In a Baptist Press First Person column Mark Coppenger issued a correction to something he said while speaking at Southern Seminary: people’s tithe should be based not on their net but on their gross income. In this Coppenger largely presupposed the (affirmative) answer to the more foundational issue: Should believers tithe (i.e., give at least ten percent of their income, whether net or gross) in the first place? In this belief Coppenger is not alone. In fact, a minimum ten percent “tithing” requirement is regularly assumed on a popular level and in many of our churches. However, as people of the Book, we should take our cue from Scripture, properly interpreted, which requires a close examination of scriptural teaching on the issue of tithing and, more broadly, Christian stewardship and giving.
The word “tithe” literally means “tenth” and is commonly used to refer to the requirement to give ten percent of one’s income to God. However, from the outset, it should be noted that nowhere was money ever tithed. The tithe in the Old Testament always referred to produce from the ground or herds. Some may respond that this is the case because people lived in an agricultural society. While this is true, however, “money” is mentioned about thirty times in Genesis alone (e.g., Gen. 17: 12, 13, 23, 27; 31:15; 33:19; etc.). Therefore, before tithing is ever mentioned in the Mosaic Law (Lev. 27:30), money has been referred to about forty times. The last reference to money before tithing is mentioned in the Mosaic Law even provides rules for an ancient banking system (Lev. 25:37)!
Both Testaments view the tithe within the larger framework of giving and worship. Prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law, tithing was not a systematic, continual practice but an occasional, even exceptional, form of giving (Gen. 14:20; cf. Heb. 7:4; Gen. 28:22). The Mosaic Law includes stipulations regarding the Levitical, Festival, and Poor (or Welfare) Tithe (Lev. 27:30–33; Num. 18:21; Deut. 14:22–29). Taken together, the annual tithe of the Israelites surpassed ten percent of their income, totaling more than twenty percent. Of the seven references to tithing in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books, the most important is that in Mal. 3:8 (cf. 2 Chron. 31:5–6, 12; Neh. 10:38–39; 12:44–47; 13:5, 12; Amos 4:4), where people are told to bring their (Levitical) “tithes and offerings” into God’s “storehouse” and agricultural blessings are promised for those who comply.
It should be noted that in Malachi, the withholding of tithes was a sign of a larger pattern of disobedience. The tithe mentioned by the prophet is the Levitical Tithe (Num 18:21). The offerings to which reference is made were a primary source of livelihood for the priests and were required (not voluntary) offerings. The invitation to test God is limited to the context of Malachi 3 and should not be universalized. For this reason the promised (agricultural) reward, likewise, does not carry over to people who may tithe today. Moreover, if this passage were consistently applied today, offerings—that which tithing advocates refer to as the freewill portion of giving that occurs after one has tithed—are not of one’s free will, but required just as tithes are. Therefore, if someone were to give only ten percent (not that the Jews only gave ten percent), this person would still be in sin for robbing God of “offerings.”
References to tithing in the New Testament are limited to three passages. In Matt. 23:23, the Old Testament tithing requirement is presupposed for Jesus’ audience. The scribes and Pharisees are excoriated for prioritizing the minutiae of the Law over weightier matters. Jesus was not speaking to members of a church, but to Jews still under the Old Covenant and thus obligated to tithe. Similarly, Jesus in Luke 18:9–14 denounces inappropriate religious pride on the basis of observance of the Law. Hebrews 7, finally, addresses Abraham’s giving of a tenth to Melchizedek in the context of Melchizedek’s priesthood being superior to the Levitical one. None of these passages have tithing as their primary subject, and none command tithing for the new covenant era. The case for tithing on the basis of larger systematic-theological or pragmatic considerations likewise fails in that, similar to circumcision, Jesus fulfilled the tithing requirement and replaced it with a command for New Testament believers to give themselves to God and to give liberally of their means (1 Cor. 9:1–23; 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8–9; Phil. 4:15–17).
Where does that leave New Testament believers? We are not saying that it is okay to neglect giving. In fact, the New Testament contains sufficient guidance for our giving. Second Corinthians 8 tells us that our giving should be relationship-driven, grace-driven, and love-driven. However, nothing is mentioned regarding ten percent. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 16 teaches us that every believer should give; that they should give consistently or systematically (albeit there the reference is to a special collection); and that the amount is relative to one’s income. Second Corinthians 9 stipulates that the amount should be based upon one’s heart disposition (v. 7); that we should give in order to meet the needs of fellow-believers; and that our motivation should be thankfulness to God for all he has done for us. This is just a sampling of the many principles the New Testament gives for believers in order to direct them in their giving.
For further study see the two-part series “‘Will a Man Rob God?’ (Malachi 3:8): A Study of Tithing in the Old and New Testaments” and “Reconstructing a Biblical Model for Giving: A Discussion of Relevant Systematic Issues and New Testament Principles,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 16/1 (2006): 53–77 and 16/2 (2006): 237–60.