Consideration of the Biblical legislation surrounding the Tithe and other offerings
North mentions the tithe on numerous occasions during the first section of his book and, at some points in the discussion, I’ve referred to them. However, the obligation of the New Testament believer to pay the tithe (that is, ten per cent of income or increase) to their local church (according to North) is so inextricably tied up with much of the teaching that it seemed best to me not to deal with each individual reference, neither to add a lengthy series of teaching notes at any point in the critique, but to relegate a brief survey of tithing and other offerings to a separate page.
So, here it is.
We’ll be looking at four specific types of giving mentioned in the Bible
1. The Tithe
2. Votive offerings
3. Freewill offerings
4. Sacrificial offerings
1. The Tithe
a. The principle
The word ‘tithe’ means, very simply, ‘a tenth’ (Strongs Hebrew number 4643) and, in today’s Church, it usually refers to the process of taking a tenth part from an individual’s income (that is, their ‘increase’ normally considered to be just their salary from employment) and donating that into the offering box for the upkeep of the local church (that is, the place where they gather together regularly as a body of believers).
It’s an OT principle and from NT Scriptures alone we can’t prove that tithing is still a relevant obligation for the believer or that it’s obsolete - we never find a categorical statement that either waives or commands its collection.
So, why does the local church today seem to place so much emphasis on the obligation of its membership to tithe regularly and consistently (apart, that is, from material considerations of being able to keep the building open and to keep the leader in a job)?
To answer this question we must look at the Scriptures on the subject to understand the concept behind it.
Before we look at the OT, let’s pay attention to both Luke 11:42 and Mtw 23:23. Jesus pointed out that we can tithe perfectly, never missing an opportunity to give a tenth of our increase to the Lord and yet be spiritually bankrupt. The Pharisees observed the letter of the Law, but the more important matters they’d neglected to perform. The tithe is only ever acceptable to God if it’s matched by living in obedience to God’s will for one’s life.
Neither is 10% a ‘pay-off’ so that we can rest easy and do with the remaining 90% as we please. 100% belongs to the Lord (Ps 24:1 says that ‘...the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’) but the first 10% is given as a special offering.
In today’s society we understand the tithe in terms of money, but in the OT the possessions (jewellery, sheep, cattle, etc) were often all the ‘money’ that people had and it was these that they both traded with and gave to God. Very simply, if, after reaping your harvest, you had 10,000 cabbages, then you would be obligated to bring 1,000 of them to the Lord, this number representing the tenth part of the harvest.
If we followed the same principle in the church today (for instance, those people who have allotments) then we’d have to alter the size and shape of the normal offering bags! It’s probably for this reason that today’s Church only really considers the tithe to be a tenth part of money earned, but in the OT the exact opposite is the case mainly because of the economic system that was prevalent at the time of the legislation regarding its necessity.
And what a blessing for the Israelites that the Lord didn’t command two-elevenths or five-forty-ninths!! One tenth is a very simple calculation and may have been instituted because of the ten digits which were on most people’s hands. Each finger could be allocated to one cabbage, for example, until the last cabbage was brought and it would easily be seen that that belonged to God. Even Israelites who were innumerate could have used this method.
So, onto the OT Scriptures.
Lev 27:30-33 informs us that the tithe of all the produce was the Lord’s but Num 18:21-24 shows us that He chose to give it to the Levites as an inheritance - literally as wages for their service to Him in the Tabernacle though perhaps also because they were the teachers of the Law in Israel (Num 18:21,23,31).
But the tithe legislation was further expanded upon in Deuteronomy (Deut 12:16-19, 14:22-27) for now we read that the tithe was to be eaten by the households that were offering it yet only at the place where YHWH would put His name (which came to be the Temple at Jerusalem although, for a long time, it would have been the Tabernacle wherever it was pitched) and this would have taken place at the Feast of Tabernacles each year, the celebration before YHWH that the final harvest had been gathered in (Lev 23:39).
