At a time when giving is reaching all-time lows in the church, ignorance about what is real Christian giving is reaching all-time highs. Surely, this is no coincidence. Not only does this article expose the misinformation we are fed in this area that can actually warp our thinking, but it sheds light on the true, biblical teaching about giving. I sincerely hope that all readers will give prayerful consideration to all this article has to say.
Has anyone ever told you to tithe by giving one-tenth of your income to the church? Or perhaps someone has told you to give to a particular ministry so that God will prosper you. Maybe you were even made to feel that you needed to make up for your sins by giving.
But have you ever stopped to wonder which, if any, of these approaches to giving is the right one for Christians? In this article, we will examine each of these ways of looking at giving to determine whether it is biblical. We will also see whether there is another approach to giving—one that is less popularly promoted. Because it is so commonly taught, we will devote the first section of this article to tithing.
If you tithe, or have been told that you should tithe, you are in the company of many other Christians. Tithing is a common practice in the church, and it is a doctrine that is frequently taught from the pulpit, sometimes quite vigorously. There are even entire websites devoted to the practice of tithing. Usually what is meant in Christian churches by tithing is the paying (or, as some say, giving) of one-tenth of one’s income to the church. Some say that the tithe should be one-tenth of one’s gross income (before any deductions, including taxes), and others say we should tithe on our net income. By net, what is usually meant in this case is after taxes are taken out. Some few might teach that we should tithe on only that money that is left after we have paid our bills. We will not get into these differences of opinion over how to tithe, but will limit ourselves to determining whether the Bible says that Christians are to tithe. Some of this may sound a little dry, but I hope you will continue reading because it will serve as a background to the eye-opening material later in this article.
The fact that tithing is found in the Bible is undeniable. Tithing is frequently mentioned in the Bible. The word is found as early as the time of Abraham, as mentioned in Genesis. Before examining its occurrence in Abraham’s life, however, we will first look at the law of tithing as God gave it to the Israelites under Moses.
The Law of the Tithe
Leviticus 27:30-34: “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s: it is holy unto the Lord. And if a man will at all redeem aught of his tithes, he shall add thereto the fifth part thereof. And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord. He shall not search whether it be good or bad, neither shall he change it: and if he change it at all, then both it and the change thereof shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed. These are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel in mount Sinai.”
Numbers 18:21-24: “And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation. Neither must the children of Israel henceforth come nigh the tabernacle of the congregation, lest they bear sin, and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they shall bear their iniquity: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they have no inheritance. But the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer as an heave offering unto the Lord, I have given to the Levites to inherit: therefore I have said unto them, Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.”
A law for the Jews: Notice certain facts that we learn from these Scriptures. As stated in the verse that immediately follows the tithe instruction in Leviticus 27, “These are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel in mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34). God gave this law of the tithe through Moses to the Israelites (the Jews) at Sinai. Nothing here says anything about God commanding anyone other than the Israelites to tithe.
The tithe given to the Levites: The passage quoted above from Numbers 18 tells us who received the tithe. The tribe of Levi, the Levites, among whom were the priests and those who cared for the tabernacle (and, later, the temple in Jerusalem), were to receive the tithe (but see also below). As God explains, of all the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was to have no inheritance of land when the Israelites entered the promised land. Instead, they were to be sustained by the other tribes giving them the tithe. This is confirmed in Hebrews 7:5: “And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham.”
For an agricultural society: These passages tell us something else that is important. In Leviticus 27, the tithe is called “the tithe of the land,” “the seed of the land,” “the fruit of the tree,” and “the tithe of the herd, or of the flock.” The Israelites’ society was agrarian. Most people were involved in farming (raising crops and livestock), and the economy centered on this. The tithing laws God gave were tailored to such an agrarian economy. The Israelites were to tithe their increase (Deuteronomy 14:22, 28; 26:12; 2 Chronicles 31:5). Increase to a farmer in ancient times was an easily figured, tangible thing. When a farmer planted grain, his increase was his harvest minus the seed he had planted to create that harvest. In the case of livestock, the increase was the calves or kids born that year. But when someone works for an employer for 40 hours a week and gets a paycheck, the question must be asked, What is the increase? Many people, after taxes, commuting expenses, housing, food, clothing, and other expenses, have little (and sometimes nothing) they could call an increase. That is why there is such a controversy among tithing churches about what the tithe should be figured on. The problem arises because the tithing law was not meant for any other society but ancient Israel.
Confusion when taken out of historical context: Still more confusion arises when, despite the Scriptures quoted above about the Levites receiving the tithe, other Scriptures can be found that say that the poor are to share the tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) and even the tithers themselves are to eat the tithe: “Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year. And thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always” (Deuteronomy 14:22-26). A number of theories have arisen to explain this. The most common ones say that there were at least two, and perhaps even three, tithes. One tithe is an annual one-tenth tax that went to support the Levites. Another tithe was an annual tithe of the increase that all of the Israelites ate during the annual feast days (especially the Feast of Tabernacles). Another tithe was only every three years when the tithe of the increase was given to the Levites, strangers, orphans, and widows. What, then, should all of this mean to Christians? Are they to observe three tithes? And to whom are they to give these tithes? Let’s look at some of the ways people today try to apply the Old Testament tithing laws.
Copyright © 2004-2009 Peter Ditzel