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The Tithe

Lee Underwood
Most Institutional Churches derive their 'operating funds' from monetary donations called 'tithes.' These tithes, obtained from members and visitors, are used for salaries for the ministerial staff, building and grounds expenses, general operating expenses, and missionary efforts. There is a great deal of pressure placed on congregation members to give this money on a regular basis. This pressure puts many Christians into bondage and causes feelings of condemnation for many others. Many people get very frustrated with the 'proper' method of giving: should the tithe be taken off the top, before taxes? Should personal debts be paid first and then tithe off of what's left? To whom should the tithe be given? Can it be divided up between different ministries? With all this confusion the question arises, if this is a Biblical, God-ordained procedure, why then does it put people in bondage and cause so much confusion?
In these last days, many traditions of the Institutional Church are being revealed to be nothing more than just that: man-made customs. In regards to these tithes, are they Biblical or are they just tradition? Did God ordain them to be collected for use by the local assembly for its daily operating expenses? Is the tithing that's taught today in the Institutional Church part of Torah? The only way to understand any of this is to take a look at Scripture and discern what it says regarding this practice.
(Let me state right up front that I am not opposed to giving. There is a Biblical basis for that which we will look at later. I am only speaking here of the 'tithe.' The purpose here is to gain an understanding of what God's word says regarding this subject in relation to what's practiced in the Institutional Church today.)

The First Mention of the Tithe in Scripture

The Hebrew word for tithe, masser, simply means, "a tenth part." The word first appears in Scripture in Genesis 14.20: "'And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.' He gave him a tenth of all." This is taken from the account of Abram's meeting with two kings following his battle against Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him (Genesis 14.16). At the valley of Shaveh, Abram met with Bera, the king of Sodom and with Melchzedek, the king of Salem. During their encounter, Abram gave Melchizedek a tithe (a tenth) from the spoils of war he had just taken. Abram then gave the balance of the spoils of war to the king of Sodom (minus that which his men had eaten and that which belonged to the men who went with him [v.14.22-24]). Note that none of these goods were Abram's; they were all spoils of war as far as he was concerned.
That's all there was to it. Nothing else. While we may see spiritual significance in Abram's encounter with Melchizedek, as far as the tithe is concerned, that's all that happened. There is nothing prior to this encounter that gives us any information as to God ever having commanded Abram to give Him (or anybody else) a tithe of his possessions. The tithe which Abram gave in this instance was merely a custom among nations of the ancient Middle East. Clearly, there was no command from God.

Jacob's Deal with God

After deceiving his father to obtain Esau's inheritance, Jacob encountered God at Bethel (Genesis 28.10-22). God had already chosen Jacob for His purpose (Genesis 25.21-23), so when God spoke to Jacob and told him that "the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants" (Genesis 28:13), Jacob did not need to make any deals with God. God was only confirming the covenant He had previously made with Abraham (Genesis 15.12-18) and Isaac (Genesis 26.2-5). There were no conditions on what God told Jacob; He said He would bring Jacob back to that land and give it to his descendants. However, Jacob, being who he was, proceeded to make a deal with God. He told God that if He would be with him and keep him on this journey (which God had already promised to do the night before), then He would be his God and he (Jacob) would give Him a tithe. Notice that the tithe was Jacob's idea, not God's. Once again we return to the custom among nations of the ancient Middle East.

God Institutes the Tithe

After Israel is delivered from Egypt and brought to the wilderness, we see God commanding Israel to give a tithe of their crops. This tithe is first mentioned in Leviticus 27:30: "Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's; it is holy to the Lord." In addition, the Lord says that a part of the tithe may be redeemed by the giver by adding to it one-fifth of its value (Leviticus 27.31). (Try doing that in the Institutional Church today and see what happens.) Also note that the tithe is from the land, from the seed of the land, or from the fruit of the tree. God did not say to bring money.
Next, we see what God had in mind for the tithe: "To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting" (Numbers 18:21; also 18.24-28). The purpose of the tithe was to provide for the priests for their services as God had determined that they would have no inheritance in the Land of Israel; God Himself was to be their inheritance (Numbers 18.19-20). The priests were of the tribe of Levite, as chosen by God. The priests ministered in the Temple, to God, as He so designated. An additional tithe was also to be used in celebration of Biblical feasts (Deuteronomy 14.22-27) and another tithe was designated for the alien, the orphan, and the widow (Deuteronomy 14.28-29; 26.12).

