The Biblical case for tithing

Was tithing only for Old Testament times, or does it still apply today?

Mel Rees, a "retired" stewardship educator, continues to hold workshops on stewardship for pastors and laymen in North America and beyond. He writes from Woodland, Washington.

For centuries Biblical scholars have searched for evidence that would either validate or discount the tithing system. They have examined the dusty archives of church history, delved into the writings of the Church Fathers, and studied the impressions on ancient clay tablets. It is now possible to draw some conclusions.

Although theologians disagree about the origin, purpose, and principle of tithing, they all agree on one point: It is of great antiquity. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Sumerians paid a tenth of their incomes to their gods as a fixed rule centuries before God through the prophet Malachi accused the Hebrews of robbing God when they withheld their tithes. In fact, one of the largest buildings in Babylon was the storehouse for the tithes used in heathen worship. Aristotle, Xenophon, Herodotus, Pliny, and Cicero all mention the payment of the tithe as a very old custom amounting to a law in their day among their people.

This may have led critics to suggest that the Jews borrowed this custom from heathen nations. Wouldn't it be more logical to conclude that these people borrowed their practice from some ancient directive dating back to the Fall of Adam and Eve? The payment of the tithe did not originate with the Hebrews, but seems to be a common expression of the recognition of God's sovereignty.

The Bible is strangely economical on the subject. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance lists only 39 references to tithing. It seems strange that such a basic principle of Christian belief would enjoy such limited reference unless, of course, it was so generally recognized and self-evident that it required only incidental mention. This could be one of its strongest evidences of validity.

This seems to be the case in the story of Abraham's return from the conquest of Chedorlaomer and the kings who kidnapped his nephew Lot. In the distribution of the spoils Abraham gave Melchizedek, "the priest of the most high God," "tithes of all" (Gen. 14:18, 20). This casual reference gives credence to the thought that the giving of tithes was an established custom. Abraham acknowledged God's sovereignty by the tithe and by telling the king of Sodom, "I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth" (verse 22).

Evidently Jacob had been taught this requirement, for he vowed, "And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee" (chap. 28:22).

The Mosaic law was simply a reaffirmation of the patriarchal religion. Here we find the first reference to the reason for tithing: "And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's: it is holy unto the Lord... . And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord" (Lev. 27:30-32).

In these references one can see that the tithe was not an offering but a return of that which belonged to God a case of simple honesty. This is evident in the statement of Malachi where God accuses the entire nation of robbery. Thus the basic reason for the tithing system is to demonstrate recognition of God's ownership.

Some skeptics have pointed to scant evidence for the tithe in the New Testament. However, we should remember that Jesus spent the majority of His life in the private sector as a carpenter, and although He was accused of many things by His enemies, He was never accused of nontithing. Likewise, neither Peter nor Paul was charged with this violation of the law. The religious leaders would have seized eagerly on this infraction if they had been given opportunity.

One pastor, conducting a weekly Bible class, proposed two observations: (1) The Sabbath was an old Jewish custom that is no longer valid, and (2) the tithe, also an old Jewish custom, is a good one and should be followed. When asked for an explanation, he pleaded lack of time as an excuse for not giving one. One wonders whether his concern for his income influenced his thinking or whether his wrong conclusions were the result of limited research. If he had begun his study at the beginning of the Bible instead of with the Jewish dispensation, he would have found evidence for the authorization of both the Sabbath and the tithe.

The Sabbath was given at the close of Creation week (Gen. 2:3). Its observance was to show recognition of God as the Creator (Ex. 20:10, 11).

The tithing principle, although not as clearly stated, was embodied in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the symbol of God's authority (see Gen. 2:17). This tree, the only one whose use was restricted, was off-limits to our first parents. It was the one restriction in their stewardship relation to God. When they violated this restriction they 'became thieves, actually anarchists, for they denied God's ownership, His sovereignty, His authority.

After Adam and Eve were ejected from their Eden home God had to employ another symbol of authority, another restriction—hence the tithing principle. Some recognition of God's sovereignty would be essential for the orderly operation of His government. The chaos so prevalent in the world today is evidence that many do not recognize the true Owner of the world.

Why God specified a tenth is not known. He could have set a seventh, a twelfth, or some other percentage. Someone has suggested that the tenth is the essence of simplicity: One has only to move the decimal point one digit to the left in its calculation. Even a small child, just as soon as he can count to ten on his fingers, can learn the tithing principle. Thus God's ownership, His lordship, can be firmly established during a child's early years.

