If you spend only a few minutes on the internet looking at the various opinions on tithing, you'll find hundreds of different takes on whether or not tithing is a biblical practice. Some will tell you that it is optional, some will tell you that it is mandatory, and some will go as far as to say that believers must tithe in order to bless their future generations (we will address this take).
In this article, our goal is to summarize the history of tithing in Scripture as well as addressing the cultural aspects connected to tithing in the Bible. By the end of this article, you will be able to see what the Bible has to say about tithing and how it applies to believers today.
The Biblical History of Tithing
The first example of a tithe in scripture is in Genesis 14 where Abraham offers a tenth of his possessions over to God.
"and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything."
- Genesis 14:20
We actually see a very similar example of this form of tithe with Jacob just a few chapters later.
"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.”
- Genesis 28:22
These two examples of tithing act as a type of foundation for what giving looks like today in many of our modern churches. While this practice by Abraham is spoken of in approval in Hebrews 7:6, these examples do not tell the whole story of what was the standard set in place in the Old Testament.
The truth is found later, after the Law was set in place, and the nation of Israel was established.
Underneath the law, commanded by God for all of Israel, there were actually 3 different forms of tithe commanded for the Israelites. The first form was called the Levitical Tithe.
“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD. If a man wishes to redeem some of his tithe, he shall add a fifth to it. And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the LORD."
- Leviticus 27:30-32
The Levitical Tithe acted as a way for the Levitical priests to be supported so that they could focus on the priestly duties that they had been commanded to do. In fact, in Numbers 18:24 you can see that the Levitical priests were not permitted to own property or gain an inheritance. They fully depended on this tithe to survive.
The second form of tithe we see in the Old Testament is the Festival Tithe.
"You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household." - Deuteronomy 14:22-26
In summary, the Festival Tithe was 10% of all produce and one first-born male animal to be given to Jerusalem in order for the nation to host a large yearly festival so that the nation could come together and worship God.
The final form of tithe that the Israelites are commanded to give in the Old Testament is the Poor Tithe.
“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do." - Deuteronomy 14:28-29
This tithe was a tenth of your produce every three years to take care of the needy (poor, immigrants, widows, etc.).
If it is not already clear from these examples, what we see in the Old Testament is that the tithe acted as a form of taxation. Yes, it was still commanded by God, but this command was facilitated by the governing powers of the nation of Israel.
But why does this matter? These details are important because when we understand the cultural context behind an Old Testament command, it gives us a better understanding of how it applies to us today. In this instance, we now understand that regardless of whether or not the tithe is still a biblical practice, the original use of the tithe was in a culture where church and state were practically one of the same.
Applying Old Testament Law to the New Testament Church
Now that we understand the history behind this practice, we can move to the New Testament and ask the question, "What did Jesus have to say about this topic?"
Jesus speaks on tithing in two locations in the New Testament: one in Matthew, and one in Luke.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders of their day and he is confronting them on their hypocrisy.
“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." - Matthew 23:23
Jesus makes very similar claims in the book of Luke.
"And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." - Luke 11:39-42
What do we learn from these two sections of scripture? Here we can see that while Jesus is not outright opposed to the principle surrounding the tithe, He is opposed to how it has been handled by the religious leaders, who have used it more as a way to show off.
The truth is that Jesus cares way more about the heart posture behind your actions than your actions themselves. That is why He calls out similar religious leaders in Matthew 6:6 for praying on the street corners. Those who follow God's commands out of a prideful posture have already received all the blessing they will receive for their actions.
Jesus' words lead us to an understanding that Jesus cares way more about a heart that is chasing after Him than a hardened heart that is obeying God's commands for their own selfish gain. When you take that understanding and apply it to the practice of tithing, you can begin to see that Jesus cares more about willing generosity than commands to be followed.
Are We Commanded to Tithe Today?
Even though Jesus does not speak in great detail on the topic of tithing, we do see the New Testament reference how we as modern believers should posture ourselves in regards to financial giving.
It is in the letters Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that details these things, and it could not be more clear in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.
"Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come." - 1 Corinthians 16:1-2
Here in these two verses we see that Paul commands the church to give consistently, "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up..." as well as to give proportional to your income, "...as he may prosper..."
It is clear that Paul has not abandoned the command to give financial contributions to the church, but it is clear that the way in which this generosity plays out looks a lot different than the law once commanded.
In summary, Paul's teaching to the church in Corinth as well as Jesus' teachings against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders give us a blueprint for Christian generosity. The truth is, giving is no longer giving according to the law, but it is giving according to the heart.
"Giving is no longer giving according to the law, but it is giving according to the heart."
We as believers are commanded to give, and to give generously. But it is not out of obligation; rather, it is out of a love for God and an understanding of the mercy we have received through Jesus Christ.
Through the adoption we have all been offered into God's family, we all have the same mission, to reach the nations with the gospel. Because of this shared mission, we no longer have to demand giving, but instead, can encourage a partnership to reach our communities with Jesus. We are more effective together than we are apart, which is why coming together and sacrificing our time, money, and resources offers us the best ability to serve God and move His Kingdom forward here on earth.