Tithing as Addressed by Jesus

Many people will say that tithing is applicable today because Jesus addressed it in His dealings with the scribes and Pharisees, i.e.: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others" (Matthew 23:23). Let's look for a moment at the situation Jesus is addressing here. He is speaking to Jews who live in the land of Israel, during the time the Temple is in existence, and there are priests ministering in the Temple. These are all of the conditions that are needed for tithing as specified by God. Jesus is merely confronting the scribes and Pharisees, as teachers of Torah, as to their hypocrisy regarding Torah. Nothing more, nothing less.

The Tithe for Today

So how would we apply the giving of the tithe today, what would the tithe be used for? For one thing, it can't be given to the priests who minister in the Temple as the Temple is not in existence today. Since the Temple is not in existence today, then the tithes would not be used in the celebration of God's feasts as He designated to be celebrated at the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year (Exodus 23.14-17). That leaves the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Aside from being a different tithe, this is speaking of those who actually live in the land of Israel. We can see this because it addresses the aliens, who would be a sojourner in the land. It is also a communal act to be done within each town (Deuteronomy 14.28-29).
So what do we do now? Is the tithe no longer applicable? (Remember, we're talking about the tithe here, not giving in general.)
Scripturally, that is the case. The tithe was never meant to support pastors, elders, boards of directors, traveling ministers, local assembly buildings, or other things of the sort.
According to Paul, we, as followers of Messiah Jesus, are the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3.16; 6.19; 1 Corinthians 6.16). We are also all priests in this holy Temple (1 Peter 2.5,9). If we try to apply the tithe in this manner, according to the Scriptures we looked at above, it would mean that the tithe was to provide for all who are followers of Messiah Jesus, not just the ministerial staff or the operating expenses for the local congregation.
The tithe doesn't apply today as there is nothing in the Bible to substantiate that belief. The sole reason for giving the tithe to the priests who ministered in the Temple in Jerusalem was because they did not have any other means of support. They were not to own land on which to grow crops (as God so commanded) so God took care of them in this manner. Since they ministered to the Lord on behalf of all of Israel, it was only fitting that Israel should help to care for them. All members of the local congregation today are able to own land and can take care of themselves and their families. If they are not able to support their family, then the congregation can help them. However, if they are able to work then they must work. There is no full-time 'priesthood' mentioned in Scripture within the local congregation.
Paul points out that those whose work is dedicated to the Lord full-time should be supported by local assemblies (1 Corinthians 9.14). However, these are men who are involved in traveling from one city to another; they are not permanently living in one city. (Paul also doesn't say they should be given large, generous salaries.) We do not see any instance in Scripture where a local congregation is supporting one of their own members in order that he may 'do the work of the Lord' within their own congregation. The subject of supporting members of local congregations is not addressed in Scripture. Their work should be done unto the Lord and they should have jobs to care for their families. Interestingly, we don't see Jesus receiving tithes. While He does seem to have accepted donations (John 12.6), never is there any mention of the actual amount, as in the case of a tithe.
Another example of paying those who are involved in full-time ministry which involves traveling from one city to another is given by Jesus, "Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support" (Matthew 10:9). Notice the context of this situation. Jesus is sending out His twelve disciples to preach the message of the Kingdom of God. This is to be their full-time job. Notice that they are not ministering in one location. They will be traveling from city to city. They will be relying on the hospitality of the people they meet in the different cities where they travel.
A Scripture that's used many times to support the teaching that a "full-time in-house staff" should be paid is Galatians 6.6, which says, "The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him." It seems that this verse would support paying a "full-time in-house staff", however, the interpretation of this passage is incorrect. The word interpreted here as "share" is the Greek word koinoneo, which means:
  1. to come into communion or fellowship with, to become a sharer, be made a partner
  2. to enter into fellowship, join one's self to an associate, make one's self a sharer or partner [TDNT]
How does that end up being interpreted as paying the person who has taught you? A few verses later Paul say, "let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith." Is he now saying we should pay everybody? Of course not. When you are being taught by someone — in a classroom, for instance, you generally don't enter into a close relationship with them or become a partner with them. There is a student-teacher relationship that mandates a certain amount of distance between the two. (We must remember that Paul is addressing people who lived 2,000 years ago. People today are far more casual than they were back then.) What Paul is saying here is, that as this person is teaching you, enter into fellowship with him, become a partner in his work. A perfect example is Paul and Timothy. Did Timothy pay Paul for his teaching? No. Instead, he became a partner with Paul in his ministry. They became so close that Paul referred to Timothy as his son (i.e., 2 Timothy 1.2). Now you probably won't become that close with your teacher but you get the point.

