I am frequently asked about tithing. Many sincere Christians have been made to feel guilty if they do not tithe. They want to know if the scriptures require tithing. The answer is that the commands to tithe are all in the Old Testament. We need to assess each of these commands to determine if they still apply under the new covenant established by Jesus death and resurrection.

Bad Start

Tithing got off to a bad start.

The first recorded example of a person tithing is Abraham (Gen 14:17-22). When he had defeated the kings who had captured Lot along with several neighbouring kings, Abraham met Melchizedek, who was king of Jerusalem. He brought bread and water out to Abraham. Melchizedek was a priest of the most high God, so he blessed Abraham.

It seems that Melchizedek had established an order of priests to serve God. The scriptures don't tell us how he came to know about God, but I presume God called and he answered.

Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the loot he had plundered. Melchizedek said that he did not want it. However, it seemed that Abraham had made a vow to God that if he would give him a tenth of the plunder if he blessed him in the battle. The only way that he knew to give it to God was to give it to Melchizedek, the priest, so he insisted that he take it. If Melchizedek refused to take the loot, Abraham would be breaking his vow. The mention of the oath seemed to satisfy Melchizedek.

We should notice several things about this incident.

Abraham later came to understand God's grace. He realised that God blessed him because he loved him and because Abraham trusted God (Romans 4:16,17).

The second incident involving tithing was a promise to God that Jacob made when he was leaving home. He promised a tenth of everything to God if he watched over him and kept him safe (Gen 29:20-22). This was manipulation. Jacob was a conniver. He did deals with everyone he met to try to get ahead. In this instance, he tried to do a deal with God. The scriptures do not record whether Jacob actually kept his promise and tithed.

Jacob thought he needed to make a promise to get God on his side. He was wrong. God had chosen to bless him. God chose Jacob because he loved him (Rom 9:14), despite his deceitfulness and manipulation, not because he promised to give wealth to God. No one can out give God.

Tithing got off to a bad start, as the first two examples in the scriptures were situations where people tried to do a deal with God. They committed to tithing if God would agree to bless them. This is still a common reason for tithing. People tithe to their church, believing that God will bless them in return by multiplying their wealth. This is manipulation, not grace and faith.

Law or Grace

Most biblical teaching on tithing is in the Law of Moses. Most Christians respond to this by saying that we live under grace, not law, so that we can ignore commands about tithing. This response is too simplistic.

God gave his laws to Moses to provide a system of government that would allow people to live in relative peace in a new land. These laws are still God's standard of justice. God also included Instructions for Economic Life to guide their economic interaction. The still stand. The law of Moses also provided a system of sacrifices to deal with sin until Jesus should come and deal with it completely. These sacrifices were fulfilled by Jesus, so they are no longer applicable to his followers.

The Law of Moses provide wisdom for dealing with numerous issues that still exist, so we cannot just say that the entire law of Moses is redundant, because it is replaced by grace. We must assess each group of commands and decide if they have been fulfilled by Jesus. We no longer need to obey those that he has fulfilled, such as the tabernacle sacrifices. However, there are other laws that are still relevant. We must decide which category the commands about tithing belong to, before choosing to ignore them.

The Hebrew word for tithing means "tenth". Tithing is defined in Leviticus.

A tenth of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord (Lev 27:30).

A tenth of everything that grows on the land belongs to God. This includes grain and fruit from trees.

Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad (Lev 27:32-33).

A similar principle applies to domestic animals. The phrase "passes under the shepherd's road" is not clear. I presume that this refers to all new animals that are born into the flock or herd. If God took a tenth of the entire flock each year, it would almost disappear after ten years. It makes more sense that a tenth of animals that are born belong to the Lord.

The animals that belong to the Lord must be selected randomly. The farmer cannot pick out which ones he will give because the might be tempted to keep the best ones for himself.

Redeeming the Tithe

If the farmer wants to keep some of the grain from the tithe, he can swap it for money, but he must pay an extra fifth.

Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it (Lev 27:31).

If the farmer wants to keep some of the grain or livestock for breeding, he might decide to redeem it. Similarly, if the tithe is too difficult to transport to the temple, he might decide to swap if for money that is easier to carry. The person redeeming some of their tithe must pay an extra fifth.

Leviticus allowed the farmer to swap a tithed animal for another if it is needed for breeding, but the animal that is swapped cannot be redeemed.

If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed (Lev 27:33).

Eat in the Presence of the Lord

Leviticus says that the tithe belongs to the Lord, but we have to go to Deuteronomy for teaching about how it should be given to the Lord. The tithe was to be eaten in the presence of the Lord as a celebration.

You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the Lord your God at the place the Lord your God will choose—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites from your towns—and you are to rejoice before the Lord your God in everything you put your hand to (Deut 12:17-18).

This is surprising. The tithe is to be eaten by the people who gave it as a celebration. However, they are to not to eat in their own towns. The tithes were to be eaten near his tabernacle in Jerusalem, where the presence of the Lord dwelt. The tabernacle was eventually replaced by Solomon's temple. The tithe was to be eaten in the presence of the Lord's as a celebration of his goodness.