Unfortunately the tithe is often regarded as either a source of income for the ministry or as a standard of giving. It is neither. Although God specified that the Levites (the priests) were to be supported from the tithe, this was not the reason for it. Neither can the tithe be considered as a standard of giving, for one can never give something that does not belong to him. In reality, the tithing principle was designed for the benefit of the individual. In this sense it has two functions besides being a recognition of God's sovereignty and the restriction in man's stewardship: It will prevent pride of ownership and guarantee the freedom of dependence.

Pride of ownership, so deeply ingrained in the human heart, tends toward self-dependence; depending on one's self will ultimately result in self-destruction. Without the agency of divine power no person is capable of perpetuating his existence. God just didn't want anyone to self-destruct. This true incident will illustrate the tendency.

Two boys, roommates for one year in a boarding school, became fast friends. One of them, however, tired of the restrictive rules of this Christian campus and left at the close of the term to seek his education in a more liberal atmosphere. He became a successful insurance executive; his roommate became a minister. They didn't meet again for forty years.

One summer on a driving vacation the minister found himself in the Western city where his former roommate lived. They met at a fashionable hotel for lunch and brought each other up to date. During a brief lull in the conversation the minister asked, "How about you and God?"

His friend looked at his empty plate for a moment, then with a trace of a smile replied, "I have a Cadillac in the parking lot, a Mercedes and a Jaguar at home; my home is worth more than a half million dollars; I have a place at the beach worth about seventy-five; my lodge in the mountains is worth about fifty; I have more than a half million in government bonds—why do I need God?"

God knows that unless we keep the fact of His ownership constantly in mind, our tendency will be to put our dependence on possessions, and this can lead only to ultimate disaster. Man is limited in his control over his environment. Without the assurance of God's promise to protect and provide, life would be a constant worry.

One of the strongest proofs of the tithing principle is the result of tithing. Here is proof that cannot be controverted. It is called the miracle of the tithe: The balance of the income will have more buying power than the total when the tithe is not set apart. Thousands of practicing Christians will testify eagerly to this—giving time and place. This miracle also had its antecedent in Eden.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil served not only as a symbol of God's authority and a restriction on man's stewardship but also as a guarantee to the human race of the power of choice and a promise of the freedom of dependence. As long as they obeyed God's one restriction, all their basic needs would be provided: food, shelter, and clothing. The Bible records the problems they faced when they violated this divine directive.

Not only does God perform a miracle on our incomes after the tithe is removed, but He promises prosperity as well. Of course, the difference between prosperity and wealth must be under stood. Prosperity is having what one needs when he needs it. Wealth, on the other hand, is having more than enough for basic needs. God promised prosperity, not wealth. Still, there appears to be an unusual blessing for every person who practices tithing regardless of his religious affiliation or lack of it. Some people who do not belong to any church have benefited from their recognition of God's ownership. This must be significant, for it demonstrates the importance God places on this ordinance.

With the curse that was pronounced on the Hebrew nation for the crime of robbing God, a bounteous blessing was also promised if the people would reform. "Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?" (Mal. 3:7). Then God gave the specific area in which they were deficient. "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (verse 10).

However, in spite of God's invitation, multitudes of people never put Him to the test—never prove Him. The proof is not in the ancient archives or in the sayings of the Fathers or in the etchings on tablets, but in the lives of men and women who recognize their stewardship relation to God—who recognize that He is the owner of everything they possess, even their very lives. "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?" (1 Cor. 6:19).

From the scores of positive experiences related to tithing that I have seen and heard, I shall choose one that clearly illustrates God's faithfulness in the performance of His promises—His invitation to "prove me now herewith."

I waited for the man, a local church leader, to speak. I could barely see his face in the glow of the backlit scene of Gethsemane pictured in stained glass behind the choir loft. I was conducting a stewardship emphasis week and had come to the pastor's study to make preparations for the evening meeting; he also came early, because, as he said, he desperately needed to talk with someone. He suggested that we go into the main sanctuary, where we wouldn't be disturbed.

He made several starts, stopped, and then finally said, "I've been a church leader for a long time. I shouldn't be, because, well, you see, I haven't paid any tithe for years. Don't you think I'm terrible?"

"No, I don't think you are terrible," I replied. "I'm sorry, for you must have missed many of the blessings the Lord has promised."

