A tithe in the Old Testament was one-tenth of a person’s income or production that was given to the Lord to be used for designated purposes, including the support of the Levites. An offering in the Old Testament was given in addition to tithes, usually as part of a sacrifice, such as the sin offering or burnt offering.
It is a widespread belief among churches in Africa that many of the Israelite laws on tithes and offerings should be followed by Christians today. Most believe that we are not required to follow these Old Testament laws to the letter, but we are called to give at least one-tenth of our income.
Christians should give generously and with sincere hearts.
The Origins of Tithes and Offerings
Culturally, the practice of tithing comes naturally to Africans. Harvest festivals such as the Homowo Festival in Ghana or the N’Cwala Festival in Zambia offer the first portion of the harvest to gods, ancestors, or traditional rulers.
Other ancient people practiced festivals similar to those in Israel and gave a portion of their harvest to human rulers, deities, and priests. Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek in Genesis 14, and Jacob vowed to give to God a tenth of what he would receive. In ancient Israel tithes were one-tenth of agricultural produce such as crops, fruits, wine, oil and livestock (Leviticus 27:30-33; Deuteronomy 14:22-27).
In Luke 18:12 a Pharisee rejoiced that he gave a tenth of his income; in Matthew 23:23-24 Jesus pointed out that Pharisees gave a tithe of things as insignificant as mint, dill and cumin. Jesus said they “should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the most important things” such as “justice, mercy, and faith.”
Tithes were a reminder to Israel that their land belonged to God and the fruit of their land came from God.
Laws and Legalism
Israel was required to bring tithes to God in order to meet the needs of the Temple priests, the Levites, and special community needs (Nehemiah 10:37-38). The tithe could be used for ceremonial meals like the Passover (Deuteronomy 12:6-7; 12:18, 14:23). Tithes could also be given to assist the poor, foreigners, the fatherless, and widows (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
The tribe of Levi was to taken care of by the tithe from the other tribes (Numbers 18:20). “As for the tribe of Levi, your relatives, I will compensate them for their service in the Tabernacle. Instead of an allotment of land, I will give them the tithes from the entire land of Israel” (Numbers 18:21).
The tithe went to supporting people. The Tabernacle was built from the gifts of the Israelites (Exodus 35:4-11). Later the Temple was repaired using special gifts (2 Chronicles 34:8-9). After giving to the poor, the Levites would receive the same income as the other tribes, not above or below the standard of living of the other tribes.
In addition to helping to meet these needs, tithes were a reminder to Israel that the land belonged to God and the fruit of the land came from God (Deuteronomy 8:6-18).
The New Testament gives no legal requirement to give a certain percentage of income to God.
Although Jesus told the Pharisees that they should tithe (Matthew 23:23), the New Testament gives no legal requirement to give a certain percentage of income to God. Rather, it teaches that Christians should give generously and with sincere hearts (2 Corinthians 8-9). Some churches enforce a legal approach to giving by requiring a regular payment of tithes in order for a member to participate in the sacraments and church activities or to have a church wedding or funeral. The principle of tithing can be a good model for our churches as long as it is not done in a spirit of legalism.
God Commands Stewardship, Not Tithing
The New Testament church – and the church in Africa today – should not only tithe and then assume we have fulfilled our responsibility; rather, we should desire to be good stewards. Stewardship means that everything that one has is a gift from God and is intended by God to be used for God’s purposes. Being a steward is a position of responsibility in a master’s household. We have been given responsibility to make wise use of our master’s money and resources. And we will be held accountable for how we use what we have been given.
Stewardship means that everything we have is a gift from God and is intended by God to be used for God’s purposes.
We are called to help however we can with whatever we have, with both time and money, in whatever way the Master calls us. And we are to do it with joy and thanksgiving. Tithing is about giving ten percent. Stewardship is about using what we need and giving to God and his Kingdom. We in Africa enjoy giving to people through hospitality, but having such an attitude of stewardship will transform the African church.
The greater our awareness of God’s grace, the greater our generosity will be and the more eager we will be to give. Giving is an act of worship, holy and pleasing to God.
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