Next up on the “sacred cow” series, an article I’ve been wanting to write for quite some time but haven’t been able to work on; Tithing. I think this may well be my most controversial article and figure it will generate a lot of negative feedback because it will place me squarely between tithe preachers and their revenue stream, and Christians who are tithing to “be blessed” and “avoid curses” by “robbing God”. If there are two areas you tread dangerously, it’s a persons money or their attempts at works-righteousness! But I simply have to write this one because the amount of abuse I’ve seen here is absolutely disgusting.
That being said, here we go. A couple of ground rules before you start if you would be so kind:
1. Read the entire article. Look at scripture in its entirety, and in context. Try to put tradition aside as you look at what scripture actually teaches. Not “principles”, but what scripture actually says.
2. Understand that I am not. NOT. NOT! (clear enough?) saying that you shouldn’t give to support the local church. If you’re looking for a justification for not giving, it won’t be here.
First of all, let’s define the term “Tithe”. Yes, it’s clearly in the Bible, no doubt about it. But what does the term tithe mean? Is the way the term is used today in agreement or opposition to what scripture teaches?
Tithing, as we will discuss here is the current, modern teaching of
“The first 10% of your income, given to the local church.”
There are other subtleties that we will discuss including “firstfruits”, etc. But “The first 10% of your income to the local church” is a summary which I think fairly represents the position, and to which nearly all tithe-teachers would agree.
I will contrast that with the Biblical teaching of the tithe, utilizing the most used verses by tithe-teachers and show how tithing, as described above, is unbiblical.
As a quick look at history, would any of the following surprise you?
1. Jesus never tithed. (He was a carpenter)
2. Peter never tithed. (He was a fisherman)
3. Paul never tithed. (He was a tentmaker)
4. Gentiles did not tithe.
5. There is no record of “tithing” as currently taught in the first 8 centuries of the church. Not from scripture, nor from early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, et al.
6. Tithing was virtually unknown in America until the 1870’s and rarely even mentioned in seminaries.
Feel free to attempt to disprove any of those! For something that is claimed to “bring a curse” or “rob God” there certainly seems to be a glaring absence of this teaching from both scripture and church history!
So, let’s work through Who, What, When, Where, and Why of tithing, in scripture:
What was the tithe?
There are 16 verses which cover the content of the tithe. In summary, the tithe was:
Always and only food from farms and herds of only Israelites who only lived inside the holy land (the boundary of Israel) and only from the increase of those crops and livestock as the Lord caused growth.
It was alway, and only crops and livestock. Period. There is no record of money being tithed, ever, in scripture. While some may argue that money wasn’t available and this was a barter-based agrarian economy, I submit the following:
Money is mentioned 32 times in Genesis alone.
Money is mentioned 44 times before tithing appears in Leviticus 27.
The term money appears 62 times, and the unit of measure (shekel) appears 32 times in the first 5 books of the Bible.
The financial system was advanced enough to even contain laws on fines, dues, taxes, and banking laws prohibiting high interest.. all before tithing appears in Leviticus 27.
So, then what was the tithe?
30 “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord. 31 If a man wishes to redeem some of his tithe, he shall add a fifth to it. 32 And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. 33 One shall not differentiate between good or bad, neither shall he make a substitute for it; and if he does substitute for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.”
34 These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. (Leviticus 27:30-34, ESV)
As we see above, it is only seed of the land, fruit of the trees, herds, and flocks. Not money. We also see that it is NOT the “first” or the “best” as some teach, it is explicitly described in scripture as the 10th animal which passes under the staff and could be either “good” or “bad”. While we’ll cover it in more detail later, notice to whom this command is given in verse 34. (The people of Israel.)
In total, there were actually FOUR tithes, none of which match the modern definition of tithing:
1. The Levitical Tithe (crops and livestock as shown above)
2. The Festival/Feast Tithe: Once a year a tithe of food in Jerusalem to be eaten in the streets by all peple.
3. The Poor/3rd Year Tithe: Kept aside in their homes and given to the poor on every 3rd year.
4. The King’s Tithe (1 Samuel 8)
So not only do modern tithe teachers not follow the actual system of tithes laid out in the Old Covenant, which would total 23 1/3%, the “tithe” they do teach is nowhere found in ANY of the four actual tithes of scripture.
Who tithed? To whom did they tithe?
The tithe was required of those who raised crops and livestock. It was required of those under the Mosaic Law. It was required only of those within the geographic bounds of Israel.
To whom was it paid? This is extremely important for you to understand:
The tithes were paid from the people to their local Levitical cities. NOT to the Temple storehouse. The system worked like this:
The Levites were tasked with temple service and political service to the King. Since there were far too many Levites to serve at the Temple at the same time, they were divided into 24 groups (called “courses”). On a 48 week lunar calendar, each group would serve at the Temple in Jerusalem two weeks (twice) per year. The remaining Levites (who were not currently “on duty” at the Temple) remained in their particular Levitical city. (There were originally 48 of these scattered throughout Israel/Judah).