If the place they lived was too far distant for them to bring the produce, they were allowed to convert it into currency where they resided - but they then had to reconvert it when they arrived in Jerusalem for the Festival and eat the food as if it was what they had grown that year.
So, it then has to be asked, if the tithe was to be for the Levite, how could the ordinary households be told to eat of it? And here is where the fun really starts, for the Lord included the sojourners, fatherless and widows (along with the Levites) as being beneficiaries of the tithe which was given only on each and every third year (Deut 14:28-29, 26:12-15).
The first and second years' tithes were, therefore, to be eaten by the households who had produced them and the Scripture seems to be plain that it was only the third year's tithe that was to be given to the Levite and certain non-serving sections of Israelite society.
One commentator sees only the third and sixth tithe in each seven year cycle being meant here but there doesn't appear to be any qualifying statement in the text - here or elsewhere - that would indicate this interpretation.
The question seems relevant here as to what did the poor and the Levite do in the other two years for their provision? The tithe was not the only provision by God to his people, For example, Aaron and his sons were given specific provision (Num 18:8-19), as were the Levites (Deut 18:1-4) and the poor (Ex 23:11, Lev 19:10, 23:22, Deut 15:7-8)
It was the Levites, as a consequence of receiving the tithe, however, who were obligated to tithe the best of that tithe (though the sojourners, fatherless and widows were not put under the same obligation - Num 18:25-26, 29) and give it to the Lord (Lev 27:33 shows us that the tenth given to the Levites was purely random - some of it would be the best and some would be inferior thus, hopefully, not impeding the Israelite by insisting on the best).
Yet even this tithe of the tithe the Lord gave to the High Priest (Num 18:28). There’s no subsequent record of Aaron or any of the other High Priests tithing the tithe of the tithe! Aaron, therefore, received one hundredth or 1% of the nation of Israel’s income. Just try and imagine being the beneficiary of 1% of the income of England and you get some idea of how wealthy the High Priest was to become if this was to be adhered to (though the initial population of Israel was somewhere around 600,000 males able to go to war rather than the millions that are resident in England)!
Yet God made it clear that the priest’s inheritance was Jehovah (Num 18:20,24, Deut 18:2, Joshua 13:33). The tithe was a ‘wage’ (though called an ‘inheritance’) for their real inheritance was Jehovah Himself (that is, no land was ever acquired in the tribal allotment). That made the Levitical priesthood the richest tribe in Israel by having God as their inheritance - even so, God threw in material provision as well. When our entire hope is in God then we are rich indeed but God won’t neglect to give material provision for His ministers and followers!
NB - Deut 18:1-8, Joshua 13:14 - Offerings by fire were also given to the Levites and, in the legislation of Leviticus chapters 1-7, we see what portions and quantities of the sacrifices were to be given to them.
The principles behind the tithe therefore are these:
i. Whoever ministers to the Lord on behalf of the people deserves to be supported by the people they represent.
The mediators who stood between God and the people under the Old Covenant had to have their needs met by the people who they mediated for.
ii. Whoever has need amongst the people of God should participate in the tithe and so be supported by their brethren.
In this way, poverty would be eliminated from Israel even though there would still be ‘poor’ - no one should find themselves destitute.
These were the purposes of the tithe.
Notice, then, that the idea of paying a tenth to a church fellowship or organisation is against Scripture as the Bible refers to people being the recipients of the tithe and not to man-made structures, though this is what is normally practiced!
But also that the 'tithe' was to be personally used by the contributor and his family at the place that YHWH would choose to put His name and it was only the third year tithe that was commanded to be given to the Levites and the poor (that is, to be given away to a Third Party).
Just how far does this principle apply under the New Covenant?
Just where do we draw the line between one who is entitled and one who is not?
Should only the elders and deacons receive the money as they fulfil the work of the church or should anyone who performs a mediatorial role be supported by the tithe?
The next section will, hopefully, provide an answer to these and other questions.
b. What did Jesus do?
