National Tax or Church Tax
You can count on two hands how many different teachings on the tithe exist today. Some teach it as a “required donation” to the church; a kind of membership fee. In fact, I heard that some churches even hold their congregation accountable to this by calling them after delayed payments. Others may teach of a lesser requirement. While they will not investigate the charity of their congregation, they will definitely proclaim that God commands a certain amount to be given each week.
Of course, there are deeper characteristics of each. Some will argue for a ten percent before taxes and others after. Some will say that it directly correlates to the amount of blessing that you receive from God. Others say it is doubled on return. And sadly, there those that will tell you that if you don’t tithe you can lose your salvation.
Among all of these different beliefs of the tithe, there is one common denominator. The tithe is required. Whether it is required for church membership or something else, they all will agree that God commands it.
So what are we to think? What does the Bible say about the tithe? What is it? How and when is it done? And who is it for? All of these questions can be answered from God’s word with a little bit of diligence and allegiance to the text. Let’s survey the tithe in Scripture.
Abraham and the Tithe
The first time that the Hebrew word for “tithe” appears in the Bible is found in Genesis 14 (cf. Heb. 7). However, it is not in reference to any required giving. In fact, it was spontaneous and voluntary. God just gave Abraham a victory in battle and the spoils that he took from the battle were great. While returning home, Abraham encountered Melchizedek, who was a king and priest of God.
Abraham was a worshipper of God and felt deeply indebted to Him for all of his protection and provisions that He so abundantly gave. He was excited for his recent win, his divine abundance, and now his opportunity to meet Melchizedek. And, in his excitement, he “gave [Melchizedek] a tenth of everything” (Gen. 14:20).
His giving was an expression of thanks to the Lord for all that He had done. And it was not that he gave a tenth of all that he owned. He gave a tenth of all that he had taken in battle. Abraham did not make a habit of giving a tenth. In fact, it is never recorded that he gave a tithe ever again.
Jacob and the Tithe
Another occasion when the word tithe is used, is when Jacob tried to bribe God by offering a tithe to Him. He said, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you” (Gen. 28:20-22). The lesson here is not that we should give a tenth to God as Jacob did. Rather, it is that we should not be spiritually carnal as Jacob was.
Israel and the Tithe
Abraham’s voluntary giving of a tenth is the only recorded tithe before the Mosaic Law was given (unless you count Jacob’s bribe). So the next occurrence appears in Leviticus 27 where God tells the Israelites to give a tenth of their produce and animals. This particular tithe is explained in Numbers 18. It is commanded by God to give a tenth to the Levites for “their service that they do” (Num. 18:21). It further explains, “For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they represent as contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore, I have said to them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel” (Num. 18:24).
God set the nation of Israel as a Theocracy, meaning a God-governed nation. The Levites were the select group from the nation that worked as their governing people. Since it was a Theocracy, the governors would also act as priests. Since they were able to work solely for the Lord, they were not able to work a secular vocation where wages could be earned. In fact, when the lands were divided up among the nation, God did not grant the Levites any. So they had no inheritance other than that which was given them by the other Israelites.
In order to support the Levites, God commanded all of the Israelites (not including the Levites) to give a tenth of their produce and animals. It was nothing more than a government taxation. It was required. The Israelites had to give the tenth or they were offending the Lord which is to what Malachi 3:8 is referring when it asks, “Will man rob God?” They gave of the produce they grew and the animals they raised, but not of their money. Those who had no produce or animals were not required to give a tithe.
If this sounds familiar, it should. This is equivalent to the governmental tax we have today. It even adds up to a similar amount in the end. The command of the Lord continued. Even more tenths were required. In Deuteronomy 12, we find an additional tithe required of the Israelites in order to support the religious festivals in Jerusalem. It was given to the Jews. Again, in Deuteronomy 14 a tithe is required to support strangers, the fatherless, and the widows. This was called a poor tax and the poor were not required to tithe. However, unlike the first two taxes that were required annually, this one is required every third year.
These three tithes equal to about 23 percent each year. But there were still more required. Like we have taxes on sales, gas, capital gains and more, they had a profit-sharing tax (Deut. 19:9-10), an every-seven-year land sabbath tax (Exod. 23:10-11), and the temple tax. This totals to about 25 percent in annual income tax to the Theocratic government of Israel.
These tithes were continued throughout the remaining books of the Old Testament. As the Theocratic government existed, the taxes that God instituted existed. This accounts for about 35 times that the Hebrew word for tithe is used.
Jesus and the Tithe
Jesus spoke of the tithe in the New Testament. In two of gospel accounts, we find him rebuking the Pharisees for practicing the Mosaic Law of tithing while “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23; with Lk. 11:42; 18:12). In a similar fashion, Jesus mentions in a parable that a proud Pharisee pays his tithes in order to boast of his self-righteousness. But it is the humble tax collector, who is not said to pay his tithe, that Jesus justifies (Lk. 18:14).
Other than these references, the tithe is not mentioned. Therefore, it is imposing on Scripture to argue that the tithe is commanded of the church today unless you are referring to the governmental tax. But, this is not given to the pastors and workers of the church. It is given to the secular government since we do not live in a Theocracy.
It is even a stretch to say that God first instituted the idea of a tithe in any way. We know historically that the tithe was rooted in pagan practice in the regions of Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, Greece and the Phoenician city of Carthage.1 This is likely why Abraham and Jacob offered a tithe – culturally, it was the thing to do.
The Christian church should not consider the tithe as a common practice. Rather, the apostles taught, and the early church practiced, what we may call free-will giving. It was more of a stewardship practice and it was voluntary. Likewise, they taught as Jesus did, to obey the laws of the land. We should pay our taxes to our government.
Since the early church, those who have adopted the practice of tithing and made it a church duty, have brought Christians under a man-made burden. What was good news for the poor in the Old Testament, is terrible news to the poor in the church today. Since all Christians are obligated to tithe under this premise, the poor become poorer. And rather than this money being stored up for the poor, it is stored up for the church programs. And the most interesting thing about this, is that the tithe was never that of money although money existed even before the tithe.
In closing, this is not suggest that Christians should not give of their money or any other resource. Giving should be a natural characteristic of the true believer – for God gave to us freely and abundantly, so we should be eager to joyfully give the same way. If this is true of the believer, then a taxation is unnecessary. True Christians don’t need to be told to give. They creatively seek to give.
- From Encyclopdia of Religion, Mircea Eliad, editor, 1987 and from John D. Davis, ed., Westminister Dictionary of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964).