As a pastor I have often been asked over the years whether or not I think Christians should tithe, and my response is usually, “I think it is a good place to start.” I hope in this article to offer a Scriptural explanation for why I think this is so, especially since the practice appears to have fallen on hard times. There are probably a number of reasons for this, and I have little doubt that a lack of commitment to Christ and His Church, the idolatrous grip of materialism, and plain old selfishness have played some part. But I think the primary reason among thoughtful Evangelicals has to do with their understanding of Scripture. They simply see tithing as a practice that is no longer required of God's people and therefore just don't bother with it. For example, many Christians today rightly observe that we are no longer under the Mosaic law (Rom. 6:14-15; Gal. 3:10-23) and that, since tithing was a part of this Mosaic Law (Lev. 27:30-34; Num. 18:20-21; Deut. 14:22-29), we are therefore no longer required to continue the practice. In addition, it is observed that since tithing is not explicitly taught as a requirement in the New Testament, we have another reason that it is not a necessary practice for Christians.
I agree that there is no clear New Testament teaching commanding Christians to tithe, and this is why the elders at Immanuel Baptist Church (among whom I serve) do not demand that anyone tithe. But that doesn't mean that we would not encourage tithing as a good and godly practice or, as I stated earlier, as a good place to start with one's giving.
At any rate, there seems to be a growing sentiment among Evangelicals to adopt the oppositional stance that asks, “Why should we tithe?” And that is a good question. But today I would rather ask not, “Why should we tithe?” but rather 1) “Why shouldn't we tithe?” and 2) “Why shouldn't we do more than tithe?”
I. Why Shouldn't We Tithe?
In seeking to answer this question, I would like to draw your attention to several lines of argument in Scripture that show that tithing is a good idea.
First, tithing was the example of godly men before the giving of the Mosaic law. For example:
NKJ Genesis 14:18-20 “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. 19 And he blessed him and said: 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.' And he gave him a tithe of all.”
NKJ Genesis 28:20-22 “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, 'If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, 21 so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God. 22 And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.'”
Both of these texts are historical narrative passages which tell us about what Abram and Jacob did, but they do not give a command to others to tithe. These passages are descriptive, not prescriptive. However, what they describe is a good response to God that has been recorded for our benefit. And we know that God approved of their tithing, for He later incorporated tithing into the Mosaic law as we have already seen. In fact, I think it may be best to assume that Abraham and Jacob got the idea from God in the first place. But wherever they got the idea, the fact is that the practice was around and found to be good in God's sight before its incorporation into the Mosaic law, which should at least give us some pause about being so quick to dismiss it as simply a part of the Mosaic law that has passed away.
Second, tithing was affirmed by Jesus as a good thing. For example:
NKJ Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
Jesus clearly says that tithing is something they “ought to have done,” even if He sees the kind of tithing spoken of here as not being among the “weightier matters” of the law. But we must also remember that Jesus warned against the legalistic practice of tithing that does not come from the heart:
NKJ Luke 18:10-14 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It is this kind of legalism that so many Christians fear today with respect to the practice of tithing, and they are right to seek to avoid such legalism. But I would hasten to add that just because something may be done in a legalistic way does not mean that it cannot be practiced in a proper way that recognizes that all that we have is by the grace of God. I would also warn against using the charge of legalism as an excuse to be stingy with what God has given us.
Now, as for Matthew 23:23, Jesus is dealing with those who were still under the law, and thus we cannot say that He intended here to enjoin the practice of tithing upon the New Covenant Church. But we can say that He approved of and encouraged tithing as a godly practice if done with the right motives.
Third, the means of supporting the Levites under the Old Covenant is affirmed by Paul as a good example for Christians to follow in support of their ministers under the New Covenant. For example:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 9:1-14 “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we have no right to eat and drink? 5 Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? 7 Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? 8 Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain." Is it oxen God is concerned about? 10 Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. 11 If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? 12 If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? 14 Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.”
Paul does not explicitly mention the tithes that were given to the Lord for the sustaining of the Levitical priesthood, but the tithe was definitely a primary means of their support. And Paul clearly does see the concept of their sharing in what is given by the people as a model for the support of pastors today. Thus we certainly could say that tithing is a good idea, even if not something that can be demanded (for to demand it when Scripture does not would be the very kind of legalism Jesus despised).
But there is another passage to take note of in 1 Corinthians before moving on:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 16:2 “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.”
To be sure, Paul is dealing here with a special offering that is being taken to support the church in Jerusalem, and he does not explicitly mention tithing or giving any fixed percentage of one's income, but he does clearly see the importance of giving in proportion to what one has. And tithing surely would be a good way of putting this principle into practice.
Fourth, tithing is a good way to honor Christ as our High Priest and King. For example:
NKJ Hebrews 7:1-8 “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2 to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated 'king of righteousness,' and then also king of Salem, meaning 'king of peace,' 3 without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. 4 Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils. 5 And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham; 6 but he whose genealogy is not derived from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 Now beyond all contradiction the lesser is blessed by the better. 8 Here mortal men receive [present tense] tithes, but there he receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives [present tense].”
Some Christians see in this passage clear evidence of the practice of Christian tithing. They would argue that just as Abraham gave a “tenth” to Melchizedek – who is at the very least shown to be a type of Christ in this passage – so we too give “tithes” to Jesus, who is our Great High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews, it is argued, assumes that the believers to whom he was writing did tithe, and he obviously thinks this is right.
