A "Christian Tithe"?


Perhaps like you, I was raised in Protestant churches. I was always taught, at least once a year, that Christians were obligated to pay a "tithe." Typically, references to the Old Testament were mentioned, but not very often. Usually, the preacher just assumed that everyone just "knew" it was expected.

I've been bothered about it for many years. Those who know me well know how opposed I am to churches speaking out so vehemently against those who do not devote an entire ten percent of their income to the Church.

Plain and simple: the New Testament never supports giving a tithe and when it was given, it was part of the now-dead-and-gone Temple system of Judaism. What is so intriguing and vexing about this issue is how much Christian leaders speak so forcefully about a subject that is so clearly limited to a particular cultural time and place as to render the moral necessity of our fulfillment absurd.

If we're going to use the Bible, then let's see what it says. Unlike most preachers, I invite you to read this texts along with me. The following are some salient points mentioned straight from the Bible.

1) The tithe (from Old English, teogothian, meaning "to take a tenth" of something) comes from a Hebrew word ('asar) which means "to take a tenth" of something. Giving a tenth of what you earned to someone above you has been around for a long time, as is evidenced by Abram giving a tenth of his spoils to the high priest of Salem (= Jerusalem) in Gen 14:20 (cf. Jacob in Gen 28:22). But, the official understanding of the "tithe" isn't established until the official cult division (e.g., priests and Levites, other tribes, etc.) of the early Israelites is established.

2) Tithes and taxes were closely related. Nearly every ancient Mediterranean culture had them. The fact that all of the Israelites had to give it is rare. The ancient Israelites understood it as a tax in texts such as 1 Sam 8: 15, where Samuel the prophet tells the people what they are supposed to do in service to the king who would be established by God.

3) The tithe was to be given by all Israelites from the grain they grew, oil they produced, wine they produced, and certain livestock (Deut 14:22-23; cf. 2 Chron 31:5-6). This food is supposed to go the "storehouses," which were located at various places, under the supervision of Levites and priests. Of the eighty times "storehouse" is used in the OT, it refers primarily to the treasury at the Temple or, for a few occurrences, it refers to the "heavenly storehouses" in Heaven where God "stores up" treasures (e.g., Deut 28:12). (BTW: this is why when invading enemies of Israel came into town, the first thing they did was raid the Temple. It was the "First Israelite National Bank," as every Temple was in the ancient world.)

4) If you couldn't afford to transport all of your tithe, then you could sell it all, travel to the Tabernacle or Temple, then the person could "spend the money for whatever [they] wish-- oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together (Deut 14:24-26). "Strong drink" is liquor (Hebrew: shekar, that which causes one to get drunk)! Yes, you could buy alcohol in honor of God and drink up "in the presence of YHWH" and rejoice! You will NEVER hear this biblical principle preached from the pulpit. If preachers want to increase the tithe, then let this be placed on the sermon docket.

5) The tithe was apparently done annually, though only every three years did one give the tithe to help the poor, Levites, and priests (Deut 26:12, though this verse seems to suggest that the tithe was only done, at all, every three years).

6) Because of the various texts on tithing in the Old Testament, three different traditions arose in Judaism. There is evidence that by the time of Josephus in the first century, certain (many? most? some?) Jews thought they were supposed to give thirty percent of their income.

7) The tithe was for two purposes only: (a) pay for the services of the Levites ("priest-helpers")and priests who ran the religious ceremonies, helped in legal settings, and oversaw the poor and needy ministries (Numb 18:21, 24; cf. 2 Chron 31:4), and (b) (every three years) as offering for the poor, orphans, and resident aliens (Deut 14:28-29). Taking care of the poor and needy is attested in other ancient cultures, but not much is said of providing for them financially; Israel's practice is rare if not unique. Also, we are not told how the priests divided the tithe (e.g., did they get 2% of the tithe, while the poor got the other 8%?). Modern churches just assume their division is right.

8) The Levites gave a tithe of the tithe back to Aaron (Numb 18:26-28; cf. Neh 10:38-39).

9) Priests, "the clergy," apparently did not give a tithe (this is assumed). And if they did, like the Levites, it meant that the clergy could not be paid more than 10% of the gross income of the Temple. However, this usually meant the priests were loaded! We have archaeological evidence of this in Jerusalem. The priestly class had the most lavish homes in all of Jerusalem.

