What tithing teaches us (It’s not what you think!)

I was asked recently to talk about the concept of tithing – a subject near and dear to the heart of every churchgoer who sees a collection plate pass down the aisle, hears a preacher talk about how putting a tenth in the plate is their obligation to God, and how it’s a free-will offering, “but you’d better put a tenth of what you made this week in there!”

I think the message of giving may have become a little muddled somewhere along the way.

The truth is that the contribution that churches collected in the first century was very different from that of the idea of tithing, which we read about in the Old Testament. In fact, I would argue that the two are not even related. The Christian “tithe” is never actually commanded in scripture!

Tithing is introduced in Genesis 18, when Abraham had just won a great battle and collected spoils, a tenth of which he gave to Melchizedek, a priest of God. Jacob made a promise to do the same thing for God in Genesis 28. This was a common practice in that region; apparently the concept of giving a tenth  of your possessions as gratitude to a deity was present in Egypt, Syria and other neighboring countries as well at that time.

The law of Moses is the first place where we read God’s people ever being commanded to tithe. But it bears little or no resemblance to what we see in many churches today, where the “pastor” commands you to record your income (and sometimes report it to him) and meticulously give one-tenth of it to him every week for whatever he chooses to do with it.

Here’s how tithing worked in the law:

  • There were two different tithes authorized in the law (some argue that they are the same tithe and that the procedure simply changed over time.) Neither of them happened on a weekly basis; the first happened annually (Deuteronomy 14:22), and the second took place every three years (Deuteronomy 26:12).
  • Tithing was given specifically for the purpose of supporting the tribe of Levi, which was designated to serve the Lord in His religious services. The Levites were not given an inheritance in the land of Canaan, and were expected to devote their lives in service to God (Numbers 18:21-24) rather than in activities like farming or shepherding. As a result, they needed a source of sustenance, and the other 11 tribes were expected to provide that (Nehemiah 10:35-39).
  • Tithing was to take place in a specific, designated city (Deuteronomy 14:23), where Levites were available to accept the tithe.
  • The annual tithe was actually a tithe to be shared between the one who tithed and the Levite who resided in your area, “that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” and “rejoice, you and your household” (Deuteronomy 14:23, 26).
  • Tithing was not monetary; it was composed of seed, wine, oil, livestock and other goods. The exception to this was when the designated city was too far for a family to transport all the goods that they had set aside (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). In that case, they were allowed to sell those goods for money, which they could then carry with them to the tithing location (v. 24-26).
  • The third-year tithe was to be given to the Levites as well, but with the specification that it also be given to the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow. We read about the storehouses where these offerings were kept and distributed in Nehemiah 10:38.

Tithing was not the only avenue of giving to God. There were also vow offerings and “freewill” (spontaneous offerings made at the discretion of the one who wishes to give). But as you may have noticed in Deuteronomy 12, they are mentioned along with tithes as offerings to be consumed in a specific place by the one doing the offering, along with family and those in need, for the purpose of rejoicing in God’s blessings before the Lord.

If that doesn’t sound like what we do on Sundays today, it’s because it’s not what we do on Sundays today.

And as I’ve written before, the law of Moses was given only to Israel. It was not bound on the Gentiles of that day unless they happened to be living among the Hebrews, and it was taken out of the way by Christ and is no longer in effect.

But the law is recorded “for our learning” (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:6), and we know that there is a pattern of physical things in the Old Testament that point to spiritual truths today (Hebrews 8:5). And there are some important concepts that come out of the passages about tithing in the Old Testament.

When you give something to God, it’s holy

Even when tithes or other offerings were given back to the people to consume, it was at God’s discretion (Numbers 18:24)—they were still God’s! A priest who was unclean could not partake of a sacrifice (Lev. 22:3-4), and no one who was unauthorized could ever do so without causing the nation “to bear iniquity and guilt by eating their holy things: for I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (v. 16).

The joyful partaking of those gifts was to be combined with a recognition of the holiness of God and His commandments:

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year … then you shall say before the Lord your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. — Deuteronomy 26:12-15

God doesn’t take from us so we will have less

The pattern is repeated over and over: when God required the people to give an offering that was not related to atonement for sin, the people shared in the offering. All three major feast days—the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths—involved sacrifices and freewill offerings (apart from tithes) that were to be eaten by the one offering the sacrifice along with his family and those others who had need, in a specific place, to remember specific blessings from God (Deuteronomy 16:9-17). It was for the purpose of rejoicing and celebrating what God had given them.

When freewill offerings were required that were not for the people’s consumption, they were for specific needs in the work and worship of God. The first freewill offering of the people of Israel was in the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 35:

Moses said to all the congregation, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution. … v.20 Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. … v. 29 All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. — Exodus 35:4-29

The pattern is repeated in the institution of the temple tax for the restoration of the temple by Joash (2 Kings 12:9). It’s that tax which prompted the widow in Mark 12:42 to offer her two coins, which Jesus said were “more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” It’s clear that the Levites of that day had begun abusing those funds (John 2:13-16), which sadly is another pattern that seems to be repeated in scripture (I Samuel 2:12-17, Ezekiel 22:26). But that didn’t negate that the offering was authorized by God and given from a desire to please and serve Him.

Regardless, God did not collect money or goods from His people simply to take things from them. It was done for the purposes of filling a need in the work of God’s service.

Collections should be with purpose, not for the sake of collecting

Why does God love a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)? Because a cheerful giver knows that what he is giving to the Lord is a result of God’s blessings, and that it is being used to continue to bless God’s people whether through benevolent works or through the supporting of the gospel (v. 12-14). Just as the Hebrews were to rejoice in their offerings, we ought to be rejoicing in the knowledge that whatever we give to the Lord’s work is going to fulfilling His will, which is our primary concern as Christians in this life (Philippians 2:13)!

If our church is collecting funds and just sitting on them with no plan or purpose, we’re not doing what God has commanded. That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t have a treasury (what was the temple storehouse if not a treasury?); it is to say that God’s treasury is dedicated to God’s work. We don’t collect funds and decide later what to do with them; the scriptural purpose is to identify a need and collect the assets to address that need.

God expects for us to support His workers

One of the central points of the law of Moses is that serving God is serious work, and needs to be done with the utmost care, humility and reverence. So much so, that it required an entire tribe of people fully devoted to that work, so that the rest of the nation could worship God “and not die” (Numbers 18:22).

Paul uses this parallel in discussing the authority to financially support ministers of the gospel, so that they don’t have to be “entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Timothy 2:4). It’s worth noting that he doesn’t appeal to the law as the authority, but rather as a confirmation of the principle put forth in a direct command from God to the apostles and the church:

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? … Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. – 1Co 9:8-14

If we’re focused on the amount that we have to give, then we’re missing the point. Tithing is no longer in place; it has been taken out of the way by removal of the law (Colossians 2:14, Ephesians 2:15) and removal of the need for which it was instituted. What remains is a freewill offering (2 Corinthians 8:8, 9:7), given to fulfill specific needs of benevolence (8:4) or the gospel ministry (Philippians 4:18). It’s certainly not so the the preacher can drive to his Bible classes in a Mercedes!

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath,” Paul writes in Colossians 2:16. The same could be said of giving. Our giving is a demonstration of love—as is our lack of giving! But it’s between God and ourselves. So let’s make sure to judge ourselves wisely and honestly (1 Corinthians 11:30), and then give to God what He deserves for His work and His glory.

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