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The Fallacy & Legalism of the Church Tithe

"The Widow's Mite" by Gustave Doré, Mark 12:41-44 (source: Accordance)
Earlier this week, T. C. Robinson delivered a short post, "What I've Come to Believe about Tithing" which generated a good bit of healthy discussion. Last year, in private correspondence, I laid out my own beliefs about the subject, but did not make them public at the time. While I hope this post doesn't come back to haunt me later, I'm encouraged by the overall response to T. C.'s post to offer my own thoughts here. The idea of a tithe has a "sacred cow" status in many of our churches, and for this fact alone, should be re-examined. The content below is adapted from my private correspondence from last year with personal content removed.

From the outset, despite the title, I do believe in supporting one's church financially, which I see as a different issue than giving a tithe. One's support of a church is even more important if you have covenanted with a church as a member or participant and take part in its ministry and/or receive the benefits (spiritual or otherwise) of its service. Moreover, if one's church has a set budget, members and regular participants in the church's ministry are obligated to seeing that its financial obligations are met.

As I hope to demonstrate, I don’t believe the idea of a church tithe is biblical. And I find it ironic, after spending my entire life in Baptist churches that seemed so careful to separate themselves from the very idea of tradition because somehow that seemed to be Catholic, the reality is that we have numerous traditions of our own, while not always recognizing them as such. Actually, I don’t mind having traditions at all if we can all agree on them and recognize them for what they are. But I do have a problem with holding to a tradition, while masking it under the label of biblical imperative.

Let me try to summarize as briefly as I can my objection to tithing as a model for church giving.

1. The term itself.
As the most minor of points, I don’t care for the word tithe in general. It is an adaptation of a 12th century Old English word, teogotha, that originally simply meant tenth. The problem, for me, lies in the fact that the current English word tithe has taken on religious baggage over the years that the original word never meant.

While this is ultimately a semantic issue and doesn’t matter in the big picture, I have noticed that the HCSB—the Southern Baptist, Lifeway-sponsored and owned translation of the Bible used in our Sunday School literature—never uses the word tithe, opting to more specifically translate the Hebrew word מַעֲשֵׂר/maaser and the Greek words ἀποδεκατεύω/apodekateuo and δεκάτη/dekate as tenth or, when in the verb form, give a tenth.

Regardless, I’ll use the word tithe as needed below for sake of common terminology.

2. The Old Testament context does not resemble the context of the church.
The practice of Israelites giving a tenth of their annual yield comes primarily from Levitcus 27 and Numbers 18. The Levites, as a priestly class, were to be supported by the other tribes because they did not have a tribal land allotment of their own. Having no land meant that crops could not be grown and cattle could not be bred. “Since the Levites do not possess any land and therefore cannot readily produce their own food, they are given the agricultural tithes of the people for their sustenance and as reward for their service in the tent of meeting.” [J. Christian Wilson, "Tithe," in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992). 6:579.]

Essentially, the Old Testament practice of giving a tenth/tithe was a stipulation of the civil and cultic law for the ancient nation of Israel (as opposed to any other nation, let alone non-nationalists, which would include the church). “The tithe was subject to a variety of legislation. Numbers 18:20-32 provides for support of the Levites and the priests through the tithe. The Deuteronomic code stipulated that the tithe of agricultural produce be used for a family feast at the sanctuary celebrating God’s provision (Deut. 14:22-27). The same code stipulated the third year’s tithe for care of the Levites, orphans, widows, and foreigners (Deut. 14:28-29).” [Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al., “Tithe,” in The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1600-01.]

This also means that quoting Mal 3:10 as a model for giving in the church (which I've often seen over the years) is not only invalid, but completely ignores the context of the verse. Here God was speaking to post-Exile Israel, who was in danger of falling back to the position their ancestors were in before the Exile. They were not keeping the commands of giving a tenth to support the Levites as had been commanded in the Law (among their other offenses). This was partly out of greed and partly out of a lack of faith. While we can certainly draw valid application from this to a church context today, to say that this application for us centers on the tithe is wholly mistaken.

