The Tithe That Binds, part 1
We assume too much. Sometimes we assume we know things that we really don’t know. Sometimes we assume that others understand us when they really don’t. When it comes to the Bible, we often assume we know what it says and what it means. This is especially true regarding its teaching on tithing.
Many Christians assume that the New Testament teaches them to give a tithe of all of their income to the local church. For many of us, this idea has been engrained from our earliest days. Thankfully, some have assumed less than others and have at least studied the New Testament for themselves and believe they have found evidence that tithing is still binding for Christians today. But upon closer examination, I am convinced from the New Testament evidence that the tithe is no longer a law to be obeyed by believers.
Four References with No Substantial Proof
If the tithe were still binding for New Testament believers, then one would think that there would be clear and ample evidence. But there is not. Granted, the New Testament talks about the use of money, the love of money, and the giving away of money all over the place. When it comes to the tithe, however, there are but four sections of New Testament Scripture that mention it, and two of those are one verse in length and parallel accounts in the Gospels at that (Matt.23:23/Lk.11:42; Lk.18:12; Heb.7:1-10). The question before us is whether or not these four references teach that Christians are required to give a certain percentage to the local church.
The references to tithing in the Gospels simply affirm that Law-abiding Jews are certainly expected to be tithing just as they would be expected to keep the kosher food restrictions and stone people caught in adultery. Ironically, in both Gospel sections Jesus is actually rebuking the Pharisees for their legalistic understanding of tithing.
Regarding Hebrews 7:1-10, many tithe-advocates drive their stake in the ground here. While I admit that this text has more flesh on the skeleton than the examples in the Gospels, Hebrews 7 still lacks clear evidence that the tithe is binding. In the context of Hebrews 7, we must understand that the writer is striving to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over the Levitical priest—Jesus is a better High Priest than the Levitical one, just as Melchizedek was too.
The point is not that tithing is reaffirmed as binding for Christians. The point is that all of the temple-related regulations, such as tithing, were fulfilled by Christ. There is no longer any need for the temple, priests, or sacrifices of any kind. Therefore, there is no longer any need for tithes to “pay” for the upkeep of the temple or the needs of the priests. The tithe, like circumcision, was an Old Testament Law that was temporal in nature rather than eternal (like “love your neighbor” or “do not murder”). Even though the tithe in Hebrews 7 is traced back to Abraham before the Law, so is circumcision. And practically all Christians agree that the pre-Law practice of circumcision is no longer binding.
All or None
Here’s the thing. If the tithe is still binding, then we must obey the law of tithing to the letter (Gal.3:10-14; Jas.2:10). True tithing would look more like this:
1) Old Testament tithes were only on food, drink, and livestock (Lev.27:30-33). Today, that would mean, in addition to bringing 10% of our income to the church, we must bring 10% of our livestock and fruits and vegetables from our gardens into the church, or else sell 10% of them and bring that money.
2) Actually, it would be closer to 23.3% because obeying the letter of the Law means that we must give all three Old Testament tithes (Num.18:21-24; Dt.14:22-27; Dt.14:28-29)—20% each year and 10% more every three years. It is possible, however that tithes two and three (Dt.14:22-27; 14:28-29) are really one—tithe two simply being given to the poor and indigent every third year.
3) We should stop expecting all Christians to tithe since a few groups were also exempt from tithing—namely the Levite, sojourner, fatherless, and widow (Dt.26:12). Some would say non-farming occupations were also exempt.
Based on this evidence (and the lack of evidence in the New Testament to the contrary), Christians are free to give less than 10% of their income to the local church, or Christians are free to give more than 10% of their income to the local church. While tithing is no longer a law to be obeyed, it certainly remains a principle to be applied. Whatever our view on tithing, the binding principles behind the giving of tithes is strongly reaffirmed in the New Testament: faith, sacrifice, and worship. While I do not expect nor desire conformity for all Christians on this issue, I do pray and desire that we be unified despite our differences.
Soli Deo Gloria,