That’s a question I’ve been asking over the past year. I basically grew up with a “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 tithe 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.
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.’
The tithes, while a sacrifice to the LORD, were 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 the tithe, 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.
There is only one passage in all of Scripture which speaks of money in relation to the tithe: 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)
Never, all in Scripture, is a tithe used to pay building and maintenance expenses for a meeting-house or clergy. 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.
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 because of his work. However, if Paul were simply a “New Covenant priest” he would have been leading the churches into sin by causing them to break God’s Law which required a community to feed its Levites (again, Deut. 18:1-8). Thus, we can infer that Paul did not believe these laws were binding for ministers of the Gospel.
That being the case, a Christian pastor ought not presume to live off of the tithes of his people. If a tithe 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 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 if I don’t think the tithe applies to us today, does that mean I can get away with not giving anything? 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 some of those who are being commanded to “tithe” (give 10% of your gross income) to “the church” (really meaning “the pastors”) are actually poor enough that the pastors are required by God’s Word to be tithing to them.
So in conclusion: Christians are commanded to give to the poor and needy in our midst, but we are not bound by tithe laws. However, even if one were convinced that Christians must tithe, a faithful reading of Scripture insists the tithe be used to feed the poor. It is wholly foreign to the Word of God to use a tithe on buildings, utilities, vacations, insurance or even clothing.