Tithing?

A New Covenant Look At An Old Covenant Practice

by Jon Zens
Searching Together

A very strong appeal has been made to promote the practice of Tithing in a book of that title by R.T. Kendall. It received glowing reviews in the British evangelical press. However, it contains nothing new and it may prove to be a trap for those who are least able to discern truth from error in the light of Scripture. Careful study of the subject of giving in the Bible is required, having regard for sound principles of exegesis. What follows is an attempt to supply such a need.

Like all books of this nature, Dr. Kendall's work is strong on testimonies from experience, and very weak with reference to sound hermeneutics. In this study no store will be placed on experiences. Rather, only Scripture will be examined, and Scripture will interpret Scripture. This is not intended to be a refutation of the book, but an attempt to let God's Word speak on the matter of giving, and display the errors of those who teach that tithing is a New Testament requirement. At times the book will be referred to, but this is only to illustrate that it is typical of the doctrine as it is generally taught. First, the doctrine of tithing will be examined, and then, secondly, the New Testament view of giving will be unfolded.

AN EXAMINATION OF TITHING

Malachi 3:8-10 is always the key text used to support tithing. Little care is ever taken to exegete these verses in light of Scripture itself, and the meaning of individual words is badly distorted by assuming that they intend what has no support in the Word of God. It is therefore necessary to examine this passage, and several particular words in some detail. It is always assumed by those who press tithing on the believer that:

  1. "Tithes and offerings" = the same thing.

  2. "Tithes and offerings" = the giving of money.

  3. "Tithes and offerings" = giving a fixed percentage of one's income on a regular basis. The only controversy is whether it should be based on gross or net income.

  4. "Storehouse"= "Church."

There are in the verses themselves safeguards against their misuse, but they are ignored by those who propound this doctrine.

Much is always made of the first clause of Ma1.3:8, "Will a man rob God?" Like all teaching which seeks to impose laws on the believer's conscience, guilt is always used first. It is simple psychology to impose a sense of guilt on the conscience so that the imposition of a regulation might bind others more effectively. These teachers pass the emphasis directly from the first clause of Ma1.3:8 to the last clause, "in tithes and offerings.'' It is here that the first error is made, that is, that "tithes and offerings" are the same thing. They are, in fact, two distinct and separate teachings of the Old Testament worship. The second assumption is that these "tithes and offerings'' have to do with a fixed percentage, and that this amount is to be given to the "Church." which is the "storehouse." Finally, it is assumed that there is an obligation upon the New Testament believer in accordance with these assumptions, and that this fulfills one's obligations in the matter of giving. As we shall see, each and every one of these assumptions is contrary to the truth.

Both of the words used. "tithes and offerings," have their origins in the Old Testament law. They are both specific parts of ceremonial laws which, by all standards of exegesis, have been abrogated by the work of Christ. Yet the teachers of tithing as a new covenant practice, who on other matters accept that the ceremonial laws have passed away, not only accuse those who disagree with error, but commonly pronounce as sinful any refusal to tithe.

CEREMONIAL TITHING

Leviticus 27:30-33. Notice that the tithe relates to the fruit of the land, or of the tree, or of the flock. Nowhere in Scripture is the tithe of anything else ever taught. R.T. Kendall quotes Lev.27:30 on five occasions in his book, but only once in full (p.46). In the other four instances only the first and last parts of the verse are quoted: "All the tithe . . . is the Lord's.'' Yet the part of the verse omitted defines and qualifies the subject of the tithe, the fruit of the land and the fruit of the flock. There is not one reference in the Word of God to the tithing of money.

Numbers 18:24-52. In verse 24 we read that the tithes were offered as a heave-offering to the Lord for the Levites. The further instruction is given to the Levites to tithe the tithe and offer the tenth part of the tithe as a heave-offering. The nine-tenths was for the maintenance of the Levite who had no inheritance in the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy 14:22-29. In accordance with Deut.12:5, the tithe was to be brought to the place of God's choosing. If, however, the place was too far, provision is made in the law to direct how the tithe should be used. This passage shows that the Lord did not intend the tithe to be a rigid burden upon the Israelite who lived far away from the appointed place of worship. He was to sell the goods that constituted his tithe, and then take the proceeds to the appointed place. He was not to offer the money to the Lord. Instead, he was to provide himself with the necessities for a feast of rejoicing, including the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The choice was his: ''whatsoever your soul desires" (v.26).

