While listening to sermons on tithing, I’ve heard preachers say that the way people spend their money is one of the best indicators of their true values, and I believe there’s a lot of truth in this statement. But let’s switch it around and apply this statement to the church instead of the individual. I don’t think anything reveals the true values of the institutional church quite like the way it spends money.
In the New Testament, every instance of financial giving resulted in money being distributed to people. If you doubt this statement, please dig into your Bible, and check it out. Throughout the New Testament the church is always portrayed as a community of believers, and financial giving is always depicted within this context. Paul refers to financial giving as this ministry to the saints.1 In contrast, today’s institutional church collects money from the people so it can be consumed by the institution. It will spend large sums of money on elaborate buildings with coffee bars and high-end sound systems. A major portion of its budget usually goes to the salaried employees who make a living working at the church. All this would indicate that the institution is valued more than the people. In financial matters, the church doesn’t just operate differently from what the Bible emphasizes, it operates completely backward.
Communication becomes difficult when you’re using a word to mean one thing, but to those you’re addressing, it means something altogether different. For the most part, our Christian culture has a different perception of the word church than the way it is used in the Bible. The Greek word that the Bible translates into church is ekklesia, which means those who are called out, or those called together. When the Bible uses the word church, it’s talking about people, a community of believers. So, for clarity, in this article I will sometimes use church(p) to refer to the church the people, and church(i) to refer to the church as an institution.
The institutional church is a cash hungry operation. Typically, it needs money to pay for its possessions and its overhead, and the larger the operation, the larger the cash flow needs to be. So, it’s common for churches(i) to teach that believers are supposed to tithe, which means to give a tenth of your income to God, and they explain that the way this money is given to God is to give it to whatever church(i) you associate with. Different churches(i) will put different degrees of emphasis on tithing, but it’s usually communicated as something God clearly expects you to do, and they will utilize the Bible to communicate this expectation. However, if you simply pull together all the scriptures that address tithing (there aren’t that many) and examine all that the Bible has to say about the subject, it becomes clear that many church leaders are quite biased in how they use the scriptures to make a case for their version of tithing.
First, let’s clarify how we as New Testament believers should relate to the Old Testament (OT) scriptures. The OT is the word of God and should be approached as having authority equal to the New Testament. It’s a mistake to discount something the Bible says just because it’s found in the OT. However, within the OT is a portion of scripture known as the Mosaic Law. These are the laws given through Moses to the nation of Israel after God delivered them from Egypt and called them into covenant with Himself. The Mosaic Law contains comprehensive ordinances that governed how the Israelites were supposed to approach God, and how they were to approach everyday life; addressing such things as what kind of foods they were allowed to eat, what kind of cloth their clothes could be made of 2, and even addressing personal grooming, telling men how to trim their hair and their beards 3. These laws are communicated in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, and reviewed again in Deuteronomy. The Mosaic Law was specific to the Mosaic Covenant, which came to an end when God instituted the New Covenant 4. While there are valuable principles we can glean from the Mosaic Law, the New Testament is clear that we are not under the law 5.
All of that leads to this important point; although scripture reveals a couple of instances of tithing prior to the Mosaic Law (more on that later) it wasn’t until the introduction of the law that tithing was instituted as a commandment to be observed by all of God’s people. The first scriptures that establish tithing as a requirement are found in Leviticus 27:30-32, prior to this there are no scriptures that require people to tithe. So, to be clear, the commandments that establish tithing as a requirement, are found only within the Mosaic law, and this is verified in the New Testament. Hebrews 7:5 says “those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people”. While there are later OT passages that address tithing, these were written while the Mosaic Covenant was still in effect, therefore the writers are merely reminding the people of what was previously established by the Mosaic Law.
Regarding tithing prior to the Mosaic Law, there are two instances, one involving Abraham, and the other Jacob. The instance of Abraham is seen in Genesis 14:17-20 when Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek after defeating a number of kings in battle. There’s no indication that Abraham tithed on a regular basis. This instance appears in scripture as a one-time event.
The account of Jacob is seen in Genesis 28:20-22 when he was fleeing from his brother Esau. God spoke to Jacob in a dream and promised to bless him and to be with him. Jacob made a vow that he would give a tenth to God of all that God gave to him.
These accounts are sometimes used to teach that the Mosaic Law coming to an end doesn’t do away with the requirement to tithe since tithing existed prior to the Mosaic Law. But if these accounts are going to be used as a basis for tithing, then there’s an essential element that should be followed; each of these instances was voluntary. There is no indication that God commanded either Abraham or Jacob to tithe. So again, the commandments that establish tithing as a requirement, are found only within the Mosaic law.
