Is Tithing a New Covenant Command?
By Bill Lenhart
Tithing – probably a subject most of us feel strongly about, one way or the other. Yes indeed, it’s an emotional topic that has caused many to run and hide, seeking security in believing what they’ve been taught by their church, rather than face the issue and do some basic research. I know in my case, it took several years of off and on research to finally come to a comfortable conclusion. There was just so much to unlearn regarding tithing, just as there was in so many of the doctrines I’d been taught over the years.
The facts that presented themselves as I studied the matter of tithing over the months seemed to overwhelmingly point to only one possible conclusion. But I never found reason to assemble these facts I came across into an article until something happened several years ago in the Baptist church that I attend that spurred me to put my conclusions down on paper.
The head pastor of the large church I had been attending (over 1200 in attendance every week) gave his annual fall sermon regarding giving, just as he always did just before asking the membership to fill out a pledge form stating their giving intentions for the coming year. However, this time he stressed tithing, not just giving, and brought out scriptures and reasoning that he had not used before. It definitely smacked of “legalism” to me, and stirred me to craft an e-mail to him (with cc copies to the three associate pastors at the church), challenging him on his sermon points. To quote from the e-mail I sent him:
“… a few Sundays ago the service on tithing left me a bit disquieted. Not because I’m not giving 10% of my paycheck to ______ (name of church, withheld throughout article) – for I’m giving more than that percentage – but because my understanding of what the Bible teaches about New Covenant giving doesn’t quite fit in with what is taught at _______. If my understanding of this subject is flawed, then I need to correct it, for my own peace of mind, if for no other reason. Perhaps you can help me in this regard if I am in error.
I think your sermon on tithing brought the response it did from me due to the old covenant teachings that I was a slave to for many years. In the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) – pre-1995, before it changed – we labored under the teachings of Herbert Armstrong, who taught that the Bible commanded 3 tithes of all believers, all based upon our gross income (as God should get the first tenth of our income, even before the Government gets theirs). As you can well imagine, this filled the coffers of the church very handsomely over the years (to the tune of nearly $170 million/yr in its peak years).
The first tithe you are familiar with. We were taught that there is also a 2nd tithe (Deut 14:23) - that God’s people were commanded to set aside an additional 10% each year in order to travel to and observe the Feast of Tabernacles each fall (and to also use in the keeping of the other holydays God commands us to keep). Lastly, we were shown in the scriptures where God commands us to set aside an ADDITIONAL 10% every 3rd and 6th year in a cycle of 7 (Deut 14:28-29), to be used to support the fatherless and the widow.
We were also informed that God expected us to give liberal offerings on each of the 7 annual holydays (Deut 16:16). This is where we could really impress God, as the three tithes we were paying were something that any unprofitable servant would have done. But what we gave OVER and ABOVE the required tithes was what really made us profitable servants.
Needless to say, this was very hard on many church members, as funds set aside for holyday use or given to the church represented in certain years well over 40% of our take-home pay. I spent 27 years of my life under this oppressive system, never once even considering welshing on any of these three tithes, and always giving generous offerings, as I certainly didn’t want to come under the Mal 3:8-9 curse. And I realized that one must be faithful in little if one is to be entrusted with much. I think you would have to admit that we as a church had confused what God supposedly required of Israel under the Old Covenant with what he requires of us now under the New Covenant.
But in 1995, in an unprecedented occurrence among cultic churches, the WCG began to change, one by one, all of the doctrines that it had come to see as being unbiblical. I attribute this to God’s unmerited grace and mercy, for which I will be eternally grateful. Areas affected were our beliefs about the Trinity, the Sabbath and Holydays vs Sunday and holidays, clean and unclean meats, and tithing, to name a few. This new teaching divided the WCG pretty much into two factions: those who were willing to examine and accept these changes (as these changes were, I believe, Biblically provable), and those who felt that these changes were from the devil himself, and chose to hold on to the old legalistic ways.
I was in the former group, and stayed with the WCG a few more years until I determined it was just not a dynamically healthy church like _____ was, which I had been visiting from time to time. My wife was in the latter group, and left the WCG to join a split-off group … which is a group that continued on with the 1st and 2nd tithes, but now based on the net income, along with most of the old teachings.
