Tithing: A Biblical Study

For many tithing is a serious question, in terms of service to God and the key question of whether the laws of tithing are still in effect in the NT church, and if so, to what extent. The general principle of generosity is obviously still in effect, and no one disagrees that I know of, but what about the particulars? We will try to answer these questions:

  1. Is "ten percent" still the norm today?
  2. To whom are we obliged to provide a tithe, if anyone?

Background: OT

Our study will begin with a look at the meaning of the word "tithe" in the OT and the first verses in the OT which refer to it.

The meaning of the word "tithe" is of no dispute. The word used is ma'aser, and means literally a tenth. 'Asar by itself is the Hebrew number ten. Thus technically a person cannot "tithe" 5 or 15 percent of their income; it is like saying, "Cut me a quarter of that pie so I can eat half of it."

"Tithe" in English has come to mean whatever amount we choose to give, but this is technically not faithful to the original meaning of the word.

Now let's look at some of the first places we see this word used:

Gen. 14:20 And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.
Gen. 28:22 And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.
Lev. 27:30 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.
Num. 18:26 Thus speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When ye take of the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for the LORD, even a tenth part of the tithe.

Within the context of the OT references to the tithe are made to refer to that which was given as support to a certain person (like Melchizedek) or an institution (the priesthood). But there is a point of background interest here. Clearly Abraham and Jacob practiced a tithe before the time of the law. There is good reason for this: Tithing was a widespread custom in the Ancient Near East, and it was commonly practiced for the support of kings and sanctuaries.

Sarna (Genesis commentary, 110) offers an example of pagan "tithing" in the Ugaritic (Canaanite) literature; the tithe was paid to a local king. Salstrand [The Tithe, 15] mentions secular examples of the "ten percent rule" in Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. We even see an example of a "secular" tithe in the OT:

1 Sam. 8:15-17 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

A very important initial point may be derived from this. The "ten percent" rule was a construct of the Ancient Near East even before the law was introduced. Skeptics who speak of God's greed in demanding 10 percent might consider that God asked for no more than a sovereign of the day would have for the support of his institutions. This was the "tax" of the day, and one might note that it is far lower than the lowest tax rate even in America today.

At the same time, Christians like Pink [Tithing, 6] are off the mark when they use the Genesis tithes to argue that "we cannot account for what is there, unless we presuppose a previous revelation of God's mind and a manifestation of His will upon the point." The data suggests that tithing was around as a secular practice before God made any recorded commands to anyone.

In response Salstrand [22] quotes Landsell as saying that the universality of the practice suggests a common source as far back as God commanding Adam. That is of course possible, but there is no hard data to suggest it over a more "natural" explanation, such as the influence of a base ten counting system. Definitive arguments in either direction are hazardous.

Has this changed in the New Testament?

Obviously this is our key question for today, but it needs to be answered by first understanding how the world of the ancients was vastly different than our own, as reported in Pilch and Malina's Handbook of Biblical Social Values.

It should first be understood that the ancient world held a concept of limited good, which is in contrast to our own society's conception of inexhaustible resources. Of course our resources technically are not inexhaustible -- they just seem like they are because we don't see the whole line of source and production! But for the ancients all good -- whether tangible or intangible -- was in limited supply, and it was obvious that it was. This was coupled with the paradigm of honor and shame, so that any person who held to too much of the limited supply was viewed as greedy and dishonorable if they did not "share the wealth" with those less fortunate.

Hence John the Baptist urges people to share their surplus (Luke 3:11) and the peasant who does not forgive after being forgiven by the king (Matt. 18:23-25) is an especially bad example.

Typically, we will find two verses paired for a positive argument:

Matthew 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Matthew 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The reasoning: the Pharisees gave 10% in their "righteousness", so to exceed that righteousness, you also have to give 10%. This is fairly fallacious even on the surface, for of course a person with millions of dollars can give just 10% away and not do so "righteously" with ease; and in view of the "limited good" concept of the ancients might even be regarded as being greedy for limiting their giving to 10%. In fairness, not many use this argument, and most just use 23:23 to say that Christ approved of tithing.

