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The tithe controversy
Has this Old Testament law been phased out or is it still relevant?

Since there has been a great deal of controversy recently over the concept of the tithe among Christian believers, I felt I should share from my heart what I feel about this important biblical subject. In the beginning of my walk with God, when I lived in a Christian commune, I gave 90% of what I made to the work of God and kept 10% (the reverse of the tithe), then at a certain point, I gave away everything I had to the poor to go full time into the ministry, hitchhiking around the country, preaching on college campuses and in downtown inner city areas. So radical giving has been a part of my journey from the beginning. I have never felt confined to the tithe as a religious rule. I believe in giving above and beyond.

THE TITHE: ITS VALUE, ITS PURPOSE, AND ITS POWER

The word “tithe” is from the Hebrew ma ‘aser and the Greek dekate meaning one-tenth. There are two prominent, Biblical instances of tithing before the law, in the lives of the Patriarchs. They are as follows:

(1) The first occurrence is when Abraham gave the tithe to Melchizedek. Melchizedek prayed for Abraham after his return from battling five kings, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then the Scripture explains that Abraham “gave him a tithe of all” (Gen. 14:20). Read the Hebrews account of this happening:

    For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated “king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace,” Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils. And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham; But he whose genealogy is not derived from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. (Hebrews 7:1-6)                                    

Some believe that Melchizedek was an Christophany—a bodily appearance of God. Others believe he was a literal person who merely symbolically represented Christ. There is no way of knowing for certain. The key elements in this story concern the nature of the tithe that was given.

(2) The second instance is when Jacob vowed a tenth of everything to God if God would keep and prosper him during his time of exile. After his Bethel visitation, when he had the dream of the ladder extending to heaven, he prayed:

     “And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You. (Genesis 28:22)

EXPLANATIONS:

  • Precedent—These are the first two instances of the tithe in Scripture, the first two witnesses of a core biblical truth—so a precedent is being set by what took place.
  • Before the Law—Some argue that the tithe is part of the law and is therefore non-binding or non-applicable to us now, because the Scripture clearly states that we are no longer “under the law” (Gal. 5:18). However, both of these occurrences of the tithe happened before the law. So, the tithe is not something that originated with the law of Moses. It is part of a faith-walk, an act of worship, and a means of expressing dedication to God, something that Abraham and Jacob both exemplified.
  • Motive for giving the tithe—The purpose of the tithe in both these instances was to celebrate and solidify an already established relationship with God. Abraham was showing gratitude to God for something Yahweh had already done. He recognized that defeating the five kings in battle with only 300 men was an act of divine empowerment, so He was giving God all the credit for the victory He granted to them. Jacob on the other hand was attaching the tithe to a vow, as a prayerful plea that God would take care of him during his time of exile (fleeing from his brother Esau). So, in his case, the tithe was a worshipful commitment in the expectation that God would yet give him victory in the future. So, the motive for the tithe often reaches into the past and into the future.
  • Use of the tithe—We are not told what Melchizedek did with the tithe. Maybe it took care of his personal needs. However, it doesn’t seem logical that he would be dependent on the tithe for his livelihood, for he was also King of Salem. It could have been used for the region over which he ruled, or the underprivileged of that region. Who knows? We are not told the recipient of Jacob’s tithe. It may not have been a priest, for the priesthood was not functioning yet, as it would later in the days of Moses. In neither case was the tithe given to a local church or synagogue, for such things did not exist yet. It was given as an act of worship, an expression of devotion to God. In Abraham’s case, when Melchizedek blessed him in return, Scripture explains that the “lesser” was blessed by the “better” (Heb. 7:7). So, this passage describes Melchizedek as being “better” than Abraham. This could mean he was closer to God, that he evidenced a greater spirituality, or that he was more influential than Abraham in that region, or more developed in his spirituality. Once again, who knows for certain?

CONCLUSIONS

We can reach some logical conclusions through the study of these two Biblical accounts, as well as other Scriptural references:

An expression of gratitude or a statement of faith —The tithe can be either a celebration of a victory already won through God’s help or part of a prayerful statement of faith that a victory will be won yet in the future.