At first thought, it does not seem possible for the people to eat a tenth of their production during a celebration. However, the Israelites were expected to visit Jerusalem, three times a year

A trip to Jerusalem would take two or three days there and a similar time to get back. Thus, a family would spend the following times in Jerusalem or travelling their and back.

An Israelite family would spend 5 weeks plus a day away from home each year. This is a tenth of their time (5. 15 / 52 = 10). While they were away, they would need to eat. While travelling, the wastage of food would be greater. In addition, they usually made a contribution to priests for sacrifices at the temple (Lev 23:8,19,36)

Each family was expected to take their servants, the Levites, widows, orphans and foreigners living in their town with them to enjoy the celebration in the Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks (Deut 16:11) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 16:14).

Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete (Deut 16:14-15).

The entire community was to be included in the celebration. The families with crops were expected to share their tithe with other people from their community.

Families would be away from home celebrating the feasts for a tenth of their time. They were expected to share with others during that time, so it is not surprising that they would consume a tenth of what they produce during their visits to Jerusalem.

The tithe demonstrates the graciousness of God. He says that the tithe belongs to him because he created the earth and gave its produce to the people. Then he tells them that they can consume his share in a magnificent celebration. He takes a portion of the what he had blessed his people with and gives it back to them as a blessing they can use for a celebration. What amazing generosity and kindness.

Travel Costs

If people had to travel a long way to Jerusalem and carrying the tithe was too difficult, they could sell it for silver, and buy what they needed when they got to Jerusalem.

If that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord our God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice (Deut 14:24-26).

This practice made life simpler, but it had a cost. The person tithing would be selling their produce at a place where many other people would be selling. When they got to Jerusalem, everyone would be buying. They would be selling in a weak market for low prices and buying in a tight market for high prices. Therefore, by swapping their tithe for silver, they would lose out. Only those with really good crops would be able to afford this economic loss.

Caring for Levites

The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are the descendants of Levi, who was Jacob's third son. The Levites were called to serve God. They were responsible for carrying and maintaining the tabernacle while the children of Israel travelled through the wilderness into the promised land.

Aaron was a Levite. The priests serving in the temple were always selected from his descendants, ie one branch of the Levite tribe.

The Levites were not allocated agricultural land when they entered the promised land (Num 18:21-24). Instead, they were allocated forty cities spread throughout the land.

The towns of the Levites in the territory held by the Israelites were forty-eight in all, together with their pasturelands (Jos 21:41).

Once the temple was built in Jerusalem, the Levites were rostered times to serve there (1 Chron 24:20-31). Some Levite families were rostered to be singers and musicians in the temple (1 Chron 25). Other families were rostered to be gatekeepers and ushers, ensuring that people visiting the temple knew where to go (1 Chron 26:1-19). Other Levite families maintained the storehouses in which offerings made to the temple were stored until they were needed (1Chon 26:1-19).

The Levites spent some of their time serving in the temple, and they had not been allocated agricultural land, so they might not be able to produce enough to support themselves. God provided for the Levites through the tithe (Deut 18:1-2).

Do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own. At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands (Deut 14:27-29).
When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied (Deut 26:12).

At the end of every third year, the tithe was to be taken to their own towns and stored to be available for the Levites, and others who are poor (Amos 4:4). Some commentators have argued that this is a second tithe, on top of the one to be taken to Jerusalem, but the text in Deuteronomy does not say that. (It makes God seem mean, whereas, the tithe represented his generosity). I think it is more consistent with his grace that every third year, the people did not need to take their tithe to the temple but were to take into their towns and give it to the Levites. The Levites were responsible for distributing some of this food to foreigners, widows, and orphans.

According to the census taken in the wilderness, the Levites were only a small tribe. The largest tribe Judah was four times as large. The Levites were less than a twentieth of the population, so they did not need a tenth of the food produced every year. They were able to engage in productive activities when they were not rostered to the temple, so they did not need to get all their upkeep from the tithe. They had pasturelands around their towns (Jos 21:41), so they would be able to keep some of the livestock for milk and wool.

Getting a tenth of the nation's production every would be more than they needed. Getting the tithe every third year would be enough for them to live well. The law does not specify a national standard for the third year. People could choose which year they stayed at home, provided that it was every third year. This could mean that the Levites might get a third of the tithe every year.

This is more grace. The Levites received a gift to sustain their life. The Israelites got the gift of a year off from travel to the temple.

New Covenant

The tithe had two purposes.

These purposes for tithing do not carry forward into the New Testament. Jesus made the perfect sacrifice on the cross, so the tabernacle/temple sacrifices became redundant. Jesus fulfilled the feasts. There is no temple for us to visit, so it is not possible to take produce and have a celebration meal at the temple. Once the gospel went to the world, returning to Jerusalem for feast became impossible.

