What about the Tithe?

In discussing the Law and issues such as the tithe, recently, it dawned on me that I had not written anything in depth to post on John3thirty about this subject so I started putting this together to answer the question, “What about the tithe?”

According to Hebrews 10:1, the Law is a book of shadows and images of which the reality is found in the New Covenant. The Old Covenant is acceptable as a lesson and illustration, but reality and application are to be sought in the New Covenant. Holding onto the old shadow until the Lord and scripture further illuminate your understanding may be acceptable,[1] but once the Lord has shown us the reality behind the shadow, we no longer retain the shadow, but observe the reality that cast the shadow.[2] As a Christian friend and beloved Elder told me years ago, “We are responsible to obey the light we have been given.”[3]

All Christians quickly agree the old sacrifices were an image of Christ, and since his death we no longer need sacrifices—him being the ultimate sacrifice. This reflects on the question of the tithe, but I’ll come back to that later. Since the sacrifice is ritual law we easily drop it, but what about a law in the Ten Commandments? What about the law of the Sabbath? I bring this in because if the Old Covenant tithe is binding so is the even higher law of the Sabbath.[4] Many try to overcome this by making Sunday into the Sabbath. This is impossible since the Sabbath is the last day of the week, not the first. The early church practiced the first day as the Lord’s Day,[5] not as a new Sabbath, but as a better celebration. Others have reverted to a legalistic view of Sabbath, observing Saturday as a holy day, even though this disagrees with New Testament precedence (Acts 20:7; Romans 14:5; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Colossians 2:16). A Christian can never observe Saturday or Sunday as a true Sabbath. If we keep the commands of Christ—love God with all we are (my paraphrase), love our neighbor as ourselves, and love our fellow believers as Christ did—we will not need the law to enforce behavior, but will keep the moral and righteous spirit behind the law. How can this be if we do not observe a scripturally mandated day of rest? This is because we keep the spirit of the law—we stop working for our salvation. Upon ceasing that work we enter into our true Sabbath, becoming a true Sabbath keeper (Hebrews 4:1-11; Romans 14:5), every day for the rest of our lives. We never work for salvation again, but trust in God’s provision. This doesn’t free our body from a need for regular rest. It does free us to choose rest for our bodies any day of the week—Sunday through Saturday (Romans 14:5f).

That being illustrated, let’s bring this back around to the tithe itself. The command to tithe is given throughout the Old Testament. Check any Bible concordance to find the word and look in any dictionary for a definition. The argument most often presented today is based on Old Testament ideas and often begins with Malachi 3:10. God says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” The argument continues with God’s promise to bring rain and prevent pests and plant diseases if obedient (Malachi 3:10f). At this point the legalists supporting a literal application of the tithe to Christians in the New Covenant have a problem. They must find a way to permit their dropping of some of the law while keeping this part of it. I once heard a sabbatarian radio teacher call hypocritical those pastors teaching the Sabbath was not literally binding but still requiring the tithe. His answer was to keep the tithe and return to a literal weekly Sabbath Day. A better answer is to admit both came from the same law forbidding Bacon Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches. The law of the tithe passed away on the Cross because of Christ’s total fulfillment. If I can have bacon on my breath then why must I keep a literal Sabbath Day or a literal tithe?

Teachers of the tithe must find a way to keep it binding in the New Covenant economy. They do this, first, with the words of Christ in Matthew 23:23. When scolding the Pharisees Jesus told them: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. 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” (NIV). This is used to support a continuation of the tithe because Jesus told the Pharisees to “practice the latter (the weightier matters of the law), without neglecting the former (the tithe).” Yes, Jesus says to not neglect the tithe, but is this the literal understanding from the Old Testament or a real image demonstrated by the Old Covenant shadow? At the moment Jesus speaks, he means the literal physical tithe, but don’t forget to look at the rest of Jesus’ command here. He tells them the other matters (justice, mercy and faithfulness) are weightier than the tithe, meaning they are of more importance in the divine economy. Even under the Old Covenant, it was more important to be just, merciful and faithful than to be an exact tither. As a matter of fact, he charges those who disobey these, while being exact in their tithe, with hypocrisy. A hypocrite is someone teaching one thing, but failing to follow their own teaching. So how can tithing be hypocritical? The Pharisees are demonstrating (or teaching) one thing by their tithe, but doing the opposite by ignoring the other matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness. The tithe is the shadow demonstrating these, not the reality itself. Rather than a command to continue the literal Old Testament tithe, this is a whole other command.

