Ask Pastor George: Does God Require a Tithe?

Nov 17, 2017

The Bible is clear that the Creator is owed everything. It would be an insult to his sovereignty to say he only requires a tithe (or, tenth). The Bible teaches throughout, implicitly and explicitly, that “we must lose ourselves” for him, that the “earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and “from him, to him and through him are all things” (Lk. 9:23-24; Ps. 24:1; Ro. 11:36).

So to begin, the question, “Does God require a tithe?” itself is faulty.

However, one cannot be faulted for asking such a question, as the idea has been taught widespread. So, let’s look at where support for the tithe is found in the Bible, where the practice of the tithe originated, and finally (to give away my answer) the true motive and standard for giving.

Where Support for the Tithe is Found in the Bible

The biblical basis usually given for a tithe comes from a few specific places in the Old Testament. However, the Bible teaches there was not just one tithe required for the period when Israel was a theocracy (a government in which religious leaders are also civil leaders). There are at least three “tithes” referred to in the Old Testament and each one seems to be a kind of tax for the maintenance of the theocracies’ civic-religious infrastructure.

One was a tithe for the Levites (Lv. 27:30). The Levites, descending from Aaron, having no inheritance of land or freedom of commerce, were supported in their roles as priests, judges, and civil magistrates by a ten percent tax levied on the citizenry.

There was also a tithe for festivals (Dt. 12:10-18). These were national feasts to foster civic-religious unity. You might think of these like the lighting of the national Christmas tree or the Fourth of July fireworks in Washington.

Finally, there was the “poor tithe” collected every three years, or roughly three percent per year (Dt. 14:28). While believers throughout redemptive history have been encouraged to show generosity to the poor, this was a form of public welfare in Israel to provide a safety net for those falling on hard times. It ensured there would be “no poor in Israel” (Dt. 15:4).

There were additional taxes too, but these are at least those mandates referred to as tithes and they add up to around 23 percent.

In the entire Bible, there are only three references to individuals tithing.

Abram

The first reference occurs in Genesis 14 when after the Lord enabled Abram to defeat the kings aligned with Chedarlaomer, he gave the mysterious King Melchizedek a “tenth.” Both the NIV and ESV read “a tenth of everything.” However, when the writer to the Hebrews alludes to this story, he says Abram gave “a tenth of the spoils,” or, top of the heap (akrothinion). So, this tithe was different from that in Israel in a couple of ways. For one, it was not of his total possessions but rather the spoils of war. For another, it was not required. Melchizedek, an Old Testament anticipation of Christ, did not demand something from Abram. Abram spontaneously gave the representative of his Redeemer a gift of gratitude.

It would have been in keeping with the practice he learned in pagan worship whose deities commonly required “tithes.” Ten is an age-old division of counting and symbolizes completeness or extremity in various cultures. Both the Old and New Testaments use “ten” this way. For instance, Jacob exclaimed to Laban, “You changed my wages ten times,” meaning, “You were always changing the rules on me” (Ge. 31:41). In Revelation, worldwide unbelief is imagined as “ten kings” (17:7). Though he had never done so in 160 years nor any time after, Abraham gave a “tenth,” probably as a culturally recognized symbol that he viewed the entire victory as belonging to the Lord. The emphasis in the text is not on the tenth as something required but on Abram’s offering his best in gratitude for redemption.

Jacob

There is only one other individual mentioned before the theocracy who gave a tenth. As Jacob anticipated with terror his encounter with Esau, he tried to make a deal with God. Though God promised him protection in his dream, Jacob, true to his character, tried to bind God with a contract. A conniver himself, he didn’t trust anybody, not even God, so he thought he could entice God with the promise of a tenth of his wealth in reward for deliverance from his brother (Ge. 28:20-22). That said everything about Jacob’s manipulative and self-important character and nothing about God’s desires for our giving. After God conquered Jacob’s selfish heart, there was no mention of a “tenth.” Jacob “poured out a drink offering.” Pouring precious oil on the ground before the Lord was an extravagant display of loving gratitude, just as it was for the woman who poured her heirloom ointment on Jesus’ feet (Ge. 35:14-15; Lk. 7:37-38). That latter act was called “wasteful” by some of the disciples, which was just the profligacy the woman was striving for. She and Jacob were saying, “Everything I am and have comes from you and I surrender everything back to you in grateful abandon.” It’s in keeping with the good news that Jesus did not come to “please himself” but “made himself nothing” for us (Ro. 15:1-3; Ph. 2:7).

Malachi

The prophet Malachi is the last to mention tithing in the Old Testament, “In tithes and offerings you are robbing me. . .bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (3:10). Malachi reinforces there are multiple tithes in Israel, not just one. and he distinguishes them from “offerings.” Furthermore, the structure of his book reinforces the tithes had to do mainly with state infrastructure including care for the disenfranchised and poor. In this part of his prophecy, Malachi confronted their social sins: partiality in civil judgments (2:9); introduction of pagan influences (2:11); mistreatment of women in divorce (2:16); defrauding laborers (3:5), and oppression of widows, orphans, and aliens (3:5). So in 3:10, he added tax evasion to the list of social ills. Their unfaithfulness as citizens flowed from their ingratitude for redemption. The book opens with, “I have loved you,” says the Lord. Malachi began his sermon by exposing how their lack of love for the Lord is reflected in the “gifts” they bring to worship. They are the worst, the afterthoughts, the leftovers, the throwaways instead of the firstfruits (1:2, 8).

