In the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament, YHWH* commanded the children of Israel to give tithes and offerings. Some of the tithes supported the Levites and priests and some provided for widows, orphans and sojourners. Offerings likewise supported the priests and Levites, in addition to atoning for sins and satisfying various obligations of the people. Does the requirement to give tithes and offerings survive today? If so, to whom are they to be given? [In this study, all quotes are from the New American Standard Bible (copyright The Lockman Foundation 1995), unless otherwise indicated.]
The Hebrew words for "tithe" are ma`aser, ma`asar and ma`asrah, meaning one-tenth or the tenth part of something. Tithing was apparently an ancient practice among peoples of the lands around the area eventually occupied by Israel. This is evidenced by Abraham's giving one-tenth of the victory spoil to King Melchizedek of Salem (later Jerusalem) after defeating the four kings who had attacked Sodom and Gomorrah and taken his relatives captive (Gen. 14:14-20; Heb. 7:1-2).
Contrary to the belief of many, however, that event was not the origin of the obligation for the people of Israel to tithe. Instead it originated with Jacob's promise to YHWH in Gen. 28:20-22:
20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, 21 and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the LORD will be my God. 22 This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”In Gen. 31:13, Jacob told his wives how YHWH reminded him of the vow, revealing its significance. Then in Lev. 27:30,32, YHWH accepted the offer made in that vow when he established the covenant with Israel and established the tithe as part of the law governing Israel:
"30 Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’S; it is holy to the LORD. . . . 32 For every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD."Then in Num. 18:21,24, 31, YHWH gave the tithe to the Levites as their inheritance and for their service in the tent of meeting:
“To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service, which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting. . . . For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, 'They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel.' . . . 'You may eat it anywhere, you and your households, for it is your compensation in return for your service in the tent of meeting.'” (NASB)In addition, YHWH commanded Israel to tithe in the third year to support widows, orphans and sojourners as well as the Levites:
“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied." (Deut. 26:12)In Num. 18:25-26,28, YHWH commanded Levites to tithe to the priests from the tithe given to them:
25 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, ‘When you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. . . . So you shall also present an offering to the LORD from your tithes, which you receive from the sons of Israel; and from it you shall give the LORD’S offering to Aaron the priest.
According to Dt. 12:17-18, 14:23, the people of Israel were instructed to eat the tithe in the place where YHWH chose to establish his name. How this reconciles with the preceding commands is not clear. Since Jesus clearly knew Deuteronomy well, the wording of these commands may have been on his mind when he gave himself as the firstborn of many (Rom. 8:29) and commanded that the people should eat his "body", his "flesh" (Mt. 26:26, John 6:53).
Offerings appear in Genesis and Exodus without YHWH's requiring them. Sacrificing animals and offering them to gods was common among ancient peoples, just as spending money on popular entertainers reflects a form of idol worship today. It appears that since people were already sacrificing and giving offerings, YHWH preempted the practice to reinforce his primacy as the only true, living God.
YHWH's requirements to give offerings and animal sacrifices appear primarily in numerous chapters of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. For the most part, they atoned, redeemed or absolved people from sins or provided a means to cleanse or consecrate people. YHWH also specified offerings for certain annual celebrations (see, for example, Num. 28-29).
Only certain offerings were entirely burned (e.g., Ex. 29:11-18). Except for blood and portions like fat and certain organs (e.g., Lev. 3:3-4), many offerings were eaten by those offering them, a practice that may have influenced Jesus' teachings leading to and culminating in the last supper. See, for example, Dt. 12:27, Ex. 12:16, Lev. 7:15-18 and 1 Sam. 2:13-15. The priests' right to a portion of certain offerings can be found in Lev. 6:25-26, 7:32-34. The Levites' right to a portion of them can be found, for example, in passages like Num. 18:29-31.
New Testament standard
Many Christian organizations that call themselves churches link Christian stewardship to tithes and offerings, justifying the teaching by sermons and teachings that quote selective Old Testament passages such as Mal. 3:10 and some of those referred to above. Those who rule such organizations and depend on tithes and offerings for their livelihood and the organization's support have indoctrinated people by such teachings and sermons. But can the practice be supported by the New Testament?
