I want to start by making perfectly clear a couple of things. First, I am a United Methodist, and my beliefs on the tithe differs from the United Methodist Church. These are my thoughts and my thoughts alone. Secondly, I do not think that there is anything wrong with tithing in general, I do however disagree with the teachings that it is God’s minimum Biblical standard of giving in the Bible. Nothing here should be understood to discourage generous giving, and really quite the opposite. Now, on to the stuff that is bound to get me into trouble (again).
Any examination of the tithe as a Biblical concept must, by necessity, begin n the Old Testament. In the book of Genesis chapter 14 we have the story of Abraham tithing to the high priest Melchizedek. This is our first example of tithing, and it does indeed occur before the mosaic covenant. Remember that, it becomes important later. Abraham has fought, defeated his enemies and accumulated the spoils of war. He gives a voluntary tithe to the high priest as a tribute to God. There is nothing in the text that indicates this is prescriptive to the faithful in general, or that Abraham continued to do this. The text indicates that this is a descriptive event simply recording what was done. This event is also mentioned in the New Testament in Hebrews chapter 7. I will quote the text here. “7 This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2 and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” 3 Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. 4 Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5 Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham.” With the text from Hebrews, we see that the mandated tithe to the Levites is firmly rooted in the law, that is the Mosaic covenant. The tithe to Melchizedek is voluntary, the tithes to the Levites are mandatory. The second instance of tithing that we see is again in Genesis, chapter 28. Here Jacob meets God, and vows voluntarily to dedicate a tithe to Him. These are the instances of tithing in the Old Testament that exist before the Mosaic covenant, and not only are both voluntary, both are descriptive and not prescriptive. The examples of Abraham and Jacob are simply not normative patterns.
The tithe in the Mosaic covenant has a particular purpose. Simply put, it is to support the Levites as they had no inheritance being set aside for the priesthood. The priests received the tithe, they in turn passed a tithe up to the high priest. Those who did tithe were promised a blessing, and those who did not were threatened with a curse. All of this is firmly rooted in the Mosaic law. This is not a voluntary action for the ancient Jews, it is a command from God much in the same way as the sacrifice and the establishment of the Levites as a priesthood was a command of God. In fact, they are all linked in that they are a part of the system of restoration that we find in the Old Testament.
Also of importance are the words of Jesus in the New Testament. In Matthew 23 we find a reasonably famous section of scripture often called the woes of the pharisees. Verse twenty three reads ““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Many read this as Jesus endorsing the tithe, and indeed He does. The New Covenant is not in place as Christ has not suffered and died on the cross to be resurrected three days later. Further more, from our Methodist tradition, Cooke comments on the passage saying “The fifth woe is denounced for their superstition. They observed the ceremonial precepts of the law with all possible exactness, while they utterly neglected the eternal, immutable, and indispensable rules of righteousness,—justice, mercy, or charity, and fidelity.” Cook rightly places this in the Mosaic law, as Jesus did, and also places it as a part of the ceremonial precepts of the law as opposed to what Jesus calls the weightier matters that now are commonly known as the moral law, meaning that these are the eternal things of God that are impossible to separate from Him. The preexistence of God means that the moral law was also present before time as God can not be separated from His nature and characteristics.
Now that we have set the tithe firmly in the Mosaic covenant, and firmly within the ceremonial precepts of the law, we must look to what Jesus has said about the law. “ “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) In this again allow me to differ to Thomas Cooke “Because the doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ concerning happiness was contrary to that which the Jews were accustomed to hear, and which their preachers pretended to derive from the prophets, whose descriptions of the glory of the Messiah’s kingdom they understood in a literal sense; also because he was about to give explications of the moral precepts, of very different tenor from those which the Scribes and Pharisees commonlygave, but which his disciples, as instructors of mankind, were to inculcate: he ended this branch of his discourse, and introduced that which followed, with declaring that he was by no means come to destroy the law or the prophets; that is to say, the moral precepts contained in them; for he came to destroy the whole ceremonial precepts of the law, the hand-writing of ordinances, which he blotted out and nailed to his cross, that its abolition might be known to all.” Wesley would say something similar commenting on this “Think not – Do not imagine, fear, hope, that I am come – Like your teachers, to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy – The moral law, but to fulfil – To establish, illustrate, and explain its highest meaning, both by my life and doctrine.” Adam Clarke might sum it up best though in his comments “Do not imagine that I am come to violate the law – I am not come to make the law of none effect – to dissolve the connection which subsists between its several parts, or the obligation men are under to have their lives regulated by its moral precepts; nor am I come to dissolve the connecting reference it has to the good things promised. But I am come, to complete – to perfect its connection and reference, to accomplish every thing shadowed forth in the Mosaic ritual, to fill up its great design; and to give grace to all my followers, to fill up, or complete, every moral duty. In a word, Christ completed the law:” What we are left with is a clear picture that the ceremonial aspects of the law have been completed in Christ and the moral aspects of the law have as well in His life and teaching. While the moral aspects continue to call us to holy living that is pleasing to God, the ceremonial aspects are no longer required of us. The tithe, that is to say the ceremonial requirement to support the Levite priesthood, is no longer required of Christians.