  • An act of worship— Tithing is primarily a means of praising God. Later on, in the law, it also became an act of obedience, giving back to God what already belonged to Him.
  • An acknowledgement of spiritual authority and God’s government—One Biblical precedent is that you find a person who is “better” (like Melchizedek): possibly more involved in ministry, more capable in ministry, more sacrificial in ministry, more fruitful in ministry, more knowledgeable in ministry, more anointed in ministry—in many cases, someone whose ministry has benefitted you. If you are part of a local church that is a true New Testament church, preaching born again salvation and allowing the Holy Spirit freedom to move, it is ethically and morally right for you to support the church where you are fed with the tithe. However, there may be exceptions to the rule. For instance, if a person feels impressed of God to share a portion of his or her tithe with a missionary, a Christian outreach, a parachurch ministry, and the other portion with the local church, there is no biblical injunction declaring that to be wrong.
  • A means of bringing souls into the kingdom or meeting the needs of God’s leaders—Later on, Malachi commanded to bring the tithe into the “storehouse”. This was a shed or some type of building used as a granary (a storehouse for harvested grain). Harvested grain in Scripture represents souls coming into the Kingdom of God. Therefore, if this is the meaning of the symbol, any sincere and valid ministry bringing souls into God’s Kingdom qualifies as a “storehouse.” The word translated “storehouse” in Malachi 3:10 is owtsar that is also translated cellar, armory, garner, store, treasure, treasury, and treasure-house. Any anointed ministry is a “treasure house” filled with enriching truth and able to enrich others through the Word and the Spirit. God told them in this passage to bring the tithe “that there may be food in My house”—so one of his primary concerns was simply meeting the natural needs of those in spiritual leadership positions.
  • A means of helping ministry workers and the underprivileged—Actually, according to Deuteronomy 26:12, the tithe was also to be given to “the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.” The Levite was a helper to the chief priests, doing much of the work around the tabernacle and later on, in the temple. Today, this would relate to ministry workers who assist a pastor, evangelist, apostle, prophet, or teacher in his or her ministry. The other three areas speak of several types of underprivileged people: poor travelers (the homeless), orphans, and widows. This broadens the range considerably of what our tithing can be applied to. The best scenario would be for the local church to have outreaches in these areas so that the accumulated tithe can be administered in these areas by the pastor as God directs, though once again, there may well be exceptions to the rule.
  • Tithe of the tithe—Even as the priests, who were supported by the tithe, gave a ‘tithe of the tithe’ to the high priest, so local churches should support their mother organization, or para-church ministries that they believe in, or those who have aided their growth and development, with a tithe of the tithe. (See Num. 18:21-28)

FINAL THOUGHTS

The placement of the tithe should be a matter of sober consideration and prayer. The Scripture does not draw strict parameters around the execution of this vital practice. Tithers should seek God fervently concerning where and how the tithe should be given, or if giving should be limited to just the tithe.

The New Testament only mentions the tithe one time, in a rebuke that Jesus gave to some of the religious leaders in Israel. Here it is:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (Matthew 23:23)

So Jesus put the emphasis where it needs to be, on “justice, and mercy, and faith,” yet He also said we should not leave the other “undone.”

The tithe is “holy” (Lev. 27:32). It belongs to God. It is a sacred act of devotion, not just a religious rule to keep. In all honesty, though, I believe giving in the New Covenant should often go beyond the borders of the tithe. Jesus “magnified the law and made it honorable” (See Isaiah 42:21). In other words, He enlarged it. For those who desire to be true disciples, He said we must “forsake all.” Of course, that does not mean everyone who seeks to be a Christian has to give up everything he or she owns. But it does mean we give up the reins of control. It ALL belongs to Him now, to be used personally or distributed as He sees fit. We are merely stewards of what belongs to God.

Strict adherence to just 10% has prevented some believers from flowing in a much freer and more generous Spirit-led distribution of their finances. So why not think outside of the box of the tithe. Ten percent is the least that should be given. Pray and ask God to lead you. Obey His voice, knowing the advance of His kingdom in this world is depending on you!

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Written by Mike Shreve