10) One could offer "offerings" to the priests and Levites, which were part of the animal sacrifices offered to YHWH (Deut 29:27-28).

11) When the great primitive church leaders got together at the so-called "Jerusalem Council" (Acts 15, esp. verse 29), they did not require Gentile converts to follow kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), observance of the Sabbath, the giving of the tithe, or circumcision. In fact, as I will demonstrate in a later blog, the Christians did not have a Sabbath, since that was a clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles. They celebrated on Sunday (the day of Jesus's resurrection), never on Saturday (always the day of Sabbath, even until this day). Furthermore, once the Temple was destroyed, the priests and Levites no longer existed, including their ministry to the poor.

12) Jesus condemned how certain Pharisees were more concerned with "giving that ten percent" than with the things God really cared about, like "justice, mercy, and faith" (Matt 23:23). Giving a tithe can clearly not be considered inviolable, or Jesus would have been clear that one should uphold the sacredness of giving the tithe regardless of a person's (im)moral behavior.

13) The poor widow who gave the equivalent of one penny to the Temple treasury is not an example of faith. The text says nothing whatsoever about her "virtuous example" or faithful giving. On the contrary, Jesus is pointing out how badly the whole Temple system had gotten. This is why Jesus thinks that the widow gave more than everyone else. The widow was giving her "whole life or existence," while others were giving out of plenty (Mk 12:43-44). She is a victim of the system, not a moral exemplar. While the others are doing their "religious duty," this woman, the kind of woman for whom the tithes/offerings were intended to help, is being taken advantage of.

14) And here's one of the most important points: when the Temple fell in 70 AD the Jews no longer gave the tithe. There was no way to collect it.

15) The early church continued to help each other monetarily. Paul believed that ministers should be paid by the Church (though no word on whether or not ministers were supposed to give back, see 1 Cor 3:8 and cf. Phil 4:18), and Paul travelled extensively collecting money for the Christians in Jerusalem who were suffering hardship (called several things, a “ fellowship” (Rom 15:26), “service” (Rom 15:25, 31; 2 Cor 8:20; 9:1, 12, 13), “gift” (1 Cor 16:3; 2 Cor 8:6, 7, 19), “generous gift” (2 Cor 9:5), “collection” (1 Cor 16:1), “liberal gift” (2 Cor 8:20) and “service that you perform” (2 Cor 9:12). There is no mention in the New Testament that Christians were to give weekly, monthly, or annually to the local church. Rather, it seems, they were encouraged to do so on an ad hoc basis (i.e., when a need arose).

Should Christians give money to the Church? Perhaps. They should give money for two main reasons: (1) they can afford it, i.e., they are not poor or under severe hardships; or (2) if they are greedy with their money, whether rich or poor, then they ought to give it up. This is Jesus's point over and over again: being rich tends to make one dependent upon money and not the God who grants money to people. We tend to worship jobs/possessions and not God (e.g., Luke 6:24, Matt 19: 23-24, etc.). 

Being rich is not a sin. Worshipping money -- paying it more homage than the Kingdom of God; obeying the Market and not God -- is most certainly a sin. I know some people who don't make much money at all and they utterly worship money. It's on their minds all the time. They talk about it all the time. How much everything costs is a huge deal. This is greed -- putting your trust in your capacity to control money. At the same time, having a huge house while others in your community are broke, and you are not helping your fellow brothers and sisters, is a sin. (For much more on how Christians should use their money, see my work: http://www.amazon.com/Give-It-Away-Reflections-Christians/dp/1493582224/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1410383741&sr=8-1&keywords=give+it+away+pendergrass)

In any case, the theological danger of the love of money should be preached about, not giving a tithe to the church.

I know. I have spoken with church staff for several years and have served on staff at several churches. Many with whom I have spoken are too concerned that if we don't preach 10%, people will stop giving. So be it. Unless the church is full of poor people (and many are!!), then the next sermon series should be about the dangers of loving money too much and the demands of the community.

Either way, the tithe is not the goal. Let's put it to rest. Let's let it be a thing of the past --a Jewish, Temple-based past that it is.

Stop feeling guilty if you can't afford the tithe. Start feeling guilty if you can afford it and you refuse to give it in the ministry of others.