The Modern Practice of Tithing in Light of Christ Fulfilling the Law: Part 4


This is the fourth post in a series on tithing, as it’s taught in many churches today. This series examines all 17 Bible passages which speak of tithing, and is taken from a term paper I wrote in 2006.  The first post included the series outline and an introduction, and covered the two passages where tithing was mentioned prior to the Law of Moses (Genesis 14:8-24 and 28:8-22). The second post examined how tithing was prescribed and practiced under the Mosaic Law (in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The third post looked at how tithing was enforced by a king (Hezekiah), a reformer (Nehemiah), and two prophets (Amos and Malachi). This post will look at what Jesus and Hebrews 7 said about tithing, and will also take a look at tithing in history. My references will be included in the final post.

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IV. Tithing Spoken of in the New Testament

Passage 14: Matthew 23:23

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

The Pharisees, who rigorously followed the letter of the law, tithed different types of herbs from the ground, not Roman currency. Jesus affirmed that they were correct in doing so, although other matters of the law were more central. His main concern was the same concern that Nehemiah, Amos, and Malachi had. Justice, mercy, and faith were being neglected.

Jesus’ audience was still under the Law. The Law of Moses was still in effect during Christ’s ministry, because He had not yet gone to the cross. Therefore, all the Israelites who had land were to tithe from their herds and crops to the Levites, strangers, fatherless, and widows. They were even to consume some of it themselves at the annual festivals. There were still Levites, the temple was still standing, and the priests were still ministering and offering sacrifices. Not only the Pharisees, but other eligible Jews as well, were correct in tithing their crops and animals, and tithing to the poor.

Passage 15: Luke 11:42

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

This is a parallel passage to Matthew 23:23. This wasn’t the only time Jesus advised someone to submit to Mosaic Law. For example, in Matthew 8:1-4, Jesus healed a leper, then told him to show himself to the priest and “offer the gift that Moses commanded.” To be consistent, if we’re going to say that the law of tithing here applies to us, we should also apply this law regarding lepers. Why don’t we do that? Are we authorized by Scripture to pick and choose which Mosaic laws we still want to keep?

            Passage 16: Luke 18:9-14

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus is neither promoting nor devaluing tithing here. His point was that no one can trust in his own righteousness for acceptance with God. The Pharisee did just that, and he felt that all of his efforts to tithe and fast would help his case. He even went beyond the Law by tithing on all that he possessed. Jesus indicated that he was proud. The tax collector came before God as a sinner who had no merit to offer. He cried out for mercy, and was justified.

            Passage 17: Hebrews 7:1-10

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated “king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace,” without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils. And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham; but he whose genealogy is not derived from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. Now beyond all contradiction the lesser is blessed by the better. Here mortal men receive tithes, but there he receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives. Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.

The author of Hebrews spoke in chapter 6 of the hope set before us, which anchors our soul. Abraham is seen as an example of one who “obtained the promise” (verse 15). The author concluded chapter 6 by saying that Jesus has become an eternal High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This idea had already been established in Psalm 110:4.

Quoting Warren Wiersbe, Dr. Thomas Constable (2006) briefly outlined the next 4 chapters: “In Hebrews 7, the writer argued that Christ’s priesthood, like Melchizedek’s, is superior in its order. In Hebrews 8, the emphasis is on Christ’s better covenant; in Hebrews 9, it is His better sanctuary; and Hebrews 10 concludes the section by arguing for Christ’s better sacrifice.”

Hebrews 7 is far more descriptive of Melchizedek than both the Genesis 14 and Psalm 100 passages. Still it’s not easy to understand his identity. Some interpret Melchizedek to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. Matthew Narramore (2004) writes that scholars “and theologians debate whether this language referring to Melchizedek’s endless life is literal or symbolic.”

Dr. Constable (2006) says a “literal interpretation of this verse [7:3] might lead one to conclude that Melchizedek was an angelic being, but there is no indication elsewhere in Scripture that he was anything but a human being.” He then states the facts: (1) he was a king-priest, (2) he was a blesser, (3) he received tithes, and (4) he had a significant name.” He adds that one of the writer’s aims, as seen in verse 4, was “to show how great Melchizedek was compared to the venerated patriarch Abraham.”

