This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 26, number 3 (2003). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
In my 33 years of Christian ministry, I have visited hundreds of churches across the denominational and nondenominational spectrums. Rare has been the church among them where the following scenario would not describe a routine part of the Sunday morning worship service. After a few hymns or praise songs in the first half of the service, the pastor or another church leader announces the collection of the congregation’s “tithes and offerings.” The elders or ushers of the church then go from aisle to aisle, standing on either side, and pass the collection plate.
The tithe (literally “tenth” in the Hebrew) is one-tenth of the believer’s income (some churches say gross income; others say net). Most pastors insist the tithe should be given as “firstfruits” (off the top of one’s paycheck) to one’s local church and its use should be unspecified. The offering, on the other hand, is a “freewill” gift (the amount or income percentage being determined by, rather than imposed on, the believer) on top of the tithe that can either be unspecified or specified for a particular use.
On occasion, a brief word or more detailed teaching about the importance of Christian giving might be offered that typically would quote Malachi 3:8–12. The pastor might warn the congregation about the dangers of robbing God of His tenth of their income, which can result in a curse. He might also point out that this is the only occasion in the Bible where God invites His people to test Him. He probably will assure the people that they cannot out-give God: if they are obedient to give their tithes and offerings to God, He will shower them with blessings beyond their ability to contain them.
Does this scenario sound familiar? I suspect the majority of you would answer yes. In fact, I believe that for the majority of Christians the doctrine and practice of tithing is considered to be biblically a given, and this is understandable. After all, many Christians would rarely, if ever, hear a contrary view, and many Bible passages can be cited in seeming support of it. For example, the Bible, including the New Testament (e.g., 2 Cor. 8–9), contains many examples and exhortations concerning the importance of believers giving financially to God’s work. Furthermore, Paul instructed the Corinthians, “On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come” (1 Cor. 16:2. All Bible quotations are from the nasb, 1977). Finally, the practice of tithing is well established in the Old Testament and is not without mention in the New Testament.
Tithing vs. Giving. From my own experience I have learned that many Christians have fused the concepts of tithing and giving in their minds, so that if a believer says he does not believe in tithing they take him to mean that he is opposed to having the collection plate passed around on Sunday morning. There are, indeed, some Christians who are uncomfortable when the plate is passed during the church service. Perhaps they resent it when people ask for their money; perhaps they give credence to the common suspicion (unfortunately fed by many TV evangelists) that the preacher is out for their money; or perhaps they fear that some visiting unbeliever who entertains that notion will be offended by the appeal for money and never return. Financial abuse undeniably is a problem within some churches that needs to be corrected, but, as can be seen from 1 Corinthians 16:2 quoted above, there is a proper, biblical practice of exhorting God’s people to give to His work and of taking a collection at church meetings. It does not follow, however, that embracing these practices necessarily means one embraces the doctrine of Christian tithing — it need only mean one embraces the doctrine of Christian giving. The position I am advancing in this article is that giving financially to the church of God is thoroughly embedded in New Testament teaching, but tithing is not.
Before I proceed to make my case, two sensitive points need to be acknowledged. First, I recognize that the doctrine I am defending here is controversial. To some it may seem disturbingly unbiblical. To others (especially church leaders) it may seem that I am undermining the practice of congregational giving that they seek to cultivate — a practice that is essential to the growth, and even the survival, of the local church. To those who hold these concerns, I reply, hear me out. It is no accident that this article is appearing in the Journal’s Viewpoint column, where tenable opinions that are not universally accepted by Christians are presented in the interest of advancing critical thinking, informed debate, and intellectual growth.
Second, it needs to be clarified that, although I am the editor of the Christian Research Journal, the viewpoint I am advocating is not the official position of the Christian Research Institute. Again, it is not insignificant that this article is appearing in Viewpoint rather than in From the Editor.
