This is, first of all, not a comprehensive review of the tithe throughout the Bible. There exist many excellent and thorough studies of the issue of tithing and the New Testament Christian. One such treatment is Russell Earl Kelly’s scholarly tome “Should The Church Teach Tithing?” which carefully examines every mention of the tithe in the Old and New Testaments and assesses its relevance to the modern church. At over 270 pages, it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in this topic.
In the Gospels, Jesus spoke of the tithe on exactly three occasions (Luke 11:42, 18:12, Matthew 23:23). All come in the context of condemnations of Pharisaic practices. Some interpret these episodes as a sort of backhanded endorsement of the tithe. But the tithe is Law. One must acknowledge that Our Lord spoke to Jewish people under the Law prior to the Cross, and thus (as he did with the Rich Young Man) he directs them to keep the Law. There is scant warrant to be found in these passages for tithe-teaching in the church.
In this study I want to examine just a few passages from the Epistles. How these passages apply to tithing will require some consideration. For Paul never mentions the tithe. Nor do John, Peter, or James. Tithing never appears in the lists of virtuous practices that appear routinely toward the ends of the Epistles. Nor does it emerge in Acts as a practice of the early church (unless one wishes to apply the 100% rule of Acts 5!). The only mention of the tithe among the Epistles is the Hebrews 7 passage regarding Abraham and Melchizedek, where it is incidental to the main thrust of the section. The silence of the New Testament on the subject is itself strong evidence that the tithe is not a mandate of the New Covenant.
Other principles supplant the tithe for the Church, principles of generosity, equality, and joy. Or, to express it in the negative, there are specific situations and attitudes that are to be avoided in the Church. The question of tithing (more precisely, whether Christian leaders should teach the tithe as a mandatory pattern of giving) is relevant to these situations.
Situation 1: Compulsion
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians devotes two entire chapters to the subject of giving. If the tithe belonged to the New Testament, surely it would appear here, of all places. But it does not. Instead, Paul’s answer to “How much should we give?” is frustratingly vague:
Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7
Paul seems eager (as usual) to remove this issue from the realm of legalistic requirement and place it instead into the realm of Spirit-led conscience. His main concern appears to be that there should be no judgment or condemnation associated with it. There is no mention of an amount; Paul wants the offering to be a freewill love-offering.
How might a Christian find himself at risk of feeling “under compulsion”? One answer: if he hears a teaching that churchgoers who give less than 10% of their gross income to the local church are being disobedient. There is simply no warrant in the New Testament for such condemnation. Unfortunately, many Christians – probably the majority – are poorly instructed in grace, and view such unbiblical demands as authoritative, resulting in guilt or compulsory obedience. This saps the joy – the “hilarity” – from the Christian life – the precise situation Paul warns us to avoid!
Situation 2: Class Distinctions
The fundamental New Testament passage on giving includes the following remarkable sentence:
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 2 Corinthians 8:13
The result of giving should be sharing – that those with abundance give to those who lack. “Equality” means to move both ends toward the middle. It describes the economic situation of both groups following the exchange. This is an important principle: The poor ought to be net receivers from the church treasury.
Most leaders ignore this principle and instead place everyone in the church – rich and poor alike, and yes, even themselves – under an obligation to give ten percent of their income to the church. This insistence necessarily places a greater burden on the poor, labels most of them as disobedient, and disqualifies them for potential leadership roles (if not driving them out of the church entirely). Meanwhile, the wealthy man, to whom ten percent is no particular burden, becomes puffed up with pride, and is rewarded with offers to sit on the church board. How clearly this picture was painted by James:
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, do not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor.
When they demand the tithe from Christians, church leaders foster a horrible situation. In the world, rich people are honored and the poor are trampled. Men and women are judged on the basis of their material wealth. Within the church this must not be the case. Mature Christians are to “regard no one from a worldly point of view” (literally, “according to the flesh,” 2 Corinthians 5:16). The church must not make the distinctions of class that the world makes. Yet when the tithe is demanded, those distinctions become apparent and the church suffers. We insult the poor, the very people that every apostle and our Lord himself insisted we not neglect. We strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.
Consider this: Here we have a relatively immature Christian, but a well-dressed, educated businessman, a leader in the community and a major church donor. Here also we have an experienced, mature Christian who, due to his straitened circumstances, can barely put a five-dollar bill in the plate each week. These are the two candidates for a position on the church’s board. Which one is more likely to make the grade?
The Church should take pains to avoid two situations: compulsory obedience to an artificial standard, and the existence of economic class distinctions among its people. Tithe-teaching engenders strife and misery within the Church. Christian teaching on giving should instead follow the example of Paul: Focus on Spirit-empowered generosity as a response to God’s grace. Support and honor the poor. Never mention the tithe.