Should we tithe or not? Some answer with an adamant, “No.” Others insist, “Yes.” The verb ‘tithe’ comes from the old English word for a tenth: 10% of something. But the question is really whether this Old Testament obligation extends to New Testament believers.
Being set free from the law comes with the call for generosity.
This question has stirred serious debate over the years. In this article I will explore the origins of tithing in Genesis and its formalisation in the Old Testament Law. Then we will ask how Jesus’ coming impacts the letter of God’s law. From the gospels and other New Testament passages I will argue that Christians are not commanded or obliged to tithe. But being set free from the law comes with the call for generosity, mercy, and sacrificial giving.
The Origin of Tithing
A good place to start is usually at the beginning, when God made everything (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 24:1-2). Because God made everything, and everything belongs to him, early on we see the idea of giving a portion to God (Genesis 4:2). A few chapters later, Abraham gives a tenth to Melchizedek, the king and priest of Salem (Genesis 14:20; Hebrews 7:4). Later still, when God renews his promises to Abraham, Jacob promises to give a tenth of what he had to God (Genesis 28:22). This was Jacob’s response to all God had done for him and his family. Knowing that God was the one who gave him all that he had, Jacob worshipped God by giving back to him.
Before any laws were given, humanity gave part of their produce to the Lord.
The Wrong Way To Give
There are two things we can get out of this brief background. Firstly, right from the beginning, outside Eden and before any laws were given, humanity gave part of their produce to the Lord. Thus the understanding of giving to the Lord exists right from the beginning. God’s people were not obliged to give. It was voluntary.
Secondly, we can see from Genesis 4 that there is a right way and wrong way to give to the Lord. There is something that makes Abel’s offering acceptable and Cain’s offering unacceptable. Nothing in the text suggests that there was something wrong with Cain’s offering. Thus we might conclude that something stood behind God’s rejection of Cain’s offering. Perhaps it was how Cain made it, obligatory or unwilling. Maybe he was not relating to God properly in the rest of his life. Whatever it was, there is a wrong way to give to the Lord. Even if it’s 10%.
God’s people were not obliged to give. It was voluntary.
Like Abel, Abraham, and Jacob, we are expected to give a portion of what has been given to us back to him. This is the recognition that all we have is from God. It is also an expression of our gratitude.
Tithing In Old Testament Law
As the biblical story unfolds after Genesis, we arrive at Exodus. Here giving becomes formalised (Exodus 22:29; 35:5; Numbers 18; Deuteronomy 26). What was voluntary for Abraham and Jacob is made into law. Tithing becomes obligatory for those in a covenantal relationship with God (Deuteronomy 14:22; Malachi 3:8). Because the earth and its fullness belong to God, his people were instructed to give a tithe to God (Deuteronomy 12:6, 11). Importantly, especially reading through Deuteronomy 14, we learn that tithing was far from a cash donation. It was dropped weekly into a basket in the temple and served three clear purposes.
A Celebration & A Reminder
Firstly, it was a bundle of food that the Israelites were meant to bring and eat together at the temple as a part of the annual feast, celebrating their identity as God’s people (Deuteronomy 14:23). Thus it was a way to remember what God had done for his people. Tithing was motivated by gratitude and reverence rather than obligation. God’s people recognised God’s gracious goodness and responded in generous faith. For Israel, they were acknowledging that it’s God who saved them from Egypt and gave them land (2 Chronicles 31).
Provision For The Priests
Secondly, tithing had a function within the priestly system (Deuteronomy 14:29). Because the priests were not granted land, they were unable to generate their own produce or food. Their income was therefore generated through Israel’s tithing. As God’s people gave back to the Lord, out of gratitude for his generosity to them, provision was made for the priests (Deuteronomy 12:11-12).
Those who lacked, for whatever reason, were provided for by the tithe.
Relief For The Lowly
Thirdly, tithes were used to feed and take care of any sojourner, poor people, servants, widows, and orphans among Israel (Deuteronomy 14:29; 12:18-19). An essential aspect of any tithe was relief for the lowly and downtrodden. Those who lacked, for whatever reason, were provided for by the tithe.
Jesus, The Law & Tithing
The Law of Moses points to Christ (Luke 24:44). Therefore, we must ask how Christ’s ministry fulfils the Old Testament Law, tithing included (Matthew 5:17). We need to understand and interpret the Law through Christ, especially his work on the cross.
In Matthew 23:23 Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for precisely measuring their offerings while neglecting mercy, faithfulness, and justice.
Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for precisely measuring their offerings while neglecting mercy, faithfulness, and justice.
Like the Pharisees, most churches have their lists of rules and requirements on top of what God expects. Though well-meaning, these lists are not always helpful. Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees is that they should have prioritised the latter, the loving purposes behind the Law, rather than the letter. God calls for his people to imitate him. Therefore they were to practise justice, mercy and faithfulness. This is what the Law was pointing to and promoting.
What About Us?
