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A Rationale for Tithing

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Bible, Every-Member Ministry, Finances, Life in the Church, Vision

Last Sunday Phil made several points about tithing. One was that this was to be the starting point for giving to the church. He referenced a passage central to a right understanding of this issue:

Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How have we robbed you?' In your tithes and contributions. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts. 12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. (Mal. 3:8-12)

The one who tithes in this passage is putting himself in a position to see God "open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need" (v. 10), and the one who does not tithe is "cursed with a curse" (v. 9). Those are challenging words, arent' they? But as Phil said, "I'm just reading the text. It just says what it says." We should hear God's intent here, though: He desires to bless us!

In case tithing is new for you, in this post I'll lay out a way to approach the topic of tithing. Christians differ in how they handle this practice, and here I want to offer a rationale for tithing. Note, I didn't say THE rationale, but A rationale. Here it is: What God commands in the Old Testament we continue to do in the New Testament--provided that we understand it in light of Christ. Tithing is commanded in the Old Testament, while generous giving is commanded in the New (2 Cor. 8-9), but this doesn't mean that we abandon the tithe. It means that we continue it in light of Christ. Let's think through this a bit.

The word "tithe" means a "tenth." It can be used in a variety of ways, but typically it refers to giving a tenth of your earned income to God and his people. The first person to offer a tithe to a priest is Abraham, who gave a "tenth of all" he had to Melchizedek, the mysterious Christ-figure (Gen. 14:20; cf. Heb. 7). This is, of course, centuries before there was a law of Moses and a Levitical priesthood to support.

In the law of Moses, tithing occurs frequently. It is the rightful possession of God (Lev. 27:30) and symbolizes God's 100% ownership of everything. We don't give 10% to God as if he only owns 10%. We give 10% to him to symbolize the fact he owns 100% of it!

The purposes of the tithe are critical to see. There are basically two. The first is to worship God (Deut. 26). Then, as now, giving to God was done by giving to God's people, so to give as an act of worship we were giving to the people of God. A second purpose was to provide for the ministers of God (the Levites) and the tabernacle itself (Num. 18:21ff.; Neh. 10:37-38; 12:44ff.). A third purpose of giving was to provide for the poor, though this was in addition to the tithe (Deut. 15:4ff.). So, we tithe for worship and to provide for the ministers among us, and as we are able we also give for the poor. When we turn to the New Testament, we'll see these same three dimensions.

In the New Testament, there are only a few references to tithing. We see that Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for being scrupulous with their tithing but forgetting "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness" (Matt. 23:23). We also see that the self-righteous Pharisee in Jesus' parable boasts of his careful tithing (Luke 18:12). The only other reference is Hebrews 7:5-10. In this passage the author wants to prove that Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20) is greater than the Levites as a priest. His proof of this is that Abraham paid tithes to him, and the Levites are the descendants of Abraham. Therefore it is as if the Levites themselves are paying tithes to Melchizedek. Tithing is mentioned only incidentally to allow the author to make his point about the superior priesthood of Christ.

What we do read about often in the New Testament is sacrificial giving. Paul in 2 Corinthians 8-9 highlights "the churches of Macedonia" because "in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part" (8:2). They gave even "beyond their means" (8:3). We learn as well that giving demonstrates that our love is "genuine" (8:8), that it is a way for those with plenty to provide for those with little in God's church (8:13-15), that we will reap abundantly when we sow abundantly (9:6-9), and that giving mirrors the offering of Christ who is God's "inexpressible gift" (9:15).

Further, giving is how to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matt. 6:20), and show that we are worshiping the Lord and not money (6:24). Such giving is seen as "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God" (Phil. 4:18). Giving is also how we provide for the poor in our midst and the poor in other regions (Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Gal. 2:10).

Perhaps the closest connection between old covenant tithing and New Testament giving is how we support those in ministry (1 Tim. 5:17-18; Phil. 4:10-18). Freeing up pastors, church staff, and other ministers to give themselves full-time to the building up of God's church is a profound means of grace—just like the priesthood under the old covenant brought grace to the entire community.

Now we need to consider the work of Christ: Does the coming of Christ impact how we think about the tithe of the Old Testament? Does the teaching on giving nullify the command to tithe from the Old Testament? The key way the redemption of Christ impacts the command to tithe is through the cross bringing an end to the old covenant priesthood and tabernacle. Further, the cross inaugurates "the household of God, which is the church of the living God" (1 Tim. 3:15). A whole new set of offices (pastor-teacher, prophet, evangelist, apostle, deacons) replaces the old (prophet, priest, king), and some of these are to be supported by the church. As for those in need, Jesus tells us, "You always have the poor with you" (Matt. 26:11), and the cross does not change our concern for them.

It would appear from the New Testament and the gospel that while the percentage is not emphasized (not ten-percent but sacrificial, joyful, gospel-centered giving), the way that we use our money is essentially unchanged from one covenant to the next: our finances support those in ministry and provide for the poor. Thus, we are on safe ground to bind Christians to sacrificial giving, and it would appear that tithing is where we start with such giving.

Again, this is only A rationale. You will need to prayerfully consider how you approach this topic in your personal finances.


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