This is part 4 in a series on the theology behind house churches. To see the other posts in this series you can find a link to them at the bottom of this entry. As stated previously, these posts are about the nature and practices of the ekklesia. They are not meant to be taken as a criticism of the people of God regardless of how anyone chooses to assemble. Today’s post is all about the tithe. I have erm, 'borrowed' the title of my post from a chapter in a friends book on the same subject entitled 'A Church Beyond Imagination' which you can download for free at the top right hand corner of this very page.
One of the questions that comes up regarding the simple assembling of believers in homes rather than the more formalized gatherings that take place in church buildings is one regarding tithing. If there is no building, full time clergy or staff to maintain then who do we tithe to? Or do we even need to tithe at all? This will be the subject of part 4 in this series and below is my attempt to answer these questions.
Old covenant tithing
Before we get into giving as we believe it is taught in the New Testament it is necessary for me to first explain how tithing worked in Israel under the Law of Moses. Firstly, the tithe involved the produce of the land only and not money as we currently like to think of it. There are also not one but three different kinds of tithes mentioned in the Law which we need to look at:-
Tithe 1 – The first tithe involved the produce of the land and was given toward the Jewish festivals. In Deuteronomy 14:22-23 we read, “You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.” (see also Dt 12:27-28). So the first tithe was not something that you gave away but one that you actually ate at a feast before the Lord.
Tithe 2 - When Israel entered the Promised Land all the tribes inherited a portion of the land except for Levi. The Levites were set apart to service in relation to the work of the tabernacle of meeting. Because they were not given land they had no means of farming for themselves and so the other tribes were commanded to give a tithe of their harvests to them (Numbers 18:21-24). The Levites would then in turn give a tenth of what they received toward Aaron and his descendants who served in the temple (or the tabernacle of meeting which preceded it, Nehemiah 10:35-39).
Tithe 3 – Deuteronomy 14:28-29 says, “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and fatherless and widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”(See also Dt 26:12-13). So in addition to the Levitical tithe and the tithe that was used during the Jewish festivals there was a tithe that supported the needy. There is some debate whether these were three separate tithes or one tithe split in three ways, I think scripture makes more of a case for three separate tithes equaling about 23.3% of ones annual harvest. The big idea to take from this here is that under the old covenant tithing was good news for the poor, those without land (the Levites), widows, orphans and foreigners, rather a burden on them.
The Christianization of the tithe
It may surprise some of you to learn that the early followers of Jesus never practiced tithing as a church principle. It may also have surprised you to learn that there were several tithes practiced under the Old Covenant and that tithing was directly associated with agriculture rather than money. The idea of the Levitical tithe being adapted to support the Bishops emerged only after the emergence of a clergy/laity system was established in the church. It was first suggested by Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd century AD but was still not widely accepted or practiced for another 500 years! The Christian tithe was actually adapted from 8th century European tax laws as a means of funding and maintaining church cathedrals. It only became official church practice under Pope Adrian 1st and was enforced by law on all citizens from the year 787AD.
Giving in the early church
The early church was not under any obligation to tithe. It was not limited to a specific people group (Israel) in a specific land living under Jewish Law. It was actually taught that keeping of the Mosiac Law for Gentile believers was simply not necessary (Acts 15:28-29) and by trying to do so one was actually placing themselves under curse (Galatians 3:10). Nevertheless, the heart of the church was clearly charitable and their giving actually superseded that of those living under the old covenant despite having the liberty to give ‘not of necessity but as each one purposed in his own heart’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). Consider some of the following verses:-
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. – Acts 2:44-45
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things that he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common…nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of land or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles feet, and they distributed to each as anyone had need. – Acts 4:32-35
I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that there may be equality. – 2 Corinthians 8:12-15
Consider also Paul’s example as recorded in Acts 20:33-35, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’”.
One other example of giving must be mentioned here which is recorded in 1 Corinthians 16:1-3:-
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collection when I come.
