file0001217272685

What Does the Bible Say About Tithing?

That’s a question I’ve been asking over the past year. I basically grew up with a “tithing is for today, and that means 10% of all gross income goes in the offering plate” understanding of Christian giving… but that changed about a year ago, when I began to study the topic in earnest.

For instance, one thing that constantly trips up modern-day Christians is that we fail to remember that the Law given to Moses did not merely outline a religious system… it was a constitution establishing a nation’s government. Thus, we need not only to discern which laws were sacrificial in nature (as Christians, we hold that Jesus Christ is our atonement and makes all other sacrifices—and thus all laws requiring sacrifices—moot), but also whether certain laws were governmental or sacramental in nature. While this may be a simple process with the laws of a “secular” nation, it can get difficult when you’re dealing with a theocracy.

My studies keep drawing me to the same conclusion: God’s eternal Law of Love compels us to serve the poor, but the tithing laws were a form of taxation, and served as the welfare system for Ancient Israel. Thus, these laws only apply to those under the Old Covenant living in geographical Israel.

Tithing: the Origin

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (which I wrote about recently) provides the framework for all God-glorifying giving, and serves as the “spirit of the law” regarding money, possessions and neighbors:

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye [be evil toward] your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be [evil] when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

Tithing, while a sacrifice to the LORD, was arranged in such a way as to serve as the particular fulfillment of this command with regards to the Levites (as God forbade them from owning land, cf. Deut. 18:1-8), as well as other poor in the Israelites’ midst (Deut. 14:22-29). Additionally, not only here but also in Nehemiah’s time (after two months of working daily with wood, stone, etc. to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem), the reinstated tithe consisted solely of agricultural produce (Neh. 10:35-39).

Now when you begin to question tithing, the knee-jerk response you often get is a quote from The Most Overused Tithe Verse In The Bible: “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.” Congratulations, you have now been labeled a God-robber! However, this is neither faithful exegesis nor Biblical correction. It’s simply propaganda and browbeating. To show you that this is the case, let me share the entire passage with you, and pay attention to what I emphasize:

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 the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:8-12, ESV)

Let me make it perfectly clear: the tithes were never about collecting money for the Temple. Tithing was the means by which a food bank was kept for the poor and needy in Israel.

“But tithes can be money, too!”

There is only one passage in all of Scripture which speaks of money in relation to tithing: Deuteronomy 14:22-29. However, the money is never actually given to the Levite. Rather, it is used only as a convenient form of transport for those who must travel a long distance. Once the tither arrives at Jerusalem, he is commanded to convert the money back into food, strong drink (beer), etc. and to consume these items with the Levite, sojourner, fatherless and widow (that is, those without such provision). And you know what? Jesus mentioned something much like this in Luke’s gospel:

[Jesus] said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14, ESV)

Not once in Scripture is tithing used to pay building and maintenance expenses for a meeting-house. The tithe is food, and it’s used to feed people—period. Freewill offerings (and/or perhaps a modern-day equivalent to Nehemiah’s “temple tax”) are the only Biblically-approved source of income from which such things as Equipment Upgrades, Insurance, Janitorial Services, Payroll Expenses, Repairs and Maintenance, Utilities, Mortgages, etc. are to be paid.

“It’s entirely unreasonable to expect pastors to work for free.”

In contrast to the Old Covenant system, Paul set aside any pastoral “right” to live off the ministry and instead worked additional jobs to provide for his own expenses. He reasoned that he stood to gain no heavenly reward from “simply” preaching the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:15) and must go out of his way to make it a completely free gift if he were to receive anything from the Father for his work. And we commend him for this, and talk about what a brilliant example he sets of going above and beyond the call of duty… but hold on a moment. If Paul were simply a “New Covenant priest,” and the Old Testament regulations for tithing were still in effect and for the Church, then by refusing compensation in this way Paul would have been leading the churches into sin. Again, if God expects His people to obey in a certain area, and then someone comes along and tells them not to obey? That person is leading them into sin. So in light of this, it’s safe to say that at the very least Paul did not believe tithing laws were binding for Christians.

