“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, How do we rob you? In tithes and offerings. You are under curse - the whole nation of you - because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”
This passage from Malachi Chapter 3 seems to be many a pastor's favorite Bible text. Especially when church giving is at low tide. If you have spent any time in the modern church, you have heard this passage thundered from the pulpit on numerous occasions. I have had it pushed down my throat so many times I have lost count.
Consider some of the rhetoric that goes with it:
"God has commanded you to faithfully give your tithes. If you do not tithe, you are robbing God Almighty, and you put yourself under a curse."
"Let's repeat the 'Tither's Creed' together shall we? `The tithe is the Lord's. In truth we learned it. In faith we believe it. In joy we give it. The tithe!'"
"Your tithes and offerings are necessary if God's work will go on!" ("God's work," of course, means having a salaried pastoral staff and footing the monthly electric bill to keep the building afloat.)
What is the result of this sort of pressure? God's people are guilted into giving one-tenth of their incomes every week. When they do, they feel they have made God happy. And they can expect Him to bless them financially. When they fail, they feel they are being disobedient, and a financial curse looms over them.
But let us take a few steps backward and ask the penetrating question: "Does the Bible teach us to tithe? And ... are we spiritually obligated to fund the pastor and his staff? "
The answer to these two questions is shocking. (If you are a pastor, it is arresting. So you may want to take out your heart medicine now!)
Is Tithing Biblical?
Tithing does appear in the Bible. So yes, tithing is Biblical. But it is not Christian. The tithe belongs to ancient Israel. It was essentially their income tax. Never do you find first-century Christians tithing in the NT.
Most Christians do not have the foggiest idea about what the Bible teaches regarding the tithe. So let us look at it. The word "tithe" simply means the tenth part.' The Lord instituted three kinds of tithes for Israel as part of their taxation system. They are:
- A tithe of the produce of the land to support the Levites who had no inheritance in Canaan.'
- A tithe of the produce of the land to sponsor religious festivals in Jerusalem. If the produce was too burdensome for a family to carry to Jerusalem, they could convert it into money.'
- A tithe of the produce of the land collected every third year for the local Levites, orphans, strangers, and widows.'
This was the Biblical tithe. Notice that God commanded Israel to give 23.3% of their income every year, as opposed to 10%.6 These tithes consisted of the produce of the land - which is, the seed of the land, the fruit of the land, and the herd or the flock. It was the product of the land, not money.
A clear parallel can be seen between Israel's tithing system and the modern taxation system present in America. Israel was obligated to support their national workers (priests), their holidays (festivals), and their poor (strangers, widows, and orphans) by their annual tithes. Most modern tax systems serve the same purpose.
With the death of Jesus, all ceremonial, governmental, and religious codes that belonged to the Jews were nailed to His cross and buried . . . never to come out again to condemn us. For this reason, we never see Christians tithing in the NT. No more than we see those sacrificing goats and bulls to cover their sins!
Paul writes, "And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross . . . Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day - things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ."'
Tithing belonged exclusively to Israel under the Law. When it comes to financial stewardship, we see the first-century saints giving cheerfully according to their ability - not dutifully out of a command.' Giving in the early church was voluntary.' And those who benefited from it were the poor, orphans, widows, sick, prisoners, and strangers.10
I can hear someone making the following objection right now: "But what about Abraham? He lived before the Law. And we see him tithing to the high priest Melchizedek." Does this not overturn your argument that the tithe is part of the Mosaic Law? "
No it does not. First, Abraham's tithe was completely voluntary. It was not compulsory. God did not command it as He did with the tithe for Israel.
Second, Abraham tithed out of the spoils that he acquired after a particular battle he fought. He did not tithe out of his own regular income or property. Abraham's act of tithing would be akin to you winning the lottery, a mega jackpot, or receiving a work-bonus, then tithing it.
Third, and most important, this is the only time that Abraham tithed out of his 175 years of life on this earth. We have no evidence that he ever did such a thing again. Consequently, if you wish to use Abraham as a "proof text" to argue that Christians must tithe, then you are only obligated to tithe one time!'2
This brings us back to that oft-quoted text in Malachi 3. What was God saying there? First, this passage was directed to ancient Israel when they were under the Mosaic Law. God's people were holding back their tithes and offerings. Consider what would happen if a large portion of Americans refused to pay their income taxes. American law views this as robbery.13 Those found guilty would be punished for stealing from the government.
