Is Tithing for Today?
Tithing is the practice of regularly giving a tenth of one's income to the Lord (or to the church). So, is it for the Church Age or not? Are we "robbing God" (Mal. 3:8) if we do not tithe? This is a subject upon which there continues to be disagreement. Some say no. Others staunchly defend the practice, and even lay a burden of guilt upon those who do not agree. It is my conviction that an obligatory tithe is difficult to support biblically, and that this is one of those matters best left to individual conviction.
At times, adherence to this teaching--whether the person realizes it or not--is rooted in an amillennial theology which finds the church in the Old Testament, and imposes the Mosaic Covenant on God's people on this side of the cross. On other occasions, it seems to be based on the well-meaning zeal of Christian leaders who see it as a sure-fire way to pay the bills. But neither of these approaches represents a sound biblical rationale. If we look carefully at the teaching of the Word of God for the New Testament believer, tithing is nowhere in sight.
TITHING IN ISRAEL
Did the Lord Jesus not say that it was right and proper to pay tithes (Matt. 23:23)? Indeed He did. But He was, as Man, “born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4), and He was speaking to Jewish scribes and Pharisees, subject to the Law of Moses. Tithing was certainly a part of the life of Israel under the Old Testament Law. But is it therefore for us?
And would we be willing to put ourselves back under the entire Law (cf. Gal. 3:10; Jas 2:10)? We do not have the warrant to pick and choose those requirements that appeal to us. Which of the 613 laws apply? Which do not? And if we are intent on calling the church to tithe, why not include Moses' full teaching on this subject? For example:
1) The tithe was to include agricultural products and livestock. If the owner wished to redeem part of the produce, he had to pay the equivalent plus another 20%. This substitution was not permitted in the case of livestock (Lev. 27:30-33).
2) Passages such as Deuteronomy 14:27-29 and 26:12-15 indicate that a second tithe was paid (and possibly a third tithe, every third year). Thus the "tithe" given in Israel was not a mere 10%, but more likely averaged out to 23⅓% per year, plus many more compulsory offerings. Should we be giving likewise?
A NEW DAY DAWNS
A primary function of tithing within Israel's theocratic system was to support the nation's religious leaders, those priests and Levites who served in the house of God (Num. 18:21-32; cf. II Chron. 31:4-10). It was in a sense equivalent to our modern income tax. However, we cannot arbitrarily transfer this law of Israel to the church. For one thing there is no longer a single, central, house of worship to which all contribute alike (cf. Mal. 3:10). More significantly, in the Age of Grace, each and every believer is a priest, not just pastors or missionaries (I Pet. 2:5, 9). And consider the following:
1) When the early church dealt with the relation of the newly saved Gentiles to the Jewish Law, it would have been the perfect time to say, "Oh, yes, and don't forget that tithing is to be a New Testament concept as well." But it is not even mentioned (Acts 15:19-20).
2) On the numerous occasions when Paul, a converted rabbi, spoke of the need to help ministers of the gospel in a material way, would it not have been appropriate to say, "These men should be supported with your tithes"? But he does not.
3) In his many discussions of giving, the apostle never even mentions tithing (cf. Rom. 15:25-28; I Cor. 9:7-14; 16:1-3; II Cor. 8--9; Eph. 4:28; I Tim. 5:17-18).
Rather, all of Paul’s vocabulary related to giving (charis = grace gift, I Cor. 16:3; koinonia = fellowship, II Cor. 8:4; diakonia = service, II Cor. 8:4; 9:1; eulogia = blessing, II Cor. 9:5) indicates that for the Christian giving is to be voluntary, an act of the free will, a sharing of what God has abundantly poured out, with no tax or tithe demanded. Christians are to give proportionately as God has blessed them (I Cor. 16:2)--but no precise ratio is ever named. Instead, it is left to the individual to decide, so that it is “not...of necessity"--not the result of an imposed law (II Cor. 9:7).
In confirmation of this view, the early church fathers did not teach the need for tithing--though they have much to say about giving in general. Justin Martyr observes that every Sunday, “Those who prosper and so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses. What is collected is deposited with the president, and he takes care of orphans and widows and those who are in want...and those who are in bonds and the strangers who are sojourning among us” (I Apol. 67). Irenaeus considered tithing to be a Jewish law not required of Christians, for they, he said, had received “liberty” and should consequently give without external constraint (Haer. 4, 18, 2). These men saw a new principle of giving in operation, the inward leading of the Spirit in response to the abounding grace of God.
BEFORE THE LAW
Turning back the clock for a moment, there is another point which needs to be addressed. Some will assert that tithing is for the Age of Grace because it pre-dates the Law. The thought seems to be that because the practice is in the Bible, and it predates the Law, it becomes, ipso facto, something universal and therefore binding upon the church. One might point out, in response, that levirate marriage too predates the Law--as well as later being included in the Law (Gen. 38:6-8; cf. Deut. 25:5-10). Should we therefore be insisting on this as well?
