Friday, September 12, 2008

Freed from Tithing, Free to Give - Part 2

How Much Should I Tithe?
The word "tithe" means "one-tenth." A common question that I've heard all throughout my Christian life is, "Should Christians tithe off of their gross income or net income?" Please excuse my incredulity, but come on! - The whole basis of the question is misguided, at best. It assumes that "tithing" is for Christians, and that it has to do with money. Let's begin, through the scriptures, to put those ideas to death. I do want to point out as we get into this that I am differentiating between "giving" and "tithing." "Giving" is part of the Christian's new nature, and is done through grace - just like the rest of the Christian life. Unlike the 10% tithe, "giving" has nothing to do with a set amount or a legally prescribed amount, but rather has much more to do with a cheerful heart that truly desires to give. Christian giving is by no means limited to money, but may involve the giving of possessions, time, talents, services and other resources (we'll get into this later on in the series.) Tithing, however, is a completely different story.

More Than One Tithe

It may come as a surprise to many people that Malachi 3 is really only a small portion of the scriptures that talk about tithing. Did you know that? Judging by all the tithing teachings that I've heard in my life, you'd think that Malachi 3 was "IT" when it comes to the teaching of tithing.

Notice the Malachi passage says "bring all the tithes (plural) into the storehouse." What tithes? And what storehouse? It seems the modern church is ignorant about all this (doesn't really have a clue what this really means) - and in fact has, in its ignorance, turned the Malachi passage into something that it is not. However, Israel - the actual people to whom the laws were given - knew exactly what was meant. Under the system of law that they lived in, many instructions had been given regarding various tithes, and each tithe had various purposes. As we go through them, take note as to whether or not any of them had to do with income or paychecks - or money in any way. Also take note as to the frequency of each tithe (weekly? monthly? yearly? every three years? etc). And take note as to where the tithes were taken to, and how they were distributed and used. And finally, take note as to whether the people had a free choice on whether to tithe or not. (In other words, could they decide in their hearts to give cheerfully, or did they have to give).

Abraham's Tithe
The first mention of a "tithe" in the Bible is in Genesis 14. I'll summarize the story, but make sure you read the story for yourself. It's a quick and easy read. In short, a handful of kings had gone to war against another handful of kings. During a battle, Abraham's nephew, Lot, was captured, along with his family and goods. So Abram planned and executed an attack, and was able to bring back Lot and his family, and all of the goods that had been taken. Then Melchizedek king of Salem blessed Abraham, and Abraham "gave him a tithe of all." (Update: Does "all" mean that Abraham gave a tithe of everything he owned?  I wrote this blog post on that subject.)

I don't know how many times I've heard this story used to teach the "principle" of tithing. I've heard it said that it was through "Abraham, the father of our faith," that the principle of tithing was introduced, and so we can follow Abraham's actions as an example of the principle of tithing since we're his children by faith. Well, remember - Abraham's tithe was a one-time tithe. It wasn't something Abraham continued to do, nor did it have anything to do with his salary or employment earnings or wealth. After fighting in a battle and winning back the goods and people that had been taken, he took the spoils of war and offered a tenth of it to Melchizedek. It's that simple.

(Update: Some historians note that it was either a law or custom in that part of the world at that time to give a tithe of the spoils of war to the local king or priest.  That is to say, Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek - "king of Salem, priest of the Most High God" - Heb 7:1 - had nothing to do with him having a generous or a giving heart.  He was following the local law or custom.)

Tithing Not a "Type" for New Covenant Giving
This one-time tithe of Abraham was never meant to be used to promote or teach a principle of tithing or giving in the New Covenant church.  That idea is made up. In fact the writer of Hebrews gleans something out of this story that does have to do with the New Covenant, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Christian giving. You perhaps know that many things in the Old Covenant are "types and shadows" of the "substance" of the New Covenant. It seems that Old Covenant "tithing" and the Old Covenant "storehouse" are reckoned by many as a type and shadow of Christians giving money to a church. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In the book of Hebrews we find Abraham's tithe brought up as part of the writer's explanation of something else... something that has nothing at all to do with tithing. In Chapter 7, Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek is used to show that there was a need for something greater than the Levitical priesthood, which turns out to be the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus. It says, "Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him." If you read all of Hebrews 7, you'll see that the whole point of Abraham's tithe being brought up has nothing to do with Christians following some principle of tithing, but it has everything to do with showing how Jesus is superior to the Levitical priesthood. More on this in Part 7.  The point here is that Abraham's tithe is not used in the New Testament as an example of Christian giving.

Abraham's tithe was not given out of sacrifice or obligation. It wasn't given as a gesture of his good heart, or a heart of faith.  It wasn't given as a result of being "convicted" by a sermon on "giving." It wasn't given to a local church or congregation of people of faith. It wasn't given to help a cause. It wasn't given to pay a salary to Melchizedek or his "staff," nor to pay for building costs or church programs. It also had nothing to do with a principle of sowing so that he could reap. Anyone who teaches you any of these things is making it up.  Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek was simply a one-time offering from the spoils of war. Let's please take it for what it was, and not make it into something that it wasn't.