In the same way, when Israel held back her taxes (tithes), she was stealing from God—the One who instituted the tithing system. The Lord then commanded His people to bring their tithes into the storehouse. The storehouse was located in the chambers of the temple. The chambers were set apart to hold the tithes (which was produce, not money) for the support of the Levites, the poor, the strangers, and the widows.14
Notice the context of Malachi-3:8-10: In verse 5, the Lord says that He will judge those who oppress the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger. He says, "So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be a quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me."
The widows, fatherless, and strangers were the rightful recipients of the tithe. Because Israel was withholding her tithes, she was guilty of oppressing these three groups. Herein is the heart of God in Malachi 3:8-10: Oppression to the poor.
How many times have you heard preachers point this out when they harangued you with Malachi 3? Out of the scores of sermons I have heard on tithing, I never once heard a whisper about what the passage was actually talking about. That is, tithes were for the purpose of supporting the widows, the fatherless, the strangers, and the Levites (who owned nothing). This is what the Lord's word in Malachi 3 has in view.
The Origin of the Tithe and the Clergy Salary
Cyprian (200-258) is the first Christian writer to mention the practice of financially supporting the clergy. He argued that just as the Levites were supported by the tithe, so the Christian clergy should be supported by the tithe.15 But this is misguided thinking. Today, the Levitical system has been abolished. We are all priests now. So if a priest demands a tithe, then all Christians should tithe to one another! Cyprian's plea was exceedingly rare for his time. It was neither picked up nor echoed by the Christian populace until much later.16 Other than Cyprian, no Christian writer before Constantine ever used Old Testament references to advocate tithing." It was not until the fourth century, 300 years after Christ, that some Christian leaders began to advocate tithing as a Christian practice to support the clergy.18 But it did not become widespread among Christians until the eighth century! 19 According to one scholar, "For the first seven hundred years they [tithes] are hardly ever mentioned."20
Charting the history of Christian tithing is a fascinating exercise. Tithing evolved from the State to the church. Giving a tenth of one's produce was the customary rent-charge for lands that were leased in Western Europe. As the church increased its ownership of land across Europe, the 10% rent-charge was given to the church. This gave the 10% rent-charge a new meaning. It came to be identified with the Levitical tithe!21 Consequently, the Christian tithe as an institution was based on a fusion of Old Testament practice and pagan institution.22
By the eighth century, the tithe became required by law in many areas of Western Europe.23 By the end of the tenth century, the distinction of the tithe as a rent-charge and a moral requirement supported by the Old Testament had faded.24 The tithe became mandatory throughout Christian Europe.25
To put it another way, before the eighth century the tithe was practiced as a voluntary offering.26 But by the end of the tenth century, it had devolved into a legal requirement to fund the State church - demanded by the clergy and enforced by the secular authorities!27
Thankfully, most modern churches have done away with the tithe as a legal requirement.28 But the practice of tithing is as much alive today as it was when it was legally binding. Sure, you may not be physically punished if you fail to tithe. But if you are not a tither in most modern churches, you will be barred from a slew of ministry positions. And you will be forever guilted from the pulpit!29
As far as clergy salaries go, ministers were unsalaried for the first three centuries. But when Constantine appeared, he instituted the practice of paying a fixed salary to the clergy from church
funds and municipal and imperial treasuries.30 Thus was born the clergy salary, a harmful practice that has no root in the NT.31
The Root of All Evil
If a believer wishes to tithe out of personal decision or conviction, that is fine. Tithing becomes a problem when it is rep-resented as God's command, binding upon every believer.
Mandatory tithing equals oppression to the poor.32 Not a few poor Christians have been thrown headlong into further poverty because they have been told that if they do not tithe, they are robbing God.33 When tithing is taught as God's command, Christians who can barely make ends meet are guilted into deeper poverty. In this way, tithing evacuates the gospel from being "good news to the poor."34 Rather than good news, it becomes a heavy burden. Instead of liberty, it becomes oppression. We are so apt to forget that the original tithe that God established for Israel was to benefit the poor, not hurt them!
Conversely, modern tithing is good news to the rich. To a high-earner, 10% is but a paltry sum. Tithing, therefore, appeases the consciences of the rich, while it has no significant impact on their lifestyles. Not a few wealthy Christians are deluded into thinking they are "obeying God" because they throw a measly 10% of their income into the offering plate.
But God has a very different view of giving. Recall the parable of the widow's mite: "Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. `I tell you the truth, ' He said, `this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."