We have all heard this verse from the pulpit before but there are a few things worth pointing out which were probably not highlighted in these verses when you heard them. Firstly, ‘something as he may prosper’ does not equal ten percent. Secondly, the collection was not for Paul or even for the church which was making the collection, it was not even for another institution but for the saints themselves. Thirdly it may not even have been a financial gift but rather food and similar aid. All we can see from this portion of scripture is that the church seemed to have made a bit of a practice of bearing one another’s burdens (see Acts 11:27-30 and Romans 15:26) where collections were taken to ease the burdens of others who were in need.
Also, It is obvious from the above who it was who benefited from the collections that were being taken. In a similar manner to tithing under the old covenant, giving under the new covenant is supposed to be good news for the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners, not a burden on them. Paul’s instructions to the churches in Corinth, Galatia and elsewhere were not solid rules for everyone, everywhere all the time. It is absurd to think that he would have commanded the Judean church suffering through famine to put money or food aside every week for the churches that were supplying for their needs as well. The idea being expressed here is one of equality where no one lacks and each has their needs met.
Some common objections
While this article is not meant to be an exhaustive study on tithing there are a few other verses I must address which may be raised in objection to what I have written above. Here are some of the more common objections one might raise in response to my article.
1 Timothy 5:19 says that a laborer is worthy of his wages.
I agree, I am not actually against supporting people financially, especially missionaries serving on foreign soil. Paul himself received support from the church in Philippi at one time in his ministry (Philippians 4). This however does not mean that anyone is compelled to give a tenth of one’s income to anyone else. We also need to prayerfully consider the consequences of our support. Will it serve to spread the gospel of the kingdom or will it add to the idea that certain members of the body are more important than others? Are we not all priests? As soon as we have a paid professional the onus is unfairly placed on their shoulders to run the church and bring a message every week while the rest of us flex only our wallets rather than our giftings.
Tithing preceded the law, look at Abraham and Jacob.
There are indeed two recorded instances of people tithing before the Mosaic Law gave the command. The first was Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek in Genesis chapter 14 (see verses 18-20). A few things I need to point out are that so far as we know this was the only tithe Abraham ever gave. It also never came out of his own personal possessions; Abraham gave ten percent of the spoils of war to Melchizedek (verse 16) and then gave the other ninety percent of the retrieved possessions back to the Sodomites (verses 22-23). Abraham kept nothing for himself!
Likewise Genesis 28:20-22 records Jacobs vow to God that if He was to prosper and protect him then he would give a tenth back to God. It is unclear if or how from scripture Jacob even fulfilled this as the priesthood had not being established yet (so who did he give it to?). It is possible that the gift of cattle that he gave to Esau in chapter 32:13-18 was a tithe to his brother but one can only speculate. The point is that it was a once off event, was agriculturally related (goats, ewes, rams etc) and once again bore no resemblance to the way tithes are thought of in the church today. Animal sacrifices were also recorded in scripture before the law was given so the idea that something should still be practiced because it preceded the Mosaic Law is nonsensical.
In closing, one cannot speak about tithing without mentioning Malachi 3:8-9, “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed you’? In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse…”. Notice here that God is speaking to the Levites (v3) who were living under the Law, what a contrast it is to Galatians 3:10 which says that those who are in Christ have been set free from the Law and by trying to keep it are placing themselves under a curse! What is most important here for you and me is verse 5, God was angry because people were exploiting wage earners and widows and orphans and turning away foreigners (are you listening my fellow South Africans?).
If one truly wants to be biblical about tithing, you would need to rebuild the temple, find the Ark of the Covenant and other items from the tabernacle and reestablish the Levitical priesthood so you could bring a tenth of your crops to the temples storerooms on an annual basis (provided you are a farmer and an Israelite). Tithing is biblical, it is however not Christian. As for you and me, let us live simply and give excessively. “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise”. – Jesus (Luke 3:11).
Other posts in this series
Gathering to Christ
Two kinds of church
The Lord supper
On authority, submission, coverings and accountability
Gathering to Christ
Two kinds of church
The Lord supper
On authority, submission, coverings and accountability