From here the argument usually progresses to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul speaks of an offering to be taken on the first day of each week. It is argued that this is a command to collect tithes in the local church. The basis for the argument is the day of the week (so it must be during a church meeting, right?) and the amount to be given is according to income (so it must be speaking of a tithe or tenth portion, right?). There are problems with this argument though. First of all, it never says to give ten percent, never uses the word tithe, or even mentions a recommended amount. Some may assume the people knew about the tithe and would assume this was intended by Paul, but this argument makes the Corinthian Church far more Jewish than is warranted.[6] In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul gives more instructions when he says, “Each should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (NIV). This proves he is not speaking of a tithe because they are to decide, personally, the amount they can give cheerfully. There are few things more compulsory than the Old Covenant tithe, so Paul does not mean this here. Second, the offering he speaks of has nothing to do with the Church’s funds. It is a special offering being taken to relieve believers in Jerusalem experiencing a famine. This is the offering he carried to Jerusalem on his final visit. Lastly, the command says this offering is not to be an ongoing practice. Paul says for them to be faithful in this so it will be completed and discontinued by the time he arrives (1 Corinthians 16:2d).

The Law was fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 5:17b). It was placed on the cross with him and by his obedient death was cancelled—wholly (Colossians 2:14). The Law accomplished everything it was supposed to—it led us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). From then on, its work was fulfilled and was no longer binding on those who are in Christ (Galatians 3:25). This applies to all of the Law, including the tithe, and every Law coming before Matthew 1:1.[7]

But wait! This doesn’t end it. Remember that the passing away of the Law does not give us a right to be lawless. If we are following Christ’s three love commands we will keep the spirit behind the Law—this includes the spirit of the tithe. What was the spirit of the tithe? The people were to tithe for a few reasons. Among these are assistance for the needy, support of those contributing to the people’s spiritual lives, and maintenance of needed facilities, materials or tools for the work of the Kingdom. For the last, don’t misunderstand. There were no church buildings for the first 150 years or so and the old temple was a shadow of Jesus and of the Church. This does not mean a church cannot choose to build a special place, but these places are not important in God’s economy—the people alone are. The primary focus of the tithe was people. Of course a church with a large building can reach more people so they must prayerfully decide if this is the best use of the funds God has placed into their hands.[8] This means money expended on facilities are within the freedom of a church, but a legalistic tithe to extort funds for this purpose or any other is not.

What is the spiritual tithe? What is the reality casting the shadow seen in the Old Covenant tithe? First, all scripture—Old and New Testaments—says the true sacrifices are inward and related to non-conformity to this world and obedience to God’s commands.[9] We are to love those around us and to assist those in need. We are to contribute to things of spiritual value to others (outreach) and support those of spiritual value to ourselves (discipleship).[10] The giving we practice in the New Covenant is to hold everything we own as if we do not own it (1 Corinthians 7:29-32) and to give it freely and joyfully when needed. This kind of giving will always meet the demand of God’s kingdom and fulfill the purpose and meaning of the tithe.

