Why I (sort of, but not really) believe in TITHING
- Tithing (giving 10%) applies as much to new covenant believers as it does to old covenant believers. Christians are to give one tenth of their (ideally gross) income as offering.
- Tithing is an old covenant command that does not apply at all to new covenant believers. Christians are not commanded to tithe but to give generously.
- Tithing is an old covenant command but still has ‘guideline’ relevance to new covenant believers. Christians can use 10% of their income as a minimum guideline and give generously on top of that.
What’s my view? Well, as the title suggests, I sort of believe in tithing, but not really. In essence, I don’t subscribe to any of the above views as I think the Biblical picture is more nuanced than any of them.
So this is what I’ve gleaned so far from the Bible’s teaching on tithing:
- When you remember the context of the old covenant, you will see that the ‘tithes’ applied to Israel in terms of land and produce, not cash and money. Furthermore, it operated as a taxation system as well as social welfare.
- It is a mistake to think that giving one tenth of income was a ‘flat absolute’ even in the old covenant. If you look at the Biblical material, you’ll find that at least two (some argue three) different ‘tithes’ existed: (i) The Levitical tithe, in order to support the Levites who served God full time and didn’t have their own land and ability to produce. Lev. 27:30. (ii) The Festival tithe, in order that the Israelites may celebrate in the presence of the LORD every year. This tithe was on top of the tenth that were given to the Levites. Deut. 14:22-27.
- In addition to these two tithes, the Levites themselves were to ‘tithe’ as an offering to the LORD (Num. 18:21-32). And every third year, the ‘Festival’ tithe was to be stored in their own towns in order to bless the poor, the widows and the Levites who live among them (Deut. 14:28-29 – some would say that this is the ‘third tithe’, though my reading is that it’s a variation of the second tithe). I’m not sure how the numbers got crunched, but I’ve read that something more like 23.3% of their income was ‘tithed’, rather than 10%.
- The tithe in the old covenant existed in the midst of general commands to generosity (Lev. 19:9-10) and the various kinds of cultic and freewill offerings (Lev. 1-7). In short, it seemed like the LORD was more interested in establishing an open-handed ‘giving culture’ than to give a hard-and-fast rule about how much to give.
- There is no evidence that the poor, sojourners, widows, servants or those who didn’t own land were ever required to tithe in the Old Testament. The exception, as already mentioned, was Levites and priests who themselves received tithes but were also commanded to tithe back to God (Num. 18:21-32).
- The tithe existed before the Mosaic Law as something of a cultural norm for giving. Thus Abraham ‘tithed’ when he gave to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17-20), and Jacob ‘tithed’ as well (Gen. 28:22).
- The New Testament only speaks about tithing eight times and never as a command in relation to giving. Five of the eight times tithing is mentioned is in Hebrews 7, and that had nothing to do with commands about generosity or giving; it had to do with Jesus as our High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. The other three times are in the gospels (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42; Luke 18:12). In those passages Jesus neither affirms or overturns tithing. He does, however, condemn the Pharisees who were known to tithe, but do so hypocritically. When it comes to giving in the New Testament, the encouragement is towards open-handed generosity (2 Cor. 8-9) and thoughtful and disciplined giving (1 Cor. 16:2).
- It is a mistake to think that tithing exists either for old covenant or new covenant believers as an absolute standard for giving. So to ask the question: ‘Does the Bible require us to give 10% of our income?’ is the wrong question.
- The ‘tithe’ for Christians can perhaps function as a guideline in multiple kinds of giving. It’s more in answer to the question: ‘When I give (and whenever I give), how much should I think about giving?’ For new covenant believers, the 10% is there as a way in which we can think about the various kinds of giving that we are encouraged to do. For Christians it’s not meant to be law but a principle of realising your desire to be generous because God has been generous to you.
- You might be thinking, well, isn’t that just view (3) outlined at the beginning? i.e. the tithe is an old covenant command but a new covenant guideline. Well no, not exactly. How I differ from view (3) is that I reckon tithing is not a ‘flat’ guideline for how much to give of our total income but a ‘dynamic’ guideline for giving on lots and lots of occasions. Christians are commanded to be generous, particularly to the poor. We should be moved to give in lots of different ways: money, time, energy, resources; both in ‘planned’ giving and ‘spontaneous’ giving. Where tithing can be a guideline is when a Christian wants to give on any of these occasions and doesn’t know how much to give, 10% is a good start to consider giving.
- The net result is that Christians should be giving in lots of different ways and be giving significant amounts of whatever they are receiving from God. The ‘tithe’ is just one way Christians can use to think about how much each ‘gift’ might equate to.
- Therefore the wrong way to use ‘tithing’ is to look at your total income (gross or net), draw that 10% line, give, and keep the 90% for yourself. The right way is to give lots of ‘tithes’: yes 10% of your pay, but also 10% of your time, and 10% of the wedding presents and birthday gifts, and 10% of your Christmas bonuses, and indeed, just lots and lots of 10%s! But then, why be limited by 10%? The ‘spirit’ of the law is to give open-handedly and generously. 10% is merely a way to ensure that our giving is significant, costly, and reflects 100% of our lives which should be dedicated to God.