By David W. T. Brattston
Giving one-tenth of a believer’s income for the support of God’s ministers and work has been a time-honoured practice among God’s people. Called “giving a tithe” or “tithing”, it has very ancient origins, was required and practised in the Old Testament, was commended by Jesus, and was one method by which the church financed ministers, worship, and charitable works until the sixteenth century. The binding nature of tithing may still continue into the twenty-first century.
Although most information about tithing comes from the Law of Moses given around 1450 B.C., the practice was ancient even then. According to Genesis 14.20 and the Letter to the Hebrews 7.2-9, Abraham around 2000 B.C. gave a tenth of all he gained to the high priest Melchizedek as the representative of God. As stated in Hebrews 7.9-10, the (hereditary) Israelite priests were themselves deemed to have tithed because they were represented in this by their ancestor Abraham.
Through Moses, God commanded the Israelites to tithe. Leviticus 27.30 and 32, Numbers 18.24 and Deuteronomy 14.22 state that one tenth of all grain, fruit and livestock was holy to the Lord and to be dedicated to God. Numbers 18.8, 18.11-19 and 18.24-28 specify that this tithe was to be given to the Aaronic priests and the Levites, who were God’s ministers under the Mosaic Covenant. Even the Levites were to pay a tithe to the Aaronic priests (18.26 and 28).
Although the Aaronic priesthood was rendered redundant by Christ, it was not so for the tithe to ministers, for Numbers 18.8, 11 and 19 declare that the tenth to God and God’s ministers is “a perpetual due”. Early Christians certainly regarded it as such.
In actual practice, the Israelites did indeed follow the Law as regards tithing. Second Chronicles 31.4-6 and 31.12 record that the people in the reign of King Hezekiah gave “the tithe of everything” in addition to first fruits and other offerings. They gave them “abundantly” to the clergy as their due. Centuries later, exiles returning from Babylon were to give the clergy tithes and other gifts (Nehemiah 10.38 and 12.44). Note that as in Moses’ and Hezekiah’s days, tithes were in addition to other gifts to God, God’s work and God’s ministers.
Although generally overlooked, there are biblical passages in which Christ Himself commended tithing. In commenting on the practice of the scribes and Pharisees in tithing tiny amounts of herbs and spices, Jesus declared “these you ought to have done” and encouraged them to go further by also observing more important precepts (Matthew 23.23; Luke 11.42).
The earliest post-biblical Christians believed that the commandment to tithe was still binding on God’s people. The church father Origen Adamantius was the most outstanding scripture scholar, preacher and theologian of the first half of the third century A.D. He was head of the foremost Christian school of his era, and was so well versed in the Christian faith that pastors all over the eastern Mediterranean consulted him. In this capacity he travelled much and was thus familiar with Christian practice in many lands. In an extended discussion on giving a tenth to God in his Sermons on Genesis, Origen drew comparisons between it and what the Egyptians had to pay to their government in return for being saved from starvation by pharaoh’s prime minister, the Patriarch Joseph. They were obliged to pay one part in five, or twenty percent, of their crops (Genesis 47.24). This contrasts with the Israelites’ (and Christians’) ten percent or one part in ten. Origen saw symbolism in the numbers five and ten. Five is the number of bodily senses (sight, hearing, etc.), which indicates that the Egyptians served the bodily or carnal nature, which is forbidden for the people of God. Ten is the proper number for us because it represents the Ten Commandments and the ten virtues or fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23: love, joy, peace, etc. Origen also said that in the Gospel parable, ten also represents the ten pounds the good servant earned for his master and the ten cities over which he was given authority as a reward (Luke 19.12-17). In this sermon, Origen made it clear that Christians were obliged to give ten percent to their church and its officers.[i]
About the same time as Origen, a church manual and guide for Christian life also spoke of tithing as a Christian obligation. It commanded people to devote tithes and other offerings to Christ and His ministers. They were to be presented to the pastor, either directly by the laity or through the deacons, for him to sustain himself and distribute to others.[ii]
This church manual drew parallels between payments to Christian ministers and the tithes to Levites and Aaronic priests: the Law of Moses placed burdens on the Israelites by demanding sacrifices, oblations, sin offerings, vows, tithes, gifts of the first fruits of farm produce, and burnt offerings but Christians are free from these heavy burdens. However, because Jesus commanded that our righteousness exceed that of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5.20), Christians are still to give abundantly to our office-bearers, especially the pastor. Under Moses, the manual said, the people were commanded to give tithes and gifts to the descendants of Levi and Aaron; under Christ, the priests and Levites are the pastor and other officers of the local church, so that tithes and other gifts are to be offered to God through them.[iii]
Much earlier, the church father Irenaeus in France put forth a similar reason for Christian tithing. In the A.D. 180s, he wrote that Christians show our freedom in Christ by voluntarily giving a greater proportion to God than did Israelites, who gave only ten percent, and then only because the Mosaic Law compelled them.[iv]
Apparently tithing continued in the church until the Reformation. Early Protestant Reformers asserted that the authority of Roman Catholic bishops over tithes were theirs only by human convention, by agreement of church members, rather than having been given them by God. These Reformers asserted that when bishops are negligent in their administration of tithes or do not apply them to proper purposes it is the duty of Christian governments to take them over in the interests of justice and peace.[v] This was partly foreshadowed in 1 Samuel 8.10-17, where it was said that the king would take a tenth of the vineyards, grain and livestock when rule by the judges was inefficient and unpopular. Thus, today governments take ten percent and more of our incomes for justice, peacekeeping, charitable works, and other commendable purposes including many—but not all—that were performed by the priests and Levites.
However, provincial and federal governments do not spend anywhere near the proportion that the Old Testament Israelites and early Christians did in relieving the poor, caring for widows and orphans, financing public worship, and supporting our spiritual lives and ministers. They have even reduced public assistance payments to the point that the poor must now depend on food banks—usually maintained by churches. Even taking forty percent of our incomes, governments do not finance many aspects of Christian life. This means that we need to give directly to the church and its ministers—hopefully another ten percent—as their “perpetual due”.
Under the New Testament regime, Christians are not bound by arbitrary laws or fixed percentages like the Israelites, but are under grace. However, grace should motivate Christians to do as much or more than the Law of Moses demanded. Again, our righteousness must exceed “that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5.20). The Apostle Paul commanded us to give “bountifully…not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.6-7). Further, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9.8).
Christians! If we fail to provide finances whereby the church can care for the poor, widows, orphans, strangers, homeless and pastors, we are robbing God and God’s agencies of their “perpetual due”. Such a failing is not new: as early as 500 B.C. the prophet Malachi asked and answered the question “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me…[i]n your tithes and offerings” (Malachi 3.8). Two verses later the prophet invited God’s people to put the Lord to the test by bringing all their tithes to God’s house so that His ministers would have enough to eat. If we do so, God will pour on his people “an overflowing blessing.”
Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1946, 1952 and 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
[i] Origen Homilies on Genesis 16.6.
[ii] Didascalia Apostolorum 9.
[iii] Didascalia Apostolorum 9.
[iv] Against Heresies 4.18.1-2.
[v] Augsburg Confession Article 28.29.
Article by David W T Brattston
Dr. David W. T. Brattston is a freelance Christian writer residing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. His articles on early and contemporary Christianity have been published in the United States, Canada, Australia, Ghana, the Philippines, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, India, and England.
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