"But you don't understand," he explained. "I couldn't, because there was never anything left."

"Oh, I'm sure of that. No matter how large your income might be, there would never be anything left."

"I don't understand."

"Because God's part must always come first, never from what is left over."

By this time my eyes had become accustomed to the dim light; I could see the concern on his face as he explained his difficulty. Some ill-advised investments that wouldn't sell plus monthly commitments that his better-than-average salary couldn't cover all combined to make his life a recurring nightmare. "I feel like a whipped puppy crawling home after my weekly encounter with my creditors. I can't keep this up much longer and keep my sanity. Can you help me?"

While he was talking I was praying.

But I wondered whether he would accept the only solution to his problem; I knew it wouldn't seem reasonable. "Possibly there is a solution," I said and excused myself to get my Bible from the study. Turning to the book of Malachi, I read God's offer to reward those who would return the tithe to Him.

I was sure it sounded too simplistic to him, for he had already outlined his version for relief. "If I could sell my house, I could use my equity to pay my bills, and everything would be all right again." I questioned this, for until he got his priorities straight, I felt he would always be in trouble.

He didn't say anything more for a little while as he thought about the promises God had given; then, as if thinking out loud, he said, "I suppose I had just as well try it nothing else seems to work." He quickly added, "I suppose that is the wrong attitude, isn't it?"

"No, I don't think so. If God says to prove Him, or as some translations say, 'put me to the test,' it must be all right." We knelt and prayed for the faith and courage it would require to do it God's way. We didn't pray for financial assistance, for that really wasn't his problem. When we arose from our knees he asked, "Won't you please continue to pray for me? I'm going to need it."

I'm sure I was remembering him in my prayers long after God solved the problem, but I had no way of knowing, for I didn't see him again for three months. Then, at a general meeting in his district, I saw him in the audience. I could hardly wait for the meeting to end so I could ask him the question that had been nagging me for a long time. Finally I was able to get him to one side and ask, "How's everything?"

"Wonderful." His smile was radiant.

"I mean financially."

"That's what I mean too." Then he told me how God had worked a miracle for him.

The first week after his decision he sat down with his paycheck and computed his tithe—then, because he really loved the Lord, he set aside a generous offering. He laughed as he related that he was afraid to trust himself to wait until church time to turn in the check—so he placed it in an envelope, addressed it to the church treasurer, and dropped it in the corner mailbox.

Now he faced his moment of truth. He was forced to go to his creditors with smaller payments than he usually made. He decided to call first on the one who was the most irascible, and he braced himself for the torrent he believed was coming. To his utter amazement the man wrote out a receipt for the smaller amount and thanked him for always being on time with his payments. "I couldn't believe my ears" is how he expressed it. "I walked out of his place of business six inches off the floor!"

To his continuing surprise every one of his creditors treated him cordially. Of course, there was no change in his financial situation (in fact, he was worse off), but he had peace of mind for the first time—and a clear conscience.

Then one day a couple of weeks later, he had just returned from work when a caller asked if by any chance this house was for sale. He hadn't had a sign advertising it for two months because the prime house-selling time was past, so he asked the man why he had picked this particular house.

"Well," he replied, "my wife and I have been looking for a particular kind of house. I was just driving by, and this looked like what we're looking for."

After a brief inspection he asked whether he could return with his wife. She ohed and ahed over each room; then to her husband's question she said, "I'd just love it. It is just what I have always dreamed of owning."

The sale was completed the next day at the bank. With a catch in his voice, he concluded, "I didn't even have to pay a seller's fee; that with my equity easily satisfied my bills, and we even had enough left to buy a smaller home that is entirely adequate for the two of us." Then he asked a question that everyone in trouble should ask: "Why was I so slow to believe God—to do it His way?"

How many problems and heartaches we could save ourselves if we would only recognize that we have a heavenly Father who loves us, One who will provide for our needs as He does for the birds and the grasses of the fields. But we must recognize that He is the owner of everything—the gold and silver, "the cattle upon a thousand hills" (Ps. 50:10). When we recognize His sovereignty by returning that which He has specified belongs to Him, then we can rest in the assurance that all our needs will be provided. We can be confident in a trust that will lead to perfect peace. This is the proof of the tithe—the marvelous results of obedience.

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Mel Rees, a "retired" stewardship educator, continues to hold workshops on stewardship for pastors and laymen in North America and beyond. He writes from Woodland, Washington.

September 1985

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