Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.[2 Corinthians 9:7]
On average, only about 5% of Protestant Christians tithe — or give away at least 10% of their income — yet many churches preach that tithing is the religious obligation and recommended minimum for their members. While tithing has become a culturally accepted rule in traditional Christianity, many pastors grossly misrepresent it, while most Christians sadly misunderstand it.
So what does the Bible say about tithing? Is tithing required for Christians?
Let’s take a closer look at the Scriptures.
Tithing in the Old Testament
The first mention of tithing in Scripture is found in Genesis 14 where Abraham rescues his nephew, Lot, and later gives a tenth from the spoils of war to Melchizedek — King of Salem.
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything … See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils![Hebrews 7:1-2,4]
This isolated account in Abraham’s life certainly does not establish a precedent for New Testament believers to give a tenth of their income back to God or to the church. The tithe, however, eventually did become part of God’s law for Israel under the Mosaic covenant. What many fail to recognize is that the Biblical concept of the tithe in ancient Israel had nothing to do with giving money and everything to do with the produce from the land.
The law specifically required all Israelites to pay a 10% tax on whatever was produced from the land — whether crops or herds — to support the Levites [see Leviticus 27:30-34, Hebrews 7:5]. As the priestly tribe, the Levites were set apart to perpetually serve the LORD in the tabernacle/Temple on behalf of the rest of the people and were not allowed to own land.
To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting,[Numbers 18:21]
Without land, the Levites were completely dependent upon the tithes of Israel to supply their food. The tithes both provided food for the Levites and also supplied the offerings for the daily sacrifices. Beyond that, tithes funded the appointed feasts of the LORD and other religious festivals and were used to help feed the poor. Once again, the Biblical concept of tithing was always associated with taxing the produce of the land, not money or currency [see Deuteronomy 14:22-29].
Even the famous passage in Malachi warning the Israelites about “robbing God” is usually preached out of context today. Once again, Malachi’s rebuke exclusively involved the mishandling of the produce of the land, not money.
Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you ask, ‘How do we rob You?’
In tithes and offerings. 9You are cursed with a curse, yet you—the whole nation—are still robbing Me. 10Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this,” says the LORD of Hosts. “See if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour out for you blessing without measure.”[Malachi 3:8-10]
Obviously, New Testament believers do not live in the context of the ancient Kingdom of Israel, where God’s people were responsible to obey the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant. While the moral laws embodied within the 10 commandments most definitely still apply to believers today, tithing is not some sacred 11th commandment. The Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system of Israel completely ceased after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and presently is out of commission, which means that the Biblical purpose for tithing died with it.
So the bottom line is that there is no principal in the Old Testament that requires a follower of Jesus Christ to give 10% of his/her income to God or that obligates a church member to tithe in their local church.
If that is the case, then what does the New Testament say about tithing?
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.[2 Corinthians 3:17]
There is no law or precept implied either explicitly or implicitly in the New Testament that tithing is required or even recommended for a follower of Jesus Christ. While Jesus and the Apostles do not impose any legalistic standard of giving in the church, the New Testament does establish valuable principles of giving that appeal to the spirit of the law, which is the law of liberty [James 2:12].
The foundational principle of giving for a Christian is freedom. God’s people should give freely and willingly as led by the Holy Spirit, not under compulsion, which only leads to resentment and guilt. Many Christians give reluctantly out of guilt, having been manipulated and compelled by men, not God.
We become cheerful givers when we are free to give, not bound by some legalistic standard. In other words, it is a joy to give in the name of Christ because we want to, not because we have to. Giving should be a natural response to God out of our love and appreciation for Him — nothing less. This is precisely how the Apostle Paul connects cheerful giving to willful giving. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” [2 Corinthians 9:7]
Interestingly, this same principle is seen in the freewill offerings in Old Testament as well, which demonstrates that the spirit of God’s law always has been that of freedom. Consider how David and all Israel gave freely to raise money for the building of the Temple of the LORD.
“Who then will offer willingly, consecrating himself today to the LORD?” 6Then the leaders of fathers’ houses made their freewill offerings, as did also the leaders of the tribes, the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, and the officers over the king’s work … Then the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the LORD. David the king also rejoiced greatly … But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.[1 Chronicles 29:5-6, 9, 14]
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.[2 Corinthians 8:9]
When a believer begins to understand the endless abundance of God’s grace and the eternal worth of spiritual blessings we have received in Christ Jesus, we are transformed from being greedy and selfish to being generous and considerate of the needs of others. God by nature is most generous, as Jesus Christ Himself said, “it is better to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35].
Then Jesus put His words into action and proved His love by giving His very life for our sake.
A true follower of Jesus Christ will live a life of generosity and demonstrate love to others in practical ways. This is especially true for Christians in the West who have been blessed with the material means to bless others. Here in America, for example, even a modest lower or middle-class income would be considered rich to the rest of the world. Paul reminds us what true generosity looks like.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,19thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.[1 Timothy 6:17-19]
For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.[Romans 14:23]
The final principle of giving in the New Testament is that of faith. There will be times when we are unable to give out of an abundance. Often there will be times when it is difficult to give to others, knowing that our own needs may be at risk. The true test of giving is not passed when it is easy to give but rather when it costs the most.
A mature believer isn’t measured by giving some legalistic percentage of his income. A mature believer understands that everything he has first belongs to God, including his very life. A mature believer knows that he will be faced with extreme tests of faith that will reveal his ultimate trust in God. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.
One of the most difficult things in life to entrust to God is money, and yet we are called to be faithful stewards of everything God has given us. We are called to obey God, even when it hurts. We are forced to answer one simple question.
Can I really trust God to take care of me?
The early New Testament church faced severe hardship and suffered great financial loss for choosing to follow Jesus, and yet their faith was so resolute that they were able to care for one another in extreme poverty.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.[Acts 2:44-45]
The Macedonian believers were persecuted to the point of beggary, yet when an opportunity came up to help their brothers and sisters in need, they begged Paul for the chance to give out of their poverty. What faith!
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.[2 Corinthians 8:1-4]
And of course then there is the famous account of the poor widow, whose faith was commended by the Lord Jesus Himself, reminding us that the test of faith is at the heart of giving.
And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”[Mark 12:42-44]
Maybe the reason so few Christians live generous lives and contribute to the work of the kingdom is because we have been looking at this all wrong to begin with.
Before we give our money, we must be willing to give ourselves to God — the Owner of everything.
The only way to break the bondage of legalism is to discover the true joy that comes from our freedom in Christ to give ourselves to Him willingly and generously and faithfully.
Once we have fully opened our hearts to God, we will not hesitate to open our hands to others.