10% of what we earn. If we were to understand it in this way we can see very clearly why some people say we are stealing from God when we don’t give 10% of our income to the church because it says it plainly here.

However, I would question how we understand tithes here. To explain this further let me ask the question:

What is the tithes (or tithe as it is in other versions) refer to?

As this is an Old Testament passage written to people under the old covenant the best way to define what is being talked about here, and to put it in context, is to go back to the rule book for that covenant. This rule book can be found in the early books of the bible. These books cover the account of God talking through things with Moses and laying down the rules for how the Jewish people were to live so that God could be made known to the nations. Here we identify what the tithes are and there are three of them:

Tithe 1 (10% yearly) – We can read in Numbers 18.21-32 that the Israelites were to bring a tithe to the Levites in the temple. These Levites were then to tithe this tithe further and give this tenth of a tenth to the priests. The Levites, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, were in essence disinherited and given no land. Unlike all other tribes in Israel these guys had no ground to grow food for themselves or their families. Their whole job and purpose in life was to look after the temple. This would have been a very short and miserable existence if God had not made provision for them to be fed from the work of others. The Levites worked for the other 11 tribes by keeping the temple up to scratch and in essence got paid for it with a tithe of the produce that the other 11 tribes had.

Tithe 2 (10% yearly) – We can read in Deuteronomy 14.22-27 that the Israelites were also commanded to bring every year a tithe (tenth) of their produce to a particular place which God would choose and to have a big party. They were to eat this food sharing and enjoy themselves not forgetting of course to share it with the Levites who didn’t have any land. This was to be a party celebrating the fact that God had blessed them. A time to enjoy God’s blessing.

Tithe 3 (10% triennially) – We can read in Deuteronomy 14.28-29 that there was a third tithe that was to be paid every third year. This was to go to the Levites, the sojourners, the fatherless, the widow and anyone else within your own town. This was a chartable gift commanded by God because he cares for those who hurt.

We can therefore note a few things from this analysis on what the word tithes in the above Malachi portion refers to:

  • It refers to an annual contribution of 23.3% not 10% as is often believed
  • It refers only to food (produce). It does not refer to money. Often we hear the argument that the Israelites didn’t have money and that is why food is used here, but when the second tithe identified above is explained (Deuteronomy 14.22-27), the Israelites are told they are allowed to convert their produce into money, and then use that money at the alloted place to buy food
  • The tithes referred to here are tied fully to the old covenant way of doing things. They were detailed in the Law and were for Jews. There is no obvious link from them through to the New Testament

If all of the above are true can we use this verse in direct teaching in the New Testament church? I am of course not implying that this verse is now obsolete and of no use as there are general principals of not robbing God and of obeying his commands which can be gleaned from it. But can we say from this verse that New Testament Christians should bring 10% of their money into the church? I don’t believe so.

2. The references to tithing in the New Testament

When a search is done for the word tithe(s) in the ESV bible only three references are returned.

Matthew 23.23 and Luke 11.42. Both these references were referring to the same situation where Jesus talked about how the Pharisees were tithing herbs (note again the food aspect) but were neglecting justice mercy and faithfulness. This reference neither really supports or does not support a new covenant acceptance of tithing.

Luke 18:12 also mentions tithing and again not really supporting or not supporting a new covenant acceptance.

The only other mention of tithing that I can find comes in Hebrews 7. Here we see it mentioned that Abraham paid 10% of the spoils that he had to a Priest named Melchizedek. The argument then in this chapter seems to say then that the priestly line of Melchizedek was then replaced by the High Priest Jesus. And with a new priest comes a new law. This seems to hint that the law of tithing no longer reigns true.

I did not find any other references to tithing in the New Testament.

3. So what does New Testament Biblical giving look like?

My belief is that the new testament carries on the story from the old testament that God is the all powerful supplying God. That He has given us all that we have (James 1.17) and everything that we have is His (Psalms 24.1). That He has the aim to let all people see the magnitude of His greatness (Isa. 42.8, Psa. 19.1, Exodus 20.3, Rev. 7.9-10, Romans 14.11) and that as a Christian he desires that you are to be part of that plan (Romans 12.1-2).

If we grasp these truths and the facts that we don’t need to worry about anything with God in control (Matt 6.25-34), that we are to love Him more than our own family and even our own life (Luke 14.26) then the question of whether it is 10% or 23.3% is irrelevant. The question of whether it is food or money is irrelevant. If we see the pure Joy of heaven and the awful torture of hell we will no be trying to offer only part of what God has in-trusted to us back to His kingdom. We will want to be living in totality for Him. All of our money, gifts, talents and time dedicated to His service. Always living with the single purpose in mind of glorifying Him.

So how does this lofty idea work out in practise? Do we sell all that we have and give it to the poor? Do we stop whatever we are doing, put on the sandwich board and hit the tarmac? My answer is ask God. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t.

God is chiefly worried about our praise, worship and adoration of Him. Of our following of Him with all of our mind, soul and strength. When we start on this path He will start to replace the desires in our heart with those things that come from Him (Ps 37.4). Our desires will start to align with His and He will lead us to exactly where He wants us to be in His story.

Start by giving your life to God and your money will follow 🙂

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