What Does the Bible Teach about Tithing?
In college, I took a wonderful class on 19th century British literature. As we were discussing a Jane Austen novel, the professor drew our attention to the constant conversation in the novel about who was making how much money. She observed that, in the 19th century, people spoke constantly about money, even while they never discussed sex. By contrast, our culture speaks incessantly about sex but avoids the topic of money (how much we make and how much we give) at all costs.
In the church, conversations about money can be extremely awkward. We consider our income, and especially our giving, as one of the most private, personal issues in our lives. Further complicating the issue is that the pastor, whose salary depends on the giving of the church, is usually the person who leads those conversations.
So, Christians may give a general nod to tithing (giving 10% of our income) in order to move on to the less controversial topics. But what does the Bible actually teach about tithing? The biblical mandate for stewardship is a bit more complicated than simply commanding God’s people to give 10% of our income to the church. In fact, it was never quite that simple.
Abraham’s Tithe to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:20)
To start off, we have two important examples of tithing in the book of Genesis. First, Abraham tithes to Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils he took in battle (Gen. 14:20; cf. Heb. 7:4). The story about Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek becomes critical through the rest of the Bible (cf. Ps. 110; Heb. 7).
If we focus in on the issue of wealth, we see that Abraham tithes in response to Melchizedek's declaration that Abraham has been blessed “by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19). Then, Abraham takes one step further by refusing to keep any of the spoils for himself. He echoes the words of Melchizedek when he speaks to the King of Sodom: “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’” (Gen. 14:22–23). Abraham can tithe and dispossess himself of Sodom’s spoils because he entrusts himself to God.
We begin our study of tithing, then, with the recognition that God Most High is the Possessor of heaven and earth. We do not give to God because he needs something from us; rather, God is the one who possesses all wealth, and whatever we have comes from him. When we give to the Lord, we tangibly acknowledge that God already owns our possessions.
Jacob’s Vow to Tithe (Gen. 28:22)
Second, Jacob vows to give a tithe to God in Genesis 28:22. As Jacob flees into exile, God makes unilateral, unmerited promises to Jacob in a dream. God promises to be with Jacob, to protect him, and to bring him back into the land (Gen. 28:15). In light of this, Jacob makes an offering by pouring oil on a stone marking the spot where he slept (Gen. 28:18). Then, Jacob vows to give a full tenth of whatever he receives from God when he returns.
Up to this point, Jacob has been a taker—he took Esau’s birthright (Gen. 25:29–34), and he took the blessing that Isaac intended to give to Esau (Gen. 27:1–25). Now, Jacob becomes a giver. Here, he gives to God an offering of poured out oil, and he vows to give God a tithe when he returns. Later, Jacob will give Esau a generous gift from his wealth in an effort to make peace with his brother (Gen. 32–33).
Just as Abraham responded by tithing after Melchizedek declared him to be blessed by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, so also Jacob responds to God’s gracious blessing toward him. Indeed, God does not bless Jacob because of Jacob’s righteousness. Instead, God graciously blesses Jacob to make him into a generous blessing for the whole world (Gen. 28:3, 14).
Tithing in the Law of Moses
The tithing of Abraham and Jacob became precedents to structure how God commanded the Israelites to give. Instead of one tithe, however, the Mosaic law commands three distinct tithes. Both Tobit 1:6–8 (from the Apocrypha—useful for history, not for doctrine; cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 1.3; Belgic Confession, Art. 6) and Jewish historian Josephus (Book IV, Section 240) testify that at least some of the Jews observed all three of these tithes.
While new covenant believers do not need to observe all the ceremonial details of what these laws required, we learn from these laws of what God desires from our stewardship of the wealth he entrusts to us. (To read more about the information in this section, see "Tithing and Sacrificial Giving," in Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory, p. 205–08; Read on Google Books).
The first tithe is the standard tithe to support the Levites (Num. 18:21–24). In turn, the Levites gave a tenth of the tithe they received to the priests (Num. 18:25–32). None of the Levites receive any inheritance of land along with the other tribes of Israel, since Yahweh himself promises to be their portion and inheritance (Num. 18:20, 24; Josh. 13:14, 33). Since the Levites have no way of supporting themselves from the land, God commands that the other Israelites who do have land must support the Levites “in return for their service that they do” (Num. 18:21). This first tithe, then, supports the ministry of the Levites among the people of God.
The second tithe is less of a donation and more of a line-item for the budgets of the Israelites. That is, God commands that his people set aside a tenth of their produce for consumption during the three annual feasts (Deut. 14:22–27). If they cannot transport their produce all the way to the festival city (Jerusalem), then God instructs them to sell that tithe for money to spend on “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” (Deut. 14:26). The only requirement God gives for this revelry is that his people “not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you” (Deut. 14:27). This second tithe provides for generous hospitality for God’s people to share together in as a community.
The third tithe is the “poor tax.” God commands that his people collect a tenth of their annual income every third year to give to the poor (Deut. 14:28–29). So, the Law required God’s people to give 20% (the first two tithes) in the first and second year, and then 30% (all three tithes) in the third year. Over three years, God’s people tithed an average of 23% of their produce.
