It is common in some Christian circles, particularly in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, for pastors to teach that the Bible commands Christians to give a tenth of their income to the church—a practice which is called “tithing.” The word “tithe,” like the Hebrew and Greek words which it translates in the Bible, means “to give a tenth.” In the modern American context, references to tithing in the Bible are assumed to be a ten percent income tax. When practiced in American churches, this is usually reinterpreted as a ten percent tax on net income, since the government takes such a large percentage of one’s gross income. This Christian interpretation of tithing was pragmatically adopted by Joseph Smith when he founded the Mormon religion in the 1830s. Smith made giving ten percent of one’s income mandatory, and Mormons today must release their annual tax returns to LDS officials in order to prove that their giving equals ten percent of their income. While the Mormon example is extreme legalism, many Christian pastors do teach that Christians ought to give ten percent of their income to the church. However, the modern American context is far different from the milieu of the biblical world, and in fact tithing was something different than most Americans assume it was.
The commands to tithe in the Old Testament were not interpreted by the Jews as an income tax. In the first century AD there were virtually no independent farmers in Israel, only tenants for landowners (cf. Matt 21:33; Mark 12:1). This is because the tithing requirement in the Mosaic Law was understood as a tax on agricultural produce, which meant that only farmers had to pay tithes, and revenue gained from other occupations was exempt. Jews therefore generally avoided the occupation of farming in the first century AD. The priestly class derived much of its revenue from a half-shekel annual head tax for the support of the temple (Matt 17:24). This was based on a one-third shekel tax which originated in the time of Nehemiah (Neh 10:32). (A half-shekel head tax was paid once when Moses numbered the people [Exod 38:25-26], but was not made an annual tax at that time.) The priests also made a significant amount of money by overcharging the people for currency exchange and sacrificial animals, a practice which Jesus condemned and sought to stop (Matt 21:12-13; John 2:14-16). In addition, small amounts of agricultural produce were tithed (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42), and the priests received a share of meat and grain from sacrifices and offerings (Lev 6:14-18; 10:12-15; 1 Cor 9:13). People also made voluntary monetary contributions to the temple treasury of whatever amount they desired (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4).
Reading the Old Testament, it is clear that the tithe was indeed a tax on agricultural revenue, not a tax on income or profit. Although there are biblical examples of people giving to God a tenth of all of their revenue (Gen 14:20; 28:22; Luke 18:12), the commands to tithe in the Mosaic Law specifically give instructions to tithe agricultural produce (Lev 27:30-32; Deut 12:17; 14:22-23). All of the examples of tithes paid under the Law are tithes of agricultural produce (2 Chr 31:5-6; Neh 10:37; 13:5, 12; Mal 3:10). And the tithe was strictly on revenue (ten percent of one’s harvest), not on profit (ten percent of the money earned by selling excess produce). The reference to “tithes and offerings” in Malachi 3:8 does not refer to a ten percent income tax, plus voluntary contributions beyond ten percent, as it is often interpreted in modern churches. Tithes were ten percent of one’s crop, and offerings were animals brought to the temple for sacrifice (cf. Deut 18:1).
It is often asked why the New Testament never commands Christians to give a tenth of their income to the church, nor does it describe a practice of tithing in Christian churches. Part of the reason is that the tithe was mandated as part of a legal system in ancient Israel, and these tithes were intended to support the nation’s clerical class (who also had administrative and judicial functions) and the tabernacle/temple. The church does not have a tribe of Levi or a central temple to support. In other words, tithing was part of Israel’s civil law, and the church, as a supranational entity, is not governed by the civil law of ancient Israel. From a dispensational viewpoint, Christians have been freed from the requirements of the Law (1 Cor 9:20; Gal 5:1). The interpretation of Malachi 3:7-12 as a commandment for Christians to tithe fails to recognize that this instruction was given to Israelites who were bound by the stipulations of the Mosaic Law, and that Christians live under a different dispensation. Thus, theologians usually argue that tithing is not a biblical requirement for Christians—an argument that is often in disagreement with the pragmatic, traditional teaching of pastors in these theologians’ own churches. But the whole question of whether Christians should tithe (as in the title of this article) wrongly assumes that biblical tithes were a ten percent income tax, when they were not. This is the more fundamental reason why the New Testament does not discuss tithing in the context of the Christian church—giving a tenth of one’s income was not part of Jewish culture, and therefore it was not a practice adopted from Judaism by the early church.
Under the Old Testament economy, tithing was a tax—a legal requirement (Lev 27:30). You had to give ten percent of your crop to the priests and Levites whether you wanted to or not, and God would punish you if you did not do it (Mal 3:8-11). Under the New Testament economy, giving a set amount is not compulsory, since God wants us to give voluntarily and cheerfully (2 Cor 9:5, 7), and the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled in Christ (Rom 10:4). The focus in the church should be on having the proper heart attitude, rather than fulfilling an external standard—although the New Testament strongly encourages giving, and it promises blessing to the givers (2 Cor 9:6). It also establishes the principle that full-time ministers should be supported by God’s people (1 Cor 9:14; 1 Tim 5:17) and that the church should aid the destitute among their number (1 Tim 5:3).