The Origin of the 'Christian' Tithe

The first person to mention paying for the full-time support of certain members of local congregations is Cyprian (200-258 CE). The idea did not go over real big at the time. Congregation leaders were given salaries when Constantine came into office, 300 years after the beginning of the body of Messiah. Tithing did not become a commonly accepted practice until the eighth century - 700 years after the death of Jesus. By the eleventh century it had become a legal requirement in order to fund the State-run church.

Giving within the Context of Scripture

Can we see the early followers of Messiah giving money to support others within the congregation? Of course. There are many Scriptures that prove that point, e.g., Acts 4.32-37. Paul took up collections for other local assemblies that were suffering persecution (1 Corinthians 16.1; 2 Corinthians 8.1-5). The early followers of Messiah gave to each other as was needed (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32,34-35). But the idea of tithing to pay full-time pastors, elders, or an office staff, or even to pay for the maintenance of assembly buildings is not Scriptural at all. The early followers of Messiah didn't even use special buildings for their meetings. They just met in each other's homes. Having the local assembly meet in special buildings began with Constantine, over 300 years after the beginning of the body of Messiah. He thought the Christians should have their own "temples," just like the pagan religions. God, however, had designated only one place for His physical Temple - Jerusalem.
A popular Scripture that is used to condemn people into tithing is Malachi 3.8-12: "'Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, "How have we robbed You?" In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,' says the Lord of hosts, 'if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,' says the Lord of hosts. 'All the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,' says the Lord of hosts." When God spoke this through Malachi, Israel had rebuilt the Temple in 516 BCE. However, they were back to their old ways. They were ignoring God and His commandments. They weren't trusting God to care for them. The problem with using this Scripture to justify tithing in the local assembly is that, once again, God is speaking of bringing the tithe to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to some local building in a far away city. You can't spiritualize these passages to mean something other than what they actually do mean. They must be taken in context.

Should We Then Give?

Giving in the Bible is always encouraged. Those who have much should help those who don't have much. Jesus made that very clear:
  • "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." Matthew 5:42
  • "Freely you received, freely give." Matthew 10:8
  • "Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure-- pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return." Luke 6:38
  • "But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Luke 14:13
The problem in giving relates to the condition of the heart. Many people give money to get something in return, and many other people ask others to give so that they themselves will get the money. Jesus makes it very clear that we should not worry about the things that we need, "And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things" (Luke 12:29). But look where Jesus says our focus should be, "But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you" (Luke 12:31).


By now it should be clear that tithing in a local assembly setting is not dictated by Scripture. We are free to give as we are able, and to where we feel is needed. But we should not be in bondage to give money for unscriptural things. How can we justify paying a full-time staff, or even one person, when the early followers of Messiah never paid anyone for the first three hundred years the body of Messiah was in existence? It's not one man's job to take care of the needy or visit the sick. It's the job of everyone who is a member of the body of Messiah.
God doesn't make things hard and He doesn't put us in bondage. He frees us from all of that garbage. "And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give." (Matthew 10:7-8)
[ Published: November 4, 2005 :: Written by safemail("leeu","","Lee Underwood") Lee Underwood :: Permission to reprint is granted with proper credit to author.]


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