So let’s think about this. Does it make sense that the entire tithe, the 10% of all foods and livestock from the people would be delivered to the Temple in Jerusalem? Or would it make more sense that people would take these to the local Levitical city for the Levites who lived there 46 out of 48 week of the year?
Of course not. What actually happened was that the people would bring the tithe (again, crops and livestock) to the local Levitical city. Then, 1/10 of THAT 1/10 would be taken to the storehouse at the Temple in Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 10)
Why did the people tithe?
The people tithed because it was commanded in scripture (Leviticus 27). This was part of the Mosaic Covenant that the people had entered into with God at Mt. Sinai:
5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that theLord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 19:5-8
Notice that this blessing is conditional! IF they will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant. But we notice, in great detail, in Leviticus (the chapter immediately preceding the chapter introducing the tithe) what would happen if they DIDN’T keep the covenant!
Well, sure enough, as you would expect, man botched it and didn’t live up perfectly to the law. And as it pertains to the discussion of tithing, they really blew it there. (A good example is Nehemiah 13: 4-10)
In light of that, let’s look take a long, hard look at the tithe teachers favorite prooftext.. you know it.. Malachi 3:
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts.
Let’s take a long, hard look at this passage.
1. Who is “you”. Since “you” is the pronoun for those robbing God, we’d better get this right. It’s serious. “Robbing God and being cursed” serious.
Malachi is a very short, 4 chapter book. Take the time to read it for yourself!
In Chapter 1, God begins to address the people of Israel, but notice something: In verse 6 the audience changes to the priests!
6 “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’
The priests had taken that which had been given to them as a tithe, and had vowed to give God the best of that 1/10 (as they were required to and had vowed in the Levitical covenant!), but they had lied and given God the damaged animals (Malachi 1:8 and 1:13)
Now, read carefully: Not only is it clear from context that “the people” are not being discussed in Malachi (it’s the priests), but the text specifically states that the people weren’t being chastised for not bringing the tithe! Chapter 1 makes it clear that they DID bring their tithe! The problem is that the priests then kept the best for themselves and offered the damaged animals. Look closely, remembering that “you” is the PRIESTS.
13 But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says theLord. 14 Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished.
So, he (Priest) has a male in his flock, vows it (Levitical Covenant) and yet sacrifies to the Lord what is blemished (fail).
We continue with Chapter 2:
“And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2 If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. (Malachi 2:1-2)
Again, who is “you”? The priests! And the curse on? The Priests! Because? They violated the Levitical Covenant! We see this with absolute clarity as we continue with the rest of the passage, below:
3 Behold, I will rebuke your offspring,[a] and spread dung on your faces, thedung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it.[b] 4 So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the Lord of hosts.5 My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction[c] was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. 7 For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people[d] should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. 8 But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, 9 and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways butshow partiality in your instruction.”
Who is being cursed? They Priests! Why? They violated the Levitical Covenant. This simply can NOT be applied to “the people”. Firstly, because the passage is both explicitly and contextually speaking of the priests. Secondly, the “people” would NOT have been under the Levitical Covenant!
As we continue in Chapter 3, there is a small change. For one verse, the people of Judah are mentioned in the their person “they” (not “you”) but the text returns immediately back to the “you” fo the priests. Now, notice the final line of chapter 2: “Where is the God of justice?”
God answers in Chapter 3:
8 Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.
So, as we have shown with absolute certainty, “you” refers to the priests and NOT to the people. To further prove the point, the robbery is caused by not bringing a full tithe into the storehouse. Who brought tithe into the storehouse? The Priests!
So, at the risk of being absurdly redundant, I want to drive a stake through the heart of this erroneous teaching:
“You” is the Priests, NOT the people and could not be otherwise for the following reason:
1. Grammar: From 1:6 on, “you” is alway the priests.
2. Context: Only the Priests would be guilty under the Levitical Covenant
3. Context: Only the Priests would bring anything to the storehouse in the Temple.
So even if you somehow believe that tithing was an eternal principle (it’s not) and that all men in the old testament/covenant were required to tithe (they weren’t) and that somehow the tithe was on income (it never, ever was) you still absolutely can NOT make Malachi about people robbing God by not paying a tithe to the local church.
The abuse I’ve seen here would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. I’ve actually read a letter written by a “Pastor” who compared a wife not tithing (due to her husband’s refusal to support the ministry) to being an accomplice in a bank robbery. Anyone who would make such an absurd statement has disqualified themselves from ministry as one who cannot rightly handle the word of God. At the risk of sounding harsh, if you cannot read a 4 chapter book and determine context through a simple pronoun like “you”, you have no business teaching, much less condemning anyone with your doctrine. (End of rant)
Now, let’s work through to the New Testament understanding now that the definition of the tithe is:
Always and only food from farms and herds of only Israelites who only lived inside the holy land (the boundary of Israel) and only from the increase of those crops and livestock as the Lord caused growth.