I am not certain that this way of reading Hebrews 7:8 is correct, and thus I do not see it as an ample basis for saying that Christians should be required to tithe. However, I would observe that, if Abraham honored Melchizedek as a “priest of the Most High God” by giving a tithe to him, why shouldn't we see it as a good way to honor Christ as our Great High Priest who ever lives to make intercession for us? If Abraham honored Melchizedek as the King of Salem by giving a tithe to him, why shouldn't we see it as a good way to honor Christ as our King of kings and Lord of lords? Shouldn't we want to honor Christ at least as much as Abraham honored Melchizedek? I can think of few better ways to acknowledge that Jesus truly is our supreme Lord than to demonstrate that He is more important to us than our money and to do this by giving regularly. And I can hardly think of a more Biblical place to start such giving than with tithing.
I think John Piper communicates my own attitude toward tithing quite well in a sermon entitled Toward the Tithe and Beyond:
One objection to thinking of a tenth of our income as especially belonging to God is that ALL our money belongs to God. Psalm 24:1,The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.That is absolutely true. It's why my main way of talking about money year in and year out at Bethlehem is not to focus on tithing, but to focus on lifestyle. What you do with every cent says something about your view of God and what he means to you. And what your values are in this age. And what you think your few years on earth should be spent for. That's true. But God is wise and knows us deeply. He knows that there is something wrong with the husband who answers his wife's complaint that he doesn't give her any time by saying, "What do you mean, I don't give you my time? ALL my time is yours. I work all day long for you and the children." That has a very hollow ring to it if he doesn't give her any "especially time." Giving her some evenings together and some dates does not deny that all his time is for her, it proves it. This is why God declares one day in seven especially God's. They are all his, and making one special proves it.
And this is the way it is with our money and God. Giving God a tenth of our income does not deny that all our money is God's, it proves that we believe it. Tithing is like a constant offering of the first fruits of the whole thing. The tenth is yours, O, Lord, in a special way, because all of it is yours in an ordinary way.
I believe the tithe should be the first check we write after the income deposit is made in the bank. And when you write it, you put a seal over what's left: GOD'S. The tithe reminds us of that, and proves that we really believe it.
So, in summary, can I say that Christians are commanded in Scripture to tithe? No, and to try to demand tithing as though it is commanded of Christians in Scripture would be legalism, which I abhor. However, I do think that I can encourage tithing as a godly practice for Christians to follow in their giving, at least as a good place to start, which leads me to my next question.
II. Why Shouldn't We Do More Than Tithe?
When he came to prepare the way for Christ and to call God's people to repentance, John the Baptist taught, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11, NKJ). This is a kind of giving that goes beyond simply a tithe! It is giving away half of what you have!
But Jesus went even farther when He taught about what we should be willing to give up for Him. For example:
NKJ Luke 14:33 “So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”
So, although the Christian is nowhere commanded to tithe, he is called upon to at least be willing to give up everything for Jesus! And a tenth is a small thing in comparison!
Perhaps the primary text dealing with giving in the Church, however, is found in 2 Corinthians 8-9. Let us consider a couple of key passages in these chapters:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 “Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia: 2 that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. 3 For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, 4 imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. 5 And not only as we had hoped, but they first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God. 6 So we urged Titus, that as he had begun, so he would also complete this grace in you as well. 7 But as you abound in everything -- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all diligence, and in your love for us -- see that you abound in this grace also. 8 I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”
Although Paul clearly asserts that he doesn't command such sacrificial giving as that of the Macedonians, he nevertheless does see it as a good example for all to follow, and this is essentially the same approach I am taking here with regard to tithing. I am not saying we should command it, but I am saying that we should encourage it as a good place to start to learn to give sacrificially, so long as we can do so with a joyful heart, which is the matter to which we shall turn next:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. 9 As it is written: "He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever." 10 Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, 11 while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.”
Paul makes it plain that we should only give what we can give cheerfully and not grudgingly, and he gives us some help in doing this by reminding us of the principle of reaping and sowing. Basically, Paul assures us that, if we want to be able to give a lot, then God will make sure we have enough with which to do it! His teaching is similar to the Lord's instruction in Malachi and Jesus' admonition in Luke:
NKJ Malachi 3:10 “'Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,' says the LORD of hosts, 'If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.'”
NKJ Luke 6:38 “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”
Simply put, our willingness to give is directly proportional to our trust in God to take care of us and to keep His promise that He will provide for us to give more than we ever thought possible. This strong encouragement certainly makes me want to venture far beyond the tithe in my giving! But I have had to begin somewhere, and for me the tithe was a good place to start. I hope it will be so for you as well.
Although Christians are not commanded to tithe in the New Testament, we are certainly encouraged to give in proportion to what we have, to give self-sacrificially so long as we can do so with a cheerful heart, and to be encouraged to give by remembering that we cannot out-give God, who will always provide for us. But perhaps it would be best to end with another quote from John Piper, who again states my own view better than I probably could. In a sermon entitled I Seek Not What Is Yours But You he observes:
I think God took the focus off giving a tithe in the early church because he wants his people to ask themselves a new question. The question that Jesus drives us to ask again and again is not, "How much should I give?" but rather, "How much dare I keep?" One of the differences between the Old Testament and New Testament is the Great Commission. By and large the Old Testament people of God were not a missionary people. But the New Testament Church is fundamentally a missionary people. The spiritual hope and the physical and emotional sustenance that Jesus brought to earth is to be extended by his church to the whole world. The task he gave us is so immense and requires such a stupendous investment of commitment and money that the thought of settling the issue of what we give by a fixed percentage (like a tenth) is simply out of the question. My own conviction is that most middle and upper class Americans who merely tithe are robbing God. In a world where 10,000 people a day starve to death and many more than that are perishing in unbelief the question is not, what percentage must I give?, but how much dare I spend on myself?