What is the tithe?

The word "tithe" comes from an Old English root meaning "one tenth." It is the common English translation for the Old Testament Hebrew asar word group. The tithe was an offering of one's agricultural income to the Lord as an expression of thanks and dedication. In the Old Testament agricultural economy, tithes were paid not in cash, gold or goods but in crops or livestock, for only the agricultural fruit of the promised land was to be tithed—not other forms of income. Although today we commonly think of the tithe as "10 percent" as a result, apparently there are three tithes in the Old Testament, two every year and a third every third year, or an average of 23.3 percent of one's annual produce from the land. There was also provision for freewill offerings and personal giving above and beyond the tithe, so that the tithe never stood alone. Tithes were given by the patriarchs Abraham (Genesis 4:17-20) and Jacob (Genesis 28:22); a system of tithes was instituted in the law of God given through Moses (Deuteronomy 12Deuteronomy 14  Deuteronomy 26; and the prophets rebuked the children of Israel for failing to give the tithe to God (Malachi 3:8).

The idea of the tithe is still present in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23), but it is never explicitly applied to believers. Instead, almost all Christians are called to more extravagant freewill giving in response to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, based on faith in God as Provider (2 Corinthians 9:6-10).

Is the tithe the standard of Christian giving for us today, or was it just the standard for Old Testament Israel?

Neither. The tithe was never the standard of Old Testament generosity, nor is it the standard of Christian generosity today. Tithing may be a helpful guideline as we strive to develop a lifestyle of even greater giving, but it was and is possible to tithe faithfully while neglecting true, biblical generosity (as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees; see note on Matthew 23:23 . First, a close look at the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish evidence shows that the tithe (as a mandatory gift equaling a tenth of one's income) only applied to crops and animals from the promised land, not to all income in any time and place. Moreover, 10 percent was never "the standard," for there were three tithes (two every year, one every three years) and many other offerings and gifts that were also part of Jewish life. In the Old Testament and today, God usually requires far more from His people than the 10 percent we typically assume.

Didn't Jesus affirm that Christians should tithe?

No; in fact, Jesus expected much more from His followers. His command to love others as we love ourselves and as He loved us (John 13:34) is a far higher standard than the tithe. It is interesting to note that none of the four passages in the New Testament where the tithe is mentioned requires Christians to tithe. Nor do these same passages expect Christians to stop at tithing. Luke 11:42 and Matthew 23:23 recall Jesus' condemnation of faithful tithers for failing to do justice and mercy; Jesus tells them they should indeed tithe, but He also would have told them that they should indeed circumcise their sons, sacrifice in the temple, participate in Jewish festivals and Sabbath observance, and other such law-keeping practices no longer mandated for Christians (see, for example, Luke 5:12-14. Here and in Luke 18:12 (where the Pharisee goes above and beyond tithing on fruit of the land to "everything"; in the same verse he goes above and beyond on fasting by doing more than was required), our attitude and Kingdom agenda of justice and mercy are more important than tithing according to Old Testament laws.