Where the Practice of the Tithe Originated

Originating with A. W. Miller, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, the concept of the tithe as a required method for systematic giving is a relatively recent phenomenon. The post-Civil War Southern Church was suffering financially, so the leaders were looking for a way to urge their people to give systematically. Miller thought he discovered the answer to the Southern church’s need when he published a little book called “The Law of the Tithe and of the Freewill Offering” in the late 1800s.

It provoked lively debate worldwide, so the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church put it to a Presbytery vote. Though the church was financially desperate, fifty-one percent of the 68 presbyteries said the tithe is not a biblical mandate for giving. Sixteen said that it is not commanded, but could be a useful idea for organizing systematic giving. In 1888, the General Assembly gave no opinion

The 16 presbyteries were closest to the mark in trying to disciple their people in living generously—10 percent can be a useful idea or helpful guide for testing the sincerity of your love for Christ and helping the ministry of the Church he loves.

So how do you know what is “in keeping with your income?” I would suggest getting a copy of a “guideline budget” to figure out what percentage of your income should be going where according to time-tested common sense. Financial advisors didn’t invent the guideline budget—it’s older than our great-grandparents who put money in different envelopes to pay their bills and expenses through the month. Most guides suggest 30-40 percent for housing, 10-12 percent for food, 5 percent for clothing, etc. Now not as a law but as a guide, plug Abram’s 10 percent in at the beginning of your guideline budget. After you have compared your actual expenses and giving to your guideline budget, ask yourself why a minimum of 10 percent is impossible for you to do right now. Maybe you will conclude it is because you are unemployed or underemployed in which case you should not feel burdened to change your benevolence practice until God in his providence changes your employment status.

However, most of us will likely conclude that it is because we are consuming too much in the other areas. If you find these things to be out of balance, don’t let guilt paralyze you. There is no condemnation in Christ! Meditate in a fresh way on the gospel, and start chipping away at changing your patterns so you can become more generous.

The True Motive and Standard for Giving

Throughout redemptive history, the emphasis has been on giving in response to grace. Cain’s subsequent actions prove that the difference between he and his brother’s offerings was a matter of the heart, not an amount (Ge. 4; cf. Ps. 51:16-19). Noah’s sacrifice after the waters subsided was a spontaneous expression of gratitude (Ge. 8:20). Abraham built an altar of thanksgiving after hearing he would be the father of the Redeemer (Ge. 12:7; 13:8). The offerings God took pleasure in under the Mosaic system were “freewill offerings” given from the heart (Ps. 54:6). He loves what is given for his “honor” (Pr. 3:9-10). When it was time to build the tabernacle, the people were invited to give according to their income (Dt. 16:10, 17). They gave whatever their “hearts” determined to give (Ex. 25:1, 2). No percentage is prescribed, but the promise is made that they could not out-give God (Pr. 11:24). Those motivated to give by grace “rejoiced” and gave more than what was needed (Ex. 35:21-22; cf. 1 Ch. 29:9-10)!

It is no different in the New Testament. Though starvation would seem to warrant taxation on the people of God, Paul uses no other motivation than the grace of Jesus Christ, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Paul provides three guidelines for worshipful giving, the same found in the Old Testament.

The motive must be a joyful response to grace as we noticed earlier. Remember, the point is not that you must withhold your giving if your heart is not right, but rather plead desperately for the Spirit to stir up your gratitude for grace if you find yourself not giving.

Secondly, he says that we must give regularly, specifically the “first day of the week” (1 Corinthians 16:1). Why? Because that was when the church met for worship and they met on the first day as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection victory over their sin.

Thirdly, Paul says one must “set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income” (16:2). Paul urges us to be responsible and not give away what we do not have or give to the neglect of our other responsibilities. That is as specific as he gets.

As John Calvin says of Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians to give for the Jerusalem Christian’s relief, “No amount is given; he only bids them be guided by the rule of love.” The one who exclaims, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” does not think of giving in terms of minimal percentages.

Instead, as you think about how you will commit to give, consider these four ideas and one question:

  • God owns it all.
  • Because God owns it all, everything I have is from him.
  • God has graciously redeemed me from my sin and a life of no purpose.
  • God dignifies me by using my gifts to accomplish his redemptive plan.

How can I give generously in response to God’s grace so that he might take my five loaves and two fishes and use them in ways only he can?

 

For more on stewardship, access the sermon audio and summaries from our recent Graced to Give Series:

Graced to Give (Part 1): Giving Generously

Graced to Give (Part 2): Giving Faithfully

Graced to Give (Part 3): Giving Sacrificially

Graced to Give (Part 4): The Blessings of Giving