This article was first published on John C. Richards’ personal blog. You can click here for the original and more great content.
Tithing is one of the most divisive and misunderstood Christian practices in churches today. Is tithing biblical? What does the Old Testament and the New Testament say about it? If it is biblical, should Christians tithe on your gross income or net income? Let’s explore some of those questions.
What is Tithing?
Tithing is the practice of offering God a tenth of the harvest of the land and of livestock. Today, many Christians apply it to mean one-tenth of one’s income to the Lord.
The Hebrew word for one-tenth is translated tithe in many English Bibles.1 Where does it appear in the Old Testament?
Tithing in the Old Testament
Genesis 14 recounts Abram’s return from an epic battle with a group of kings. When he returns, he meets a mysterious figure named Melchizedek, who brings Abram bread and wine and blesses him. In turn, Abram gives Melchizedek one-tenth of everything—all of his spoils from the battle. This figure is identified as a priest of God Most High.2
The tithe also appears in Genesis 28 where Jacob has a vision of a ladder reaching heaven. He renames the place Bethel (“House of God”) after this vision and vows to give one-tenth (a tithe) of his possessions to God as a result.
Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy go on to elaborate on the practice of tithing. According to those books, the practice was to include every tenth of the produce of one’s land—including vegetables, grain, fruit—and one-tenth of herdsmen’s flocks.
The Levites were to live off these tithes, since they had no land inheritance themselves.3
The Malachi Mantra
“Bring all the tithes into the storehouse…”4 If you’ve visited any church that teaches tithing as a principle, Malachi 3:8-12 is probably a text you’ve heard before. It’s the Malachi mantra used to support the idea that tithing is both biblical and a Christian duty.
Let’s talk about proof-texting for a minute. Proof texting is taking one isolated out-of-context quotation and using it to establish a principle or a proposition.
An example? I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.5 Try it. Have a 5’4’’ person who wants to dunk a basketball on an 11-foot rim recite that scripture before trying the feat. Probably not going to happen. Being able to accomplish anything you put your mind to isn’t a principle in that passage. The passage is more about enduring suffering and bad circumstances.
Unfortunately, Malachi has been proof-texted to death as well. How? The prophets harsh words aren’t for “the church.” Here’s the irony. Malachi’s harsh words are for the priests and Levites who are neglecting their own responsibility to tithe.6
Curses and Legalism
Here’s where proof texting gets dangerous. Malachi draws a line in the sand. If you tithe, you’ll be blessed. If you don’t, you’ll be cursed. This rhetoric fills houses of worship every Sunday. There’s a word for that. It’s called legalism.
What is legalism? It’s when someone adheres to a law, formula, or principle in excessive ways. It’s attaching a blessing to one’s giving and a curse to one’s refusal to give.
Tithing in the New Testament and Early Church
Jesus warns against legalism in the New Testament. Even when it came to tithing. He tells the Pharisees that they are so legalistic in their tithing that they’ve neglected weightier matters—like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23).7
“Early Christian documents such as the Didache may promote tithing, but they refer to the practice implicitly.”8 Irenaeus went as far as saying Christians should give everything they own to the church. Both Jerome and Augustine noted that tithing was something Christians should do as a normal practice.
The Case Against/For Tithing
Is tithing biblical? Yes it is. There’s biblical evidence that it was practiced in both the Old Testament and New Testament.
But many have made the case against tithing based on the legalistic practice of tithing. The case against tithing boils down to making a distinction between law and grace. Many argue that tithing was required under Old Testament law, but that, through Christ’s New Covenant, that requirement has been abolished. Instead, God asks that we each give cheerfully, as each of us has purposed in our hearts.9
On the other hand, others see the two incidents in Genesis as proof that tithing is pre-law (meaning that the law/grace distinction doesn’t apply).10 For proponents, tithing is a practice God set up for perpetual practice for all who trust in God as their true source.
Gross and Net Results
Personally, my position is a synthesis of both the case for and against tithing.
To quote Paul’s words, in part, I believe God loves a cheerful tither. A cheerful tither is a tither who gives because they are blessed, not to be blessed. A cheerful tither doesn’t treat tithing as a principle, but as a privilege—a privilege to give back to the Creator of the universe and the work he is doing in and through the church.
I think gross/net arguments teeter on the verge of legalism. I don’t think it’s smart to argue that someone “gives the church all their money” because they give from their gross income. And I don’t think it’s smart to argue that someone values Uncle Sam more than God because they give from their net income. So I’m not going to argue for either. If you give from your gross income, praise God. If you give from your net income, praise God.
Whatever You Do, Give
Whatever you do, give to God’s Church (big “C” because Jesus has one Church he died for with several local bodies a part of this global body). She is the vehicle through which the hope of the gospel reaches this broken and hurting world. Find a church or organization doing amazing work and support them with the resources God has given you to help change this world. Whether you agree or disagree with “tithing”, supporting God’s Church is something that’s biblical.
- There is a great treatment of tithing in The Lexham Bible Dictionary entry under “Tithe.” The Hebrew word here is.מַעֲשֵ. ↩
- It is important to note the fact that some scholars believe this figure to be someone who prefigures the coming Christ. In fact, in Hebrews we discover Jesus is called a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Many differ on whether this figure is an actual pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus, though there some evidence that might be the case. The writer of Hebrews says that Melchizedek was “without father or mother…without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God.” (Hebrews 7:3) ↩
- “The Levites have no portion among you, for the priesthood of the Lord is their heritage. And Gad and Reuben and half the tribe of Manasseh have received their inheritance beyond the Jordan eastward, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave them.”” (Joshua 18:7, ESV) ↩
- “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:10, ESV) ↩
- Proof texting is one of the most abused practices of biblical reading and interpretation among Christians. Often, it is used to make passages say what the speaker wants them to say or to apply scripture in a way that the original author or audience wouldn’t have understood. ↩
- Although the Levites were without an inheritance and received the tithe from the people of God they were still expected to give a tithe from whatever tithe they received from God’s people. ↩
- Though he does say they ought to be tithing, but not to the neglect of those other matters. ↩
- Charles Meeks, “Tithe,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016). ↩
- “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7, ESV) ↩
- Pre-law in the sense that Abram and Jacob’s tithing experiences occurred before Mosaic law was implemented. ↩