Dr. Constable also makes a note about the style in which the passage is written:

Verse 4 sounds as though the Jewish priests were presenting offerings in Herod’s Temple when the writer wrote… However it is more likely that we should take these present tenses as timeless. The writer was describing what had been done in Judaism as though it was still going on for the sake of vividness (cf. 7:27-28; 9:7-8, 25; 10:1-3, 8; 13:10-11).

One of the points of this passage is that Melchizedek, who blessed Abraham, was greater than him (7:7). Melchizedek’s priesthood, of which we have limited detail, as a prototype of Christ is superior to that of the Levites (7:8-11). Narramore concludes that the phrase “there he receives them” (7:8) refers to Melchizedek once receiving tithes. He also cautions:

Hebrews 7:8 has been taken out of context and misinterpreted. It is erroneously considered by some to be teaching that tithing is the customary way of giving in the New Covenant. This passage of scripture is part of a weighty and complex theological argument. The casual reader may not comprehend its meaning. It requires a careful study of the whole passage, verse by verse and word by word, to get a clear understanding of what is being said.

Some say that Christian ministers are authorized to receive the tithes that formerly belonged to the Levites, based on the idea that both the Levitical priesthood and the tithing laws have been modified. In other words, today’s Christian ministers have replaced the Levites, and are to receive monetary tithes.

Looking beyond the passage quoted above, the law which needed to be changed (7:12) does not refer to tithing, but to the entire Law of Moses received under the Levitical priesthood (7:11). The Law needed to be changed, just as the priesthood had been changed (7:12). That the Law of Moses is being spoken of is made even more clear in verses 19 and 28. Regarding verse 12, Dr. Constable says:

The priesthood was such a major part of the whole Mosaic Covenant that this predicted change in the priesthood signaled a change in the whole Covenant. This verse is one of the clearest single statements in the New Testament indicating that God has terminated the Mosaic Law (Covenant; cf. Rom. 10:4). Paul went on to say that Christians, therefore, are not under it (Rom. 6:14-15; Gal. 3:24-25; 5:1; 6:2; 2 Cor. 3:7-11). It is not what God has given to regulate the lives of Christians.

Verse 18 points out that “the former commandment” was annulled because it was weak and unprofitable, and no one was made perfect by it. The priests also had weaknesses, because they were limited by death (7:23) and had to offer sacrifices daily (7:28). No wonder they were earlier called “mortal men” (7:8). They have been superseded by a High Priest, Jesus (7:26).

We are told that Christ now mediates a better covenant, with better promises (8:6). The first covenant had faults (8:7), but the biggest fault God found was with the people (8:8). He promised a new covenant in which He would write His laws on the hearts and in the minds of His people (8:8-12). The author of Hebrews concluded that the old covenant was obsolete, growing old, and ready to vanish away (8:13). Dr. Constable comments,

The Mosaic Covenant is now ‘obsolete’ and even as the writer wrote the Book of Hebrews it was also ‘growing old.’ It virtually disappeared in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed the temple, terminated its ritual, and scattered the Jews throughout the world (cf. Matt. 24:1-2).

Matthew Narramore (2004) gives his take on why Abraham’s tithe is recorded in Hebrews:

The discussion of tithing in Hebrews chapter 7 was only included to prove that the priesthood of Melchizedek was superior to the Levitical priesthood. By proving that point the writer would also prove that Jesus is superior to the priests of the Old Covenant because Psalm 110:4 had prophesied that he would be a priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek.” That was the ultimate purpose of the argument, to prove that Jesus was greater than the Old Covenant priests.

Tithing is part of the comparison and the argument because the tribe of Levi was symbolically in the loins of their great-grandfather Abraham when he met Melchizedek and gave him a tithe. Therefore it can be said that Levi paid a tithe to Melchizedek and received a blessing from him. Paying the tithe to Melchizedek and receiving the blessing from him are both considered by the writer of Hebrews to be proof that Melchizedek was greater than Levi and all the Old Covenant priests, which came from the tribe of Levi (Heb. 7:1–17).

Jay Snell (1995) deduces a great deal from this incident in the life of Abraham. He says that God infuses reproductive power into our money when we release it as a tithe or an offering: “With the supernatural, Abrahamic blessing power God promised and gave in His covenant with Abraham, He gives life to the inanimate money when you tithe it and give it in the form of offerings so that it reproduces itself.” Snell concludes that God gave us this power in order to continue His “Abrahamic Covenant” with us, and so that we can be “extremely wealthy” (p. 8).

