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Must our church members give a second tithe?

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Archives / 1992 / May

 

 

Must our church members give a second tithe?

Eric Webster is director of the Bible Correspondence School, Cape Town, South Africa.

 

To what extent, if any, are we obliged to re turn to God a second tithe? The ancient Israelites partici pated in many and varied sacrificial gestures, including freewill offerings for different projects and tithe from produce and animals. Which features of their Old Testament stewardship system remain obligatory in the Christian church?

Actually, the Old Testament does not use the term second tithe. It consistently speaks only of tithe or tithes. Then how did the concept of a second tithe originate?

Some Bible students see an apparent contradiction in the tithe laws of the Old Testament. They see one code calling for the tithe to be given to the Levites (Num. 18:21 -24) and another suggesting that the tithes could be consumed by the worshiper (Deut. 14:22-26; 26:12-14).

Perhaps there were two different tithes the first one was sacred to the Lord, reserved for the Levites (Num. 18:21 -24; Lev. 27:30-32), while a second tithe was for sharing with the fatherless and widows (Deut. 14:22-29). The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia suggests that the talmudic rabbis had this understanding of the tithing system. 1

Some scholars even see the concept of a third tithe in the Old Testament. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that after the first tithe went to the Levites, "the remainder of the harvest was then divided into 10 new parts, and a second tithe was carried by the head of the household to the sanctuary to serve as a sacred feast for his family and the Levites. If the journey to the temple was unusually long, money could be substituted for the offering in kind. At the triennial tithe, a third decimation was made and a tenth part was consumed at home by the householder with his family, the Levites, strangers, and the poor. This triennial year was called the year of tithes (Deut. 26:12)." 2

The Book of Tobit (second century B.C.) appears to support this concept of multiple tithing: "Tobit reports that when he was a young man, prior to his having been taken captive by the Assyrians and transported to Nineveh, he would bring first fruits, tithes of the produce, and first shearings to Jerusalem. He also gave three tithes: he presented the first tenth to the Levites (as required by Numbers 18), offered the second tenth in Jerusalem (as required by Deuteronomy 14), and gave the third tenth to the needy (as specified in Deuteronomy 14 as well)." 3

As far as the Bible is concerned, we lack conclusive evidence for the obligation of a second tithe. Since Moses is accepted as the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, it is strange that he did not clearly differentiate be tween the tithe of Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy 14, if there is indeed a difference. Some might find it easier to see differences in these two passages on the basis of time and usage. We grant that Jewish tradition, accepting the unity of the books of Moses, did come to distinguish between a first and a second tithe.

Now we come to the core issue: if ancient Israel did return a double tithe, what should be required of Christians today? Ellen White saw no clear man date. She referred to the second tithe in describing how the Israelites cared for the poor, never explicitly stating that the practice is required of the church today.4

Those who urge a second tithe based on the Israelites' example of giving a quarter or even a third of their income for religious and charitable purposes should remember that the theocracy of Old Testament times did not collect separate civil taxes. Gifts to the sanctuary system supported the total religious and secular life of the nation.

Today, citizens of most countries pay taxes that contribute toward education, welfare, benevolence, and hospital services. Thus, those who consider their income taxes a portion of their second tithe should not come under condemnation. We should also respect the convictions of those who believe that church school fees are for charitable and benevolent purposes and thus apply toward their second tithe. Others might justifiably use their second tithe in supporting a widow or orphan. In the light of Deuteronomy 14, this type of liberty and freedom be longs to church members.

In summary the concept of a second tithe as promoted by some in the church has no doubt resulted in financial gain for our churches and in spiritual advancement for many members. However, we must acknowledge the possibility of feeling unnecessarily guilty when one cannot reach that standard of stewardship. Harmonizing the Christian principles of liberty and sacrifice might discard a strict second tithe concept for some but could lead others with ample finances to return even a third or fourth tithe.

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1. Marcus, "Tithe," The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Isaac Landman (New York: The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Inc., 1943), vol. 10, p. 254.

2. "The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912 ed. See also G. W. Bromiley, gen. ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1988), Vol. IV, p. 863.

3. "The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1987).

4. Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 530.

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