In verses 28-29, the triennial tithe was to be kept "within your gates" (not taken to the appointed place), and the Levite, stranger, fatherless and widow are to come.

Conclusion. It is clear from these passages that tithing was ordained by God with a twofold purpose. First, as a provision for the Levites, and secondly as a part of a systematic legal worship, in order that they might learn to fear the Lord (Deut.14:23).

Deuteronomy 26:12-19. At the triennial tithe a rededication is commanded of the Israelite, thus reinforcing the legal nature of the practice. Obedience to law carries the divine promise to His Old Covenant people, Israel. Does the New Testament teacher of tithing believe that the Christian is under the Old Testament ceremonial law? Does he also teach that obedience to this commandment brings the blessings ordained by God to the Old Covenant people? If so, on what grounds? Is the Christian under this ceremonial law and no other?

CEREMONIAL OFFERINGS

The laws of offerings are found in Lev. l:l to 4:12. These were the ceremonial sacrifices demanded by God:

  1. The Burnt Offering, chapter 1.

  2. The Peace Offering, chapter 3.

  3. The Sin Offering, chapter 4.

It is interesting to observe that Mary and Joseph complied with the provisions of Lev.5:7 in Luke 2:24. "They were not able to bring a lamb," indicating that they were poor people.

As we can see, "tithes and offerings'' have nothing to do with the giv- ing of money or regular giving of income, but are rather related to the ordained worship of God in the Old Covenant age.

STOREHOUSE

We are further told by teachers of tithing that "storehouse" means "Church." Such an assumption is totally without foundation by all accepted standards of exegesis. Serious exposition of this word is always avoided, and recourse is made to the psychological argument, "I believe," "in my view," etc. Great stock is put in "testimonies," often cited as evidence for tithing or as irrefutable indication that God "honors" those who tithe. By this method the motive for tithing becomes very dubious. The desire to prosper materially takes precedence over that of spiritual prosperity. A popular statement used to support this idea is "God is no man's debtor," and other remarks in the same vein. Appeal is often made to famous writers or preachers to support this view, and their opinions are then quoted as if they possessed some authority.

This demonstrates a serious departure from the evangelical standard of sola Scriptura - the Scripture only. The "storehouse" of Mal. 3:10 has reference to the Temple, which in the New Testament passed away. The Temple typified Christ. It was a shadow, and when the antitype came all types and shadows were fulfilled. There is no ordained place of worship under the New Covenant (John 4:21-23). To identify, therefore, the storehouse with the church building, or the place where the assembly meets, is false exegesis.

The claim is made that because Abraham offered tithes in Gen.14:17-20, it can be maintained that tithing is pre-law and therefore valid for the Messiah's age. However, within the context of Gen.l4 are certain statements which do not support this view. Abraham gave tithes of the spoils of battle. Nowhere is it stated that he did this with his income or his flocks and crops. The Scripture does not indicate that Abraham made tithing a regular weekly, monthly, or annual event.

GIVING OF MONEY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

There are two references in the Old Testament to the giving of money.

Exodus 30:11-16. This giving was neither offered to the Lord, nor was it a tenth. It was a fixed sum, a shekel, given to men who had been numbered, and was called "atonement money." Half-a-shekel was to be given by the person numbered as an offering to the Lord. The word "offering" is used here in the sense of a gift, not as a ritual sacrifice.

Leviticus 5: 15-19. This was part of the trespass offering with reference to sins of ignorance, not against the Law of God, hut in the "holy things" of the Lord. Lev.S:17ff. makes it clear that the offering of money had no part in the offerings to be made for breaches of the law.

For the Biblical origins monetary giving specifically to the Lord, or to the Temple, we must turn to 2 Kings 12 in the reign of Joash, and to 2 Kings 22 during the reign of Josiah. This financial giving was used for the upkeep of the Temple. The idea originated in the mind of Joash, and it must be noted that it was never commanded by God in the Mosaic Law.

It is remarkable that no percentage is suggested or commanded in either passage. It had no sacrificial or worship motive behind it, and was quite distinct from the tithes and offerings.