But really, the most that can be said is that he approved of the Pharisees in particular -- who were usually among, not the most well to do, but the "middle class" -- giving at the rate on 10%. This does not tell us that the same percent would have been approved or demanded for the widow with her leptons. It also does not really affect the terms of the new covenant, for the Pharisees supported the Temple apparatus under the old covenant, which was rendered void in practice in 70 AD.

Beyond that we have passages that clearly teach support, but do not mention "tithe" or any amount:

1 Cor. 9:13-14 Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.

With this comment Paul clearly envisions a situation much like that of the Levites and priests. As these "lived" of ministering to the people, so likewise ministers of the Gospel.

Now on this point I would insert a bit of a personal note. Certain Skeptics have made the objection that Jesus never asked people for money, and so ministries today (like Tekton, or like Billy Graham Crusades, or Josh McDowell) should not either. "Jesus sent his people out without any purse at all," they say.

It's not recorded that Jesus asked for money, true, and he did send out missions without money, but there's a certain social difference here. The people sent out on mission lived in a social world in which the ancient rules of hospitality demanded that those in the towns and villages they visited should feed, clothe, and board them.

Secondarily, we have this:

Luke 8:3 And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.

How was Jesus' ministry paid for? To put it simply, rich people like these paid for it. What we see here is the typical client-patron relationship in the ancient world. So those who want Billy Graham or myself to do it the "Bible way" would mean having us do one of two things: Getting our food, clothes, etc. directly from other people and living in their homes, or else finding a few wealthy people and latching on to them.

So to make it succinct: yes, Jesus did ask people for money, and he asked the wealthiest people. That's how it went in the ancient world when you were one of the lower class looking for help.

1 Cor. 16:1-2 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.(cf. Deut. 16:17)

It's not exactly clear here that Paul endorses a prescription of regular giving, for in this case it is for a special project, the collection for the Jerusalem poor -- it is not a prescription for the sort of weekly "normal" giving we practice. It is also an admonition to lay aside as God has "prospered" the person. This is a rare word in the NT, euodoo, and it carries the meaning of succeeding by reaching a goal (3 John 2, "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.")

The clear indication is that those who get more are enjoined to give more, and this fits precisely with the social concept of limited good.

Pink [14-15] forges a chain as follows, though: 2 Cor. 8:14 says, "But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality..." The point of equality suggests that "God's people are to give the same proportion of their means and the only proportion that God has specified anywhere in His Word is that of the tenth, or 'tithe.'"

This is interesting reasoning, but exegetically questionable. For one thing, the very next verse states, "As it is written, He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack." Paul is alluding here to the gathering of manna by the Israelites, a situation wherein each gathered what they needed, no more or no less, to survive -- in line with the premise that the manna was a "limited good" day by day. The manna was not doled out by percentages.

If we are to take this illustration at value, then the principle is expounded that those who have less than they need do not need to give anything at all, while those who have more than they need are to give away what they do not need. Indeed this fits exactly with the premise of limited good, and the practice of the early church: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common." (Acts 4:32; cf. Luke 12:48) Not a percentage, but whatever you had that you did not need.

Of course this would lead to a discussion, "What do I need, then?" but that's a hot potato for one's own conscience and more detail than can be provided here. However, it is enough to point out that vague threats like Pink's (Who says to one who has lost much money and says they cannot afford tithing, that things will get worse if they don't, and who tells those who make even $1.00 per day that they need to tithe) are way out of line.