Did Abraham not tithe (Gen. 14:20)? No, not in the sense we mean--regular and consistent giving of a tenth of one’s income to the Lord's work. In the context, it seems as though Abraham gave to a local king named Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils from a military campaign fought in his area. It could even be argued that the gift was given not to God, but to the Canaanite king (as Heb. 7:4 confirms). As far as we know, it was a one-time event--and no mention is made of any law requiring it. It may relate to the ancient custom of showing respect and loyalty to a ruler by presenting him with a gift of one tenth of the individual's goods. This was appropriate for Abraham to do, as a sojourner in the land. (Compare a later development of this in Israel--I Samuel 8:10, 15, 17.)
The only other pre-Law reference to tithing concerns Jacob's typically conniving promise that if God would do certain things for him he would give back a tenth of all the Lord would bless him with (Gen. 28:18-22). Again, this seems to have been anticipated as a one-time thing. Further, Jacob was not even a believer at the time! (Another part of his "deal" with the Almighty was that he would deign to make Jehovah his God if the Lord came through for him, vs. 21.) Hardly an appropriate pattern for Christian giving! In any event, it is tenuous hermeneutics to be dogmatic about a doctrine based on a narrative alone (i.e. the record of what one person did, in one particular situation), with no corroborative teaching.
THE SILENCE OF THE EPISTLES
Some tell us there is nothing in the New Testament that would rule the practice out, nothing indicates tithing is no longer applicable to God's people. On the contrary, the complete silence of the epistles on the subject, though not a conclusive argument in itself, is at least suggestive. These books constitute letters of instruction to many different churches--often Gentile congregations, unfamiliar with the Mosaic Covenant. Yet in all the epistles, the practice is mentioned only in Hebrews Chapter 7. And there it is in the context of a historical reference to Melchizedek, as a type of Christ. There is no “go and do thou likewise” appended.
Then, does not Second Corinthians 9:7, as noted above, teach the absence of any such obligation? Giving by an imposed rule would be "of necessity," which we are specifically delivered from under Grace. Further, we have the many passages which teach that we are no longer under the Mosaic economy (Rom. 6:14; 7:6; 10:4; Gal. 3:24-25, etc.).
There is not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that God expects tithing to be, as some would have it, the basic financial plan for the local church. One popular speaker has apparently made the statement that, "If every Christian would tithe, we would have sufficient funds to finance every Christian ministry." Whether this is true or not is not the point. We cannot determine the rightness of spiritual duty on such a baldly pragmatic basis. It is not the end that justifies the means. Where is the Scripture to support this view?
THE REAL ANSWER
The real answer to the financial needs of the church is to preach not law, but grace, grace, and more grace! It is in the overwhelming appreciation for God's abundant provision that true generosity is born. Christ’s coming unleashed a deluge of grace. "Of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace [grace heaped upon grace]" (Jn. 1:16). "God...has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3). "His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness" (II Pet. 1:3). “You are enriched in everything for all liberality” (II Cor. 9:11). Generosity is called for. How could it be otherwise? With Isaac Watts we cry, “Love so amazing, so divine, / Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
There are those today who seek to defend the practice of tithing on the basis of personal experience. But it is misleading to say, "I tithe, and look at how God has blessed my life. Therefore, if you tithe, God will bless your life too." It is difficult to avoid the thought that there is in this anecdotal "evidence" a certain demeaning of the principle of grace. (I.e. "If you’d only give God enough, He would be more generous to you.") But how could One who has, in grace, blessed us with all things in Christ be more benevolent still? And suppose we were to line up on one side all the people who tithe and whose lives God has blessed, and on the other side those who do not practice tithing and whose lives God has blessed. Are we to prove or disprove the obligation to tithe by which group is the largest? This is foolishness.
It would be far more consistent with New Testament teaching to say: If each Christian walks daily in the fullness of God's Spirit (Gal. 5:16), then he will exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (vs. 22-23), abounding in love. One outcome of this would surely be a joyous liberality, and a sufficient supply for every work God has for us to do (Phil. 4:15, 19). When an individual dedicates himself wholly to God, he will be inwardly motivated to give sacrificially to the Lord's work. And God loves a cheerful giver and He has promised to enable us to give abundantly (II Cor. 8:5; 9:7-8). That is what the New Testament teaches.
The present writer has no problem with the person who believes the Lord wants him to tithe. He should do what he is convinced the Lord is leading him to do--and God bless him for it! Further, tithing could be a helpful guide in proportionate, regular giving for some. But we need to be cautious here. Should the proportion always be 10%? Or should it sometimes be 5%? Or 15%? Or 23⅓%? Should it be a regular practice including all income? Or should it be for special occasions, as seems to have been the case with Abraham and Jacob. The point is we should not suggest tithing must be a universal practice that the Bible declares to be God's will for all. The rule of the Mosaic Law is over. Such matters must be left to the Lord's leading in the life of the individual. Similar to what Paul teaches about Sabbath-keeping or dietary restrictions on Christians, "Let each be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:1-12; Col. 2:14-17).