Tithing in the New Testament

In the past, Seventh-day Adventists have been se­verely criticized for stressing the obligation of paying of tithe by their church mem­bers. This attitude, however, has more recently changed, and a number of other de­nominations or individual churches have accepted this system, which we call system­atic benevolence. We have to clarify the problem of whether paying of tithe is re­quired in the New Testament.

Pastor, Illinois Conference

Pastor Tuland has had long experience in several overseas divisions and has recently published articles in learned jour­nals such as The Journal of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, and The Journal of Near Eastern Studies of the University of Chicago.

IN THE past, Seventh-day Adventists have been se­verely criticized for stressing the obligation of paying of tithe by their church mem­bers. This attitude, however, has more recently changed, and a number of other de­nominations or individual churches have accepted this system, which we call system­atic benevolence. We have to clarify the problem of whether paying of tithe is re­quired in the New Testament. From the pen of Ellen G. White we read: "The New Tes­tament does not re-enact the law of the tithe, as it does not that of the Sabbath; for the validity of both is assumed, and their deep spiritual import explained."—Counsels on Stewardship, p. 66. Accordingly, we face two problems: first, there is apparently no direct command in the New Testament regarding tithe paying, and, second, we seemingly ar­rive at our position by a method of deduc­tions and conclusions from Old Testament principles. Such reasoning might not appear to be strong enough to enjoin an obligation upon New Testament believers. Further­more, the tithing system in the Old Testa­ment differed considerably from the one followed by this denomination (cf. The Ministry, September, 1958, pp. 42, 43). These considerations will justify an in­vestigation of this topic in the light of New Testament scriptures.

The one and only reference to tithing by our Lord is found in Matthew 23:23, where Christ endorsed it as a part of religious duty. However, the affirmation of the prac­tice concerns primarily the Jews to whom He directed Himself.

The objectives of tithing in the Old Testament were clearly defined: the first tithe for the maintenance of the priest­hood and the Levites, the second to enable the individual to participate in the annual religious feasts in Jerusalem, and the third for the poor. The few references in the New Testament with regard to the support of the ministry make no mention of the tithe. However, the texts are clear enough to destroy the notions of some people who deny the institution of a "professional" ministry in the New Testament as well as their right to an adequate material com­pensation by the church. This is often done by quoting 2 Corinthians 11:7 (R.S.V.) where Paul says: "Did I commit a sin in abasing myself so that you may be exalted, because I preached God's gospel without cost to you?" Such persons fail to read the eighth verse in which the apostle states: "I robbed other churches by accepting sup­port ["wages," K.J.V.] from them in order to serve you." That Paul up to that time was indebted to at least one church— though he mentions churches—is evident from Philippians 4:15. That church had supported him financially, but it still was on a voluntary basis, a Christian partner­ship. Beyond these texts Paul discusses the support of the Christian ministry in 1 Co­rinthians 9:13, 14. There he refers to nat­ural law, to the order of the Old Testament, and the Temple service. Then he con­cludes: "In the same way, the Lord com­manded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (R.S.V.). It appears that these conclusions are very definite, for they are not only based on the ordinances of the Old Testa­ment for comparison but they end by say­ing that the Lord commanded that the ministers should get their living by the gospel, meaning, from the churches. As concrete as this affirmation of the apostle is, it still could be interpreted on the basis of voluntary contributions, not fixed in amount or per capita, but not as a com­mand to pay tithe. Our question, there­fore, is whether there is any further scrip­tural evidence that either establishes or supports the principle of tithe paying in the New Testament.

The Epistle to the Hebrews offers a con­cise and complete comparison between the services and rituals of the Old Testament and their fulfillment in the ministry of Christ, Probably intended to prepare the Jewish-Christian believers for the shock that would come to them through the de­struction of Jerusalem, the Temple and its services, together with the cessation of priesthood and sacrifice in a.d. 70, the apostle expounds the true meaning of the Old Testament services. And by transfer­ring the ministration from the passing glory of the Temple in Jerusalem to the everlasting one of the heavenly sanctuary, he made the light of the new covenant shine forth.

Step by step the different items are com­pared, indicating that in every instance the fulfillment exceeded by far the service of the shadow of the Old Testament; a better promise, a better covenant, a better blood, a better hope, a better sanctuary. At this point the apostle had to explain the ques­tion of the New Testament priesthood. Could there be any better than that of Aaron? And, who is the high priest of the New Testament? In the seventh chapter of Hebrews this problem is solved. The an­swer is that God had provided for a better priesthood, and in order to change the priesthood, He also had to change the law which determined that only those of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron could serve in the sanctuary (Heb. 7:12). It is also stated that such a change was by no means an invention of the followers of Christ, but was based on two important factors: one, a well-known historical inci­dent, and two, a promise and solemn oath by God (Gen. 14:17-20; Ps. 110:4). Accord­ing to this promise the priesthood of the man who met their father Abraham and who was greater than he, would be an eternal priesthood that was not established on the basis of carnal descent but on spir­itual merit. Thus, the story and relation­ship of Melchizedek to Jesus Christ is the topic of Hebrews, chapter seven. Accord­ingly, Melchizedek was king of Salem and also a priest of the most high God. And while he is a king of righteousness and a king of peace, he also bears the priestly office.