In Haggai 1:1-7. we see that the people had allowed the Temple to deteriorate, while they lived in affluence. Because of this they are told to reconsider their ways. It is striking that they are nowhere rebuked for not tithing, and no mention is made of "robbing God.''

The "treasury" is found in Mark 12 and Luke 21 in the accounts of the widow's mite. It is interesting to note that by this time the "treasury" had developed from a "chest" in 2 Kings 12. There is no suggestion of tithing in the account of the widow's mite. The Lord did not commend either the wealthy or the widow for tithing. She was praised for giving 'all her living." given out of love for the Lord.

NEW TESTAMENT PRINCIPLES

Matthew 23:23. Great stress is laid on this text by advocates of tithing as a New Covenant duty. It is the only place in the Gospels where the Lord mentions the word "tithe." Serious misuse of Scripture occurs when this verse is employed in such a manner.

This practice is called "proof-text theology" - the use of a verse or even part of a verse, out of its context, to establish a doctrine. It is usually found to be the only verse in the whole Bible which even vaguely refers to the topic. Often, a more careful reading of the passage will quickly reveal serious discrepancies between the verse and the doctrine being taught. Sometimes it is a little more subtle and a detailed explanation of the verse in the light of the whole Bible is required. The most common problem is that time and tradition have associated the proof-text with the doctrine, and it comes to be widely accepted and believed. But the age of a doctrine does not validate it, nor do the numbers or credentials of those who teach or believe it. The Scriptures alone, correctly interpreted, must be our authority.

Matthew 23 deals with the Lord's condemnation of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, for their misuse of the law, and for their wresting the Scriptures in order to impose legal bondage on the people. It is remarkable that a verse from this chapter is used to establish tithing, the very place where the Lord is showing His attitude toward those who misuse the Word of God. Those who profess to be evangelical in doctrine and practice condemn the cults and Rome for the very thing they do in the case of tithing.

The modern teachers of tithing stress the last clause of verse 23, teaching that the Lord's words sanction tithing as a duty today. "Not to leave the other undone." we are told, shows that the Lord reaffirmed tithing in the Messianic age. The Pharisees had become meticulous in tithing mint and cummin, but had in the process neglected the "weightier matters" of the law. They are exhorted not to neglect judgment, mercy and faith. He then tells them "not to leave the other undone," because under the law there was a place for tithing. Again, remember that money is not being tithed, but the fruit of` the soil - herbs, mint and cummin! The Lord does not suggest that tithing will be the standard of giving in His kingdom. The law was in force "until the Seed [Christ] should come" (Ga1.3:19,25). The Lord throughout His ministry kept showing how the Jews had perverted the law into a means of salvation, when in fact the Old Testament pointed forward to the Messiah who was to come.

Because our Lord was born "under law." and mingled with many whose allegiance was to the Torah, there are a number of statements in the Gospels which assume that the law is in force. The fact that Paul designates believers as not "under law,'' is a crucial perspective that qualifies our ethical relationship to verses like Matt.23:23.

To determine New Testament norms for giving we refer to other specific passages which deal with the subject, and clearly illustrate the early church's approach to giving.

There are two main objects for giving in the New Testament:

  1. The support of believers in need. This was not a part of the budget in New Testament assemblies - it was the budget!

  2. The support of elders.

Acts 11:27-30. We are told here that a prophecy was given from the Lord that a famine would seriously affect the believers in Judea. In verse 29 we read that the disciples "every person according to their ability, determined to send relief . . ." The foundation of their giving was not conceived of in terms of percentages, but in terms of the New Commandment - "as I have loved you, love one another'' (John 13:34; 1 John 3:16-18). Those who read tithing into this passage are finding a foreign element to the text itself.

I Corinthians 16:1-4. The same principle applies here. The reason for giving is again the need of other believers. The determining factor was "as God has prospered each" or "according to one's income" (NIV). It is an unwarrantable assumption to read tithing into this statement. This is affirmed in 2 Corinthians 8, the sequel to this letter.

2 Corinthians 8,9. In verses 2-3 we learn that the churches of Macedonia had given more than they could reasonably afford. Throughout the rest of the chapter Paul goes on to encourage the Corinthian church to emulate them. He uses several lines of argument to encourage them. He had sent Titus(v.6). He listed their "graces" (v.7. He makes it clear that he is not commanding them to give. If tithing is the standard, is it not strange that Paul never "settles" the issue of giving by simply referring to a ten percent method? He tells them that he does not intend for them to go without while others have abundance (v.13), and reiterates the principles of equality (v.14). Over and over he places before them a variety of reasons as to why they should give in this case - but tithing is never a reference point. He closes chapter 8 with the confession that he has been boasting of them.

