BIBLE & LIFE

Bible Teaching Newsletter

of Biblical Doctrine & New Testament Assembly Life

Volume 8, No 4 September 1, 2001


Biblical Tithing

by David Dunlap

         What we do with that which God has entrusted to our use is of the utmost importance to God. The concern of the Lord regarding our financial giving is demonstrated by the sheer weight of scriptural references. One out of every six verses in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has to do with money. Of the 38 parables in the New Testament, twelve have to do with the use of money. We must take seriously God's plan for giving in the Bible, for God is serious about it. However, some have concluded that since the word "tithe" appears first in Genesis, and that it is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, it must be God's plan for giving today. The Hebrew word "maaser", which is translated "tithe", means simply "a tenth part". In the New Testament the Greek word "dekate" again means "a tenth part." In both languages, this word is not taken from the religious world, but rather from the world of mathematics or finance.
         What does the Word of God teach about the "tithe"? Many from the Reformed tradition, resisting dispensational distinctions, stress that the Hebrew practice of tithing is God's method of giving for the church. Representative of this tradition is Reformed pastor R. T. Kendall of Westminster Chapel in London, England, who writes, "I do believe tithing must be preached. We ministers do our people no favor when we do not tell them what is right and true. Tithing must be preached." (1) However, a closer look at the Scriptures reveals a unique and very different picture. The Word of God sets forth the dispensational importance of both required giving and free-will giving. A sound biblical perspective concerning these two aspects of giving will strengthen a proper understanding of biblical stewardship. Clear biblical thinking is the Christian's guardrail for stewardship's many pitfalls. Jake Barnett, the author of Wisdom and Wealth, charges us concerning one its greatest dangers, that is, legalism. He writes, "Our proclivity to teach tithing is just one aspect of our tendency to prefer rules to freedom. But the New Testament concept of giving is so beautiful that it is difficult to understand why we resort to legalism. It appears that we feel that God made a mistake in this area, and fear that our churches would suffer financial difficulty if we followed the Biblical pattern." (2)
         What, then, does the Old Testament teach about tithing? The Bible does not command tithing in Genesis. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and others were not commanded to tithe, but all brought free-will thank offerings to the Lord. "And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock" (Gen. 4:3-4). This was a free-will offering; there was no command to offer, nor is there a command concerning the percentage of giving, nor were there requirements, amounts, stipulations, and frequency commanded concerning this offering. In Genesis 8:15-20, after the flood subsides, Noah immediately makes plans to offer a sacrifice unto the Lord. "And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Gen. 8:20). Noah offered a voluntary, spontaneous, free-will offering from out of the overflow of his heart. Again there is no standard, command, or percentage required by God. From the beginning of biblical history, free-will sacrifice appears to be the pattern of giving for the people of God.

Required Giving & Abraham
         However, the case of Abraham in Genesis chapter 14 is seen by some to be irrefutable evidence for teaching tithing in the church today. To many in the Reformed tradition, Abraham is the best example for tithing in the Bible. Reformed pastor R. T. Kendall writes, "We may not know until we get to heaven who the first tither was, but apparently it was Abraham...it is striking that Abraham, who was Paul's example for justification by faith, should be the chief example of tithing in the Bible." (3) Reformed writers argue that since Abraham tithed, Christians are obliged to give ten percent of their income to the Lord on a weekly basis as well. However, upon careful examination, we must question, whether Abraham is a true example of tithing at all. "The king of Sodom went out to meet him after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer...and Melchizedek, king of Salem brought forth bread and wine...and he (Abraham) gave him tithes of all" (Gen. 14:20). This is the first mention of the word "tithes" in the Bible. Indeed, Abraham gave at least ten percent of the spoils to Melchizedek. However, this act of giving was not commanded by God, but was an expression of unconstrained worship from Abraham to God. When Abraham saw that this man, Melchizedek, as priest represented God, Abraham wanted to express his thanks to God for the victory. In a sacrificial act of worship, Abraham gave tithes to the priest of the Most High God, the King of Salem. But there are a number of points that should be noticed concerning Abraham's tithing. Firstly, Abraham, as far as we know, did not tithe his own wealth, but rather only the spoils of battle in the "king's dale" (Gen. 14:20). Furthermore, Abraham did not tithe all of the spoils of war, but rather he gave a tenth of the most valuable spoils. Hebrews chapter 7 sheds further light on this unique giving of Abraham. "...even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils" (Heb. 7:4b). The Greek word used here for "spoils" is "akrothinion", which means "the top of the heap, or the best of the spoils" W. E. Vine commenting on this Greek word "akrothinion" writes, "Primarily the top of the heap (akros, top and this , a heap), hence first fruit offering, and in war the choicest of the spoils." (4) It could be successfully argued that Abraham did not truly tithe, but did much more than tithe - he gave of the best, the choicest of the spoils of the battle. This event in Abraham's life seems to be a unique one, which was never repeated. As far as Scripture reveals, Abraham tithed only once in his life of 160 years, and Abraham did not teach Issac to tithe. It is only in the law of Moses that we find the command to tithe enjoined upon the people of God.

