“God tells us we must give a tithe of 10% to Him.” “Faithful Christians tithe 10%” “Not tithing is a lack of trust in God” “Not tithing is robbing God” “God can do more with 90% than we can with 100%”
Tithing has been the practice of the Christian church for as long as I can remember. I grew up Southern Baptist – the largest Christian denomination in America and as such, I was taught that tithing was one of our responsibilities. It was made clear that giving the church money did not earn our salvation but it was a good work required by God as an expression of trust and gratitude.
This tradition makes sense too. After all, without the church giving, the church leadership could not devote their time to prayer and the word of God (Acts 6:1-4). Yet, as much as the practice of tithing is pushed by our faithful pastors and church leaders, the average percentage churchgoers actually give is approximately 5% (Barna Group) – half of the 10% tithe. Is this a sign of unfaithfulness in God’s people or have we simply misunderstood the teachings of scripture? In this article, we will be looking at the topic of tithing and from the scriptures determine what Christians are and are not called to do today.
Tithing in the Old Testament Throughout the entire Old Testament, the concept of tithing appears in 13 passages:
Genesis 14:18-20 - The first recorded instance of tithing in the Bible, where Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, the king of Salem.
Genesis 28:20-22 - Jacob vowed to give a tenth of everything he received to God.
Leviticus 27:30-32 - God commanded the Israelites to bring a tithe of their produce to the Lord as a holy offering.
Numbers 18:21-24 - God assigned the tribe of Levi to receive the tithes from the other Israelites as their inheritance.
Deuteronomy 12:5-6 - God instructed the Israelites to bring their tithes to the place where He would choose to put His name.
Deuteronomy 14:22-27 - God commanded the Israelites to bring a tithe of their produce to the Lord and to use it to celebrate in His presence.
Deuteronomy 26:12-13 - God commanded the Israelites to give a tithe every third year to support the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows.
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 - God instructed the Israelites to bring a tithe of their produce to the Levites, the foreigners, the orphans, and the widows to have enough to eat.
2 Chronicles 31:5-6 - King Hezekiah commanded the people to bring their tithes to the temple, and they did so with great generosity.
Nehemiah 10:37-38 - The people made a covenant to bring a tithe of their produce to the Levites and to support the work of the temple.
Nehemiah 13:10-13 - Nehemiah learns that the Levites have not received their portions and rebukes the officials for neglecting their duties. He then orders the people to bring the tithes into the storehouse and appoints treasurers to oversee the collection and distribution of the offerings.
Amos 4:4-5 – God rebukes the Israelites for their insincere religious practices and commands them to bring their regular tithes and other required contributions.
Malachi 3:8-10 - God rebuked the Israelites for withholding their tithes and promised to bless them if they brought their tithes to the temple.
I want you to notice a two things about these passages. First, the idea of giving a tenth of your income proceeds the Mosaic Law (Gen 14 and 28) and is only later made a requirement in the law. Second, I really want you to notice something that’s very easy to miss: take a look at both Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy 14. What’s different about these two passages? They both say 10%, right? But here’s the difference: they’re for different things – one to support the Levites and one to finance the national feasts and festivals. The Israelites were commanded to give a tithe for both, bringing their total financial obligation to 20%, not just the commonly believed 10% number. In addition to this, the Israelite nation was required to make regular sacrifices and offerings above and beyond this 20% obligation.
This number was the total financial obligation of the Israelites up until the time of the monarchy when King David and King Solomon imposed taxes and labor requirements on the Israelites to support their building projects. Later on, after the kingdom of Israel split into two, the northern kingdom of Israel established a more formal system of taxation, where the king imposed a tax of one talent of silver per year on each household over the already required 20% (1 Kings 12:4). All this to say, back in the old testament, tithing wasn’t the simple giving of 10% to the local church (or synagogue) like it is today. Tithing was one part of a larger system of giving in the nation of Israel.
Tithing in the New Testament By the time of the New Testament, the nation of Israel had experienced numerous attacks, decimations, enemy occupations, and revolutions. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the nation was under Roman rule, with heavy taxes. Thus, the tax system of the monarchy was no longer in effect. Even still, the Jewish authorities continued to require tithes and offerings to support the religious institutions. It’s unclear if they enforced both of the tithes of the Old Testament or (in light of the heavy taxation by the Romans) only required one of them.
In any case, in this situation, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their legalistic approach to tithing and emphasized the importance of giving to the poor. In Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42, Jesus criticized the religious leaders for focusing too much on tithing and other external acts of righteousness, while neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Here we see Jesus calling for a deeper and more authentic righteousness that is not just focused on external actions, but also on the heart and character of the individual.
Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, everything changed. Paul made it clear that the Church was no longer under the commands of the Old Testament law1. This would most certainly include the Old Testament commands to provide sacrifices and financial contributions to the temple (including the tithes). Thus, at this point in history, it’s quite clear that Christians were not obligated to tithe.
But this isn’t the end of the story. The New Testament wasn’t simply a step away from the Mosaic Law. There were new principles put in place for how Christians were to treat money. In fact, money was such an important topic, that Jesus talked about it more than he did heaven and hell combined! That’s a lot!