Worth noting is that there is no evidence of widespread tithing as a command for Christians until the Constantine the Great and his insistance on large decorative churches that would require a great deal of upkeep and finances to function. In the early church it seems it was not practiced as it is nowhere mentioned by the apostles or in any of the epistles. The standard of the early fathers was much different. “Instead of the law commanding the giving of tithes, to share all our possessions with the poor. Irenaeus (A.D. 180) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg. 477”; “And for this reason they (the Jews) had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him, but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things ; as that poor widow acted who cast all her living into the treasury of God.Irenaeus (A.D. 180) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg. 485” Not that Irenaeus is the absolute authority of all things in the early church, but he is my favorite. You can find this echoed throughout the writings of the early church fathers. Even Wesley, drawing on what he called primitive Christianity, echoes this in his sermon on the proper use of money. “If you wish to be a good steward of that which God has given to you on loan the rules are simple enough. First provide sufficient food and clothing for yourself and your household. If there is a surplus after this is done, then use what remains for the good of your Christian brothers and sisters. If there is still a surplus, then do good to all people, as you have the opportunity. If at any time you have a doubt about any particular expenditure, ask yourself honestly:
- Will I be acting, not as an owner, but as a steward of the Lord’s goods?
- Am I acting in obedience to the word of God?
- Is this expense a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?
- Do I believe that this expense will bring reward at the day of resurrection?”
Let’s be honest and admit that most of us are not living up to that. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and numerous other reformers rejected tithing as the Biblical mandate for giving in the Christian church. What then can be said about giving? Does it matter? Is it important? The answer is not only yes, but it is indeed vital! What can be said though already has been said. The commands to give generously in the New Testament are to numerous to list. It is clear that it is God’s intent that we give to aid those in need. What generous looks like will vary from person to person and be difficult to quantify. Paul seems to say it best in 2 Corinthians 9. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” I mention this at the end because to often it has been used as an argument against the tithe without actual understanding of the tithe and I hope that, by this point, I have at least laid out a cogent case for that to be considered. My thoughts do not hinge on this verse at all, but rather I use this verse as the guide of what to give.
Our life, and everything in it, is a sacrifice to God. God does not have a minimum of what we give, but rather demands that we give all. There is certainly nothing wrong with giving ten percent of your income, but we must understand that if this is the Biblical minimum and a mandate from God, then we need much more teaching. Do we give a tenth before or after Caesar takes his cut? Is it only our paycheck, or is it our value? If we volunteer time at the church for various things can we count that, according to the living wage calculator, as labor that we have given voluntarily? Are our pastors ready and willing to teach us that we are under a curse if we do not give enough, because that is the exact teaching in Malachi for those who do not tithe. Do we really think that God will curse us if we only give 9.5%? We, as Christians, are free from the (ceremonial) law, and the consequences of the law. In that freedom, we are called to give generously of ourselves, our treasures, etc. In doing so, we will grow in faith and come to a better understanding of what the freedom we have in Christ means, but if we use that freedom to tether ourselves to a part of the law that Christ sacrificed Himself to free us from, it seems to me that we damage our faith by not trusting in that freedom. Is the tithe a good principle for giving? Of course. It has been recognized as faithful and will be recognized as faithful now. Is giving twenty percent somehow more holy? No, I do not believe that. The command is to give generously, and if we fulfill that, then we fulfill the will of God. If we demand the tithe and use it as the measuring stick of faithfulness, then we call upon the laws of Moses for our reconciliation and restoration, and not to Christ. That seems a dangerous prospect to me.