The Purpose of Tithing
         The law of Moses sets forth the divine purpose of God concerning tithing. Tithing revealed God's way of providing for the material needs of the Levites and the poor within Israel. It was a complex and detailed taxation program designed to give aid and support to the priestly class, the poor, aliens, and the widows. The Levites had no earthly inheritance, therefore the other tribes gave toward their needs. Old Testament scholar R. E. O. White clarifies the purpose of the tithe, commenting, "The tithe represented a charge upon produce or labor levied for the maintenance of mainly religious activities." (5) Dr. Eugene Merrill, a former professor of Semitics and the Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, joins him in his view stating, "The tithe was given to the Levites as their source of income and compensation for their service at the tabernacle." (6) A thoughtful examination of tithing, reveals that the Israelites were not required to give merely ten percent of their income, but rather, nearly twice that amount or more. There were three major components to the tithing statute alone, and then there were additional laws which required their income. Firstly, there was the Levitical tithe (Lev. 27:30-33, Num. 18:21-24 , 26-28) which set aside produce, income, and livestock for the maintenance of the priesthood. Secondly, upon coming into the Promised Land a second tenth of all produce was to be taken to Jerusalem, or if the distance was too great, it could be sold, and this income would be brought (Deut. 12:6-7, 17-18, 14:22-27). Thirdly, on every third year, called the "year of tithing", another tenth of all the produce was to be set aside to be used by the Levites who dwelled in the country, the poor, the aliens, and the widows (Deut. 14:28-29). In addition, "At harvest time ...thou shall leave the corners of the field for the sojourner and the poor" Lev. 19:9-10) ; and Israelites were required to pay a Temple tax of one-third shekel to buy showbread, grain, and sacrifices (Neh. 10:32-33); also the Jews were commanded to rest the land every seventh year and the land was to lay fallow for a period of one year (Exodus 23:10-11); additionally on the seventh year it was commanded to forgive debts of fellow Israelites (Deut 15:1-2). The total required giving to fund national religious and civic structures was nearly 25-30% of an Israelite's annual income. Tithing was taxation for the Israelite theocracy in the Old Testament. This taxation system was instituted by God for the support of the government and those in need within that ancient theocratic society. Today, a theocratic society no longer exists; in its place are the governments of individual nations, which now have taxation laws to provide for the civic and governmental structures.

The New Testament and the Tithe
         New Testament is strangely silent concerning the tithe. The practice of tithing is not commanded nor is it taught by the Lord or the other New Testament writers. This fact has given greater weight to the idea that the tithe was linked to the Mosaic system and was the visible means of support for the Levities, the poor, and the sojourner. Many leading scholars have, therefore, concluded that the tithe is not incumbent upon the Christian today. Author Wick Broomall writes, "The silence of the New Testament writers, particularly Paul, regarding the present validity of the tithe can be explained only on the ground that the dispensation of grace has no more place for the law on tithing than it has for a law on circumcison." (7) However, God desires us to give and to give graciously. The financial needs of the poor, those who serve Christ, and the widow should still be our concern. Generosity should certainly distinguish the New Testament church. G. Campbell Morgan, while taking into account the New Testament perspective on tithing and the desire of God, wisely counsels believers who have questioned the role of tithing. He writes, "I do not personally believe that tithing is incumbent upon us. It was a Jewish provision and has passed away, in common with all ceremonial law. That does not mean we are to be careless about giving...for this reason I have never been able to tell people that if they are led to tithe let them tithe, but that tithing ought not to limit their giving." (8)

