What does the Bible say about tithing?
Before I delve into this study, let me take a moment to say something really important: I know how churches spend money is a real hang-up for some people. Religion is big business in America and I suspect some of you may be disgusted by it. Ultimately Jesus knows who is His and He will judge His church; so I don’t see myself in a position to condemn how churches choose to spend their money. However, it does seem to me that much of what we see happening in the world of religious finance is difficult to justify from the Scriptures.
So let’s study what the Bible has to say.
The Jews who lived under the Old Law were commanded to tithe.
A tithe is when the worshipper gives God 10% of something as an offering to God. The first example of a tithe is found in the story of Abraham. In Genesis 14, Abraham assembled an army to rescue his nephew Lot from a coalition of armies formed by kings over various city-states. Abraham is victorious; on his way home he stops by Salem, the early settlement which we later know as Jerusalem, and offers 10% of the spoils to Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God. While offerings were made to God in previous examples, this is the first time an offering is specified as a tithe. Jacob follows his grandfather’s example and promises God a tenth of all his property should God guarantee Jacob’s safe return home.
Under Moses, God instituted three tithes the children of Israel were to observe. Every year, they were to dedicate 1/10 of the whole produce of the soil in order to support the Levites as they ministered in the tabernacle and later the temple. The Levites were, in turn, to tithe the portion they received for the use of the high priest. A second tithe was applied for festival purposes. Every third year, a tithe was to be set aside for the poor. There is some reason to believe that the Israelites dedicated 30% of their produce every three years, though there is some disagreement among ancient authorities.
By the time of Jesus, some took the practice of tithing to an extreme:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24).
The Pharisees were so concerned with keeping the law in all of its details that they overlooked far more important matters. Jesus does not criticize them for closely keeping the law, he criticizes them for their oversight: “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” We can be so consumed with following the commands of God that we overlook more important matters.
As far as I can tell, tithing is not carried into the church from the Old Law.
In the transition from the Old Law to the Christian era, we see a distinct shift take place
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need (Acts 2:44).
Notice there is no mention of giving 10%; it appears Christians sold their stuff and gave all of the proceeds to those who had a need.
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 4:34-35).
Again, no mention of 10%, and Luke is more explicit — they brought the proceeds to the apostles to distribute to those who had need. In Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira are condemned for lying about the proceeds they received from their land; they said they gave all of it to the apostles, but they kept back part for themselves. In the early examples of Christian giving in the church, there is no mention of tithing.
Giving in the church was based not upon a percentage, but upon the judgment of the individual giver. The church at Antioch was warned about an upcoming famine in Acts 11; in verse 29, Luke tells us
…the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea.
Folks in the church of Antioch assessed how much they could individually give and they gave “according to (their) ability.” The same principle is taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:2,
On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.
How much one should give is left to the discretion of the individual Christian. The principle is most clearly articulated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7,
So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.
God wants us to decide for ourselves how much to give to the church. He is most concerned with our attitude: do we do so with cheerfulness, gladly returning to Him the blessings He has bestowed upon us?
Turning from the Old Law to our covenant with Christ we see a distinct shift in giving. Tithing, the giving of 10%, falls completely off the radar. In its place, we see the church doing its best to meet the needs of her members; if that meant selling possessions or lands or goods and giving all of the proceeds to the church, that’s what they did. As the church developed further, we see brethren given the independence to determine how much they could give, to “give as he purposes in his heart.”
The purpose of Christian giving was to look after one another.
We see the church’s funds used in 5 ways.
The church looked after their widows. I mentioned examples from Acts 2, 4, and 5 earlier; in Acts 6:1-6, we see widows were one of the recipients of the church’s collection. Paul tells Timothy what types of widows should receive the church’s support in 1 Timothy 5:3-16.
The church looked after their poor brethren. Paul teaches about the collection “for the saints” in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. That collection was gathered for the poor saints in Judea:
For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26).
The church relieved the suffering of those who went through natural disasters. I mentioned the collection taken up by Antioch in Acts 11 — they did so in response to a famine that would affect the world. Famines, plagues, earthquakes, or any other calamity were opportunities for brethren to put the collection to good use.
The church took care of those imprisoned for their faith. Roman prisoners depended on the kindness and generosity of friends to have their basic needs met. Paul was the recipient of help from the church in Philippi while he was imprisoned in Rome. The writer of Hebrews urged his readers to
Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also (13:3).
The church helped support those who preached the gospel. Paul teaches about this extensively in 1 Corinthians 9. He puts it succinctly in Galatians 6:6,
Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches.
The church supported those who preached the gospel of Jesus Christ.