I did not take the changes in doctrine lightly, but spent many months in study and prayer trying to determine just what the truth was in each of these doctrinal areas. I was especially driven to become knowledgeable and convincing enough to be able to help my wife and her 8 relatives see the light and escape the error they were continuing to cling to. That study continued for about 3 or 4 years. I spent nearly 2 years on the internet debating almost daily with those who held on to the teachings of Herbert Armstrong. This forced me to study these topics even more deeply in order to refute their arguments, which on the surface appeared to hold some validity.
All of this helped crystallize in my mind the real differences between true and false doctrine, old and new covenant applicability, etc., and also helped me to develop a smoother, more readable writing style. I used all of this study to write a number of articles, which I posted on some heavily-visited Armstrong-related websites… So I think you can see that my study of New Covenant vs Old Covenant teachings has not been just a casual one. I say this not to imply that I could not be wrong in any of my beliefs, for I certainly have been in the past, but to stress the fact that I have not done just a superficial study of these issues.
Now, regarding tithing as a new covenant teaching, based on the conclusions that I and others have arrived at through in-depth studies, it has become apparent, at least to me, that there are a number of commonly referenced scriptures that are erroneously used to support tithing as a new covenant command.”
I then went on to discuss and scripturally refute all the points that he had made that appeared to be in error to me. I will cover all of these points shortly, in the stand-alone article I subsequently wrote and have included. I closed my e-mail to my pastor thus:
“If I am off-base in my above discussion of the scriptures on tithing, please give me some feedback. This is a subject that I really desire to properly understanding.
I love ______ and am not trying to be judgmental of it regarding this subject, and will certainly not let this become an issue that keeps me from continuing to worship and serve in the church. I know that tithing is a subject that has many interpretations, and I realize that its proper understanding should not be considered essential to salvation. And I appreciate that ______ has never made tithing a major issue.
I believe that God has laid it on my heart to bring forth my feelings on this subject, for I know that _____ seeks to walk in God’s will in every area, as do I.
Your brother in Christ,
His response arrived back the same day. To quote from his e-mail reply:
“Wow! That's quite a lot of information. I appreciate your taking the time to share it with me/us. I also appreciate your attitude in sharing it. Historically, we as a church have taught more of a grace concept of giving with ten % being more of a guideline/ or a principle. The last couple of years I have kind of reacted to people who use 'grace giving' as an excuse to give little to God and miss out on the step of faith giving can become. I also have received many unsolicited testimonies of people who saw God work in awesome ways when they either gave a tithe or a sacrificial gift beyond the tithe. So, I have emphasized the two types of gifts recorded in the bible: tithes and offerings.
If you recall, I stated that my message the other week was more of a testimony of why I tithed, than a mandate for everyone else. My goal was to get materialistic Americans to consider why they may want to give to God. Statistics on the giving habits of American evangelical baby boomers are horrible. Although, I see how what I said could have come across as something more than a testimony. I also see how my comments about the law and grace were pretty strong. Understand this, I do not want to put people in bondage to a law that has been replaced. I do, however, want people to realize that giving is a spiritual matter of genuine importance. I also do not want people to use grace as an excuse to be disobedient. I will study what you have written and appreciate your willingness to share it with me.
Pastor (name withheld)”
I have to give him credit for his attitude, and the willingness in his response to admit that I had some very valid points, and that he had possibly overstated his case. Since that time, although he never has gotten back to me with any study results, he has toned down his emphasis on tithing, and when we have both been in some small men’s meetings he has referred to me as his Old Covenant authority. So I guess I haven’t made myself anathema, as would have occurred in the WCG if I had ever challenged one of their teachings. And I imagine that I have given him some things to think about, also. I have learned that a church that agrees with me 100% of the time just doesn’t exist, nor should it, I suspect.
My article on “Tithing or Giving,” which was inspired by this incident, follows. The facts that I present below were gathered from a number of scattered sources, so I must admit that in putting together this article I did little original writing, except in the introduction and the conclusion. I felt that the creation of this article was necessary, as it, in my opinion, pulls together into one writing vital points that are basically scattered about in various other articles, but has never, to my knowledge, been condensed down into such an article as this one.
Till next time, here’s whistlin’ at ya! ;o)
“Tithing” or “Giving” - What Does the Bible Actually Teach?
