“The question is not whether Christians are free to tithe of their income. Certainly, they are. The question is whether Christians are obligated to tithe of their income. Does the Bible legislate to believers under the New Covenant a specific percentage of their income that they are to give? The answer, I believe, is no.”
Today we take up the issue of tithing, especially as it was mandated under the Law of Moses. Here are 10 things we should know. The question before us is not whether Christians are responsible to be generous with their wealth in giving back a portion of it to support the work of the ministry. 2 Corinthians 8-9, as well as other texts, make it quite clear that we are. The question, rather, is whether New Covenant Christians are biblically and morally obligated to give according to Old Covenant laws.
(1) The question is not whether Christians are free to tithe of their income. Certainly, they are. The question is whether Christians are obligated to tithe of their income. Does the Bible legislate to believers under the New Covenant a specific percentage of their income that they are to give? The answer, I believe, is no.
(2) In ancient times tithing was not restricted to religious people, such as the nation Israel. Giving a portion of one’s income either to a pagan deity or to the governing authority was a widespread custom. One need only read Genesis 47:24 where the Egyptians were required to pay 20% of their harvest to Pharaoh. Other extra-biblical documents indicate that tithing was commonly practiced throughout the ancient world among such people as the Syrians, Lydians, and Babylonians.
(3) There are two examples of pre-Mosaic tithing. We read in Genesis 14:18-20 that Abraham gave “a tenth of everything” to Melchizedek. We don’t know whether Abraham tithed because of some divine mandate that was binding on all God’s people at that time, or because he was following a common ancient near-eastern custom. There is nothing in the OT which indicates that Abraham ever received divine or revelatory instructions concerning tithing. There is no command associated with this incident or any other evidence indicating that what Abraham did on this one occasion is binding and normative for all believers in every age.
Abraham tithed out of the spoils or booty of war (see the preceding context in Gen. 14:13-16; cf. also Heb. 7:4). Nothing is said about his tithing from his yearly income. We should also note that he didn’t tithe to God but to a man, Melchizedek. And as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that Abraham ever tithed to anyone again.
The only other reference to this incident is in Hebrews 7. There the author is determined to prove the superiority of the New Covenant priesthood of Jesus Christ to the Old Covenant priesthood. He does this by proving the superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham. Remember, it was Abraham who paid a tithe to Melchizedek, not the other way around. It was Melchizedek who blessed Abraham, not the other way around. And as Heb. 7:7 states, “the inferior [or “lesser”] is blessed by the superior [or “greater”].”
Our author then says that, in a certain sense, Levi also paid a tithe to Melchizedek because he was in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham when the incident recorded in Genesis 14 occurred. The point he is making, notes F. F. Bruce, is this: “Abraham was a great man . . . but in the account of his interview with Melchizedek, it is Melchizedek who appears as the greater of the two. And if Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, his priesthood must be greater than a priesthood which traces its descent from Abraham” (Hebrews, 139-40). Therefore, Jesus, who is our high priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20), is greater than any and all priests of the order of Aaron and Levi. It is exegetically tenuous, then, to appeal to this text in defense of contemporary tithing.
(4) The other example of pre-Mosaic tithing is found in Genesis 28:22 where it is said that Jacob promised to give a tenth of all he had to God. Is this a solid biblical reason why we should do the same? First, note well that this is a vow made upon the condition that God would bless Jacob. This isn’t the case of someone saying, “Tithe to God and God will bless you,” but rather “God, you first bless me and then I will tithe to you.” Second, we have no good reason to believe that Jacob’s act is to be taken as normative for all believers in every age. I might be willing to grant that we should follow Jacob’s example if the rest of Scripture were silent on the subject of financial stewardship. In other words, if all we had on the subject of giving was the story of Jacob, perhaps then it would be wisdom to pattern our giving after his. But the New Testament is anything but silent on this subject (see 2 Corinthians 8-9).
(5) How was tithing practiced under the Mosaic or Old Covenant? Some believe the Israelites paid nearly 22% of their income to the Lord every year. According to Lev. 27:30-33, 10% of all grain, cattle, fruit, etc. was to be set aside as a tithe to the Lord. This tithe, in turn, was to be given to the Levites for the work they did while serving at the tent of meeting. The Levites constituted the tribe of Israel from which the priests were taken. We read in Num. 18:20-32 that they received this tithe because they were not given an inheritance in the land.
Thus, it would appear that the first 10% of the Israelites’ income was to be given to the Levites, who in turned tithed from that 10% (1%), giving it to the high priest (Num. 18:26-29). Clearly, the Levites, or those who ministered in the tabernacle and Temple, were supposed to live off the tithes of the other eleven tribes.
In 1 Cor. 9:13-14, Paul reminds the church that in the OT economy the Levites who worked in the Temple lived off the tithes brought there: “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? He then says in 9:14, “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
Paul’s argument is that those who spend their lives ministering the Word of God should be supported by other Christians. To make his point, he draws attention to the way it was done in the OT. At minimum, Paul is saying that other believers are to financially support those in so-called “full-time ministry.” Whether or not he is saying that they should do it by giving precisely 10% is less certain.