We all know of churches wanting to do great works of God, but simply lacking the funds. If their people would faithfully tithe ten percent then the churches could do much more. I understand this and agree. Many of my friends lead house churches that are quite small. Such leaders are often wonderful teachers but are blessed with little time to study because of their need to support themselves. If a house church has ten families who decided to faithfully give a true tithe then they could support a full time teacher (whether they would want to do this or should do it is a separate issue). If a church of 100 families tithed faithfully even more would be possible. But does this give us the right to bind on our people something that Christ took to the grave? We are never permitted to add to the commands of Christ. Pragmatism does not change this. I always find it interesting when Churches agree there is “no condemnation for those in Christ (the focus of this passage being legalistic condemnation),” but insist on divine condemnation for those not tithing (another legalistic issue). Our churches are hurt, not by the lack of tithing, but by the bad priorities and values of our people and leaders. For priorities, most Christians who are unable to give have this problem because they consume too much.[11] This shows where their priorities are. I have for years said, “In trying to keep up with the Joneses, we forget the Joneses are going to hell.” Another issue is the failure of leaders to recognize what is valuable to us may not be valuable to our people. If the people value what they get from church, they will give to support it. If they do not support it, they do not value it. So, if your people are unable to give, scolding them with the tithe is not going to help and if they are unwilling to give, it will only make them less willing. When we decide to give up grace for legalism we all lose out.[12]

End Notes:

1 This can be an example of “erring on the side of caution.”

2 I often compare this to a picture of my wife. When I used to spend long periods of time away from home in the Army I carried a picture of her. When I came home it would be foolish to ignore my wife in favor of the picture. Too many people neglect the realities to which Christ has called us, by insisting on the old shadowy representations of them.

3 I love the Didache 6:2 version of this: “For if you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.”

4 I say this law is higher because Judea was taken captive for 70 years because of their failure to keep the Sabbath, not their failure to tithe.

5 See Didache 14:1 for an early church reference to the Lord’s Day.

6 The old adage about what happens when one assumes is just as relevant when claims universal laws or puts words into the mouth of God, Jesus or the Apostles.

7 Many try to divide the Law into a ritual Law that passed and a moral Law still binding. This division is actually impossible and a violation of the Law itself. To break a moral command made one ritually unclean; to not observe a ritual requirement was a moral transgression. I have even heard some claim support for such a division in the two tablets given to Moses. Some have claimed one tablet contained the ritual Law and the other the moral Law. Actually this was the record of a covenant which was always done in pairs (one for each party). Each party in this case had a copy on file (which location, in this case, was shared by God and His people).

8 Most people are familiar with my history in House Church. I will neither be a legalist saying a church must have a building, nor one saying they must not. I will always come down on the side of freedom in Christ in any matter not spelled out exactly in scripture. I believe House Church to be the closest to the New Testament ideal, but willingly obey God by going wherever He commands, even if it includes a building.

9 See Psalm 51:17; Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23 and Romans 12:1

10 See Matthew 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:14; Philippians 4:15. Also see the example of how to give and whom to give to in Didache 13. This last passage, among the earliest from the postapostolic Church, defines the term “firstfruits” (a term often used for the tithe) as an amount given by each “that seems right to you” (Lightfoot’s and Harmer’s translation edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes).

11 I have heard of pastors telling people in a choice between paying your electric bill and tithing one should give to God and trust him to provide for their electric bill. This is a problem. The bill does not come before you consume the electricity. The money for that bill was pledged to the electric company when you touched your thermostat. To then take what is actually theirs and put it in the plate is not an act of personal faith, but one in which the electric company is forced to submit to your faith. The money was theirs. Giving it to anyone else is theft. Doesn’t that make the one teaching this an accomplice? Such people should strive through scriptural discipline to adjust their lives so there is money to give before it is owed out to others or consumed. If you are wondering about whether you should give a certain collection of money to the church to pay your bill ask this, “What will it do to my testimony if I tell the collector that I gave their money to God?”

12 Galatians 1:6. The only time in scripture where the term “fallen from grace” is used is of those who, having Christ, revert to legalism to be perfected (Galatians 5:4). We pride ourselves on not doing this in the work of the kingdom, why use it to fund that work? Too often—I fear—the answer may be rooted in the teachers back pocket instead of the scriptures.

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