If we’re supposed to bring “the whole tithe” as is often promoted in church stewardship rhetoric, from a biblical basis, this would have very little to do with our paychecks, but would require among other things, any cattle farmer in our church bringing a tenth of any livestock born this year (what a mess that would make of the average church sanctuary!). I would need to bring 10% of any new food I’ve put in my pantry this year. And frankly, I don’t know of any Levites on the church staff to receive any of this. Now, you can say I’m being overly literal here. But to hold up Mal 3:10 as a model for church giving—that we must “bring in the whole tithe" as the biblical standard—means that we can’t simply pick and choose which parts of the biblical commands to follow. If we're going to be biblical, let's bring in the cows. Seriously, because I want a front row seat to see it.

3. No Support for the tithe in the New Testament or in the early church as described in the New Testament.
While the tithe is mentioned in the New Testament (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42; Luke 18:12; Heb 7:2, 4-6, 8), none of these instances are in reference to any kind of command to the church to implement a tithe along the lines prescribed by the Old Testament Law. All of these references in the New Testament refer to either Jewish practices during Jesus’ ministry or, as in the case of the references in Hebrews, to Old Testament practice.

Don’t misread me at this point to think I’m saying that just because something is in the Old Testament that it is to be ignored by the church. I don’t believe that at all, but as mentioned in the point above, the practice of giving a tenth in the Old Testament is part of the legal and cultic system of the nation of Israel, not as something prescribed for those outside that nation, including the church. Every New Testament reference to the tithe is in the context of Israelite Law (or Abraham and Melchizedek, which was part of the foundation for Israel’s laws on tithing).

Let me be perfectly clear on this: There is neither biblical nor historical evidence that the New Testament Church practiced anything similar to a tithe. The Old Testament tithe was not even really about money, which is nearly always the emphasis for modern church stewardship campaigns. It was primarily about giving a tenth of what was mostly agricultural yield in support of the Levites who had no land of their own.

And no doubt, some in the early church gave much more than a tenth of their income for both church needs and for charity, but also many probably gave a lesser percentage.

In fact, while there is much about generosity in the New Testament (and the Old Testament), there is no reference to regular offerings as practiced in today’s church at all (although don’t misread me to think that I’m opposed to regular offerings as we have each week; I’ll address this below).

The earliest reference in church literature to a regularly taken offering comes not from the Bible, but from the Didache (probably early second century) which reads: “As for money and clothes and any other possessions, take the first fruit that seems right to you and give in accordance with the commandment” (Did 13:7). Note that “seems right to you” echoes 2 Cor 9:7: "Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver" (HCSB, emphasis added). Note carefully that there is no percentage model given.

4. Often the idea of a church "tithe" results in church members giving less.
This happens in two ways. I've heard one prominent Christian financial guru say, "If you can't live on 90%, you can't live on 100%. Well, that's probably true most of the time, but certainly if the household income is $3,000 a month it's easier to live on $2700 than to live on $900 when one's income is only $1,000 a month.

I've seen low-income believers give very generously in my lifetime. I've seen people who ought to be receiving help from the church, give sacrificially. In Mark 12:42, Jesus praises the widow who gives a 100% offering.

YetI've also seen a different scenario in which for people in desperate financial situations see the tithe as nothing but one more burden in their lives. I've known people, who knowing they couldn't give ten percent of their income, simply give nothing at all. I was in a situation similar to this many years ago. I had so many bills and expenses that I didn't feel like I could reach the 10% my church was teaching. So, knowing my inability to meet that goal, I simply gave up and gave nothing at all for a period of months. Then, I heard a financial speaker at our church say, "If you can't give 10%, give something." Suddenly, "giving something" was endorsed from the pulpit, and I knew I could do that. So, before the next Sunday, I sat down to write an offering check. I intended to write out the check for $25 because I knew that was a good manageable beginning. But instead of writing $25, my hand wrote out $50, which was a bit of a risk to me at the time, but something I felt I could trust God with. From that small start, I was able to begin giving to the church again and eventually go beyond that amount.

I've seen the opposite happen, also. I've seen people for whom giving 10% is nothing. They would have to give much more than that for the gift to come anywhere close to being sacrificial. But they give only 10% because that has been taught to them as their Christian obligation. Supposedly, if they give 10%, they're in good standing with the church and with God. But this may actually be very far from the truth.