In fact, in the New Testament, in addition to all the places where Jesus warns of the dangers of misusing money, we see four principles set out for how Christians are to give their money:
Christians are called to give generously and sacrificially: In 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, the Apostle Paul praises the Macedonian churches for their generosity, despite being in extreme poverty themselves. He encourages Christians to give out of a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others.
Christians are called to give cheerfully: In 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, Paul emphasizes that giving should not be done grudgingly or under compulsion, but rather with a cheerful and willing heart.
Christians are called to give proportionately to one's income: In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul encourages the Corinthians to set aside a portion of their income each week for the collection of funds for the church in Jerusalem.
Christians are called to give to support the work of the church and help those in need: In Acts 2:42-47, the early church is described as sharing their possessions and resources with one another and providing for those in need (sometimes even selling 100% of what they had to give it away). Christians are called to support the work of the church and its ministries, as well as to care for the poor and marginalized in their communities.
So, if we are to be consistent in our application of scripture, we must not simply throw away the idea of tithing as “a part of the law” without also taking on these four principles for financial contribution to God’s work in the world. As Gary Johnson puts it, "The New Testament does not require Christians to tithe, but it does provide guidance on how believers should give generously and with a spirit of joy and gratitude" (Johnson 38).
The Origin of Christian Tithing If Christians didn’t tithe in the New Testament and the tithe in the Old Testament was just a small part of a larger system, then where did the idea of giving a 10% tithe actually come from? It actually rose up gradually as the medieval church began requiring its parishioners to finance the local church bodies2. By the 12th century, the practice of tithing had become firmly established in canon law, which codified the obligations of clergy and laity with regard to tithes. In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III confirmed the obligation of all Christians to pay tithes to the Church. By the 14th century, the tithe had become an important source of revenue for the Church, and in some cases, it was enforced through the power of the state. After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, many Protestant churches simply continued the practice of tithing passed down through the generations. So, modern 10% tithing really isn’t derived from scripture but from church tradition.
What is the Right Way to Give? Since God has not commanded a specific number for giving, Christians are not obligated to give a specific amount to God’s mission. However, Jesus made it quite clear that the resources we process are not actually ours, but God’s which he has graciously allowed us to steward. We see this biblically with the parables of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the minas (Luke 19:11-27). We are thus called to steward His money well how He directs it. The great early church theologian, Augustine of Hypo articulated this principle for us well, stating:
"Now it is a perverse human will that has laid claim to such goods, which it says it possesses, but it will have to give an account of them to the true owner; that is, to God. But it is not as though the Lord has nothing of his own. 'The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.' Therefore, let no one say, 'This is mine,' nor should one wickedly withhold from someone in need. What we have received for our use, we should regard as not our own. When we are called to account for it, we shall have to give an answer as stewards. So, it is with these goods. We possess them, but in such a way that they do not possess us. We possess them so as to have the means of performing good works, and of lending them to the Lord. But how shall we lend them to him? We lend them by giving them to the poor. For we give to the poor what is his, not what is ours. Therefore, let no one say, 'This is mine,' but let each of us say, 'This is God's.' How do we help such people? If we go to a certain store, we can find clothes there, which we can buy and give to the needy. In this way, we give what is someone else's, not what is our own. And this we do, not by theft, but by redemption. So, let no one say, 'This is mine,' but let each of us say, 'This is God's.'" (Augustine, 359).
As Christians, we are rescued and purchased by God (1 Cor 6:20) and as a result of this, we are not our own. With all the more amazing blessings God has poured out on us, our hearts should be to give more not less than what they gave in the Old Testament. We are not simply paying taxes in a theocracy as they were. We are responding in complete surrender to the amazing self-giving love Christ has given us.
As a result of this, we should be giving large amounts to our local churches, without a specific number being required. While the tithe isn’t the standard, I would suggest that it ought to function as the “training wheels” of giving in our lives. In giving, we practically reinforce the truth that God is the real commander of our lives and our wallets. 10% is a good starting amount because it’s enough to be significant (and cause real impact) but still small enough that nearly everyone can start with it, regardless of financial circumstance. As Danial B Wallace puts it: "While tithing is not required in the New Testament, Christians are encouraged to give generously and sacrificially as an expression of their love for God and their desire to support the work of the church" (Wallace 108). So… should Christians give 10%? I would say yes, but not for the reasons that many of us have always believed.
Notes 1. That is the civil and ceremonial portions of the Mosaic Law. Christians were (and are) still required to follow God’s moral commands to not walk in sin but instead to live a life pleasing to God. 2. For more information, see:
Rubin, Miri. “Tithes and Tensions in the Medieval Church.” In The Church in the Medieval World: Essays in Honour of Professor John Bossy, edited by Miri Rubin and Christopher Harper-Bill, 157-174. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
Spiegel, Gabrielle M. The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Works Cited Augustine of Hippo. "Sermons" in Fathers of the Church, vol. 38, CUA Press, 1956.