Offerings given to atone for sins may still apply to those living under the Old Testament, but Jesus' death paid for the sins of all, once and for all, at least those who accept his sacrifice for their sins and choose to live the rest of their lives in him. For born-again Christians, at least, Old Testament rules governing burnt, sin, wave and other offerings do not make sense. Jesus replaced them as a perfect offering, his blood cleansing from sin. See, for example, John 3:14-16; Rom. 5:18-19, 6:10; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 7:26-27, 9:11-10:18, 10:26; 1 Peter 3:18, 1 John 1:7,9.
But even if Old Testament offerings and animal sacrifices do not apply to Christians, do tithes nevertheless apply to them? In a word, no. For years, I've explained to Christians the many reasons why. Now I'm offering those reasons in writing.
First among those reasons, and perhaps the most obvious, the old covenant relationship has been replaced by a new covenant relationship in Jesus, the new covenant promised in Jer. 31:31-34, which is repeated in Heb. 8:8-12. Jesus identifies his death with establishment of the new covenant in Luke 22:20. See, also 2 Cor. 3:6. The rules of the old covenant still apply to those descendants of Israel who reject the new covenant, but they do not apply to those living under the new covenant.
The obligation to give tithes applied only to the people of Israel, the descendants of Jacob based on his promise in Gen. 28:22. The quotes from Numbers above show that the tithe came from the sons (descendants) of Israel (Jacob). The obligation did not apply to the nations [goy and goyim in Hebrew], those peoples who were not descended from Jacob, including other descendants of Isaac and Abraham, such as the Edomites, Amalekites and Midianites.
According to 2 Chr. 31:4, YHWH gave the tithes and offerings to the Levites and priests so that they could devote themselves to YHWH (see also Num. 18:21, 31 quoted above). The quote makes clear that YHWH gave the tithe as compensation for the Levites' service in the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting, even the Jerusalem temple, ceased to exist millenia ago. Even if they had not, Christians are not called upon to serve in either. Moreover, as I've explained in my study of Full-Time Ministry, the same standard does not apply to Christians. If Jesus', Paul's and Peter's teaching and Paul's example mean anything, YHWH expects his ministers to support themselves.
Many of the sermons and talks that I've heard claim that tithing is part of Christian stewardship. They fail to recognize that YHWH already owns all things and needs nothing from us. See, for example, Psalm 50:10-12, Isa. 66:1-2. And for Christians, giving only ten percent is not enough. In Luke 14:33, Jesus tells us that we cannot be his disciples unless we give up all that we possess, not just one-tenth. After we devote all to him and his service, we merely become his stewards; which leaves nothing to tithe. Everything already belongs to YHWH. In terms of worldly wealth, he gives to us, not we to him. Our gift to him is our love and obedience. Instead of tithing to a business organization, Christians need to spend less time trying to accumulate wealth and use what they have to support their own ministry and, if they have a surplus, the ministry of other individuals.
Jesus summed up the many laws and rules of the Old Testament in two commandments: Love YHWH and love your neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). To these he added, love one another (John 13:34). When he mentioned tithing in Matt. 23:23 and Luke 11:42, he was pointing out how Pharisees played disingenuous games with the principle while disobeying more important commandments. In fact, no positive mention of tithing appears in the New Testament.
1 Peter 2:9 tells us that born-again Christians are members of the royal priesthood, quoting YHWH's promise to the people of Israel in Ex. 19:5-6. I have not found any passage in the Old Testament that obligated priests to tithe. On the contrary, priests were the last stop in the tithing sequence. They did not tithe. So even by Old Testament standards, born-again Christians, as members of the royal priesthood, as full-time ministers of Jesus Christ, have no duty to tithe.
