Tithing, or How Much Does God Want Me to Give?
By Arlie D. Rauch
Periodically I hear radio preachers encouraging listeners to give their tithes and offerings. In a sense, language like this could be acceptable, except that it blurs the actual teaching of Scripture on the subject. In the Bible the term tithe has a technical meaning, and, in fact, so does the term offering. If we use those terms popularly, we need to explain how what we mean differs from the biblical terms. It would be simpler to use terms that express what the Bible means, if, in fact, our message is the same as the Bible’s.
In this article we will first discuss the meaning of tithe in the Bible. Secondly, we will examine a favorite verse used to erroneously promote increases in giving to the Lord's work. Finally, I will suggest the nature of New Testament giving in the days of the church, namely, our days.
The word tithe means tenth, or ten percent. It was not used generally of giving in any amount, but strictly of ten percent. And in Israel, there was not only one tenth, but in reality three tenths.
One tenth is described in Numbers 18:21-28 which we can call the Levitical Tithe.
Individuals were to set aside ten percent of their income, usually in flocks or herds and possibly grain at that time, for support of the Levites, including the priests, who served at the tabernacle and later at the temple. These oversaw the entire system of worship God had ordained for Israel, a system incorporating various blood sacrifices and washings to be observed every day and in an intensified way on special days.
Another tenth appears in Deuteronomy 14:22-27. We can call it the Festival Tithe. This was another ten percent of one's income set aside in order to fund one's attendance at the annual festivals in Jerusalem. This could possibly be used to help others less fortunate also attend these festivals. The festivals were great times of socializing, celebration, worship ritual, and Bible teaching. It would be comparable to a person setting aside a portion of income to attend a Bible teaching conference or to take some Bible training annually.
A third tenth is ordained in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 . This one we can call the Poor Tithe. This tithe was exactly what it is called: it was lifted in order to help the poor, a sort of welfare system. It was different than the others in that it was to be received only once in three years. So, adding the tithes together, the ancient Israelite had already twenty-three and one-third percent to pay annually in tithing.
Actually, later a fourth tenth would be added. As Samuel explained to the people what having a king would involve, he promised them the Royal Tithe in 1 Samuel 8:15. Now the annual total is thirty-three and one-third percent.
It should be noted that not one of these tithes had any relation to freewill giving. Each one was commanded. That they had religious connotations is not surprising because Israel was a theocracy. So these tithes were actually the equivalent of taxes in the theocracy providing for the political and religious life of the nation. Paying them was demanded, and failure to pay was rewarded with plagues, ruined crops, epidemics, etc.
There were instances of freewill giving, grace giving, in the Old Testament, for example, the giving which supplied for the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 35:20-29, but these, again, had no relation to their system of tithing. These were isolated circumstances with giving for certain projects.
The result is that tithing is a poor choice of terms when speaking of giving in a New Testament church setting and may well confuse the giver.
A Favorite Misapplied Text
Frequently in teaching and preaching on the subject of giving, the speaker will bring in Malachi 3:8. It is a wonderful verse to preach in order to increase giving, but we must examine it to see whether its message is directly appropriate for us. Surely there are applications we can draw from it, but we may have to go elsewhere for our most direct teaching regarding giving.
Malachi 3:8 says: “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed Thee?’In tithes and offerings” (NASB). Some tell us that the tenth belongs to God, as in ancient Israel, and what is above and beyond is the offerings. But we have already seen that the tithes demanded of Israel amounted to at least twenty-three and one-third percent.
The tithes here must be understood as they were explained above. The message is spoken to Jews having returned to their homeland after they spent seventy years in the Babylonian exile. In order to rob God, you must be taking or holding back what belongs to Him, and He had commanded the tithes of them.
But how could you possibly rob God in the case of offerings if they were, indeed, freewill? It turns out that they were not freewill, either. The Hebrew term for offerings used here can sometimes be used for freewill giving, but in most cases it was a technical term for a specific kind of giving, again, a giving commanded, so, in essence, another kind of tax. Out of approximately sixty appearances of the term in the Bible, it refers seven times to freewill giving for the tabernacle and once for the temple.
Otherwise, in the passages appropriate for our consideration (that is, not relating to the future millennium, etc.), the term always refers to that which was demanded: fourteen times of first-fruits offerings to the priests, another fourteen times for the thigh of the peace offering as income for the priests, four times as the Levites' tithe (passed on then to the smaller group of priests) from the tithes given to them, three times of a head tax on male citizens, three times of a head tax in the military, and once of the ram thigh offered at a priest’s ordination.
These are the offerings meant in Malachi 3:8 which the people had been commanded to bring, which they were not bringing, and which failure was described as robbing God.
Among all the translations of the Bible accessible to me, I found only two which correctly translate this verse so as to leave no confusion. Darby uses the phrase “tithes and heave-offerings,” and Young renders it “The tithe and the heave-offering.” Every other source translated it in a way that could be misleading, but these two translations are technically correct.
So the verse directly relates to the Jews, God’s arrangement with them, and the context shows that there were attendant blessings or punishments respectively for bringing these payments or not.
The verse in its context teaches us that God interacts with what His people, the Jews, did, and we could probably conclude that He also interacts with people today in the Church, as other Scriptures would show. The broader context reveals that God controls crop conditions. He also brings difficulties into people's lives so they might turn from wickedness to obedience. Obedience does result in blessing, and disobedience results in chastisement.
Giving for Today
The fact is, when we examine the Scriptures carefully, we do not find tithing taught anywhere for the Church. It is mentioned in the New Testament, but always with reference to the Israelite system. Numerous scattered passages can be brought in to round out teaching on giving for today. But the classic passage is 2 Corinthians 8-9. I encourage you to read and study it for yourself.
One outstanding feature of those chapters is that, though money is the subject, money is not directly mentioned. The reason for that is that money itself is not the issue. The issue is of the heart, whether you have received the grace of God in Christ, and how you respond to that. So, the money is referred to as grace. I like to call it grace giving.
Many people are afraid of grace giving. It lets people “off the hook,” so to speak. It doesn’t force them to empty their wallets or to write those checks. But what is our goal here? Is production of dollars our goal? Or is doing God's work in His way with His resources for His kind of benefit to us our goal? And if gratitude to God cannot motivate you to give, of what value is giving out of a guilt complex? out of pressure to meet a legalistic amount or percentage?
Some of the principles appearing in 2 Corinthians 8-9 include: Giving out of what you have instead of what you do not have, giving for the need of others who may at some future time give for your need, giving so that you know the gift reaches its destination and is used for the intended purpose, giving according to the principle of ratios (giving sparingly produces a small harvest, giving generously produces a generous harvest), and giving cheerfully out of faith in God who provides all. All giving that is not given cheerfully has no spiritual reward--it may as well not be given.
So all of it goes back to the heart. Has God been at work in your life? What sense of that do you have? Do you love Him and show it with the way you give?
Some are worried that this form of giving will not produce enough results. Enough results for what? It will produce enough results for the work God wants done. And it will produce the chain reaction of results described in 2 Corinthians 9.
And what of amounts? Maybe grace giving will sometimes mean that you give less than ten percent. Maybe that's all you can give; maybe that's all you can give cheerfully. Sometimes grace giving will be much more. But it will always grow out of one’s relationship with God through Christ—it will have a spiritual motivation, and it will have a spiritual result.