He begins chapter 9 by stating that it is unnecessary for him to write to them about giving (vv.l-2). In verses 6 -7 we see the foundation principle again: "according as he purposes in his heart." He reinforces the argument by saying, "not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.'' Nowhere among his many words about giving does Paul mention tithing.

I Corinthians 16:1-4. The expression "in store" is sometimes used to support the "storehouse" found in Malachi. The phrase "in store" actually means to save up in a kind of "piggy bank." The Greek words par heauto mean "by oneself" or "at home." The idea behind Paul's remark is that they should accumulate their gifts (which could include money and other goods, like raisins), so that when his company arrived Paul would not have to make any special effort to consummate the collection. R.T. Kendall uses this phrase in the "storehouse" = "Church" sense.

Hebrews 7:1-10. Most teachers of tithing use this passage at the core of their argument. It is the only New Testament passage which makes any real reference to the matter. It is used as a proof-text to establish the idea that tithing was practiced before the law was given at Sinai. Since this is recorded in the New Testament, it is affirmed that tithing still applies after the law has been abrogated.

The context, however, shows that this was not the case. Hebrews was written to show that Christ is the fulfillment of all the types and shadows of the former era, and that Christ is superior to the Levitical priesthood. These verses establish that the Levitical priesthood was subordinate to the priesthood of Melchizadek. To use these verses as proof that tithing is yet obligatory for believers is to use them out of context for a purpose other than that for which they were given. Hebrews 7 in context is not dealing with Christian giving, but with the superiority of Christ. We have examined texts where New Covenant giving is in view, and tithing is never enforced. This observation must be allowed to have hermeneutical force.

THE SUPPORT OF ELDERS

The support of elders in the New Testament is established in the following Scriptures: Ga1.6:6-10; Phi1.4:I0-20; 2 Thess.3:6-9; I Tim.5:17-18; and Heb. 13: 16-17.

It is clear from these passages that the elders should have the support of the assembly, but it is not something to which they may claim entitlement. The obligation is laid upon the church to support them, but the object of elders is not financial gain or material advancement, but to be servants in Christ's body. The assembly should, however, return material good for the spiritual benefits they receive from the elders' ministry. At the same time, the elders cannot demand that the church support them - all things must be done in mutual love and self-giving. This approach fulfills the obligations of submitting to one another, of esteeming one another better than oneself, and of bearing one another's burdens.

It will be noticed that some of the Scriptures cited above refer specifically to the support of apostles. The principle, however, is the same in each case. The believer should - out of love for the Lord and for those who teach good things from the Word - give of his material blessings.

CONCLUSION

The motive for giving in the New Testament age is not obedience to a tithing-law, but response to Christ's redemptive love for us, which brings us to care for others (1 John 3:16-18). The amount given is in accordance to a person's ability (Acts 11:29), and as the Lord has prospered (1 Cor.16:2). This also governs the frequency of giving. The rich are able to give of their abundance in readiness. The poor give out of their poverty, sacrificially.

To those who have faithfully tithed, perhaps for many years, you have acted according to the light you have had. Examine these matters in light of the Word, and if what has been said in this article is in accordance with the truth as it is in Jesus, then you must adjust your practice accordingly. If you see that the New Covenant perspective is not compatible with a percentage approach to giving, then tithing must give way to the truth.

Tithing is a deeply engrained tradition, and therefore it is not surprising if many sincere believers assume it to be God's expectation in giving. The Lord looks on the heart, and for those who have faithfully given according to the light given, they have nothing to be ashamed of. When we learn further truth, however, we must lay aside tradition and be faithful to the truth.

The New Testament principle is giving from the heart, cheerfully, out of love and in light of Christ's sacrifice (2 Cor.8:9). We must give in secret in order that the Father who sees in secret may reward us openly. Those who sow sparingly will reap sparingly. This may be true with many who tithe. They could be giving far more than a tenth of their income, but satisfy their conscience by going back to the beggarly element of the old ceremonial laws.


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