Sadly, tithing is often viewed as a litmus test for discipleship. If you are a good Christian, you will tithe (so it is thought). But this is a bogus application. Tithing is no sign of Christian devotion. If it were, all first-century Christians would be condemned as being undevoted!
The lingering root behind the sustained push for tithing in the modern church is the clergy salary. Not a few pastors feel that they must preach tithing to remind their congregation of its obligation to support them and their programs. And they will use the promise of financial blessing or the fear of a financial curse to ensure that the tithes keep rolling in.
In this way, modern tithing is the equivalent of a Christian lottery. Pay the tithe, and God will give you more money in return. Refuse to tithe, and God will punish you. Such thoughts rip at the heart of the good news of the gospel.
The same can be said about the clergy salary. It too has no NT merit. In fact, the clergy salary runs against the grain of the entire New Covenant.36 Elders (shepherds) in the first century were never salaried.37 They were men with an earthly vocation.38 They gave to the flock rather than took from it.39
Salaries make pastors paid professionals. It elevates them above the rest of God's people. It creates a clerical caste that turns the living Body of Christ into a business. Since the pastor and his staff are "paid" to do ministry - they are the paid professionals. The rest of the church lapses into a state of passive dependence.
If every Christian got in touch with the call that lies upon them to be functioning priests in the Lord's house (and they were permitted to exercise that call), the question would immediately arise: "What on earth are we paying our pastor for!? "
But in the presence of a passive priesthood, such questions never arise.40 On the contrary, when the church functions as she should, a professional clergy becomes unnecessary. Suddenly, the thought that says, "that is the job of the pastor" looks heretical. Put simply, a professional clergy fosters the pacifying illusion that the Word of God is classified (and dangerous) material that only card-carrying experts can handle.41
But that is not all. Paying a pastor forces him to be a man-pleaser. It makes him the slave of men. His meal-ticket is attached to how well his congregation likes him. Thus he is not free to speak freely without the fear that he may lose some heavy tithers. Herein lies the scourge of the pastor system.
A further peril of the paid pastor system is that it produces men who are void of any skill—something we inherited from the pagan Greeks.42 For this reason, it takes a man of tremendous courage to step out of the pastorate.
Unfortunately, most of God's people are deeply naive about the overwhelming power of the pastor system. It is a faceless system that does not tire of chewing up and spitting out its young.43 Again, God never intended the professional pastorate to exist. There is no Scriptural mandate or justification for such a thing. In fact, it is impossible to construct a Biblical defense for it.44
Most frequently, ushers are called upon to handle the reception of the money during the church service. Typically, they do so by passing a "collection plate" to the congregation. The practice of passing the collection plate is another post-apostolic invention. It began in 1662. Although alms dishes and alms chests were present before then.45
The usher originated from Queen Elizabeth I's (1533-1603) reorganization of the liturgy of the church of England. Ushers had the job of seeing where the people sat, collecting the offering, and keeping records of who took communion. The predecessor of the usher is the church "porter." The porter was a minor order (lesser clergy) tracing back to the third century.46 Porters had the duty of superintending lock up and opening of church doors, keeping order in the building, and the general direction of the deacons.47 Porters were replaced by "churchwardens" in England before and during the Reformation period.48 Out of the churchwarden grew the usher.
In conclusion, tithing, while Biblical, is not Christian. Jesus Christ did not affirm it. The first-century Christians did not observe it. And for 300 years, God's people did not practice it. Tithing did not become a widely accepted practice among Christians until the eighth century!
Giving in the NT was according to one's ability. Christians gave to help other believers as well as to support apostolic workers, enabling them to travel and plant churches.49 One of the most outstanding testimonies of the early church has to do with how liberal the Christians were to the poor and needy.50 This is what provoked outsiders, including the philosopher Galen, to watch the awesome, winsome power of the early church and say: "Behold how they love one another "51
Tithing is only mentioned four times in the NT. But none of these instances applies to Christians.52 Again, tithing belongs to the Old Testament era where a taxation system was needed to support the poor and where a special priesthood was set apart to minister to the Lord. With the coming of Jesus Christ, there has been a "change of law" - the old has been "set aside" and rendered obsolete by the new.53
We are all priests now - free to function in God's house. The Law, the old priesthood, and the tithe have all been crucified. There is now no temple curtain, no temple tax, and no special priesthood that stands between God and man. You, dear Christian, have been set free from the bondage of tithing and from the obligation to support an un-biblical clergy system.