Matthew Narramore (2004) would disagree: “Abraham was not made rich by giving a tithe to Melchizedek. He was already exceedingly rich before he gave it” (Chapter 2).

This passage does not set out to endorse tithing as a doctrine to be practiced, but seeks to endorse Jesus as our High Priest. As Russell Kelly (2000) says, “The New Testament’s only use of ‘tithe’ after Calvary is in Hebrews 7, and it teaches that God abolished tithing and all other ordinances relating to the Levitical priesthood (Heb. 7:5, 12, 18)” (p. 267). Intentional or not, the modern practice of tithing seems to be an attempt to resurrect something which God has abolished.

C. Tithing in History

The following observations are made in the Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2006):

Tithes were not adopted by the Christian church for over seven centuries. Although rejected, they were mentioned in councils at Tours in 567 and at Mâcon in 585. They were formally recognized under Pope Adrian I in 787… [Today] Word of Faith advocates espouse that tithing, which is inspired in the individual by God, will enable blessings, usually financial, with references to ten or hundred-fold increases… In recent years, tithing has been taught in Christian circles as a form of “stewardship” that God requires of Christians. The primary argument is that God has never formally “abolished” the tithe, and thus Christians should pay the tithe (usually calculated at 10 percent of all gross income from all sources), usually to the local congregation (though some teach that a part of the tithe can go to other Christian ministries, so long as total giving is at least 10 percent). Some holding to prosperity theology doctrines go even further, teaching that God will bless those who tithe and curse those who do not.

David Yeubanks (2006) has compiled more than 100 quotes on tithing from encyclopedias, dictionaries, commentaries, and other sources. Below is just a small sample of quotes which reveal the place of tithing during the earliest centuries after Christ’s ascension:

[1] “It is admitted universally that the payment of tithes or the tenths of possessions, for sacred purposes did not find a place within the Christian Church during the age covered by the apostles and their immediate successors” (Hasting’s Dictionary of the Apostolic Church).

[2] “The early Church had no tithing system … it was not that no need of supporting the Church existed or was recognized, but rather that other means appeared to suffice” (The New Catholic Encyclopedia).

[3] “In the Christian Church, as those who serve the altar should live by the altar (1 Cor., ix, 13), provision of some kind had necessarily to be made for the sacred ministers. In the beginning this was supplied by the spontaneous offerings of the faithful” (The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia).

[4] “[The Jews] had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him. In contrast, those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W 1.484, 485) – Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs [p. 645]).

[5] “If we still live according to the Jewish Law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace” (Ignatius [c. 105, E] – Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 393).

Ken Westby (2006) recently wrote an article for the Churches of God, the fifth in a series on tithing, which featured a variety of views. Observing the first two quotes above, Ken asked:

How, then, was a tithing system introduced as a means of financing the work of the church? Early-church history shows that, just as the Catholic Church, by its own authority, made other far-reaching changes that have been carried down in the Christian-professing world, that church is responsible for much of today’s misunderstanding on the subject of tithing.

Russell Kelly (2006) notes that the following well-known early Church fathers explicitly opposed the practice of compulsory tithing: Clement of Rome (c95), Justin Martyr (c150), The Didache (c150-200), Irenaeus (c150-200) and Tertullian (150-220).

He shows in his book (2000) that tithing did appear in a limited fashion in the life of the early Church. He says that its introduction came “in direct proportion to the disintegration of the doctrine of the priesthood of believers and the emergence of the power of the bishop-priests” (p. 247). One exception to his “gradual emergence” overview was the large group of Jewish believers who remained “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20) in Paul’s day:

Almost every denomination’s historians of early church history agree that, until A.D. 70 the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem faithfully attended the temple in obedience to Jewish law and, as faithful Jews, supported the Jewish temple with tithes and offerings in addition to their church support. Acts 21:21-24 can hardly lead to any other conclusion! The Jewish Christians had merely added their unique brand of Judaism into the already diverse Judaism of their day (p. 249).