We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. He lives within us, so we can celebrate in his presence every day. A shared meal with the body of believers that we belong to fulfils the role of the feasts. Followers of Jesus, are expected to share food with other believers when the body of Jesus meets to celebrate the Lord's supper.

Similarly, there are no Levites serving at the temple needing the tithe for their income. Giving to the Levites was rural to urban giving. This may be needed in the body of Jesus, but it will be prompted by the Holy Spirit, not by a rule to be obeyed.

God still cares for the poor. While under the law, the Holy Spirit had not been given in fullness, so people need a rule for giving to the poor. Specifying a tenth ensured that people were generous. Under the new covenant, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all who believe. He can lead his people into generous giving. In the book of Acts, there was no tithe, but they gave to everyone who had need.

They shared everything they had. And God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them (Acts 4:32-34).

Generous caring and sharing led by the Holy Spirit is more effective than tithing.

God still expects his people to care for widows, orphans and disabled. In the New Testament that takes place through giving and sharing (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim 5:3-16). He also expects that churches will support each other when the need arises (2 Cor 8,9). These activities are led by the Holy Spirit, not by a rule of the tenth.

Under the new covenant, there is no temple, and no Levites caring for it, so the role of the tithe has disappeared. Tithing is replaced by generous giving and sharing led by the Holy Spirit. Deacons were appointed to direct giving to the poor.

New Testament

The truth that tithing is redundant is confirmed by the fact that it is rarely mentioned in the New Testament. Tithing is mentioned or three occasions.

These are the only references to tithing in the New Testament, and none of them state that followers of Jesus are expected to tithe. Because the temple sacrifices would come to an end and the temple would be destroyed, and the Levites would be scattered around the world, the role of tithing would need to change if it was to continue into the New Testament age. Jesus, or one of the New Testament writers, would have explained that change and described the new role for tithing, but that was not done. Therefore we can assume that tithing does not carry through to people living in the new covenant.

Robbing God

Malachi is the favourite prophet of preachers advocating tithing. They claim that those who fail to tithe are robbing God and have placed themselves under a curse.

"In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe," says the Lord Almighty. "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:8-10).

This is a strong word, but it must not be taken out of context. Malachi begins his message by challenging the economic injustice that is prevalent in Israel.

I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me," says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:5).

The people were practising sorcery and adultery. They were committing perjury and oppressing widows, orphans and aliens. They were not paying employees fair wages for their work. They seemed to be ignoring most of God's Instructions for Economic Life. God did not seem to be worried about lack of resources at the temple. He was worried about tithing, because his people were not caring for the poor and needy, as required by the Instructions for Economic Life.

The prophet declared the people of Israel were ignoring all God's commands, not just those about tithing. This is why they had lost his blessing.

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you," says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:6-7).

Malachi was challenging general disobedience of God's commands. Failure to tithe in support of the poor was just one sin amongst many, but God wanted that sorted out first, because he cares for the poor.

When Malachi said that they were robbing God (Mal 3:8), he was referring back to the Law of Moses.

Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and... your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:22-23).

When people take advantage of widows and orphans, God is offended. He will come to their aid (Ex 22:24).

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge... for I will not acquit the guilty (Exodus 23:6-7).

People who treat the poor badly are offending God. He will remove their blessing. Malachi challenged the people for withholding tithes because the poor were suffering and God was upset.

Religious Leaders

Malachi does not advocate tithing to support religious leaders. He actually condemned the actions and teaching of the priests before he spoke to the rest of the people.

And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honour my name," says the Lord Almighty, "I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honour me (Malachi 2:1-2).

God was unhappy with the religious leaders. They were not honouring him, so they lost his blessing. He did not want more wealth going to them.

Preachers who use Malachi to advocate tithing should read all his message. Malachi is blunt about those who twist God's word.

For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble (Malachi 2:7-8).

The tithing teaching twists God's way from faith and grace into doing good works to earn his favour. The tithing teachers claim that they have been blessed with prosperity because they have tithed. They say that those who are struggling financially are suffering because they have not tithed. This turns prosperity into a reward for doing good works.

God is gracious. His way is always:

Receive Do

He blesses us and expects us to serve him as an expression of his gratitude. Jesus died for us, while we were his enemies. In response to the gift of salvation, we serve him. This was the message of the gospel. It was also true in the Old Testament. He rescued his people from Egypt and blessed them with freedom before he gave the law describing how they should live as redeemed people.

Religions are always the other way around:

Do Receive

People who do what the religion requires might receive a blessing.

The Old Testament teaching on tithing was:

Receive Do

When you have received God's blessing, take some of it and enjoy a celebration. Bless others by sharing with them.

The modern teaching on tithing is the other way around.

Do Receive

Do something first. Give a tithe to the church, and then you will receive the blessing of prosperity. If you don't do, you will not receive.

Malachi would say that those who teach this way have failed to "preserve knowledge" for those "seeking instruction" and "caused many to stumble" (Malachi 2:7-8).