Finally, perhaps the most important reason why Christians are not obligated to tithe actually warns against tithing by born-again Christians. In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul wrote to people who were resuming old practices connected with their former beliefs (see, e.g., Gal. 4:9-10). His most significant statements appear in chapters 3 and 5:
10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” 12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:10-14)
1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. (Gal. 5:1-6)Although he mentions only one act, circumcision, in those last verses, Paul makes clear that going back under the old law in any way rejects Jesus' free gift, separating the person who does it from Jesus, and requires obeying the whole of that law. Grace no longer benefits those who do it.
Are Christians, therefore, prohibited from giving to support a local congregation? Not if the Holy Spirit truly leads it, after prayer and meditation. However, too much giving to local churches results from manipulation by someone who or whose organization will benefit from the support. Too much giving results from a form of social pressure that induces a desire to conform or receive others' approval. Too much giving results from deception about what the Bible teaches or about how the money will be used. Giving motivated by such causes cannot be justified. Before giving to any organization or to any person, special care must be taken to examine and test the motivation. If the motivation arises from external sources, such as manipulation, social pressure, or deception, it should be resisted. Giving in to it is the childish response that Paul urges us to avoid in Eph. 4:14-15. Biblical stewardship requires that any gift flow from our personal ministry to YHWH and our love of Jesus Christ.
I often encounter people who tithe to the business organization that they call their church before they pay their debts, debts typically incurred to satisfy their own desires. Many of them even take bankruptcy to avoid such debts. How does that glorify YHWH? How does that lift up Jesus? How will that help to bring others into YHWH's kingdom? Like the Pharisees who ignored more important commandments for the sake of their traditions, such persons ignore the great commandments of Jesus by an act that does not glorify or honor him. Such conduct hardly qualifies as righteous. Biblical righteousness sets a higher standard. See, for example, Rom. 13:6-8,10; Jer. 22:13.
Until the true church is restored and most born-again Christians fulfill Jesus' call and their ordination to full-time ministry, the organizations within which people worship will continue to need financial support. But we need to begin weaning them from that dependency. We should not give to construct buildings of wood, steel, concrete or stone. We should give only what is truly needed for basic and necessary functions until those functions are performed by the congregation. Instead of giving to grow the organization, we should urge those who lead the organization to equip and encourage the congregation to serve YHWH in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit wherever they are in whatever they do and say. Ultimately, those who earn their living from the organization should work themselves out of their jobs, so that the true church, the temple of living stones may be restored and function in the way Jesus created it. Read more on this in my study titled Restoring the Church.
YHWH has called his people to love and serve him and to love others. Those who live in Jesus are called to do that by word and deed. Giving may be appropriate, but seldom through an organization. While our love for Jesus may lead us to give to organizations that care for the poor, orphans, and others in need, giving tithes and offerings to business organizations that call themselves churches is not required for born-again Christians, who are called to give themselves to their own full-time ministry. Such giving is rarely appropriate and cannot be justified as part of what Jesus has called us to do. More importantly, tithing risks separating us from the grace of Jesus Christ and requiring us to satisfy all the requirements of the old covenant. If we truly want to please YHWH and our lord Jesus Christ, let us love as Jesus loved and gave himself for us.
*YHWH or YHVH is the English representation of the four Hebrew letters that spell the name of the God of the Bible, the one true, living God worshipped by Jews and Christians. YHWH was the name by which he identified himself to Moses in Ex. 3:14. According to references that I've read, the exact pronunciation of YHWH's name was lost in antiquity. After much study, I prefer to pronounce the name "Yahu-wah" (the "h" being aspirated as in "hay", emphasis on the last syllable), but the generally accepted pronounciation in common English is "Yah-weh" or "Yah-way". Some translations of the Bible, such as the KJV and NASB, substitute "the LORD" for his name, following a practice begun before Jesus' birth.
YHWH revealed himself in various ways to the children of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. He also revealed himself in and through his son Jesus Christ and acts, among other ways, in and through Christians by the Holy Spirit. Because the word "God" is being used today to designate all kinds of human inventions, although accepted for centuries in English as a name for YHWH, I prefer to use the name that YHWH chose for himself rather than "God" or "the LORD" as I did in early versions of my writings. Please read The Name of the One True, Living God for a fuller discussion.
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