We need to look at the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels to see what financial resources were at His disposal and how He used them.
i. Money received
Luke 8:1-3 is the only place where it’s recorded that certain of the disciples (which, incidentally, were women) made a financial contribution to the support of Jesus and His ministry. Though we may, perhaps, conjecture that those who were healed of their diseases gave a freewill offering into the disciples’ purse. Certainly no charge was made for services rendered (Mtw 10:8).
ii. Money spent
The disciples appear to have had a common purse as Judas is spoken of as having the money box or purse (John 12:6, 13:29).
John 12:5 and 13:29 encourage us to make two inferences as to the use of the money in the common purse (excluding Judas’ theft of a proportion of it, that is!).
1. A financial donation was given to certain poor folk that they came into contact with. This is certainly in keeping with the second principle of the tithe.
2. They met their own needs when necessary (that is, food, clothes and, perhaps, accommodation).
iii. Did Jesus tithe?
There’s no evidence to support either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to the question, but
1. Like the half-shekel tax (Mtw 17:24-27), Jesus didn’t need to tithe because he needed no-one to mediate for Him (see the OT principle above).
2. Like the half-shekel tax (Mtw 17:24-27), Jesus may have tithed the income in order not to cause offence.
The Law was certainly very specific that the tithe was to be paid by all Israel, so we should favour point 2, that Jesus did pay the tithe.
iv. Did Jesus teach that tithing was obsolete?
No, on the contrary, He upheld the Law (Mtw 5:18-19).
If we read carefully Jesus’ words in Mtw 23:23-24, we see that He doesn’t condemn the Pharisees for tithing but for not striving after the real objectives of the Law. Then He concludes by saying that these should have been aimed for without neglecting the obligation of the Law to tithe. Morris 2 writes concerning this verse
‘It is fatally easy to be preoccupied with minutiae and to overlook what is important. That was the error of the Pharisees. Jesus does not find fault with them for what they did, but for what they left undone’
However, tithing was a command for the Jew not the Gentile. When the early Church leadership met to discuss the obligation of the Gentile converts with regard to the observance of the Mosaic Law, they concluded their conversation by not laying tithing upon them as an ordinance that was to be adhered to (Acts 15:29).
But the principle is a good one if done Scripturally. That is, if it’s given to the mediators/ministers and to the poorer of the brethren, and if it’s realised that it’s no longer a commandment but voluntary (it never was a commandment laid upon Gentiles but only upon the Jewish nation).
The tithe that’s collected by the people of God under the New Covenant (that is, the Church) should be for everyone who ministers to the Lord on behalf of the people or who stands as a mediator between God and man (Gal 6:6, I Cor 9:9-11, I Tim 5:17-18) and, under the New Covenant, we’re all ministers to God and mediators between God and man, theoretically if not practically (Rev 1:6, I Peter 2:5). This is one of the principles of the tithe as defined above but it’s difficult to find a church that applies it - it’s normally only a select few who benefit financially and, more usually, it’s only the ‘leader’ who gets paid wages from the collection of the tithe.
The other principle of the tithe is found in passages such as Acts 2:44-45, 4:32 and II Cor 8:14, but I don’t for a moment consider these to be examples of a NT tithe but examples of the principle whereby the poorer of the brethren are supported.
Today we take church building repairs, rates, power bills and so on out of the tithe but the upkeep of the church building was always something that was provided for totally separate from the tithe received by the priests and the poor. It was a supplementary tax collected from the people - see Exodus 30:11-16 (Tabernacle), II Kings 12:4-5 (Temple), Neh 10:32-33,37-39 (the tithe and contribution for the upkeep of the Temple are here mentioned separately).
Although the tithe today is used on different items than it was originally intended to be used for, most of us will be thankful that we don’t revert to a Scriptural basis for our giving! We’ve made the tithe and the upkeep of the building into one offering but from the beginning it was not so. The tithe is for the ministers, mediators and the poor (whether preacher, teacher, chorus-leader, meeting-leader, musician, intercessor, overhead-projectionist, doorman, cleaner - or whoever) not for the upkeep of the buildings, mini-buses and the like - that’s a different offering.