Note as well that Paul echoes a provision in Deuteronomy. One might argue that this contradicts the "ten percent rule" but it is here we may bring in a point which has proven elsewhere in defense of alleged Biblical inconsistencies. Ancient law codes were didactic rather than absolute. They provided a "measure" rather than a strict law to be followed to the letter. In that light the OT's "ten percent rule" is itself a measure rather than an absolute. Deuteronomy's provisions for the poor to bring lesser sacrifices rings in much closer to actual practice.

Salstrand [38] offers a rather questionable argument for the "ten percent rule" being a minimum standard: "To say that the proportion for Christian giving should be less than the tenth is to say that Judaism [which strictly followed the 10% rule] has a higher standard than Christianity and that a Christian may be more selfish than a Jew."

We would say, first, that the standard isn't fixed at all, but is in accord with how one is prospered by God, and that this is by no means a "lower" standard but a proportionate one. (It also smacks slightly of anti-Semitism, but we'll leave that alone.)

Finally, Witherington [Corinthians commentary, 315] makes the salient point that Paul asks for help from all of the church -- rich and poor -- for a certain reason, which is not that he expects the poor to give of necessity. Rather, he is "not interested in fostering certain kinds of patronal hierarchical relationships" that allows just a few people to "give large sums, gain all the honor, and so further divide the haves from the have-nots in Corinth."

To some extent the "egalitarian" nature of Paul's request was motivated by a specific problem in Corinth. As such we should be cautious about giving it a "universal" application.

Thus the matter of the "ten percent" rule. Now to the second primary question: What was the tithe used for, and to whom can it be given?

The first part is not in dispute. The tithe of Israel was used to support the priestly institutions, the cultic apparatus, and the persons involved in it. The tithe was Levitical "pay" for their ordained occupation. The tithe was taken at the time of harvest, quite sensibly since that is how it had to be in an era before cash or checks. There is also a special tithe for support of the poor (Deut. 14:28-29).

In the NT we see that charity was offered to the poor, but also that, as noted, possessions were shared equally (what some have called "communism" -- which economically, it is; it is communism as it can only work, not under an idealistic atheism!). So in practical terms, this means that giving is to be done where it is needed. There is no rule that it "all has to go to the church" and not to any other evangelistic or missionary organization one chooses to support.

There is no "my back yard first" mentality either -- Paul's collection for the Jerusalem church was done with churches who had plenty of poor folk who could have used extra help, even if Jerusalem was in more dire straits than usual because of the imminent famine.

Pilch and Malina point out a certain irony. Our celebrity "altruism" may involve hopping on a comfortable plane and flying 2000 miles to "hold hands across America" or dropping a dime in a bucket at a convenience store, or using a credit card to support a telethon, to "help the invisible and distant poor," even as those closest to us still in need are ignored or unobserved.

Of course this is not a condemnation of such distance charity, since need is universal, and while you help the man in New York, someone in New York may be giving to help the guy living next door to you. Nevertheless it is clear that "impersonal" charity was something never known by the apostolic church, which saw real needs and real people.

Now for some comments on another work, titled "Tithing is Unscriptural Under the New Covenant" by one L. Ray Smith, whose own issue seems to be dishonest and wealthy televangelists. However, despite this, some of Smith's analysis is the same as our own: freewill offerings, not tithes, are what is prescribed in the NT. On the other hand, his notes based on the point that the Levites collected food and material goods for the tithe, and not money, is rather irrelevant: In the economic setting of peasant Israel, cows and grain were the "money" of the time and coinage as such was not used by the typical peasant for any purpose. ("Money" in the KJV is usually referring to precious metals not made into coinage -- bars, for example.)

Other of Smith's points are rather too literalistic:

Leviticus 27:30-33, "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 ought 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..."
The tithe comes from the "land," not the air or the sea. Fishermen were not required to tithe fish.

The legalism here is reminiscent of Pharasaical and rabbinical contrivances such as nailing a board between two houses to make them one "house" -- by the methods of ancient law codes, Lev. 27:30-33 sets an example; the reader, if a fisherman or something else, was expected to realize that this set an example for him to apply and follow.