What now follows in the third verse has been a topic for many discussions and manifold interpretations. The one fol­lowed by the writer is accepted by many conservative scholars. In order to under­stand the language of the apostle one has to bear in mind that he directed himself to a group of people accustomed to a certain religious terminology. When, there­fore, the text states concerning the man Melchizedek that "he is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither be­ginning of days nor end of life" (R.S.V.), it is obvious that something different than natural relationship is intended. Every Is­raelite was most concerned about his gene­alogy. It was important for several reasons, but especially in questions of inheritance. Not to have a father simply meant not to have an Israelite father (see John 8:39-41; Ezra 2:59). When someone claimed the priesthood similar reasoning might be used in tracing the genealogy. The meaning of our text, therefore, would be "[Melchize­dek] is without a [priestly] father, or a [priestly] mother or a [priestly] geneal­ogy." But in spite of these facts he still was a priest recognized by God. This is the point of comparison: as Melchizedek, so Jesus, for He, too, had no priestly father, no priestly mother, and no priestly geneal­ogy, for "our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests" (Heb. 7:14, R.S.V.). The apostle had made his point: it is nothing new that there were priests outside of the Aaronitic and even before the Aaronitic priesthood.

His next task was to demonstrate the superiority of that priesthood over the Aaronitic priesthood. This is done through reference to several factors as, for instance, spiritual merits against carnal descent, and the oath of God. But the apostle wanted to establish his arguments through more than his interpretation of Psalm 110:4.

Thus, he quotes an incident from the To-rah, the inspired instruction from God. What happened when Abraham our father, met Melchizedek, the priest he had just spoken about? Abraham paid tithe to Mel­chizedek and was, in turn, blessed by that God-appointed priest. With this he con­cludes: "It is beyond dispute that the inferior [Abraham] is blessed by the supe­rior [Melchizedek]*' (Heb. 7:7, R.S.V.) thus establishing that Christ's priesthood is greater than that of Aaron.

With these preliminaries settled, we re­turn to the subject of tithing in the New Testament. The superiority of Melchize-dek's priesthood has been established—but on what grounds? "See how great he [Mel­chizedek] is! Abraham the patriarch gave him a tithe of the spoils" (Heb. 7:4, R.S.V.). The significant argument, there­fore, is the payment of tithe by Abraham to Melchizedek, a material substance serv­ing as confirmation of a spiritual truth that not only recognizes Melchizedek as priest of an order superior to that of Aaron but also that in this priestly order tithing was an accepted institution. This point is stressed from different angles by the apos­tle in verses 5 to 10. The one of greatest interest to us is the perpetuity of tithing in the perpetuity of Melchizedek's priest­hood: "Here [under the priesthood of Aaron] tithes are received by mortal men; there [under the priesthood of Melchize­dek], by one of whom it is testified that he lives" (Heb. 7:8, R.S.V.). And inasmuch as this priesthood is perpetuated in our Lord, so we understand that it is the eter­nal Christ who receives these tithes as long as His priesthood endures.

It will be appropriate at this point to clarify the last part of Hebrews 7:3: "and has neither beginning of days nor end of life" (R.S.V.). It is obvious that this refer­ence to Melchizedek does not infer his im­mortality, for otherwise he would still be living. It simply means that just as there was no record indicating a priestly descent, likewise neither the date of his birth nor the time of his death was recorded. The emphasis is on the perpetuity of his priest­hood and its functions. If Christ would not have come, the priesthood of Melchize­dek would have ended with his death. It is only through Christ that this priesthood became eternal and Melchizedek's office and its institutions live through Him: King of rightousness, King of peace, Priest of the Most High God. That such is the cor­rect conclusion is evident from Hebrews 7:24: "But this man [Jesus], because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood." It is the immortality of Christ and the perpetuity of Christ's priesthood as well as His eternal kingship by which the hope of all believers will be fulfilled.

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews had carefully developed the significance of the Old Testament prototypes and demon­strated that the institutions of the Temple service found their fulfillment in the per­fect ministry of Christ. In doing so he had to prove that Christ was not only the high priest of the New Testament but also that His priesthood was far superior to that of Aaron. The historical incident which he used to prove his point—besides the refer­ence to God's promise—was the encounter of Abraham with Melchizedek, the proto­type of Christ. And as Abraham paid tithe to a priest superior to that of the Jews, so all who accept Christ as their high priest should give tithe to Christ, for He is the one "of whom it is testified that he lives." The seventh chapter of Hebrews seems to furnish sufficient evidence for establishing the tithing system as a part of New Testa­ment teaching.


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Pastor, Illinois Conference

October 1961

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