If CRI has had an official position on the subject, it has been that Christians should tithe. Walter Martin’s answer to this question was a resounding yes. He cited Hebrews 7:8–9 as proof, arguing that just as Abraham, who was before the Law of Moses, paid tithes to Melchizadek (a type of Christ), so we who were “in his loins” as his children through faith (even as the text says Abraham’s grandson Levi was in his loins) should properly pay tithes to Christ. Current CRI president Hank Hanegraaff has not been as vocal about tithing as was Martin, but in an upcoming book he will take the position that tithing is for today. He cites, among other things, the fact that Jacob tithed to God long before Moses (Gen. 28:22), and long after Moses, Jesus reaffirmed tithing even while censuring the Pharisees for their meticulous practice of it to the neglect of the weightier matters of religion (Matthew 23:23). Take what I have to say, then, for what it’s worth: my personal opinion and food for thought, but not the official position of CRI.
My main concern about the prevalent teachings on New Testament tithing is that they run counter to the New Testament’s teaching about giving. Before we examine the New Testament teaching, it would be helpful to put the practice of tithing into historical context.
Tithing under Moses. No one disputes that tithing was taught and practiced in Old Testament times. Moses enjoined it on the people of Israel in such passages as Deuteronomy 14:22–29. In the verses immediately preceding this passage, however, the Israelites are forbidden to eat pork and a long list of other foods that few Christians would argue are forbidden to believers today.
I can imagine some readers thinking at this point, “Don’t tell me your best argument against tithing is that it puts us under the Law!” Well, I do think that is a good argument against tithing, but my point goes beyond a simple concern about legalism (as valid as that concern might be). Consider the following: when the apostle Paul adamantly affirmed that Christians are not obligated to keep the Law of Moses (e.g., Gal. 2:19; 3:10, 24–25; 5:18; 6:1–4), he clearly was not releasing Christians from moral law, for it is reaffirmed in the New Testament under the heading of the law of Christ or the law of love (e.g., Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; 6:2). He was referring, rather, to ceremonial and civil law (e.g., Gal. 4:10–11; 5:2–3; Col. 2:16–17; cf. Mark 7:18–19). The question thus presents itself: Was tithing a part of the unchanging moral law or the obsolete ceremonial/civil law? The answer seems quite clear to me: tithing was a part of the civil law of Israel.
Remember that during the period of God’s dealings with humanity known as the Old Covenant, God’s people comprised an earthly nation that required all of the legal provisions necessary to maintain it. In Jewish society tithes performed the function of a tax. The people’s tithes supported the tribe of Levi (who had no inheritance in the land) and their sanctuary service and also provided relief for the poor.
Ancient Jewish rabbis, the first-century AD Jewish historian Josephus, and many Christian expositors throughout the centuries have interpreted the Law as setting forth at least two annual tithes (which would amount to a “tax” of 20 percent), and some of them argued for a third, triennial tithe (meaning an average annual tax of roughly 23 percent). If either of these interpretations is correct (and they have some merit), then the dissimilarity between the Jewish tithe and the modern Christian practice of tithing becomes even more apparent. In any case, the function of the tithe as a national tax is indisputable.
Christians by and large are already paying taxes to their earthly governments. They are simultaneously citizens of the Kingdom of Christ, but that is a heavenly nation that operates by different principles and does not necessarily require the same arrangements (e.g., a mandatory tax of largely unregenerate citizens who often would not be inclined to contribute voluntarily to the general good).
Tithing before Moses. What about the examples from long before God gave Moses the Law? Abraham gave Melchizadek a tenth of the spoils of war (Gen. 14:20) and Jacob vowed that if God would be with him he would give back to God a tenth of all he received from Him (Gen. 28:22). It needs to be pointed out that these are narrative and not didactic passages: they are descriptive of what people did but not necessarily prescriptive of what we should do. We can certainly conclude from these examples that giving 10 percent to God has a long and venerable history. If we should choose to give Him that percentage of our income we will have plenty of good biblical company. We might even consider it a good benchmark figure from which we can determine whether more or less should be given in our particular circumstances. These passages do not tell us, however, that God requires believers today to give 10 percent of their income to the local church; even less do they support the popular notion that such tithes should be unspecified contributions, as distinguished from additional specified or unspecified freewill offerings.