Of course, these Jews were unable to support the Jewish temple after it was destroyed by Rome in A.D. 70. However, Kelly writes that from the time of Jerusalem’s destruction until the end of the fourth century, a small group of professing Jewish Christians held themselves bound by Mosaic Law, but did fellowship with Gentile believers. They were called “Nazarenes.” They later split into three factions, including Pharisaic Ebionites, but throughout their existence they considered Paul to be a false teacher. They “eventually found themselves outside of the recognized church. These Jewish Christians never ceased teaching that strict obedience to the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation” (p. 249).

Kelly believes that the majority of professing Christians during that time probably wouldn’t have found the modern practice of tithing to be relevant for several reasons:

When the New Testament was written, very few, if any, of the churches were organized into a ruling-bishop system which would require or sustain a full-time minister. The churches were too primitive, too small, too poor, and often had to hide from the authorities to meet. Church buildings did not exist because they would not have been tolerated until about A.D. 200 and did not flourish until after A.D. 260 [due to a temporary lapse of persecution] before being destroyed again in 303” (p. 258).

He quotes from Philip Schaff, who points out that until the end of the second century Christians worshiped mostly in private homes, desert places, at the graves of martyrs, or in the crypts of the catacombs. Tertullian was the first to speak of “going to church,” possibly indicating the presence of special houses of worship. Around the same time, Clement of Alexandria mentioned the double meaning of the word “ekklesia” (p. 251).

Kelly writes that many competing centers of Christianity arose leading up to the 4th Century (p. 247). “Cyprian (200-258) followed Tertullian in Carthage (North Africa only) and was probably the first influential leader to suggest (unsuccessfully) that tithes should support a full-time clergy” (p. 254). Kelly goes on to say:

Cyprian’s church now compared the bishop to the Old Testament high priest, the presbyters to the Old Testament priests, and the deacons to Old Testament Levites. Cyprian merely took what he thought was the next logical step (in this scenario of the role of bishops) and insisted that the clergy should cease all secular work and depend on tithes for full-time support.

However, Cyprian repeatedly insisted that the clergy should only keep the bare minimum which they needed, and give the rest to the poor (p. 255). Kelly quotes from the 1912 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia regarding the evolution of compulsory tithe giving:

‘In the beginning [provision] was supplied by the spontaneous support of the faithful. In the course of time, however, as the Church expanded and various institutions arose, it became necessary to make laws which would insure the proper and permanent support of the clergy. The payment of tithes was adopted from the Old Law, and early writers speak of it as a divine ordinance and an obligation of the conscience. The earliest positive legislation on the subject seems to be contained in the letter of the bishops assembled at Tours in 567 and the Canons of the Council of Macon in 585.’ (p. 259)

Kelly clarifies that these councils only enacted regional church decrees for tithing, but did not yet enforce collection because they didn’t have the backing of the king. The Catholic Church did, however, begin to excommunicate non-tithers (p. 260). Charlemagne was the first king to allow enforced tithing, after the pope convinced him to do so by quoting from the Law of Moses. Rome officially became the “Holy Roman Empire” when Charlemagne was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Kelly adds, “It is significant that tithing did not emerge historically until the church became powerful in the secular realm” (p. 260).

Tithing was legally enforced in England in 906 AD by King Edgar. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) raised the status of tithing above all other Church taxes, and at the same time prohibited all interference by the common people in Church affairs. Kelly adds,

In 1067 and 1078, at the Church Councils of Gerona, and in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, tithing was increasingly applied to all lands under Christian rule. All citizens, including Jews, were required to tithe to the Roman Catholic Church. A typical peasant was giving the first tithe of his land to ruler or landlord (which was often the church) and a second tenth to the church outright. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council decreed that only the pope could release persons from the obligation to tithe, and he exempted the Crusaders” (p. 260).

Not long after the Bible had been translated into the language of the common man, Otto Brumfels, in 1524, proclaimed that the New Testament does not teach tithing” (p. 261), says Kelly. Church-sanctioned tithing began to decline as a practice in the 1700’s. The secular authority of France abolished tithes in 1789. Compulsory parish tithes in England did not disappear until 1936 (p. 261). While Europe was making these changes, a different story was emerging in North America:

In Canada, as late as 1868, the Fourth Council of Quebec declared that tithing was mandatory. For a while tithes were even made mandatory in the French lands of the New World until the territory was sold in the Louisiana Purchase. In 1871 tithes were abolished in Ireland. In 1887 they ended in Italy… Elsewhere, the Eastern Orthodox Church has never accepted tithing and its members have never practiced it. The Roman Catholic Church still proscribes tithes in countries where they are sanctioned by law, and some Protestant bodies still consider tithes obligatory (p. 261).

