No one wants to give up hard-earned money. Do we have to tithe?
With the price of everything else going up these days, aren’t you glad the Lord hasn’t increased the tithe to 15 percent?Unknown
Tithing is a controversial subject; some even consider it a debate.1 You may wonder why this debate exists—even among those who consider the Bible to be the source of and guide to God’s truth.
The issue gets more confusing within Christianity specifically. For some Christians, giving 10 percent to God is a nonnegotiable duty. For others it was a rule only for the Israelites; though recommended, it is not required.
To tithe or not to tithe? That is the question.
Tithing in the Bible
Tithing is discussed in both testaments of the Bible. There’s no question that it is a biblical directive in the Hebrew Bible—what Christians refer to as the Old Testament (OT). Israelites tithed in part to provide for their priests, but did this command carry over to the New Testament churches?
There may always be opposing answers to this question due to different views on how to read the Bible. But perhaps it will help to think about relevant verses in light of their historical contexts and spiritual or theological implications.
While traditional translations use the word “tithe,” many current versions prefer the word “tenth” (that a tithe is 10 percent is usually unquestioned).2 Since three different tithes may be observed in the OT, this system of giving may have come to 23.3 percent or more.3 However, this has not been proven to the satisfaction of most.
Old Testament Texts about Tithing
So where exactly does the Bible mention tithing? The word occurs just over thirty times in the Old Testament but only eight times in the New Testament.4 With a few exceptions, the OT verses deal with tithing as a religious regulation for the Hebrew nation. Tithes and offerings of animals, possessions, and produce were sacrificed to God’s service and used to provide for those ministering in the Temple.
These texts indicate that, whatever the details of the tithe amount, God thought it wise to supply the needs of the religious establishment through regular and regulated giving.
The OT passages most used to teach tithing as a Christian duty are 1) Genesis 14, which describes Abram paying a tithe to King Melchizedek,5 and 2) the comments made by the prophet Malachi in chapter 3 of his book.6
Abram’s Tithe to Melchizedek
The fact that Abram’s tithe took place before the Law of Moses was given has led some to conclude that tithing is not just for Jews.7 That is, the Jewish religion did not exist (as a religion) until its regulations were later revealed to and through Moses, as recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. As such, some believe that Abram’s action is an example to all who believe in the Bible, not just those of Jewish faith.
However, the tithe Abram paid was of the spoils of war to Melchizedek, the king of Salem (who actually tried to return some of the gifts), not to God. One might conclude, therefore, that this incident in Abram’s life is not directly applicable to the question of tithing as a religious duty.
The prophet Malachi told disobedient Hebrews that they could repent and return to God’s favor by restoring the practice of giving tithes and offerings. God promised that if they did, he would make them productive agriculturally and protect them from pests that could destroy their crops. Malachi required tithes (plural) plus offerings—indicating that perhaps the 10 percent was not enough.
New Testament Texts on Giving
The tithing debate exists in part due to differences in beliefs about how applicable these Old Covenant admonitions are to the Christian church.
Tithing is, seemingly, neither strictly enforced nor forbidden in the New Testament (NT). The NT, however, does have some other directives about how Christians should use their wealth and possessions in regard to church and society.
What is said connects most closely to the last note we made about Malachi’s comments: Be generous. Go the extra mile. In fact, the first churches willingly sold their possessions to make sure everyone’s needs were met.8
Some of the NT exhortations regarding giving may even seem a little extreme to us. Jesus said to give to anyone who asks, at no charge—give freely.9 He instructed his followers, “Do to others as you would have them to do for you.”10 He told a rich person to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor in order to gain heavenly riches.11
Interestingly—perhaps tellingly—the New Testament hardly mentions actual tithing. Two of the times it does are contained within the same account. Jesus commends the Pharisees (members of a Jewish sect known for strict observance of the law) for tithing, but condemns them for neglecting more important matters like mercy and justice.12
As Jews who adhered closely to the letter of the OT law, tithing would naturally be required of the Pharisees. Such texts, therefore, do not necessarily help Christians with the question of tithing.13
The Book of Hebrews
Now let’s take a look at the book of Hebrews. Hebrews mentions Melchizedek in three chapters. The character of Melchizedek has intrigued theologians and Bible scholars for centuries. The exact details about who he was remain uncertain. However, in Hebrews we are told that Melchizedek was not only the king of Salem but also a “priest of God Most High.”14
The author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek to illustrate Jesus’ priesthood as distinct from that of the Levite priests.15 Melchizedek’s name (meaning “my king is righteous”) and title point to Jesus as a king of peace and righteousness.16 Melchizedek is viewed as a picture of the future Son of God. (King David was connected to Melchizedek’s perpetual priesthood in Psalm 110:417 and it is accepted that the messiah is a descendant of David.18)
Hebrews focuses on Jesus being the source of forgiveness for disobedience, the perfection of the priesthood, and the hope of nearness to God.19 In chapter 7 the paying of the tithe is mentioned several times.20 Hebrews 7:4 says, “Just think how great [Melchizedek] was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder!” Some consider Jesus’ comparison to—and elevation above—Melchizedek a basis for giving at least one-tenth. If Abraham gave Melchizedek 10 percent, how much more does Jesus—the Son of God—deserve?
This view is based on Melchizedek being a type of Christ—“type” meaning an earlier individual or event that mirrors a characteristic or some conduct of the promised Christ or his Church. But others disagree, saying that Abram’s interaction with Melchizedek is not about tithing in terms of ministry support by the confessing community.
The Biblical Bottom Line on Tithing
All that has been said above suggests Christians are expected never to give begrudgingly or mechanically. The “tenth” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is a minimal foundation for giving, all things being equal. Giving tithes and free will offerings fits both the OT and NT commands and comments.
Some who resist a rigid rule for tithing do so out of fear that it will lead to an attitude that 90 percent of our money and possessions belongs to us, not God.21 While technically this is true, theologically it is not.
Both Old and New Testaments recognize God as the actual Owner of the entire material world; people are his stewards and managers.22 This explains why the Old Testament mentions both tithes and additional offerings and the New Testament emphasizes sacrificial generosity.23
The tenth is the least in principle, while more is expected in practice. The percentage (and the attitude) is more important than the amount.24 This has led many to conclude that the Bible teaches us to give in proportion to God’s blessing.25
There is no allowance anywhere in the Bible for someone to use his or her remaining possessions in a greedy, wasteful, or materialistic manner. Whatever amount is given to the church, it should be done with joy and generosity.
All Christians are in agreement on one main point, found within 2 Corinthians. Paul instructs Christians to give no more than can be given cheerfully—and never out of a sense of obligation. “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”26
The New Testament teaching seems to raise the bar in many ways. A specified minimal percentage for every person was not established. Rather, as persecuted, poor, and powerless people, early believers were called to follow Jesus’ example and exhortations—just as we now are called to do.
We are to give freely, generously, and gladly according to needs. A right attitude, not a rigid amount, is the barometer to correct giving to God. If this proper perspective is in place, the proportion will take care of itself.