But this still does not answer the question: should we practice tithing today? I am hesitant to say ‘yes,’ for Christians are not obligated to keep the Law. Why? Firstly, Christians are not under the Old Testament covenant in the way that Israel was (1 Corinthians 11:25).
In Luke 16:16 Jesus says, “The Law and the Prophets were until John the Baptist. Since that time the kingdom of God is preached.” Just like any other law, we are not obligated to practice tithing in the way the Israelites were (Hebrews 8:13). Tithing was only ever a signpost. Jesus is the destination. He is where God wants to us be. For in Christ we see the reality of God’s ultimate giving. Infinite generosity. Tithing was about the greatness of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It points to what God had been planning to do all along.
Tithing was only ever a signpost. Jesus is the destination.
Christians Are Under A New Covenant
Secondly, across history humanity has failed to keep the law (Romans 3:23), except one man. Only Jesus faithfully obeyed the entire Law. And he did it on our behalf. He accomplishes what we cannot: Jesus completes or fulfils the law. He came to set us free from that law we failed to keep. In Romans 6:14 Paul says, “you are not under the law but grace.” Thus, Old Testament tithing is not something that should be carried into the church today.
Jesus only promoted tithing in one instance, when he said no one should remove an iota from the law (Matthew 5:18). But he did not mean the Law is still binding after him, or beyond the purpose for which it was intended. Instead he meant the law was unalterable and will remain intact until his death and resurrection. Our obligation to the law died with Christ, releasing us from its bondage (Romans 7:2-4). Therefore, we can choose not to tithe, now that Jesus completed the work he came to accomplish at the cross.
Our obligation to the law died with Christ, releasing us from its bondage.
This is the point where our understanding of giving can become quite dangerous. For the temptation in the darker parts of our hearts runs, ‘If I don’t have to, why should I?’ Yet at the same time, we probably feel guilty if we do nothing. Thus many of us fall back into the 10%, making a law out of tithing.
3 Lessons On Tithing for Christians
Guilt is never a Christian motivation. It also runs contrary to the motivation behind giving in the Old Testament: being graciously identified with God’s people through redemption, Israel were to be generous and grateful. Giving, or tithing, should not be an obligation or duty.
1. Don’t Give Out of Duty
The first thing to learn is that our giving should be without coercion, obligation, or duty (2 Corinthians 9:7-8).
Christ’s sacrificial example wards off neatly measured giving: 10% and no more. As believers, we give back to God and others in response to his generous and gracious blessings. If we understand who we are before God, then we can give without subscribing to the figure of 10%. When something is right to do, then we should carry that out without prompting (James 4:17).
God’s people can give without being ordered to – it stems from who we are rather than what the law commands.
If you don’t like to do it don’t feel guilty about it. But if you think it’s the right thing to do then do it without coercion. Give freely; generously. For God created us to walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10). Thus God’s people can give without being commanded to. This willingness stems from who we are rather than what the law commands.
2. You Are Free To Decide The Amount
Secondly, Christians are free to give more or less than 10%. They can do this with a clear conscience before God. Christians are liberated from the law (Romans 7:1-6). Each has the freedom to decide how much to give. This is not according to the law but according to what one has. Our call to new life calls us to celebrate this freedom from the law to live a Christ changed life. When legalism creeps in it denies the joyous freedom Christ secured at the cross.
When legalism creeps in it denies the joyous freedom Christ secured at the cross.
That being said, being free from the law of tithing doesn’t mean we can live however we want. God calls on Christians to be generous and sacrificial. This will look different for each of us. So we should probably sit down and consider, even plan, what we can give away. Then do it. Be liberated from the legalism of 10% as well as the guilt that comes with giving away less than 10%. We are not freed from the law to be stingy or brag but to pursue generosity, without compulsion (2 Corinthians 9:7).
3. Share All Good Things
Thirdly, as God’s people we should practise mercy and generosity towards others (1 Timothy 6:18). As Paul puts it, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6), and, “as we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10). We can give generously to those in need with much rejoicing, not legalistically or begrudgingly.
Two Tips for Practical Generosity
I want to finish up with two practical ways to be generous – with the New Testament in mind.
First of all, make your giving regular and consistent. This is helpful for planning and budgeting purposes as a church. Weekly, monthly, quarterly, or whatever it is, do it regularly. For some, this works fortnightly because they get paid fortnightly. For others it works monthly if they get paid a salary. But be regular and consistent because it’s a principle that loves others.
Be regular and consistent in your giving: it’s a principle that loves others.
Secondly, be deliberate about how you give. Think broadly. Don’t stick to a percentage given by the church structures. God is at work beyond your local church. This might mean directing our money not only towards our local church but to the work of the gospel further afield.
Think beyond your local church. We desire to see the gospel grow and spread throughout the world.
In 2 Corinthians Paul talks about being generous to others, and our generosity is not exclusively to our home church. We should think much more broadly about what God is doing beyond ourselves.