Is Tithing Biblical?

One of the greatest things about being a pastor is that I get to see and experience people’s faithfulness in ways others never get the opportunity to see. One example of this privilege was my experience with Park Memorial UMC’s own little centenarian, Olene Dismon. Olene lived to be 105 and passed away in July, 2016. I was afforded the opportunity to be Olene’s pastor for 9 years but it did not take nearly that long for me to witness Olene’s faith in Christ. 

The first time we met she had just gotten out of the hospital, but she spent most of our time together telling me about her husband, whom she still dearly loved. At the end of our visit she said, “I have something to give you.” Then she went into her kitchen and pulled a couple of offering envelopes from her table. She placed them into my hand and said, “Make sure that Carol gets these.” Olene was at a stage in her life that her church attendance was sporadic due to her health, but she believed in tithing from her $800 dollar Social Security income. Located in those envelops were two $80 checks, one for each month she had missed. Olene was so persistent about tithing that if I happened to miss one of our monthly visits she would call the treasurer and have her come pick up her tithe. Tithing for Olene was about faithfulness, devotion, and her love for Christ. 

In light of our current political and social landscape I’ve felt led to point out the apparent hypocrisy I see in Christians who point out the struggles of others while paying no attention to their own spiritual ineptitudes. My contention is that it is easy to point out in others something with which you yourself do not struggle. During my sermon preparation time I read articles, study scripture, and attempt to connect my heart with the words I will be speaking. In one of these periods of study I ran across the percentages that the average Christian contributes juxtaposed against what their tithe should be. This percentage is 1.69% for mainline denominations and 1.85% for Baptists. After some further study I’ve seen some statistics that claim that American Christians contribute as much as 2.5% of their income. 

The point I communicated to the congregation that I serve is, “If 97.5% of Christians in America are not giving sacrificially, if they aren’t tithing, then we need to get our own houses in order before we begin to talk about the sins we perceive in others.”  I wasn’t really intending my focus to be on the principle of tithing, it just seemed like these statistics covered a wide range of American Christians. I would much rather that my point be focused on the fact that we have enough issues in our own backyards that need tending so that we really shouldn’t have time to point fingers or talk about what other people around us are or aren’t doing.   

After worship I was challenged with the comment from one of my parishioners who said, “Pastor, I didn’t think tithing is a New Testament principle.” The first thing that I want to say is that good Christians disagree on this. Tithing is the kind of thing we can have a dialogue or debate over and still come out good friends. 

Those that say, “No, tithing isn’t a New Testament principle,” are doing so on the basis of tithing being part of the Sinai covenant (we must also remember the Ten Commandments are also a part of this covenant). This is the covenant that God made with Moses on Mount Sinai. Their claim is that the New Testament makes it clear that we are no longer under the Sinai covenant. Tithing described in this way is the idea of giving one-tenth of everything produced in a single year. This idea originated as the tax that Israelites paid from the produce of the land to support the priestly tribe (the Levites), to fund Jewish religious festivals, and to help the poor. These funds went to the Temple, Tabernacle, and the priests. In actuality, the Old Testament commands other offerings above the tithe, which if and when they were given would bring the total giving of a faithful Jewish person to around 17%-20%. 

Those that argue that tithing is not a New Testament concept are failing to take in consideration several factors that I believe are important. First, Jesus was a law-abiding Jew (I Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15). This means he broke no part of the Sinai covenant. The sinlessness of Jesus Christ is an essential component to our understanding of how His death paid the ultimate price for our sins. This in turn also means that Jesus tithed. 

Secondly, in Matthew 23:23 Jesus says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In Jesus’ famous “woe to you” statements he is pronouncing judgment upon the subjects he describes. In this instance Jesus clearly says tithing even in the small matters should be done, but with our minds also on the weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy, and faithfulness. When Jesus says, “without neglecting the former” he means without neglecting our tithe. 

We must also take into consideration that the New Testament Church as described in Acts 2:42-47 says they, “held everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” The earliest representation of the church lived communally and sold all that they had and placed it together so that everyone was given what they needed. It is widely understood that they did this in response to the immediacy of the time when they believed Christ would return. At some point, the church removed communal living as a requirement. 

As Paul began establishing churches, they continued to teach generosity and giving. II Corinthians 9:6-7 says, “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” It is obvious to me that Paul is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is teaching non-Jewish converts of the faith how to live out their faithfulness and devotion apart from being raised Jewish. Here the Apostle Paul teaches cheerful generosity as evidence of our devotion to God. Lastly, Paul mentions in several different ways an offering he is collecting to aid the Jews in Jerusalem that are being persecuted for their new found faith in Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 16:1-4, II Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Romans 15:14-32, Acts 24:17). 

Finally, in Matthew 22:15-12, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26; we have a wonderful story that points to a deep and important truth. Here Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees about whether they are obligated to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Jesus calls them hypocrites and takes one of the coins and asks whose portrait is on it. They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The Pharisees heard what they wanted to hear: they heard that they should pay the tax. But those who had ears to hear might have asked the question, “What isn’t God’s?” In saying this, Jesus is spurring us on to give everything to God in total obedience. We are to render unto God that which is God’s and God wants our “everything.” 

My conclusion is that the church throughout the centuries has interpreted the bulk of the biblical witness to say that an amount equaling a ten percent tithe-plus more best represents the sacrificial giving commanded of Christians in the New Testament.  One of the ways to “love the Lord your God with all your heart…” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” is to give sacrificially a tithe-plus.

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