Tithing is presented as a new covenant teaching in many churches across many denominational lines in the United States and in many countries. The teaching may vary as to whether the tithe is to be based on the net or gross income, and in some other aspects, but the common thread among these churches is the belief that tithing has come across into the new covenant as still a valid scriptural practice. Therefore, in their view, it follows that any Bible-believing Christian that doesn’t tithe is sinning, no matter what their financial circumstances.
But can this belief be defended from the scriptures? Was old covenant tithing meant to be observed in the new covenant setting? Why was tithing instituted in the first place? What type of income was the tither required to tithe on? Let’s take a closer look at tithing and see just what the Bible and Jewish history REALLY say about this subject.
There are a number of commonly referenced scriptures that are routinely used by many churches to support tithing as a new covenant command.
Perhaps the main, bedrock scripture used by most teachers of this practice is Leviticus 27:30-32:
"And all the tithe of the land whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree is the Lord's . . . And concerning the tithe of the herd or of the flock . . . the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord."
It is obvious from the above passage that God commanded the Israelites to tithe on (1) agricultural produce and (2) every tenth animal of their flocks and herds. Nowhere here or anywhere else in the Bible does God ever state that an Israelite, or for that matter, a Christian should tithe on their monetary wages – and these people weren’t all farmers by any means.
He never commanded them to give a tithe of all the fish they caught or of all the copper they mined, nor did he require they give a tenth of the profits they received from selling pottery, chariots, sandals, garments, etc. In fact, both The Jewish Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion (under “tithes”) state that the Israelites tithed only on agricultural produce and livestock.
Harper's Bible Dictionary records that Judaism "stipulated that all things used for food, which . . . grew from the earth, were subject to tithing . . ."
The Jewish Encyclopedia adds that items were tithable only if they were (1) edible, (2) a product of the soil and (3) an individual's property. The Bible nowhere states that nonagricultural income was ever tithable in the theocracy.
Why were only agricultural items tithable in the theocracy? The answer to that question is simple. When the Israelites went into Canaan, God gave them their estates without charge, without interest and with rights of perpetual ownership (via jubilee-year laws). Those who enjoyed this unusual blessing had God as their landlord and guarantor. Typically the oldest son would inherit the estate and would be responsible for tithing the crops.
However, the majority of the men who were not eldest sons had to find other livelihoods. They possessed no guarantee from God that they would always own land in Israel, and their livelihoods were at risk. Therefore, God did not expect as much from them.
Since many historical sources agree that only agricultural produce was tithable, shopkeepers, craftsmen and wage earners did not tithe on their wages. They simply "appeared before God" at the feast days and offered three offerings a year, with each man giving "as he was able" (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). They gave a freewill offering instead of the mandatory tithe given by the estate owners. If God did not require shopkeepers, craftsmen and wage earners to tithe on wages even during the theocracy, why would wages become tithable in modern, secular societies?
Also, today's farmers have no jubilee-year guarantees about owning their lands in perpetuity. No longer are there laws in place that would return sold or otherwise lost properties to their original owner every fifty years. Why should they tithe when the unique theocratic protections for farmers and ranchers no longer exist?
who believe that the tithing laws for Israel's agrarian theocracy can be
applied today have major problems. One example is that Leviticus 25 commands a
land sabbath every seventh year and a jubilee year every 50th year. The Jewish
Encyclopedia states that "no tithing [was] permissible" during
Sabbatical years. Literally applying Israel's tithing laws in our society would
require tithers to stop tithing during eight years of every 50-year cycle.
Modern churches are not eager to discuss or implement this aspect of God's
tithing laws for ancient Israel.
Levitical tithing was alien to Paul's gentile converts, so it would have been a hot topic in Paul's letters if Paul had imposed a tithe on them. The Jerusalem conference did not include tithing in the list of practices to be observed by gentile churches (Acts 15:23-29). Indeed, Paul wrote that none of his churches tithed to him and that only the Philippians sent donations (Philippians 4:14-18). When we realize that (1) only agricultural items had ever been tithable to the Levites and priests and (2) Paul taught that the Levitical and Aaronic priesthoods were abolished, we see the question of tithing was a non-issue in Paul's churches.
Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:17 that elders who serve well were worthy of "double honor," but the Greek word translated "honor" does not usually denote money. Paul mentions "wages" in 2 Corinthians 11:8, but the English word wages comes from a Greek word that refers to a soldier's rations. That indicates a subsistence allowance, not a highly paid job.
