It is a common practice among many groups today to perform a collection during the worship assembly. More often than not, this takes the form of a communal plate that is circulated among the attendees in the sight of all. Some groups are more discreet (a small box near an entrance or envelopes conveniently placed in the pew). Where did this practice come from? Is it biblical or a man-made custom? You may have even heard the word ‘tithe’ from time to time on Sunday morning, but what exactly is a tithe and why do some groups encourage their members to give one? Let’s briefly address these questions while searching what the Bible has to say about the subject. Was there ever a time when God commanded His people to set aside a specific portion of their livelihood to support others? Yes. In Deuteronomy 14:28-29 we read: “28 At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” The Hebrew word used here for a ‘tithe’ is ‘maaser’, literally ‘a tenth part’. It’s easy to understand why strangers, the fatherless, and widows may be deserving of such a benevolent command, but why were the Levites singled out by God to receive such a gift? The answer is in the passage above and is straightforward. “The Lord separated the tribe of Levi to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to Him and to bless in His name. […] 9 Therefore Levi has no portion nor inheritance with his brethren; the Lord is his inheritance, just as the Lord your God promised him” (Deut. 10:8-9). Besides the forty-eight cities with their prescribed common-land (Numbers 35:1-8), the tribe of Levi received no allotment of land like the other tribes. The ‘tithe of ten-percent’ was a commandment of the Mosaic Law meant to supplement the livelihoods of the tribe of Levi and ease the burdens of strangers, the fatherless, and widows who dwelled among the Israelites. (see also Deut. 26:12-15). In fact, the Levites were commanded to take an additional tenth part of the tithes of Israel and give a heave offering to God (Num. 18:25-31). This helps clarify to the Christian today that while tithes were an important part of the Mosaic Law, they have no place in the new Law of Christ.
We can reasonably conclude that Christians are not bound to the law of tithing as were the Israelites in the Old Testament, but what about a collection in general? Is it a commandment that all Christians should be observing? A good place to start answering this question is in Jerusalem during the first days of the church’s existence. In Acts 4, Jesus had already ascended into heaven, an event witnessed by all of His apostles. These men had been entrusted, by Christ Himself, with the task of spreading the gospel. In chapter 4, Peter and John were arrested for teaching about Jesus, in particular His resurrection from the dead. Despite this persecution, their message and miracles continued to help the church grow in number. So fervent were the new believers in Jerusalem during those first days that we read of a great mutual outpouring of love. There was found no one who said:
that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. […] Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need (Acts 4:32,34-35).
This is the first New Testament example we have of Christians sharing their livelihoods with one another. And it’s important to consider the fact that this was not a mandatory collection, simply a voluntary act of Christian love. In the very next chapter, we learn that Ananias and Sapphira did not care to recognize this fact.
Given the examples we cited in Acts 4 and 5, a collection for the welfare of all believers doesn’t immediately appear to be a commandment. Even after Ananias and Sapphira had sold their land, they were not obligated to partake in the fervent display of love that was taking place. They were at liberty to have a change of heart and keep their lands in their possession. However, in John 15:12, Jesus pronounced a sweeping command that includes the command to take care of one another when necessary: “12 This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In 1 Timothy 5, believers are instructed by Paul on how to honor elders and widows. They are commanded to support these two groups under certain conditions; therefore a general collection is often organized in many groups today with this in mind. 1 Corinthians 9:14 also teaches us that preachers of the gospel have the right to be supported for their work. Many groups also see to this by taking a collection on Sunday morning. There is one important difference we should be observing in our contemporary collections which removes the old tithes of the Mosaic Law and replaces them with something more perfect. We find this difference through a command that the Corinthian believer received from Paul. He was to “give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
(All passages come from the New King James Version.)