Growing up I remember our pastor at First Baptist Church of Eugene (Oregon) exhorting the church members before taking the offering with the words, “Now we are ready to receive the Lord’s tithe and your offering.” A tithe was thought to be the basic minimum for Christian giving. The “offering” was regarded as a voluntary gift above and beyond the tithe. Tithing is still regarded by many Christians and church leaders as the pattern for New Testament giving.
Old Testament Tithes
Tithing is certainly a biblical concept. Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, the king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem) after his victory over the Mesopotamian kings (Gen.14:20). Under Mosaic Law, the Israelites were to give a tithe of their crops and herds to the Lord (Lev. 30-32).
Deuteronomy 14 provides more details on the Mosaic law of tithing. There we discover there were two annual tithes and a third tithe to be offered every three years. The first tithe was to be spent by the Israelites as they went to Jerusalem three times a year to attend the pilgrimage festivals (Deut. 16:16). This tithe would be used to cover travel expenses, housing, and temple worship for Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 14:22-26).
The second tithe was to the Levites (Num. 18:21; Deut. 14:27). The Levites would then present a tenth of what they had received to the priests (Num. 18:26, 28). The second tithe would support those who ministered in the temple and officiated at the altar. The third tithe was to be collected every three years and distributed to the poor and needy (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12). This was God’s way of making sure that the widows, orphans and strangers in the land were provided for. There is some debate among scholars as to whether this third tithe was in addition to or in place of the tithe customarily devoted to travel and worship expenses when attending worship festivals in Jerusalem. Either way, these three tithes would amount to somewhere between 20 and 23 percent annually.
The required tithes were in addition to other religious obligations mandated by the Mosaic law including the first fruits, first born animals, redemption money for the first born child, offerings required for the release of vows, the annual half-shekel temple tax, the annual wood-gathering, and free will offerings. F. C. Grant concludes that “the sum total of religious obligations levied upon the people by the various Old Testament codes was nothing shore of enormous” (The Economic Background of the Gospels, p. 97). The biblical tithe is not what most preachers have in mind when they advocate tithing.
New Testament Giving
It is significant, I believe, that the tithe is never mentioned in the New Testament as a pattern for Christian giving. Rather, the New Testament pattern is proportionate giving–which may be more or less than a tithe.
Paul sets forth three principles of New Covenant giving in 1 Cor. 16:1-4. First, giving should be done regularly (“on the first day of the week”), not occasionally or haphazardly. Giving should be a part of the believer’s regular worship. Second, giving should be proportionate (“as he may prosper”). The poor may have less to give after deducting living expenses. The wealthy will have more to share. The amount given is not as important as the heart attitude of the worshiper. Jesus said that the widow who gave the two copper coins offered more than the rich since they gave “out of their surplus”, but she “out of her poverty” (Lk. 21:4). Third, giving should be done without pressure. Paul wanted the offering taken before he arrived so that his presence in Corinth would not be the compelling reason to give.
Besides not being taught by Jesus or His apostles, tithing focuses on fulfilling an obligation rather than responding from the heart. It hinders what a person could do by making them think that they have done enough. New Covenant giving, on the other hand, is an act of worship from the heart. The amount given should be in proportion to how one has prospered. That could be 5%, 10%, 15% or more. God is pleased when our giving reflects our love for Him regardless of the percentage or amount.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).