There is not a single passage in all of the New Testament which requires the church to tithe. None. Not one. Ever. I’m not even arguing about “what” the tithe is (money or crops and livestock), it’s simply NOT there. Ever.
Jesus didn’t tithe.
Peter didn’t tithe.
Paul didn’t tithe.
If this was something so serious as to cause curses for robbing God, don’t you think it might have been mentioned? Just once? Maybe? How about the first church council in scripture, where Jews and Gentiles were working through the differences in their views of law and grace. It would have to come up, right? I mean, who would want the new gentiles to be robbing God and coming under a curse? (As you might guess, it’s not brought up. Ever.)
Does it strike you odd that tithe-teachers don’t teach tithing from any New Testament text or command, but resort to an obscure letter chastising priests for breaking their Levitical vows to point out the requirement to tithe?
Let’s think through grace vs. law. Are you required to keep any of the rest of the Levitical law? Of course not!
There is one passage, perhaps which could cause some confusion (or be twisted badly to teach tithing), Matthew 23:23
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
So the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites and were tithing on “garden herbs” (mint, dill,and cumin). And are then blasted by Jesus for ignoring weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
1. Who was Jesus talking to and in what context? The 23rd chapter of Matthew is an entire chapter of Jesus completely teeing off on the scribes and Pharisees. Read it in its entirety! To begin with, Jesus has a crowd, turns to them and completely blasts the scribes and Pharisees to the crowd:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.
2. Why would Jesus say that they should follow the law? Again, who was he talking to? Israel. When? In the Old Covenant. Jesus lived under the law. Israel lived under the law. This, however, changed (and remains changed) under the New Covenant. Look closely at Jesus teaching to those who would have been under the law during his earthly ministry. He heals men and then sends them to take care of their obligation at the temple. Jesus lived blamelessly under the law! Contrast that with how he spoke to those (Gentiles) who were not under the law. So, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that Jesus said these scribes and Pharisees should keep the law.
3. What did they tithe? Again, crops. From inside Israel. Under the Old Covenant.
To somehow use this text to teach that Gentiles, or those under the New Covenant should tithe cash? To say that it’s a stretch would be kind.
As I close, I want to give you the sedes doctrinae, the scripture which speaks most clearly to this subject for the New Testament church and believers. It’s not an obscure book chastising Levitical priests for breaking their Levitical Covenant. It’s not a chapter where Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, it’s a crystal clear passage on how the believer in Christ should give:
7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart,not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
2 Corinthians 9:7-8
We give in grace because we have been greatly given through grace. Not under compulsion or threat of curse under the law. Thanks be to God that we are no longer under the curse of the law because Christ was cursed by being crucified for our atonement. For some, that may mean more than 10%. For others, that may mean little or nothing. Some of the very people abused by tithe-teachers are those who should be RECEIVING our giving. The poor, the widow, and the orphan.
To wrap it up, the teaching of the moder tithe-teacher as “The first 10% of your income to the local church” fails, biblically, at every…..single…… point.
The tithe was never the first 10%.
The tithe was never money.
The tithe was given to the Levites in their Levitical cities.
I will caution you, however, that this error is plaguing the church in our day. Many churches require anyone in leadership to tithe. Some even require tithing for membership. Regardless of the validity of this claim, you may well be removed from your place in the church if you do not support this erroneous teaching. Be prepared. Many churches (and I have seen this with my own eyes) track tithing by members and will directly confront (and threaten removal from leadership) should you fail to pay.
My question? Why would you want to belong, let alone support and serve a ministry which so recklessly abuses God’s people by so obviously twisting His word? After what you’ve just seen in God’s word, in context, you should seriously question anytime you hear someone attempt to use Malachi 3 as a “tithing” text for the church. At best, they’re either careless or inept at handling God’s word, and at worst they are attempting to twist God’s word to get into your wallet. (Neither option is very flattering)
I do believe that there are many tithe-teachers who have been misled in this tradition. I hesitate to question anyone’s motives or heart. I will simply say that to saddle God’s people with requirements of the law, and laying a burden upon the poor will certainly kindle God’s anger.
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Give…Freely…In grace. Don’t lose another minutes rest over paying a tithe. And don’t for another moment expect God’s extra blessing by your obedience to this misapplication of the law. If you think God is going to love you more or make your tires last longer, or give you rewards “pressed down, shaken together and running over” because you give 10% of your paycheck to your local church, think again. God isn’t running a Ponzi scheme, but your church might be.
Give as you have decided to give in your heart. Give as your able in light of the grace you have received, and rest in the gospel of grace.
Note: Dr. Russell Earl Kelly has done some great work here and his work in this area has been extremely valuable. His book: Kelly, Russell. Should the Church Teach Tithing, A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine. ISBN 0595159788.