Tithing was never a legal requirement in the United States, Kelly continues, but the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists in particular have required their members to tithe 10% of their income (p. 261). Many Assemblies of God, Baptist, Churches of God, Pentecostal, and Holiness churches strongly compel their people to tithe (p. 266).

James Sparks (2005) links the modern practice of tithing to the business-like way churches are run today in the West:

[Most churches] operate as businesses, and when they do, they must have a source of revenue in order to operate the business, and must have an executive or businessman to run the business. But, early churches did not operate as businesses, because God did not set them up to run that way.

Tithing today certainly looks nothing like it did from the time of Moses to the time of Christ. Often only select citations from the Old Testament are used to promote the practice and to say it’s the duty of Christians today. However, the methodology governing the practice almost always comes from outside the Law. I’ve even been told that giving part of a tithe to the poor is not valid because they do not “spiritually feed me.” Instead of receiving tithes, today the poor are compelled to tithe. Televangelists even coerce them into making pledges when they can’t immediately come up with the money, and then pile on guilt, threats, and gimmicks if they fail to follow through.

One minister who teaches tithing, Tim Greenwood (2006), expounds on the “who, what, when, where, why, and how of tithing.” In my experience, Greenwood’s synopsis is fairly typical of current teaching on tithing:

[Who] Whoever desires to worship God.

[What] Giving first 10% of income to God.

[When] Whenever you receive income.

[Where] Where you have been fed the Word of God.

[Why] To worship God and to receive His blessings.

[How] By faith, diligently, promptly, cheerfully.

Tim Greenwood insists that those who don’t tithe are trying to do things their own way rather than God’s way. Like Anonymous Pastor (2003), and Pastors Carter and Clark (2006), he sees this as the same attitude which Cain had. He also says that tithing was “acceptable worship” in the Old Testament Law, and nothing was said otherwise in the New Testament. “Anyone who claims Jesus as their Lord and does not give Him at least ten percent of their money should face the truth: money is their Ruler, not Jesus,” he concludes. He lists four reasons why Christians do not tithe: [1] unbelief [2] fear [3] greed, selfishness [4] lack of right teaching.

Ironically, he says that to forsake tithing is to “invent a new method.” The truth is that the modern system of tithing represents a new and unbiblical method.

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In Part 5, we will discuss different ways that the law of Moses is viewed today, including a summary of the book of Galatians, followed by an analysis of tithing in light of Christ having fulfilled the law.

All posts from this series, and on the subject of tithing, can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “The Modern Practice of Tithing in Light of Christ Fulfilling the Law: Part 4

  1. I’m really starting to understand why, in my heart, I have always looked upon the business of “church” with suspicion. It’s actually quite maddening to see how churches have misled, and continue to mislead, the people. To this day, they continue to pile on the guilt, fear and false teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for Holy Spirit inspired writing brother. Amen, Hebrews 7:12 is a key verse to understanding the new covenant of Christ Himself.
    My take away here is that this section of Hebrews 7 teaches that the Mosaic Law tithes into grace!
    As you know the Levites collected the tithe of produce and livestock from the other tribes who owned land, and through the ” loins of Abraham, ” paid tithes to the King and Priest Melchizedek when Abraham was spontaneously motivated to give a tenth of the spoils of war he win in victorious battle to Melchizedek AFTER receiving the profoundly prophetic bread and wine from him.. ( Gods grace in Christ and His New Covenant)
    The bread and wine is clearly prophetic of our communion with God; the provision of Christ’s abiding presence as well as His New Covenant blood which secures eternal redemption and ongoing communion with God in Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, John, and I agree about the importance of Hebrews 7:12 and what it reveals about the new covenant we have in Christ. It’s sobering when I think back to how I witnessed this passage being used to strong arm people into forking over a certain percentage of their income, when the main point of the passage is to demonstrate the glorious superiority of Jesus.

      Like

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