Exegesis is the process of discovering the intended meaning of scripture. The word literally means to draw out. Exegesis involves approaching the Bible with an open mind and sincere desire to “draw out” whatever truth the scriptures have to say. The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis, which means to draw in. Eisegesis involves approaching Biblical topics with predetermined beliefs and “importing” these beliefs into your interpretation and application of the scriptures. Eisegesis is the result of going into the scriptures looking to support what you have already determined to believe, rather than approaching the scriptures with an objective attitude that empowers them to influence what you believe.
Most church leaders wouldn’t think of using scriptures from the Mosaic Law to teach that certain foods are unclean, or how men are supposed to trim their hair, because they fully understand that those commandments are not applicable to believers living in the New Covenant. Yet they will teach people they are supposed to obey the commandment to tithe, and they will pick and choose from the scriptures in order to support this teaching.
Their selectivity starts when they choose to exclusively enforce tithing from among all the Mosaic Law commandments. But then they become even more selective by choosing which scriptures within the law they want to emphasize and which ones they want to ignore to get the results they desire.
To give you a more comprehensive picture of what the Bible says about tithing, here are some scriptural guidelines that may surprise you.
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled (Deuteronomy 26:12 ESV)
This verse instructs them to give their tithe to people in need, and they were free to choose who specifically their tithe would go to. This doesn’t support the popular teaching that your tithe is supposed to go exclusively to your local church(i).
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe… then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy 14:22-26 ESV)
Wow! This introduces a very different aspect of tithing. They were allowed to consume their tithe. This describes a party atmosphere, where the tithe was used to purchase food and drink so they could rejoice and celebrate before the Lord. For some reason this passage is overlooked when people are teaching the traditional view of tithing.
If you go beyond tithing and consider giving in general; nowhere in the New Testament will you see money being collected to be given to a church(i). However, there are numerous instances where money was given by believers, to be distributed to other believers who were in need.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:34-35 ESV)
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:45 ESV)
So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:29-30 ESV)
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. (Romans 12:13 ESV)
Now concerning the collection for the saints… On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. (1 Corinthians 16:1-2 ESV)
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. (Romans 15:25-26 ESV)
In 2 Corinthians, there are two chapters (8-9) devoted to telling the story of a large campaign that involved many churches collecting money to help believers in Jerusalem. In chapter 8, verse 4, Paul explains how the churches in Macedonia begged earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. In verse 7, he encourages the Corinthians to excel in this act of grace also.
New Testament scriptures place a strong emphasis on giving to help believers in need, and no emphasis on giving to the institutional church. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food”, and “I was naked and you clothed me”. When asked when this happened, he said “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”. But to others, he said, “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”. When read in its full context (Matt 25:31-46), you realize that helping others with physical needs, or failing to do so, has serious, and eternal implications.
You may be wondering if I’m saying that it’s wrong to give money to your local church. But let me suggest a more relevant question to consider. Has giving to a local church replaced giving to one another in the Christian community? The answer to this question is clearly yes; giving to a church, which isn’t seen anywhere in the New Testament, has replaced giving to help other believers, which is seen extensively in the New Testament. In today’s Christian culture, the institutional church consumes most of the money given by Christians, with little emphasis on helping individuals in need. What’s portrayed in the Bible as the family of God taking care of itself, has been transformed into a business paying its bills. It’s one more aspect of the body of Christ that’s been lost to the institutional church.
Over the years I’ve run into people who object to tithing. But their reasoning usually seems more about holding on to their money than about giving according to scriptural guidelines. It’s not my goal to in any way diminish people’s financial giving. God loves generosity! This is reflected throughout the Bible and something we should take seriously.
This may come as a surprise, but I personally practice tithing. I do this following the example of Abraham and Jacob. For me, it’s a personal conviction and not something that’s required of me or anyone else. I don’t give money to an institutional church, instead, I follow the New Testament example of giving to people in need. This is done in a variety of ways, sometimes directly to individuals, and sometimes to organizations that are committed to caring for those in need. I try to practice generosity in general, with an openness to how God may lead me to give. I view my tithe as my minimum commitment but certainly not the end of my responsibility to be generous.
It’s my prayer that we will value people over any institution, that we will return to one-another focused ministry, both spiritually and financially.
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- 2 Corinthians 9:1 NAS For it is superfluous for me to write to you about this ministry to the saints
- Deuteronomy 22:11 ESV You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.
- Leviticus 19:27 ESV You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.
- 1 Corinthians 11:25 ESV In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” – Hebrews 7:22 ESV This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. – Hebrews 8:13 ESV In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
- Romans 6:14 ESV For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. – Romans 7:6 ESV But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. – Galatians 5:18 ESV But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.