In a church where only a few mediate only a few should participate in the tithe. In a church where few, if any, are poor, more will be available to support those who minister or for that money, if not needed, to be channelled into the advance of the Kingdom through others.
But in a church where the majority stand as mediators between God and their fellow men and where the poor are numerous, the tithe rightfully belongs to each one.
It must be pointed out, however, that all believers under the New Covenant should be mediators and ministers. Why some believers are only spectators is a problem that’s extremely complicated and space does not permit an explanation here.
NB - We’ve consistently based our discussion of the tithe on the passages in the Mosaic Law, but why didn’t I use or comment on the two earlier passages where the law of tithing appears to be mentioned?
The reason is that although they do both appear to be references to a tithe, one is a freewill offering while the other is a vow.
a. Gen 14:17-20
This is a freewill offering (see section 3 below).
There was no obligation upon Abram to give a tenth (he was obeying no religious or secular law), but he chose to do so. Even though Abram pays the tenth to the priest, there was still no compulsion for him to have done so, it was an entirely voluntary action, presumably as a result of the priest’s declaration that Abram’s victory was a result of God’s blessing upon him.
There are a number of similarities and allusions to the New Covenant here, also. Melchizedek is pictured as a type of Christ in the NT (Heb 6:19-7:25), the bread and wine that are brought to Abram are reminiscent of the last supper and of the believer’s communion with Christ (Mtw 26:26-29), we see this event as occurring before the law and even before the rite of circumcision was received by Abram (Gen 17:9-14, Rom 4:9-12) and the tithe is a freewill offering given to one of the Lord’s servants.
b. Gen 28:18-22
This is a votive offering (see section 2 below).
The formula is definitely
‘If (verse 20)...then (verse 21)’
and, as such, the tithe was conditional upon God first fulfilling all that Jacob specified.
Just because a tenth is specified doesn’t mean that we’re looking at a tithe as defined in the Mosaic law. And I’m sure that none of us would want to think that our tithe is given to God only if He fulfils what we require Him to do first - it would be more like putting God on the payroll than offering Him a tithe!
Mal 3:8 speaks of ‘tithes and offerings’ and Deut 12:6 lists numerous offerings when it speaks of
‘...your tithe, and the offering you present, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings...’
From these these two passages it can be seen that the tithe is quite separate from the offerings to God and are not the same. We’ve already seen the difference between the tithe and the offering for the upkeep of the Lord’s building. Having established these two, we’ll go on to consider both the votive and the freewill offering.
2. Votive Offerings
The Hebrew words translated as ‘vow’ (Strongs Hebrew numbers 5087/8) mean simply ‘promise’. TWOTOT notes that
‘A [vow] is something promised to God verbally...If one so promises he is obliged to fulfil/do his promise’
Vows as offerings take the form of
‘If God does this...I will do this or give this’
(for example, Gen 28:20-22, Num 21:2, Judges 11:30, I Sam 1:11, II Sam 15:8). It’s often recorded that we’re to pay our vows and not to neglect them. This type of offering was considered to be a bargain for obvious reasons.
Eccles 5:4-5 is a relevant warning. It’s better that we should never promise God that we’ll do something than to promise and to fail to carry it out. When we prove ourselves as people who break promises, God isn’t pleased - He’s the God who never fails to keep His declaration and He expects His children to do likewise.
A vow today seems to have almost disappeared from everyday life yet, in the lives of ‘unbelievers’, this type of bargaining as depicted in Ps 66:13-14 is often carried out between themselves and a god who they see as being open to bribes!
NB - Other types of vows existed which had little or nothing to do with a gift to God. They usually concerned ceasing to do something until an event had occurred or until a time had elapsed - for example, Numbers chapter 6 (the Nazirites), Ps 132:1-5 (David and the Temple), Acts 23:14 (the hungry murderers).
They were all of the form ‘I will not...until...’