Jacob's Voluntary Tithe
In Genesis 28:22, Jacob said to God, "of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to you." This was a voluntary vow to give God a tenth, and it was a conditional vow, starting with the "if" in Gen 28:20.  Also, Jacob said this of himself.  All of the rest of the people didn't make this same pledge.  I don't know of any other examples of the voluntary giving of a tenth. There could be more but I don't know of any. (If you know of any, please let me know). The thing I want to point out is that there is hardly enough evidence, in my opinion, to conclude - or even to merely suggest - that tithing (giving a tenth) was ever meant to be a normal part of the lives of people of faith. It's conjecture at best, with a stark absence of other examples of voluntary tithing in the lives of the Old Testament saints.

We do see plenty of examples of giving all throughout the Bible! Giving is done by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of sizes and amounts. Giving is done in corporate ways and in ways that are much more personal. (More on this in Parts 9 and 10).  But to me there seems to be an underwhelming amount of evidence that would support the idea of tithing (giving a tenth) as a principle in the lives of believers.

Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


  1. There is not a hint that Abraham's tithe was voluntary. All surrounding nations in his time tithed 10% of pagan spoils of war to the local king-priest as a necessity. In Numbers 31 the Law-tithe of spoils of war was only 1% and spoils of war were not allowed into the temple. See my site for over 150 articles.

  2. Russell,

    I don't know the history of the time as you say it is, and if it's true I'm all for the possibility that Abram gave the tithe in the same manner as the other nations did, to the priest-king from the spoils of war. However I'd also say that since the scriptures don't say what Abram's actual intentions were in giving the tithe to Melchizedek, we can't say that with certainty.

    Either way, the main point that I wanted to make here was that Abram's tithe was not a "principle" for people of faith to follow - whether OT saints or NT saints.

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  4. Jesus Himself clearly upheld the practice of tithing. How do you interprete Matthew 23:23?

  5. C'mon Joel--post something controversial! Stop playing it safe.

    Actually, I think you and I are on the same page on the tithing thing. I'm interested to see where you take us on this subject.

    Next week, I'm expecting your series on predestination, or maybe pre-trib rapture. You know, get everybody stirred up!

  6. Cyberanger,

    This series is really just getting started, and I'll be getting to Matthew 23 (as well as Luke 11 & Luke 18) towards the end. As I said in Part 1, we need to put first things first. There is a serious need to understand the actual Old Testament tithes first (which I'll do in the next few posts), before interpreting their references elsewhere.

    For now I'll just say that in Matthew 23, Jesus was talking to people who were under the Old Covenant and He was calling them hypocrites because they had the appearance of being "clean" outwardly, but were unclean on the inside. They said they were law-keepers, but yet they didn't really follow the law fully! Jesus was saying that they were indeed keeping certain parts of the law (such as the tithes) but they had neglected other things. Again, He was speaking "law" to those who were actually under the law. Matthew 23 is not a Christian teaching, but rather a rebuke to those who were under the law. I'm hoping that by first laying the foundation of the actual tithing laws, all of this will be made clear in the end.


    Haha! I'm sure there are other controversial things I could come up with! :D

    But speaking seriously, the subject of tithing is a major one that I think causes a lot of undue bondage in the body of Christ, and my reason here isn't to be controversial, but to help people to be free.

  7. Joel, as I read this post, it occurred to me that Abraham didn't tithe on his possessions but he actually gave a tithe of someone else's possessions.

    Also, I believe what Russell said is correct. I've heard that before. Abraham was apparently following the custom of his day rather than following a command of God since nowhere in scripture was Abraham commanded by God to tithe.

    I understand that circumcision was also practiced by neighboring tribes yet in this case God clearly commanded him regarding circumcision.

    If Abraham had been commanded to follow the custom of his day by tithing why wasn't that mentioned in scripture as was the command to circumcise?

  8. Aida,

    I'm kind of "so so" on the idea of stating as fact that Abram's motivation to tithe was due to following the customs or requirements of his surrounding culture, but I certainly don't take it off the table. Scripture doesn't state his motives, but if it was a common practice in his day, Moses might not have felt the need to write it in the scriptures.

    The main thing I wanted to point out was what you are so very correct in saying - God did not command Abram to tithe. Also, I have heard it said too many times in churches that Abram's tithe was a great example for the church to follow --- as if giving 10% of your income to a local body of believers is really anything like Abram's tithe of the spoils of war! (And as you also wonderfully pointed out - it wasn't even his own stuff!). And lastly I wanted to point out that Hebrews 7 gives a totally different interpretation of Abram's tithe than anything I've ever heard in church.

    As for circumcision, I really don't see God's commanding something of Abraham as an imitation of the culture around him. I think many people in the world have practiced circumcision for many different reasons, but in Abram's case God's command was as a sign of His covenant. No time to get into all of that here, but as with Abram's tithe and Hebrews, the command of circumcision is explained by Paul in a new covenant light.

    But no matter how you look at it, I do think it's interesting that the church teaches Abraham's tithe as an example or command to follow - even though New Testament scripture states what it was really all about - and yet doesn't teach circumcision as a Christian practice.