Tithing in the New Testament. With such inconclusive proof for Christian tithing in the Old Testament, the New Testament evidence would need to be compelling. In fact, tithing advocates readily admit that there are very few references to tithing in the New Testament at all. Jesus’ reference to it in Matthew 23:23 needs to be taken in context. He was rebuking the teachers who had “seated themselves in the chair of Moses” (v. 2). Christ had not yet gone to the Cross and been raised again, and the Old Covenant, including all of its ceremonial and civil law, was still in effect. He obviously believed that the Law of Moses came from God, that not the smallest letter or stroke of that Law would pass away until all was accomplished (Matt. 5:18), and that whoever annulled the least of these commandments would be the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19). Jesus Himself, therefore, perfectly observed the ceremonial/civil law as well as the moral law and taught others to observe the whole Law of Moses until “all was accomplished” through both His active obedience (keeping the Law) and passive obedience (atoning on the Cross for our failure to keep it).
No one would use the second reference to tithing in the New Testament as a proof text for Christian tithing: “‘The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get”’” (Luke 18:11–12).
The third and final mention of tithing in the New Testament is Hebrews 7:8–9. When we examine this passage, we find neither an instruction to tithe nor an example of New Testament believers tithing. In fact, tithing is not even the theme of the passage, but rather the supremacy of the priesthood of Melchizedek over that of Aaron. An instance of tithing in the Old Testament is cited, but no suggestion is made that tithing has a New Testament application — Walter Martin’s argument notwithstanding. As ingenious as that argument seems, it begs too many questions. For example, it assumes that this passage is inferentially prescriptive rather than merely descriptive regarding tithing, and yet that is exactly what it attempts to prove. If one does not assume beforehand that tithing is mandated for Christians this can only be seen as an illustration of the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over the Levitical priesthood.
The New Testament Doctrine of Giving. Our examination of the three references to tithing in the New Testament leaves only one conclusion: the New Testament makes absolutely no assertion that Christians are to tithe. When this fact is combined with our previous findings from the Old Testament, it would seem that the popular distinction between tithing and freewill offerings in the church is not biblically grounded. All the New Testament talks about in regard to giving is freewill offerings, and certain principles are laid down to guide the practice.
In 1 Corinthians 16:2 we are told that each person is to “put aside and save as he may prosper” (emphasis added). Second Corinthians 8:12–15 stresses that there should be proportional equality in giving so that some are not afflicted while others are at ease. If someone inherits a billion dollars, why should he feel he is doing his part by giving only 10 percent of his newfound fortune to God? If someone else loses her husband to cancer and is left buried in medical bills on a fixed income, why should we judge her if she gives less than 10 percent and uses the difference to meet her monthly payments?
Second Corinthians 9:7 sets forth the central New Testament principle for giving: “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.” New Testament tithing advocates argue that this verse refers to freewill offerings as opposed to tithing, but this involves an a priori assumption that tithing is New Testament, and, as we’ve seen, that simply can’t be proven. We must, therefore, take this passage as instructive for all instances of giving in the church.
What, then, does the Holy Spirit through the apostle have to say about New Testament giving? He stresses that the gift must be from the heart. When pastors teach a requirement of tithing, do they not then run the risk of negating the revealed will of God for New Testament giving? As W. E. Vine observes in The Church and the Churches:
Love and devotion to God! That imparts the real value to giving. And this perhaps serves to explain why no command as to the amount is laid down for believers. To obey a command stating the amount or proportion would be easy, but what exercise of heart would there be? Where would the motive lie? Loyalty would be superseded by mechanical religion. Love would be replaced by formalism. Both individuals and local churches would lose their sense of the high motive which should inspire in the offering a loving response to the love of the great Giver Himself. (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Company, n.d. <http:// www.ldolphin.org/vine.html>.)
God wants our hearts far more than our money. If there were a certain percentage we were required to give, giving often would be under compulsion and God would then get our money without our hearts. The New Testament thus says nothing about the percentage we are to give.
The doctrine that tithing is New Testament effectively undermines much of what the New Testament actually has to say about giving. The principal New Testament text on financial giving, 2 Corinthians 9:7, tells you that the next time the offering plate is passed to you at church, God wants you to freely determine what you would like to give to His work. When giving becomes such a free expression of cheerfully sacrificial worship and thanksgiving, both God and you will be blessed. You may indeed find yourself giving more than you did when you gave a fixed amount out of a sense of obligation. Those who worry about how the church can survive without a tithing law may find that God had a better idea in mind all along.
— Elliot Miller