3. Freewill Offerings
The tithe is given to God by command and a vow by promise, but a freewill offering differs from both of these in that it’s an offering where there’s freedom of choice in what is brought to God. The root of the Hebrew word (Strongs Hebrew number 5071) (TWOTOT)
‘...connotes an uncompelled and free movement of the will into divine service or sacrifice’
In Exodus 25:2 (I Chr 29:6-7) we read that the Tabernacle needed to be made so God commanded an offering be taken (this doesn’t mean it wasn’t a ‘freewill’ offering as the amount that each was to give was to be decided by their own individual choice). The nation were to provide the resources to be worked but only those who were willing to give to the work were to contribute. God had already called those He’d chosen to work but there needed to be a willing supply of material to carry out the task (Ex 35:30,34).
Exodus 35:5,21,22,29, 36:3,5,6b (if only the last verse was the case in the Church!) show us that it was like a target was set, to be reached by those of a willing heart. Only those whose ‘heart moved him’ or whose ‘spirit stirred him’ brought goods and the offering for the work turned out to be ‘much more than enough’.
This is the principle of one type of freewill offering - God sets the target and we set ourselves about reaching it. When God commands a thing to be completed, the people of God are to rally round and bring whatever their hearts prompt them to give. Without His people’s co-operation, some work in the Kingdom will never take place.
Does this mean that whatever the pastor/leader wants as a target is what we must aim for? No, definitely not. The target is what God sets, it’s what He desires to be done. The target will certainly come by revelation/prophetic utterance, but it’s not the responsibility of the leader to choose a target but to organise the church to reach it when it’s been revealed to the congregation.
[NB - Where did all this gold come from in the first place that was offered for the Tabernacle’s construction? Notice Ex 12:35-36 - When Israel came out of Egypt, God had given them favour so that gold, silver, material and so on had been given to them by the Egyptians. In effect, God had given them all the treasures but now they had to be willing to surrender them for God’s work. In I Chr 29:14,16-17 we hear David say the same. He says
‘...all things come from Thee and of Thy own we have given Thee...’
What we own is only on loan to us - when God wants needs met, we have to be willing to give Him what’s already His.]
Often missionaries need support. Even ‘big names’ come and seemingly beg money from christians in different countries for ‘the work of God’. This can certainly annoy us and we often wonder why they don’t ‘trust God’ for the finance needed. But if that individual or group have a command from God to carry out work then it’s God’s people who must give to it to bring it about (John 4:36). What we must do is ask God if He would have us to contribute to the work that has been labelled as being from Him. If the Lord doesn’t give a figure or prompt us to give then we’re not under any condemnation to withhold an offering.
Notice also some other Scriptures here.
II Cor 8:14 - If we don’t give in our abundance, we will not receive in our poverty. This is tantamount to ‘give now, receive later’ but some will never receive because they’ll never find themselves in a position of want. However, one rich group of believers should be concerned with supplying the needs of another poor (and not ‘less well off’) group of believers so that, when their states are reversed, there’s mutual giving.
I Cor 16:1-4, II Cor 9:7 - The need of the saints in Jerusalem was met by those who were of a willing heart.
Luke 6:38 - The measure we give is the measure we get back - and even more than that! Both good and bad applies to this Scripture, however.
III John 5-8 - The implications of how we give are far-reaching. When we support God’s work we are partakers in the work that’s being carried out. We only become a part of what God is doing when we freely and willingly give a part of ourselves to the work.
II John 10-11 - The contribution to the work can be either positive or negative. We need to be careful, therefore, what we support for we become united to that cause.
NB - Ps 119:108 - ‘Accept my freewill offerings of praise, O Lord’ Praise that is acceptable to God is that which is freely and willingly offered to Him. Whoever’s spirit prompts them to give praise to God is presenting a freewill offering.
4. Sacrificial Offerings
A sacrificial offering is a type of freewill offering and yet it differs from it in one major aspect. A freewill offering is normally given out of the abundance that a person has, whereas a sacrificial offering is given out of the poverty that someone lives in.