The Purpose of Free-Will Giving
         In addition to the required tithe, the godly Israelite gave "free-will" or "first- fruit" offerings. The emphasis of this offering was not the percentage, but the attitude of the giver and the quality of the offering. These offerings were primarily for the support of the work of God and the worship of God. "All of the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the first-fruits of them which they shall offer unto the Lord" (Num. 18:12). When it came to giving to the tabernacle or the temple, it was not a tithe, but a free-will offering that was the desire of the heart of God. "Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that gives it willingly with his heart shall you take my offering" (Ex. 25:2). When the Temple was to be built, we find the same principle again: free-will offerings from willing-hearted worshippers is what the Lord desired. "Then the people rejoiced; for they offered willingly, because with a perfect heart they offered willingly to the Lord..." (1 Chron. 29:9). The free-will offering differed from the tithe in many respects : the tithe was taxation and required, the free will offering was the overflow of a worshipper's heart; the tithe was for the maintenance of the priesthood, the poor, and the widow, while the free-will offering was for God Himself and His work; lastly, the free-will offering was not restricted by percentages, but was limited only by the ability of the offerer.

God's Plan For Giving Today
         Generosity has been said to be the grace of kings. In a former day only kings could extend such a grace, yet today generosity and a willing heart is God's plan for giving. Under grace God has not asked the Christian to merely give a tenth of his income. If a Christian wanted to follow the example of Israel, he would not be required to give merely a tenth of his income, but rather 25 % of his income. The Israelite tithing-taxation system is not God's design of giving for today. Yet God desires the Christian to give generously to the poor, the needy, and the work of God. Indeed, many Christians do give abundantly and sacrificially to the work of God; in some cases, well above the standard of Old Testament Israel. William MacDonald has rightly said, "...the Christian should give liberally. The tithe was the minimum given by an Israelite. He brought tithes and offerings. No Christian should be content to give, under grace, what was the minimum requirement under the law." (9) Today the principles of giving are not burdensome, complex, and rigid. Funds need not be solicited, but are to be voluntarily and generously supplied by committed Christians. The Christian is one who is to give: regularly, "Upon the first day of the week"; individually, "let every one of you" ; proportionately, "As God has prospered him"; bountifully, "He that sows bountifully shall reap also bountifully" ; and finally, cheerfully, "God loves a cheerful giver". Today, our free-will offerings, from grateful hearts, are God's plan to advance the cause of Christ and His church. May the Spirit of God liberate our hearts to give unto Him abundantly.

 

Endnotes
1. R. T. Kendall, Tithing, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983), p. 8
2. Jake Barnett,Wealth and Wisdom, (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1987), p. 192
3. R. T. Kendall, Tithing, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983), p. 39
4. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of NT Words , (Old Tappan, NJ : Revell, 1981), p. 66
5. R. E. O. White, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2 , Tithe, (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker, 1988), p. 2071
6. Eugene Merrill, The Bible Knowledge Commentary; Numbers, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), p. 237
7. Wick Broomall, WycliffeDictionary of Theology; Tithe, (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 1999), p. 525
8. G. Campbell Morgan, Letters of G. Campbell Morgan, (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Books, 1977), p.296
9. William MacDonald, Christ Loved the Church, (Kansas City, KS : Walterick, 1956), p.98



 


 

"Our proclivity to teach tithing is just one aspect of our tendency to prefer rules to freedom. But the New Testament concept of giving is so beautiful that it is difficult to understand why we resort to legalism. It appears that we feel that God made a mistake in this area, and fear that our churches would suffer financial difficulty if we followed the Biblical pattern"

Jake Barnett

"Wealth and Wisdom",
Navpress, 1987

 


 

"The silence of the NT writers, particularly Paul, regarding the present validity of the tithe can be explained only on the ground that the dispensation of grace has no more place for the law on tithing than it has for a law on circumcison"

Dr. Wick Broomall

"Baker Dictionary of Theology",
Baker, 1970

 


 

"The tithe was given to the Levites as their source of income and compensation for their service at the tabernacle."

Dr. Eugene Merrill

Professor of Semitics & Old Testament,
Dallas Theological Seminary.

 


 

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