What does it mean to tithe? To tithe is to give a tenth of something. To tithe on ten jelly beans, you give one jelly bean.
Tithing in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, certain Jews—those owning herds or crops—were required to give a tenth of their increase. The tithe was used to support
- the Levites (Num. 18:20–21),
- the annual festivals in Jerusalem (Dt. 14:22–26), and
- the foreigners, widows, and orphans—once every three years (Dt. 14:28–29).
Many believe these were three separate tithes, which would make the total amount given annually about 23 percent.
Tithing in the New Testament?
While there’s no debate that tithing was required in the Old Testament, the question is, “Does the New Testament require Christians to give a tenth of their income?” For the following three reasons I don’t think so.
1. Tithing was a requirement for the descendants of Abraham who owned herds or crops in a particular place (the land of Israel) and during a particular time (Old Testament era) (Num. 18; Lev. 27; Dt. 12, 14, 26). Notice the limitations in that statement. Not even everyone in ancient Israel was required to tithe. And if tithing continues today, who should receive the money? We don’t have Levites serving in the temple, and relatively few Christians attend the annual festivals in Jerusalem. Of course, every country has foreigners, widows, and orphans, but out of the three groups, they were given the least because the tithe only went to them once every three years, so they received about 3% per year. I ask again, if tithing continues to be required, who should receive the money? Are pastors modern-day Levites? No. Is the church building a modern-day temple? No, again.
2. Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to tithe. Remember to tithe is to give 10 percent, but you won’t find a verse in the New Testament commanding Christians to give 10 percent or any other percentage.
Some may object, “Jesus approved of the practice of tithing in Matthew 23:23.” Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23 ESV).
As the argument goes, Jesus asserted that justice, mercy, and faithfulness are weightier matters than tithing mint, dill, and cumin, but he maintained that tithing should continue to be practiced when he stated, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
But Jesus’ words must be kept in context. Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees before his death, which means the old covenant was still in effect. When Jesus died the old covenant was abolished (See Eph. 2:13–22; Col. 2:11–15). As Paul said, “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ” . . . and “now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:4–6 ESV). For a detailed explanation of how the death of Christ inaugurates the new covenant making the old covenant obsolete read Hebrews 7–10. Therefore, since Jesus’ death was still in the future when he spoke to the Pharisees, he was speaking to the religious authorities, who were living under the requirements of the old covenant, and he was telling them to observe the stipulations of that covenant. But that covenant, which includes the command to tithe, is now obsolete.
3. Tithing is contrary to the principles for giving expressed in the New Testament. The principles for giving are,
“whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:6–7 ESV).
Notice that Paul did not place the Corinthians under an obligation to give a certain percentage of their income. Instead, he left the amount to be given up to each individual—”each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion.” And unlike some preachers today, Paul did not say that 10 percent is the bare minimum each person should give. Read 2 Corinthians 8–9 closely and you’ll see that Paul is very careful to avoid laying down a command for giving because he believes giving should come from the heart. In the New Covenant, the amount given is left up to the individual.
Not specifying the amount was a wise move on Paul’s part because each person’s situation is different and a set amount can easily lead to legalistic or compulsive giving. If tithing is still required then we have a conflict between giving that is required and giving that is not “under compulsion” as Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 9. The New Testament principles for giving are clear: give generously and give as much as you want, which is to say, give cheerfully.
Are Christians required to give? Yes. Are Christians required to give a certain percentage of their income? No. Is there a problem with Christians who give away 10 percent of their earnings? Not at all, as long as they’re giving cheerfully and not under compulsion.