History of Tithing
Tithing is an Old Testament doctrine which was replaced in the New Testament in favor of freewill, voluntary offerings to the Lord. It is instructive to know and understand the history and scriptural teaching on the subject.
Before the law of Moses was given, there are two recorded instances of people paying a tithe. In Genesis 14:17-20, Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, king and priest of Salem. The tithe was not from income or the increase of crops but was from the spoils of a victorious battle. In Genesis 28:20-22, Jacob made a vow to God in which he promised to give God a tenth if the Lord would provide for him. In neither of these instances did God command the tithe, but they were acts of voluntary giving and commitment.
Under the Mosaic law, tithing was commanded by God. The tithing of the Old Testament was different than is often represented today by modern churches. According to Leviticus 27:30-32, tithing was agrarian-based and given on livestock and crops rather than on earned wages.
Multiple Tithes Required in the Old Testament
Furthermore, while a tithe represented ten percent, there were multiple tithes required according to the Old Testament law. Hence, the total that a person was required to give far exceeded the ten percent that is often promoted today. While there remains some diversity of opinion over the total percent commanded under the Mosaic law, there was at minimum twenty percent required between various required tithes.
The Levites were not given an inheritance in the land of Israel with the other tribes because they served in a religious capacity for the people. The first yearly tithe, or Levitical tithe, was commanded to be given for the support of the Levites and priests to provide for their necessities of life. “And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service” (Numbers 18:21). The Levites and priests were given compensation in the form of tithes in return for their services and sacrifice.
There was a second tithe, a festival tithe, which was commanded to be brought to the tabernacle or temple for the religious feasts and festivals in Israel. “Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year. And thou shalt eat before the LORD thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always” (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). The family members and servants ate of this tithe. It was a time of rejoicing and provided for the three annual trips to Jerusalem. This was in addition to the first tithe.
Instruction was given in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and in 26:12-13 for a third tithe, the poor tithe. This tithe was not an annual tithe. It was given every third year to assist strangers, foreigners, the fatherless, and the widows. There is controversy amongst scholars and even Jewish rabbis about whether this third tithe was completely separate from the second tithe or if it was included in the second tithe and was given to the poor on the third and sixth years of the sabbatical period. It is of note that the first tithe was to be taken to the Levitical cities, the second tithe was to be taken to Jerusalem, and the third tithe was to help all the needy “within your gates” (Deuteronomy 26:12). This poor tithe was commanded to provide for the poor that “the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand” (Deuteronomy 14:29).
In addition to any free-will offerings given, the crop/livestock tithes would have totaled at minimum 20%-23.3%. These tithes were not optional and were commanded by the Lord God. The prophet asked the people in Malachi 3:8-9, “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.” The people of Israel were robbing God of what was rightfully His under the law given to Moses.
Old Testament Covenant Replaced
Similar to a government or religious tax, tithing under the Mosaic Law was the provision for the theocratic government of Israel to provide for societal, religious, and governmental needs. While there is no doubt that tithing was a commandment in the Old Testament, contrary to the teaching of many false preachers, tithing is not taught in the New Testament. When Jesus Christ came, He made a new covenant with God’s people and the old covenant was passed away (Hebrews 8:6-13). Verse eight reads: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.” The law system of tithing was abolished as was Sabbath keeping, animal sacrifices, fleshly worship, etc.
Jesus spoke of tithing in His rebuke of religious leaders who were faithful to tithe but neglected the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). Tithing was still practiced during the time of Christ’s ministry among the Jews because Israel was still under the law and the full plan of salvation was not complete until the day of Pentecost.
Some principles of the Old Testament were reinstated but many were fulfilled in a higher plane of living based upon a personal, voluntary relationship with Jesus Christ. True righteousness does not stand in giving “tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:12) but in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. “But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6).
New Testament Giving
While not teaching a “tax-based” tithing system, the New Testament has much to say about giving. Christianity is based upon voluntary, love service to God. The new covenant teaching about giving is summarized by the apostle Paul in his instructions to the congregation at Corinth. “But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).
Giving Freely of Our Will
Rather than tithing, all of our offerings to the Lord are to be “freewill offerings.” According to the commentator Adam Clarke, the Jews had two chests for alms in the temple. The chest “of necessity” was where the offerings were deposited that the law required—the tithe. The second chest was for the freewill offerings where people gave not according to the required tithe but according to their love and heart for God. In the New Testament, the tithe box has been done away and all offerings are to be given as is purposed in the heart—not a commanded ten or twenty percent.
Responsibility to Give
Freedom from the law of tithing does not excuse people from giving. Everything that a Christian possesses should be consecrated to the Lord. While there is no set percentage required, there is still a responsibility to give generously, sacrificially, and with a cheerful heart. In financial decisions giving to the Lord should be first priority. Free-will offerings are to be given to support the ministry, the gospel work, the poor, etc. Let us “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Heartfelt offerings are a sacrifice acceptable and well pleasing to God (Philippians 4:18).