So how much should Christians give to the church? The New Testament only lays out general principles, which leaves the question open ended. Most Christians find it helpful to set a goal or standard for their regular giving, so as to be consistent. Many Christians, especially new believers, find that the OT pattern of tithing, reinterpreted in a modern context, provides them with a good baseline figure. There is nothing wrong with someone setting a personal standard of giving ten percent of his net income based on the OT pattern, and it can even be argued that this is a valid practical application of the OT (recognizing that there are multiple ways in which the OT tithing principle may be applied). Giving ten percent has proven feasible for the vast majority of people; and if everyone in the church gives ten percent, this is usually enough to pay pastors a full-time salary, to buy and maintain a building, and to support missionaries. But it is wrong for a pastor to tell church members that God requires them to give ten percent to the church, and it is also wrong for people in the church to feel that they need not give more than ten percent. The following is a list of some New Testament principles regarding giving:
- Giving must be done with a willing heart. According to 2 Corinthians 9:7, it is wrong to give with a bad attitude, or out of obligation (there is no NT legal requirement to give to the church). According to Philippians 4:18-19, giving should be an act of worship, and worship must be voluntary and out of a good heart to be pleasing to God. Giving should be a natural outward expression of a heart that is dedicated to God (2 Cor 8:5), not the drudgery of doing what one must in response to guilt and pressure.
- Giving should be in proportion to the need. In Acts 4:35, the money collected by the church was distributed where there were needs within the church. In Acts 11:29-30, a collection was taken up to help poor churches that were struggling during a famine. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and Romans 15:25-27, Paul took up a special collection for saints in Jerusalem who were struggling financially. In Philippians 4:16, the Philippians sent gifts to Paul when he had a need. Paul states as a general principle that those Christians or churches who have a need at a particular time should be helped by those who have enough, and that those who have been helped should return the favor when the tables are turned (2 Cor 8:13-15).
- Giving should not be to impress others or to try to look as spiritual as somebody else. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for giving in order to get recognition, and He asserted that people who are recognized on earth for their giving will not be rewarded in heaven (Matt 6:2). In Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira were killed by God because they lied about the amount they were giving in order to appear as spiritual as Barnabas, who had given the full sale price of his field to the church (Acts 4:36-37). While the sin for which they were killed was lying, this sin was motivated by the sin of seeking recognition for their beneficence. It is wise to give anonymously as much as this is possible (Matt 6:3-4).
- Giving should be in proportion to one’s financial means. This principle is stated in 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Acts 11:29. Rich people should typically give larger monetary amounts than poor people. In several instances in the NT, in fact, some Christians simply became destitute and could do nothing but accept gifts from others who had more. However, in practice, poor people often give a higher percentage of their income than the rich. The Philippian Christians were relatively poor, yet the Philippians gave more to Paul than any other church, and they were commended for it (Phil 4:14-19; cf. 2 Cor 8:1-5).
- Giving should not necessarily be limited to our superfluity. Of course, discernment is needed because there are times when excessive giving can be irresponsible or foolish, and can bring grief upon ourselves and our families. Very, very few Christians are called to sell all their possessions and literally give everything away. Yet Jesus demands that we not hold anything back from Him (Luke 14:33; 18:18-23; Acts 2:45). When a widow gave all the money that she had to live on, Jesus commended her instead of calling her a fool (Mark 12:41-44). In 2 Corinthians 8:3, Paul commended the Macedonian churches for voluntarily giving more money than they were able to spare. There is a sense in which we are hardly giving at all if not sacrificially, for we are giving things to God that do not cost us anything—they are just our excess.
- No one is too poor to give. The story of the widow’s mites illustrates this, as does the giving of the Macedonian churches (Luke 21:1-4; 2 Cor 8:3; Phil 4:14-19). In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul commanded “each one” to give (for a special collection) when the church gathered on Sunday. On the other hand, there were times when impoverished saints in the Jerusalem church had to accept large financial gifts from other churches, rather than giving to those other churches. Still, the OT required the Levites to give a tithe of the tithes they received (Num 18:26; Neh 10:38), and it is reasonable to expect those who receive money from the church to give a portion back to the Lord’s work.
- The eternal rewards that God will give to us will be in proportion to what we give to Him. This principle is stated in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, which is in a context that speaks primarily of monetary giving, but also includes other forms of gifts to the Lord. The one exception is that gifts given to receive recognition will not be rewarded in the judgment (Matt 6:2-4). It is important to give much, because our eternal reward is great (Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 4:17), and is well worth the price of perishable goods (Matt 6:19-21; Luke 16:9). The poor have as much opportunity for reward as the rich in the matter of giving, since reward is based primarily on proportion, sacrifice, and non-recognition, rather than on dollar amounts (Luke 21:1-4).
- There is a need to give. The New Testament presents giving as the norm in the church, and regular gifts (not just special offerings) are required for a church to operate according to New Testament principles (1 Tim 5:9-10, 17-18). Believers also have a need to give in order to receive God’s eternal rewards and His (spiritual and physical) blessings in this present life.
The idea that tithing was an income tax has given rise to two common errors. One is the idea that the Bible requires Christians to give ten percent of their (net) income to the church. The New Testament never commands this, and a tithe on income is not even commanded in the Old Testament. The second common error is the idea that people have done their duty if they give ten percent of their income to the church, and the rest is theirs to do as they please. In truth, everything we have is a stewardship entrusted to us by God, and giving in accordance with one’s means (1 Cor 16:2) or as one has purposed in his heart (2 Cor 9:7) does not limit us to ten percent. There is no set amount that the New Testament requires Christians to give—there is no minimum required gift in order to be in good standing with God (we are under grace, not under law), nor is there a maximum ceiling on what God has a right to receive. The New Testament focuses more on one’s spirit and attitude as he gives, and on the blessedness of giving (Acts 20:35). Christians should be taught to have the correct theological perspective on giving, and to give with the proper motivations, rather than being burdened with a mandatory church income tax of ten percent.