Additional Giving Under the Old Covenant
Beyond these tithes, Allen Ross (Recalling the Hope of Glory, 206–07) points out that the law included other financial obligations. God’s people:
Contributed to the building and repair of the tabernacle (Ex. 35:4–29) and temple (1 Chron. 29:1–9; 2 Kgs. 12:4–16; 22:3–7; 2 Chron. 24:4–14; 34:8–14)
Could not plant their fields every seventh year (Lev. 25:1–7)
Also could not plant their fields the fiftieth year of Jubilee, when they also forgave one another’s debts (Lev. 25:8–22)
Brought regular animal and grain sacrifices (Lev. 1–7; Num. 28)
Left the corners of their fields for the poor and the sojourner (like Ruth) to glean (Lev. 23:22)
Cared for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner (Deut. 15)
Made vows and freewill offerings (Lev. 22:18, 21, 23; 23:38; Deut. 12:6, 17)
Ross summarizes, writing that “All of this adds up to a sizable financial responsibility for those under the law who professed to be righteous worshippers” (Recalling the Hope of Glory, 207). These responsibilities are not optional, for God charges his people with robbery when they fail to bring their tithe (Mal. 3:6–12).
Generosity Under the New Covenant
Under the new covenant, God’s people are not commanded to tithe. Even so, the new covenant employs the theological principles from the old covenant witness about tithing. In other words, the new covenant removes the outward, ceremonial, legal aspects of tithing while still calling God’s people to generosity—and possibly even to more generosity than under the old covenant.
So, Jesus criticizes those who strictly tithe in order to trust in their own righteousness (Luke 18:9, 12). Also, Jesus rejects the righteousness of those who diligently tithe mint, dill, and cumin while they neglect the weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy, and faithfulness: “These [tithes] you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). Finally, Jesus expresses disappointment that the rich give a token of their riches (presumably, a tithe) while he praises a poor widow who gives all that she has to live on (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 21:1–4).
The practice of tithing, therefore, was an old covenant husk that surrounded the new covenant kernel of God’s goal for his people: generosity. Rather than calculating a percentage, we ought to give cheerfully and generously as the Lord prospers us (1 Cor. 16:2). Indeed, we now have an example of generosity that old covenant believers did not yet know: “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 Cor. 8:9). In response to what Jesus has given to us, we can be cheerful givers too (2 Cor. 9:7). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).
Old Covenant Suggestions for New Covenant Generosity
So, even though the legislation of the old covenant is not legally binding, the old covenant laws were written down for our instruction (Rom. 15:4) and example (1 Cor. 10:11). That is, the old covenant holds out to us typological patterns that should structure (not enslave) our generosity.
In this light, it is interesting to consider the way the New Testament encourages the same kinds of generosity as mandated by the three major tithes:
Advancing the Gospel
First, just as God commanded the Israelites to tithe to the Levites in view of their service in Israel’s worship, God continues to command his people to support the progress of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:13–14; 2 Cor. 11:7–8; Phil. 4:14–20). While this applies to supporting pastors and missionaries, we may also apply this toward general expenses for the church, such as buildings, Bibles, and other overhead costs.
Consider prayerfully how to invest your money for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.
Fellowship and Hospitality
Second, while we no longer have major festivals, the radical fellowship of believers in the early church presents an ongoing picture of how we ought to use our resources for biblical hospitality: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44–47). On the other hand, Paul levels one of his sharpest criticisms against excluding the poor from the fellowship feasts of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17–22).
In our overall approach to generosity, we may think about how to spend our money to fund fellowship with others—and especially with the poor. Jesus explicitly instructed us to do this: “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13–14).
Consider prayerfully how to invest your money for fellowship and hospitality—especially with widows, orphans, and other people who cannot necessarily repay your hospitality with worldly rewards.
Remembering the Poor
Third, above and beyond budgeting for fellowship with the poor, collections for the poor continue in the New Testament. Paul directs the Corinthian church to set aside money each week for fellow believers (1 Cor. 16:1–4), and he devotes substantial writing to raising funds for the poor in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:22–29; 2 Cor. 8–9). Remembering the poor is the very thing Paul is eager to do (Gal. 2:10).
Consider prayerfully how to invest your money for the benefit of the poor.
In summary, Christians are not commanded to the precise tithing requirements of the old covenant. Instead, the new covenant provides us new generosity from God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ to fuel new levels for our generosity in Christ’s kingdom. The old covenant helpfully sets out typological patterns that direct our prayerful consideration for how we might structure our New Testament generosity. All Christians should prayerfully consider how to steward the resources entrusted to them by God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth.
“Tithing and Sacrificial Giving,” in Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publishing, 2006), 205–08. (Read in Google Books)
Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015).
Randy Nabors, Merciful: The Opportunity and Challenge of Discipling the Poor Out of Poverty (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).
Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2018).
Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt, with Brian Fikkert, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).