There are two aspects to NT sacrificial offering
In OT times, a sacrifice always ended up dead. When a sacrificial offering is made then it represents death for the contributor - not only does a part of our will die that desired the contribution for itself, but a part of that person’s ‘kingdom’ dies to be given over to the will of God (see also David’s comment on the suggestion that he offer up a sacrifice to God that cost him nothing - II Sam 24:22-24). A sacrifice is ‘dead’ money - there is no suggestion of investment in order to gain a return or reward.
Notice also Paul’s testimony in II Cor 8:1-4 where the relevant phrases are
‘...their extreme poverty...a wealth of liberality...gave beyond their means...’
Jesus also noticed the widow in Luke 21:1-4 who
‘...put in all the living she had...’
And, in I Kings 17:8-16, the widow of Zarephath gave all she had to the man of God.
Giving isn’t sacrificial until it requires self-sacrifice. It’s when we want something (maybe we’ve saved up for it over many weeks) but we sacrifice that money in the name of the Lord to extend His Kingdom rather than make ourselves more comfortable or please/enjoy ourselves.
Many people say ‘I’m saving up for a rainy day’ which is all well and good - it’s wise to make provision for items and problems that are foreseeable, it’s good monetary management. However, the expected cost of most people’s umbrellas that they need on some future ‘rainy day’ is often far more than they actually are.
Out of the abundance of our lives we give, but it’s only the poverty of our pocket that God pays attention to. Sacrifice is when we go beyond what’s comfortable and give to others what we ourselves want.
Our example in everything must be Jesus who gave all that He was in order that we might not suffer spiritual want. By doing this, He not only saved us, but gave us an example to copy (I John 3:16).
b. Meeting each other’s needs
See Acts 2:44-45, 4:34-35, Heb 13:16
Giving is a test of our love (and faith - James 2:15-16). Love is not throwing our arms around someone and kissing them, neither is it saying nice things about them. Love is always practical first. It meets the needs of others even when it represents a cost to itself. When we meet a person’s need, it’s proof of our love for them and of our faith in God.
Sometimes we misapply Mtw 6:2-4 and decide that, as we can’t give in secret, we shouldn’t give at all. But the Acts’ Scriptures above make it plain that the sacrificial giving was done openly, not for the glorification of those who’d sold their possessions, but for the benefit of the brethren.
It’s very rare that, when an ‘altar call’ is made for people to come to the front to have their needs prayed for, the wallet is got out and a cash payment made. But in the early Church, the wallet was one of the most common ways of meeting a person’s need.
Some ‘real life’ examples of the sacrificial offering
1. An ex-drug addict, now converted to Christ, had been saving up for a pair of replacement boots for quite sometime and the day finally arrived when he had enough. However, he was aware that his brother in the Lord also needed a pair of boots for the winter. What he could have done was to give his old pair to his friend as they both took the same size, but he decided that his brother deserved the best. So, with his money, he bought a new pair and gave them away, making do with the old pair for himself.
2. Isn’t it interesting how we treat missionaries? There are many societies who actively support such people and there are numerous appeals not only for them but also for the poor churches of the world. A lot of these appeals ask for second-hand clothes to be donated and our brothers get what we no longer want.
Now the sending of these clothes is a freewill offering but it’s not one that requires any sacrifice on our part. We’re only giving the least that we can, not the most. Besides, what’s of no use to us, God doesn’t want either (Mal 1:13).
If we were to contrast our type of giving with that of the churches where we send our donations we’d very quickly see the difference between us and them. Quite often, the poorer churches (especially behind the former ‘iron curtain’) would sacrifice their entire month’s meat ration or spend their family’s monthly wage on a visiting evangelist or teacher.
That’s what they do for us. What a shame that, so often, we can’ t even match the sacrifice and live by another’s example.
3. I remember a church where I once was working for a period of about 12 weeks. An old lady who was part of the congregation gave me money twice in support of the work I was doing - she gave all she could. And yet, the church had an abundant supply behind them with many thousands of pounds in the bank but they didn’t contribute so much as one penny!
The woman’s offering was a sacrifice, offered to God but given to me (Prov 11:24, Phil 4:18-19).
Leviticus Home Page
Old Doctrines Home Page