That being the case, a Christian pastor ought not presume to live off of the tithes of his people. If tithing is requested of the congregation, then Biblically it needs to be food, and it needs to be distributed to people who need food. (Which is to say, faithful application of the tithe laws requires the establishment of a congregational food bank.) Beyond that, there is no Biblical requirement to “lay [any] money at the [pastors’] feet.” (It is certainly encouraged as the decent thing to do for a chap who has given his whole lives to serving you and yours spiritually… but it’s not required.) In Acts 2 and 4, the money laid at the apostles’ feet was “distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:32-35). Likewise, the money collected on Paul’s behalf from the Church in Macedonia, Achaia, and Corinth was going directly to feed the Christians in Jerusalem who were suffering through a famine—not to line his personal “chariot fund.” And of course a meeting-house is nice, but depleting a collected tithe to fund it—or even to keep it lit and climate-controlled—is unbiblical.

“So then, all of my money is really mine?”

If I don’t think tithing applies to us today, does that mean I can get away with not giving anything to anyone? God forbid! On the contrary, I believe Christians are to “sell [their] possessions, and give to the needy” (Luke 12:33), but are not bound by a 10-33% annual tithe to modern-day Levites per se. The sacrificial system is no longer binding, but I am still bound by the perfect Law of Love: specifically, to “love [my] neighbor as [myself],” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 19:19, etc.) and thus to “remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10), “open wide [my] hand to [my] brother, to the needy and to the poor, in [my] land” (Deut. 15:11), “bear with the failings of the weak, and not… please [myself]” (Rom. 15:1-3, cf. vv. 25-27), and to “contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13) “that there may be fairness” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). Sometimes fairness means giving 1%, sometimes 99%.

But the most ironic thing about my tithe law studies is that since it’s about caring for the poor and needy, some Christians who are being commanded to “tithe” (give 10% of your gross income) to “the church” (really meaning “the pastors”) are actually poor enough that if Old Covenant tithing is still for today, the whole thing gets turned on its head and the pastors would be required by God’s Word to be tithing to them.

Conclusion

Christians are commanded to give to the poor and needy in our midst, but we are not bound by tithing laws. However, even if one were convinced that Christians must tithe, then according to the principles and rules found in the Bible the tithe must be used to care for the poor. It is wholly foreign to the Word of God to use a tithe on buildings, utilities, vacations, insurance or even clothing.

This may not win me any friends among the clergy, but the truth hurts, and sometimes it hurts the one who spoke it.

The Proper Care and Feeding of the Poor

Within my care group, there’s been a sort of ongoing dialogue on this topic of benevolence toward the poor and struggling. On this past Monday night (the men of the group get together for a semimonthly Monday night accountability group/Bible study) we revisited the subject. There was some disagreement, and like all good disagreements it drove me back to the Scriptures to see what they have to say on the matter. What I found was almost staggering!

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the LORD your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ — Deuteronomy 15:1-11 (ESV)

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. 😉 See, Chesapeake Community Church has just started a series of sermons on 1 John. I wasn’t there on Sunday (this cold’s been pretty nasty), but I did have John Piper’s message from January 7th, also on 1 John (2:12-14, to be specific) playing as I drove to and from this men’s meeting. Anyway, I definitely had 1 John on my mind as I was going into this. Now, the reason I mention 1 John is that in that letter, the Apostle says something very interesting:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. — 1 John 2:1-2 (ESV)

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is such that we have an advocate, even if we sin after having first received mercy! The reason this was giving me a eureka! moment is because this is the exact same sort of thing being said in the Deuteronomy passage! Look at it again, specifically verses 4-5 and 7-8:

“But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. […] If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.”

Do you see it? Do you see it? There is at least an implication that as Israel’s financial prosperity in the Promised Land is tied to their lawkeeping, their poverty will be due to sin… yet they are commanded to lend whatever is needed to the seeming backslider, even if there’s no chance he can pay them back. In fact, according to verse 9, if you don’t open wide your hand to give the presumed “sinner” whatever he needs, you’re guilty of sin! What a beautiful illustration of Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount:

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you… so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. […] You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Matthew 5:42, 45, 48 (ESV)

So brothers and sisters, I urge you: do not sin against God and your neighbor in an effort to “avoid foolish investments”! He is no wise steward who ignores the master’s stewardship instructions. Rather, look upon the mercy and kindness of God—who pours out common grace upon all, regardless of merit (that’s what grace is)—and open wide your hand to the poor in your midst, even if you think his poverty is the result of his sin.

UPDATE: It figures that someone like Doug Wilson would have beaten me to this by a few weeks—and he said it better than I did, to boot! :p