The most common conception of Christian giving is the tithe. It has intentionally been positioned at the end of this chapter to force readers to see the whole picture of scripture’s commands for giving. For most, the word “tithe” sums up any and all Biblical instruction for giving. As you now know, this is far from the truth. Unfortunately, many believers give 10% based upon an emotionless, thoughtless, and spiritually lifeless concept of tithing. Before moving further we must see what the Bible actually says about the practice.
Generally speaking, the tithe was a 10% contribution of all produced goods to be given to the Levites who performed the work of the house of God.
“Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD'S; it is holy to the LORD.” (Lev. 27:30)
“You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year.” (Deu. 14:22)
“I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given them, so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field. So I reprimanded the officials and said, ‘Why is the house of God forsaken?’ Then I gathered them together and restored them to their posts. All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine and oil into the storehouses.” (Neh. 13:10-12)
“We will also bring...the tithe of our ground to the Levites, for the Levites are they who receive the tithes in all the rural towns.” (Neh. 10:37)
“And they brought in abundantly the tithe of all. The sons of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of oxen and sheep, and the tithe of sacred gifts which were consecrated to the LORD their God, and placed them in heaps…They faithfully brought in the contributions and the tithes and the consecrated things.” (2 Chron. 31:5-6,12)
The passage from Leviticus calls the tithe “the Lord’s” and “holy.” Deuteronomy refers to it as the “sacred portion.” (26:13) The Lord commanded Israel to set aside a tenth of what they produced to be given to His work. Ten percent belongs to God. This simple concept has become the governing financial principle of modern Christianity.
Often misunderstood, the tithe outlined above is only a fraction of the Old Testament giving structure. There was a second tithe that all of Israel was to set aside in order for it to be used in provision for specific festivals and feasts.
“Then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD…You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or new wine or oil, or the firstborn of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand. But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings.” (Deu. 12:11,17-18)
In addition to this, every three years another tithe was collected for the needs of strangers, orphans, and widows.
“At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (Deu. 14:28-29)
God’s instructions to the Jewish nation went far beyond what we envision. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, the Lord actually required 19-23%. The numbers are daunting but remember God’s accompanying promise above: “In order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” God is always quick to mention that those who bring His whole contribution will not lack.
Ironically, the tithe (as we understand it) is only a fraction of what God commanded Israel to give, yet for many Christians it is the beginning, middle, and end of giving. In addition, the continuance of tithing is never directly addressed in the New Testament. Naturally, this should leave believers with a few questions.
Is the tithe still relevant?
Many Christians wonder if the tithe, along with many other Old Testament practices like animal sacrifices, is fulfilled in Christ and no longer necessary. This question is not directly answered in the New Testament. Both Jesus and the apostles did not directly refute or confirm the tithe. Before we excuse ourselves from this “out-dated” concept, we must remember Jesus’ summation of the Old Testament Law in the Sermon on the Mount.
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17-18)
Immediately following these words, Jesus begins to discuss the Law and raise the standard of its accomplishment from external obedience to internal perfection.
“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’…But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery…But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart...Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:21-28, 48)
Jesus took these commands of the Law and shifted the act of obedience from external to internal. While the tithing commandments are not directly addressed in the Sermon on the Mount, it does call Christians to be generous, give secretively, serve God with their money, and be free from anxiety for basic necessities. This carries the Bible’s commands for giving from external formalities to internal convictions. Think of the Christian described earlier, who emotionlessly, thoughtlessly, and lifelessly gives ten percent of everything. Technically, he is fulfilling the Law, but Christ calls us to more than external obedience. If the believer assumes that the lack of direct confirmation of the tithe’s continuance is an excuse to not give, he is completely missing the point.
The tithe was a purposeful command of the Lord to His people. Under the freedom and grace of the new covenant, the Christian should find himself giving more than the tithe not less. As previously outlined, Jews of the Old Testament gave more than ten percent: “You shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD.” (Deu. 12:11) If ten percent is less than the Lord required of Israel, why is it all we require of ourselves? If a ten percent tithe is consistently the ceiling of our contributions, we are not even following the Old Testament commands for giving, let alone those of the New Testament. However, the tithe is an excellent starting point for a believer beginning to honor God with his giving. Christians should tithe with a plan moving forward to increase their contributions. God requires more from His people than a lifeless ten percent tax to alleviate religious guilt.
The most telling sign of Christians’ misunderstanding of the tithe is the frequency with which this question is asked: “Am I supposed to tithe on my net or gross income?” This type of question implies something to the effect of, “How little can I give and still be meeting the commands of scripture?” Let us not act as the Pharisees who sought to accomplish the external acts of the Law while ignoring their internal motivation. Rather, let us joyfully, faithfully, sacrificially, responsibly, and freely begin giving based on the net, then the gross, then beyond.