Do Christians have to tithe?
Personal Questions | VBVM Staff | Mar-10-2014
Q. Does the Bible require a Christian to tithe? My pastor says a Christian should give ten percent to the church, but I can’t find that in my Bible.
A. Tithing in the Church has often been a source of confusion and debate, but as usual, Scripture gives us clear direction.
First, the word tithe simply means tenth, and the first use of the word occurs in Gen 14:20, when Abraham gives a tenth of his war spoils to the high priest, Melchizedek. Later, God incorporated the principle of tithing into His Law, and specified the rules Israel would follow in tithing.
In the Law, God requires three distinct kinds of tithing for Jews. First, Jews were required to tithe to support the Levite priests (Num 18:21-24). Since the priests were devoted entirely to serving the Lord in the temple, tithes were collected from the other tribes to support priests.
Secondly, the Jews were required to give an additional tithe in support of the three festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles (Deut 12; Deut 14:22-26). These three key festivals were funded by the tithes of the Jewish community.
Finally, Jews were instructed to give another tithe every third year for the poor (Deut 14:28-29). Taken together, all three tithes totaled between twenty to thirty percent of a Jew's income, depending on the year.
Where did a Jew give their tithe? In Malachi 3:8-10, a Jew was taught to tithe to the "storehouse," which meant the Temple coffers. The Jew brought his gifts to the Temple, and the Temple authorities distributed the funds according to God's Law and direction. Under the Law, the Jew was not free to decide for himself where to direct his tithing but always had to give it to the Temple.
In summary, the term "tithe" refers to Jews giving roughly 23% of their annual income (on average) to the temple authorities. This is the only biblical meaning for the term.
Is the Christian Required to Tithe?
First, the concept of tithing is completely missing from the New Testament, because it is literally impossible for a Christian to tithe in the way scripture requires. As we explained above, tithing is a concept found only in the Law of Moses and commanded only of Jews. Furthermore, the purpose of tithing was to financially support the Levitical priesthood, the operation of the temple and the conduct of the Jewish festivals in Jerusalem. Obviously, the priesthood and temple no longer exist in Israel, so it is literally impossible for anyone – Jew or Christian – to tithe in the way scripture requires.
Most importantly, the Christian does not live under the requirements of the Law of Moses (Rom 6:14; 7:6; Gal 5:18), so the requirements of the Old Testament Law do not apply to the New Testament believer. Furthermore, there is no New Testament command for Christians to tithe, whether to the church or to anyone else. This conclusion bears repeating: a Christian is never commanded by any scripture to tithe to anyone.
On the other hand, tithing is a very specific form of giving, and while Christians are not commanded to tithe, we are instructed to give generously to the needs of the saints. So how should the New Testament believer approach giving?
According to the Bible, the Christian is expected to give generously to the needs of the saints, according to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Paul taught this point specifically in 2Corinthians 8, as did James in his letter.
On the other hand, the New Testament never specifies how much a believer should give nor to whom a believer should give. All giving is to be voluntary, done without compulsion, and according to the leading of the Holy Spirit both in the amount and the destination. In other words, the believer enjoys liberty in this area just as he or she does in many other areas of the Christian life.
The New Testament Model for Giving
Though we have liberty, the Bible does stipulate general guidelines on the frequency and manner of our giving (not tithing). We find those instructions in 1Corinthians 16:1-2:
1Cor. 16:1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also.
1Cor. 16:2 On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.
In writing to the church in Corinth, Paul said he gave these same instructions to the church in Galatia, therefore we know Paul's directions were a model for early Christians (and therefore for us as well). In this brief passage, Paul outlines seven requirements for Christian giving.
First, Paul directed that giving should be a regular, consistent habit. Giving should be a way of life for a Christian so that it becomes a part of our financial routine. When giving isn't routine, we may find ourselves less willing to give generously when needs arise.
Secondly, to ensure regularity Paul directed the church in Corinth to give on the first day of every week. Paul wasn't necessarily establishing a rule for what day we must give. Rather, Paul was giving an example of how to become regular and consistent in giving. Whether we give on Sundays or any other day, we should discipline ourselves to give in a consistent pattern (i.e., weekly or monthly) rather than only when it's convenient.
Thirdly, Paul says "each of you" should give. Giving is the responsibility of every individual Christian, not just of a Christian household. Even if the head of the household produces all the family income, it is still important for every Christain living in the home to participate in the distribution of the family giving. This opportunity trains younger family members to give and allows everyone to share in the blessing of giving.
Fourthly, Paul specified that our giving be "to the saints." Just as the Jewish tithe was for the benefit of the priesthood or the Jewish people overall, likewise Christian giving is for the benefit of other Christians, whether for their personal needs or for official ministerial functions. Though our giving to the Lord should always be directed to Christian individuals or causes, we are always free to make additional charitable contributions to other organizations as we please.
Fifthly, Paul asked that collections not be made "when I come." This curious addition suggests Paul was concerned that his arrival might become an occasion for taking a special collection. Paul knew that if giving were based merely on special occasions (i.e., Paul's visit) rather than as a result of regular, disciplined sacrifice, it would lead to an unhealthy and unsustainable pattern. Paul didn't want regular giving to become an exception rather than the rule.
More importantly, Paul did not want his visit to be exploited by church leaders for fundraising. Paul wanted his arrival to be refreshing for the people rather than burdensome. This detail is a stinging rebuke for any minister who requires an honorarium or other stipend as a prerequisite to teaching or ministering to a body of believers.
Sixthly, Paul instructs our giving should be in keeping with our prosperity (v.2, "as he may prosper"). The New Testament believer is to give according to the Spirit, but the specific amount of our giving should vary according to our means. Poor believers will naturally give less than rich believers. Again, Paul didn't specify the amount, but he did connect the Christian's degree of generosity to his prosperity, so we should expect to give more as we earn more.
Finally, Paul gives no specific destination for our giving, but says our giving is to be done by "putting aside in savings." This is an important (and rarely followed) practice. The literal phrase in Greek in verse 2 means "to store up privately." Paul's expectation was that the believers in Corinth would consistently set aside some of their earnings reserved for the needs of the saints. The believer wouldn’t distribute these funds until a need presented itself, so until there was a need, their weekly giving would remain "stored up" privately.
Giving was conducted this way, in part, because the early church didn't own buildings, nor did it maintain church bank accounts. Therefore, the church wasn't in a position to collect and store tithes. Instead, the money remained in the hands of the individual believer until it was needed for some specific purpose within the Body, at which time each believer would be asked to withdraw some funds from their savings and give it in support of the need. This is why Paul wanted believers to save each week – so that they could be ready to give a donation when asked!
Storing up privately is a perfectly appropriate form of New Testament giving today as well, provided the Christian is self-disciplined enough to store and distribute the funds as the Holy Spirit leads. Like all New Testament giving, it should be done freely, without obligation, according to the Holy Spirit and for the benefit of the saints.
In light of these seven requirements, a Christian may still choose to follow the traditional practice of giving ten percent of income directly to the local church on a regular basis, just as many Christians have chosen to do. Any Christian who feels led by the Holy Spirit to contribute in this manner may do so, but this is not the only way a Christian can approach giving. It is just one possible approach. Paul's teaching makes clear we may also store up privately and distribute to a wide variety of Christian needs according to the leading of the Spirit.
Every believer should guard against falling into any rigid practice of giving that isn't under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Christians are to be Spirit-led, not rule-driven.