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.

Finally, Hebrews 7:4-10 does not advocate that Christians should tithe but specifically says it was something done by Jewish people for Levitical priests on the basis of law; the writer then uses Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek as allegorical proof of Melchizedek's superiority to Levitical priests. Instead of settling for 10 percent, we should note the command to give generously and radically, just as Jesus gave to us: loving God with all He had and loving His neighbor—even His enemies—as Himself, just as Jesus did (Matthew 22:37-402 Corinthians 8:9  1 John 3:16-19. John the Baptist raises the standard of giving to 50 percent (Luke 3:11), and Jesus exhorts us to give 100 percent (Luke 21:1-4). So the scarce mention of the tithe in the New Testament is evidence not that God expects less of us today, but that far more is possible. The tithe is still a helpful guideline insofar as it reminds us to give proportionally to the Lord as He blesses us, since He owns it all anyway. But by New Testament standards, settling for 10 percent can be a recipe for condemnation from Jesus if we are neglecting true generosity, just as it was for the tithing Pharisees (Matthew 23:23).

Did Jesus really say that faithful tithing wasn't good enough?

Yes. Jesus criticized the Pharisees (Matthew 23:23Luke 11:42 not because they tithed but because they paid close attention to the details of God's law (e.g., tithing) while avoiding its deeper requirements (e.g., pursuing mercy, justice and the love of God). The important thing to remember is that Jesus commands His followers to be more biblical than the Pharisees' 10 or 23 percent tithing on agricultural products (down to herbs). Jesus calls us to pursue justice and mercy, following this standard: loving God with all we are and all we possess, and loving others as we love ourselves. The real question, then, is that if the tables were turned, how would I want to be loved? We see this ruthless logic applied in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in the apostle Paul's attempts to raise funds for the poor (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), and in the early church's refusal to cling to possessions when faced with the needs of others (Acts 2:42-45Acts 4:32-37. Moreover, Jesus' own sacrifice—with apologies to Bill and Melinda Gates, the largest and least deserved gift in history—serves as our standard (2 Corinthians 8:91 John 3:16-18. After all, even in the Old Testament the tithe was only part of the generosity of God's people expressed in offerings, sacrifices and gifts and acts of mercy (Isaiah 58:6-10Micah 6:6-8).

Who would have tithed in the Bible?

Apparently, only those who owned land in ancient Israel (the promised land itself) would have tithed an average of 23.3 percent of agricultural produce. There is no evidence that the tithe was ever applied to those who did not own land, or to those who did not live in Israel, with one exception: the Levites would give a tenth of the tithe to the priests, who also were commanded to tithe from what had been given to them (Numbers 18:26-28). This shows us that "even 'full-time religious workers' were subject to the laws of tithing" (Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, 46). However, Israelites who had become poor and lost their land or those who had moved to cities and engaged in non-agricultural trades almost certainly would have been exempt from tithe under Old Testament law. This casts considerable doubt on the applicability of a "10 percent" tithe for all Christians today. Instead of settling for a hard-and-fast legal requirement of 10 percent, we should instead pay careful attention to the New Testament's radical teaching on generosity.

Will God really "throw open the floodgates of heaven" if I start to tithe?

Perhaps. But we must recognize that this oft-quoted passage (Malachi 3:10) was written not as a blanket promise to Christians in all times and all places, but to a very specific group of people in history—the impoverished, insecure Israelites living in the land after their return from exile in Babylon. God requires more here than just tithe (Malachi 3:5): He requires His people to be generous in mercy and justice. Similarly, the Pharisees during Jesus' time were scrupulous tithers, but Jesus told them that they were condemned, for they preferred giving a fixed percentage of crops to the more demanding, more radical and more important (or as Jesus said, "weightier") pursuit of justice and mercy and the love of God with their resources (Matthew 23:23Luke 11:42. The command to give generously is not limited to a set percentage either in the Old Testament or the New. Instead, we are called to love our neighbor as we ourselves want to be loved (1 John 3:16-18), just as Jesus loved us (2 Corinthians 8:9). Of course, God in His gracious sovereignty may decide to bless us if we give generously. For instance, the apostle Paul taught the Corinthians they would be blessed if they contributed to the collection for the poor, so that they would "be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion" (2 Corinthians 9:11). But we should not tithe or practice any other form of giving solely for the economic benefits it might bring; our chief goal should be to glorify God (2 Corinthians 9:12-15).

If I choose to tithe, what are some healthy ways to use the tithe?

In general, we need to trust and support our church leaders, since this is largely their domain. For those of us in church leadership, we might be tempted first to build a budget based on our perceived needs and then to try to meet it with our tithe. But this may not be the best model. Our perceived needs likely will be influenced by ministry models, past experiences and what we see at other churches or organizations while the Bible's priorities may not even play an important role. Therefore, we as leaders should diligently pay attention to Scripture's priorities for our offerings and tithes, prayerfully keeping God's Word before us as we weigh our use of God's money.

I'm taught that the tithe should go to the church budget. How were the three tithes used in the Old Testament?

The three tithes in Israel were used for three main purposes:

(1) to support the full-time religious workers, who were not given land of their own,

(2) to provide a meal for community celebration and religious fellowship and

(3) to provide for the needs of the poor.

Together these three tithes added up to about 23.3 percent of one's agricultural income produced in the promised land. Numbers 18:8-32 explains that the tithes were given to the Levites, who, unlike the other 12 tribes, had no inheritance in the promised land. In Deuteronomy 14:22-29  a tithe of crops and livestock was to be shared in celebration with one's family and the community—especially the Levites. "Every third year, however, the tithes would go to the local storehouses so that they could be distributed not just to the Levites but also to other poor and marginalized people: 'the aliens, the fatherless and the widows' (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)" (Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, 46). Even though the tithe no longer applies in the same way for Christians, God's priorities for giving—ministers, mission, fellowship and charity—have not changed.

The complete version of this article can be found on GenerousChurch.com. Used with permission.

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Publication date: November 9, 2012