Although Paul praised the Philippians for sending donations (Philippians 4:14-18), he chided the Corinthians for contributing nothing to him (1 Corinthians 9:9) while he likened himself to a "muzzled ox . . . treading out the corn." Paul even worked to support himself and his ministry when donations were lacking (Acts 18:1-4; 20:33-34). In 1 Corinthians 9 he nowhere asserts a right to demand "a tithe," but he maintains a right to expect some donations from those he served.
Paul was loyal to God's law (Romans 3:31), and he did not hesitate to warn churches about sin in their midst (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Therefore, it is noteworthy that, even though Paul acknowledges his churches gave him little or no financial support, he never told any church that its nonpayment of tithes constituted a sin. This argues that, while Paul asserted a right to accept donations, he never expected or demanded a tithe from anyone. To postulate that Paul knew it was the law for Christians to tithe but that he voluntarily excused his churches from doing so puts Paul in the position of granting indulgences to break the law.
Contrary to the assumption of some, the early Christian church and ministry were not supported by tithes but by freewill offerings. Many Christians pooled their goods and shared their possessions equally (Acts 4:32-37). There was no “third tithe” collected for the poor – as in the WCG – but rather the apostles urged each Christian to give according to his means (II Cor. 8:2-15; 9:6-12; I John 3:17-18).
It was the Catholic church that instituted tithing in the Christian church. Notice this admission in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XIV. Pp. 174-175:
“The early Church had no tithing system. The tithes of the Old Testament were regarded as abrogated by the law of Christ . . . But as the Church expanded and its material needs grew more numerous and complex, it became necessary to adopt a definite rule to which people could be held either by a sense of moral obligation or by a precept of positive law. The tithing of the Old Law provided an obvious model, and it began to be taught . . . The Council of Macon in 585 ordered payment of tithes and threatened excommunication to those who refused to comply.”
Do any New Covenant scriptures support mandatory tithing? Some say yes, and refer to Matt 23:23 to support this assertion. Jesus stated in Matthew 23:23: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint, anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: these ought you to have done, and not to leave the other undone."
In this verse, is Jesus reaffirming that tithing should now continue into the new covenant period? The new covenant was not in effect at the time Christ spoke these words. For him to have spoken against the practice of tithing, circumcision, animal sacrifices, etc. would have been to encourage people to violate the old covenant that they would be under until his death. This is something that he would never have done. He himself was required to keep the law that was then in force perfectly in order to fulfill it in our place.
For Jesus tells us at the last supper in Luke 22:20, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you.” Clearly the new covenant could not be established before his blood was shed. Therefore, at the time he commented on the Pharisees’ tithing of farm products, the old covenant was still in force. Notice that nowhere in the scriptures after Christ’s death is tithing (or for that matter, Sabbath and holyday observance) taught.
Genesis 14:20, “And he (Abraham) gave him (Melchizedek) a tithe of all” is often used to attempt to establish that tithing was a way of life for Abraham and others before the old covenant was established. But a careful reading of this chapter shows that this tithe was made, not from Abraham’s normal wage or increase, but from the spoils of battle that God had allowed to fall into his hands. He was so appreciative of God’s intervention in seeking to free Lot from his captors that he gave a tenth to God. To assume that this meant that Abraham was now a tither from this time forward because of this one time event is not borne out in the scriptures.
The promises of the old covenant (e.g. Mal 3:10) were for physical blessings if one tithed, but only physical blessings were ever promised, not spiritual ones. The new covenant promises the believer spiritual blessings, but not necessarily physical ones (other than to meet our basic needs – not our wants). Witness the trials and tribulations of those Christians being massacred in Indonesia, China, etc. The new covenant gospel is not a “health and wealth” gospel.
Matthew 6:19-21 instructs us:
“Do no lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where
thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven…For where your
treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Some assume that this means giving money to one’s church. But this is not necessarily so. We need to realize that we can give to “God’s Work” even if we are totally broke. We need to understand the following truths:
1. “Laying up treasure in heaven” does not necessarily mean giving money to any church.
2. The scriptures seem to strongly imply that you can give even large amounts of money to a
church and never store up even a penny’s worth on treasure in heaven.
3. You can give little or nothing to a church and accumulate much treasure in heaven.
4. In fact, you need give nothing physical to anyone; you can be totally without earthly belongings, and still accumulate a great reward in heaven – so says your Bible:
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you…on my account. Rejoice and be
glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
“But when you pray…shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your
Father…will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:6)
Here we find that there are at least two ways to receive a great reward from God, neither of which involve material goods.
