“You must set aside a tithe of your crops—one-tenth of all the crops you harvest each year.” Deuteronomy 14:22
One of the most controversial topics among communities of Christians today is the notion of tithing. A translation of the Hebrew aser word group, tithing refers to the giving of one-tenth of one’s resources as a kind of religious tax. The tithe is commanded by God to God’s people in the Law of the Old Testament. Many Christian traditions have continued the practice of tithing, while other churches question whether this command is something that still applies to New Testament believers today.
We’ll consider the concept of tithing, exploring its Biblical basis, and pondering what, if anything, the New Testament has to say about this practice.
Background on Tithing
While the 10 percent tithe was officially laid out in the Law in the Old Testament books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we see examples of God’s people engaging with this practice even earlier in the Old Testament.
Back in the book of Genesis, Abraham gave 0ne-tenth of what he had to Melchizedek, a high priest of the Lord God, after Melchizedek blessed him. Later, Abraham’s descendent, Jacob, promised a tenth to God saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me, I will give a full tenth to you" (Genesis 28:20-22).
This provides some insight into the intention and purpose behind the practice of tithing; it is a response of gratitude for the blessings and provisions the Lord has bestowed. By giving one-tenth of their wealth back to God, Abraham and Jacob acknowledged that God was the source of all they had.
Tithing in the Law
When the practice of tithing was written into the Law, it also served community purpose. The nation of Israel first began as the Twelve Tribes of Israel, with each tribe stemming from a different one of Jacob’s (renamed Israel by God) sons. God divided the promised land among the tribes, ensuring that each of them had the resources to provide for themselves. However, the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, was not given a land allotment. Instead, they were to serve the community as the priests, and in return, the people would provide for them through their generous giving.
Tithing in this context is also a means of caring for one’s neighbors and ensuring the whole community is provided for. It is a practice of love and generosity, fundamentally informed by the immense generosity and grace God shows to us all.
Arguments Against Tithing
Some believers today are uncomfortable with the notion of a prescribed tithe and argue that for followers of the New Testament, this practice no longer applies. People of this point of view assert that 10 percent of one's income is too lofty for many to afford and too low for those of extreme means. The notion of mandated giving misses the point, they argue, creating a sense of guilt or obligation. Instead, one should make freewill offerings, out of a spirit of genuine generosity.
Many people uncomfortable with the notion of tithing claim that the Lord Jesus never commands us to tithe, and therefore, this facet of the Old Testament Law is not intended for Christians.
Let’s take a closer look at the issue of tithing within the New Testament.
Tithing: A New Testament Perspective
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ is recorded to have spoken explicitly about tithing only once, as recorded in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. Let’s take a look at the account from Matthew.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. You hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. ” - Matthew 23:23
Several things stick out about this passage. First, Jesus does, in fact, reaffirm the tithe--“You should tithe, yes”. Second, Jesus' words speak to one of the concerns many express about tithing, the notion that giving should come out of genuine care, not obligation.
It is important to note here that the 10 percent mandated by the Law was intended as a benchmark, not an absolute. Those of means are encouraged to give more, and those with less do not need to feel burdened or encumbered by giving more than they can. As 2 Corinthians 8:12 says, "For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have."
Tithing isn’t about the number; it’s about showing our gratitude to God and ensuring that our fellow human beings are cared for. It’s a practice of the heart first and foremost, not a practice of the pocketbook. As Jesus calls out the Pharisees here, he’s reminding them that they have missed the point. These religious leaders were following the letter of the Law: giving exactly what was required of them and not a bit more. But as they turned a blind eye to the needs of their community, they had ignored the spirit of the Law.
Although this is the only recorded incident in which Jesus talked about tithing specifically, it is certainly not the only time he teaches on generosity and caring for others.
In Mark 10, Jesus counsels a rich young man who has done his best to keep the Law precisely. The man asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Hearing this we might feel nervous or unsure, as this rich young man did. Give away everything? That’s a demonstration of generous giving far exceeding 10 percent! Again, we miss Jesus’ point if we get hung up on percentages and amounts. All that we have belongs to God. If we truly wish to follow Jesus Christ, we must take care of our neighbors. We ought to look to the Lord to provide for us, not to our own stockpiles, bank accounts, and possessions.
We see this posture lived out elsewhere in the New Testament by the early Christians in the faith communities found in the book of Acts. “And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need” (Acts 2:44-45). Fundamental to our lives of faith is the call to nurture and care for each other, particularly those in need.
At its core, the practice of tithing is intended as a means of placing gratitude and generosity at the center of our daily lives. It's a model--a reminder, that God loves us and gives us all that we require. It is an invitation to glorify God by the way we use the resources with which God blesses us.
Perhaps for those of following the New Covenant set by Christ Jesus, a set and standard 10 percent offering may seem unnecessary. But if we look to the New Testament, we should be moved to be even more generous. After all, our Lord Jesus Christ laid down his very life for us. What better way to live out our gratitude for such a gift than by giving out of our abundance. Tithing is not about hitting a specific donation amount; as the apostle Paul writes, "You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. 'For God loves a cheerful giver.'” - 2 Corinthians 9:7
Let us not neglect the more important things, like justice and mercy. May we live out our faith through our actions and our giving.