Many who tithe and feel physically blessed love to praise the virtues of tithing. But is it God’s main concern to shower us with comfort and luxuries in this life? God did NOT promise physical prosperity and abundance to those living in his New Covenant. The Bible is full of stories of those who suffered hardships and had little but their faith in God, but considered themselves to be rich.
In fact, tithing, if it is emphasized too heavily, can be spiritually dangerous in several ways. It can lead to enslavement to the law of Moses by subtly leading one to a salvation-by-works mindset. It can also lead one into believing a Gospel of Greed – a gospel of giving in order to get. The Health and Wealth Gospel is very popular, as it erroneously teaches that God is duty-bound to protect the tither from ever having to experience pain or want again.
But, some might say, why are there so many instances of people being blessed when they step out in faith and start tithing? The one word answer to that question appears within the question itself. That word is “faith.” Some indeed are blessed when they exercise increased faith in God. Not faith in tithing, but faith in God.
Because some are apparently richly blessed for giving does this mean that mandatory tithing should be used as a tool to test or build one’s faith? Absolutely not! Faith has many faces. There are many different ways of expressing faith, but only one faith. Hebrews 11, which lists the heroes of faith throughout history, makes it clear that faith exhibits itself in many different ways. Each had his faith tested in different ways.
In fact, it appears that new covenant giving is now meant to be more of a test of faith for the church than for the membership. In old covenant days the tither had to have faith that God would provide good weather so that the increase of the land would be sufficient to sustain him. In new covenant times, churches that would live off of donations now need to daily rely on God to provide, as they can lay no legal claim to the now abolished tithe. Those that try to enforce tithing teachings are actually showing a lack of the very faith they often chide their members for lacking!
There are many different ways of expressing one’s faith in God apart from giving money to a church or organization. Faith can be expressed through prayer, serving others, spreading the gospel, a continual attitude of praise, etc. Tithing, abolished as it was by new covenant teachings, was not the only financial command in the Bible. God has many other commands pertaining to our use of money, such as:
Provide for your family's needs (1 Timothy 5:8).
Help the needy (Proverbs 19:17; Matthew 25:34-40).
Provide an inheritance for your children and grandchildren (1 Chronicles 28:8; Proverbs 13:22).
Enjoy the fruits of your labors (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
Pay your taxes (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:7).
Pay your debts (Psalm 37:21).
In our society, with national, state and local taxes, not all of us could do all the above and pay tithes and offerings. When Christ acknowledged a dual secular and spiritual financial obligation in Matthew 22:21, he avoided quantifying either obligation for people living under human rule who are subject to secular taxes. 1 Timothy 5:8's command is a powerful mandate to place family needs first on financial priority lists. God is not a Pharisee, and He knows everyone's financial abilities and limitations. Therefore we must use judgment in allocating financial resources.
In summary, I believe that the Bible teaches that true Christians are not bound by any rigid law to tithe, as this mandate just doesn’t appear anywhere in the new covenant scriptures. But what does appear are many, many verses where God exhorts us to give cheerfully and from the heart. As Hank Hanegraaff quite often states on his national radio program, “The Bible Answer Man,” a true Christian is not under any obligation to give a certain amount to the church, but should have an open hand from which God can take what he desires, as the spirit leads, and should strive to be very generous, giving, if able, even more than 10% to the church and to charitable causes.
As mentioned above, a good goal for the giver could be 10%, and even more. But if circumstances wouldn’t allow the believer to give a full 10% of their paycheck to the church, I find no scripture that would label that person as stealing from God, or condemned of God. God knows that person and their situation, and he wants us to give, I believe, not as the Pharisees did, by obligation of the law, but from the heart, and with joy. And to assume that our local church has a Biblical claim on all our giving is just not scriptural. I think Deuteronomy 16:16-17, “with each man giving as he was able,” sums up what God expects from us.
There are many ways to give, and as mentioned earlier, it doesn’t have to just be in a financial way. God stresses as the most important aspect of new covenant giving that the giver give from the heart, and give cheerfully. Each individual must also keep in mind that he will eventually be accountable to God for what he has done with his time, talent, and treasure, and that it is truly better to give than to receive.