With either scenario, blind allegiance to the idea of a tithe in our churches keeps us from receiving the offering amounts than we're capable of as a whole.

5. The emphasis on a church tithe promotes legalism.
Most of the churches with which I'm most familiar  would quickly tell their members and the community at large that they preach the grace of Jesus Christ. Yet beyond this grace are little pockets of works and legalism. If it's promoted that good standing equals a tithe, this is legalism, plain and simple. If taking on a responsibility within the church such as teaching or some committee position or a role like deacon requires giving at least 10% of one's income, this is legalism by its very definition. And yet these same churches supposedly believe they promote God's grace in all areas. Sadly, they do not.

So what is an appropriate New Testament model?
A good friend of mine has written, “God owns 100%, not just 10%. We are accountable for how we use all his gifts for His glory,” and I agree. Ultimately this is true in both testaments (see Psalm 50:10 for foundation in the Old Testament) as true stewardship is not just about giving to the church, but also about (perhaps more about) what we do with (i.e. how we manage) what we “keep.”  Of course, the standard church stewardship committee never seems to discuss this part of the Christian financial obligation, even though it's probably a more significant issue.

Ultimately, there is no New Testament “policy” or “standard” given to the church on giving, but I do believe we can draw some solid principles.

The first principle is mentioned above—that 100% of what we have belongs to the Lord.

Paul says a lot about giving, especially in 1 & 2 Corinthians, but none of this can be called church “policy” or commands for standard practice. Everything Paul says to this subject in these letters was in the specific context of the offering he was collecting among the gentile Christians for the poor in Jerusalem.

Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 16:2 that “On the first day of the week, each of you is to set something aside and save to the extent that he prospers…” (HCSB) is in reference to this collection for the poor in Jerusalem. So, while we can’t call that policy given to the entire church, we can say that when the church has a reason for collecting funds (and a voted-on church budget surely counts!) this collection ought to be done regularly. Thus, we have a solid second biblical principle—that we can take up regular weekly offerings (but we can’t call it biblical command or policy to do so).

How much does one give?
The “cheerful giver” label in 2 Cor 9:7 is often touted as to what our response should be in giving to the church. I agree, but this, as evidenced in earlier points, has nothing to do with a tithe. The context here, too, had to do with Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem. But if we draw a third principle from his statement, we must surely read the whole verse: “You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. ‘For God loves a person who gives cheerfully’” (emphasis added, NLT).

What’s the principle here? We should give based upon our own convictions with no outside pressure and no set requirement (such as a tithe). And if we follow the principles of Paul, we must be willing at times to give sacrificially (he writes about this in 2 Corinthians especially) meaning we give more than what we can really afford to at times, trusting that God will provide for any shortfall in our personal budgets.

No doubt our churches suffer from members who give less than what they ought. But rather than hold that 10% mark over their heads, why not have members determine what percentage they are actually giving and encourage a 1% increase every year? That will inevitably reach its own limits after a while, but it won't hold an artificial mark of spirituality over anyone's head or prevent someone from giving beyond this artificial mark.

So there’s my little theology of giving to the church. It has nothing to do with tithing, it’s not legalistic, and I certainly believe it reflects biblical principles. And honestly, I believe that if it was fully taught, we’d never have trouble meeting budget.

If we're to have traditions, let's recognize them as such.
Now, it may be that a particular body of believers gets together and decides that 10% is a good measure of what a their members ought to give as a minimum. But let's not be all pious about it and resort to the kind of spiritual manipulation that I often hear such as "To be a Christian in good standing with God and the church, you must be giving at least 10% of your income." No, let's call this what it is: tradition. As I said, I'm not opposed to tradition if we can acknowledge it for what it is. Let's just not dress it up in Bible verses taken out of context and call it something that it's not.

As always, your comments, thoughts, questions and rebuttals are welcome below.

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Reader Comments (16)

A very good, well presented post. As a Baptist (SBC) myself, I can honestly say that I have heard the Tithing sermon more than any other. One third of our church budget goes to staff salaries, and probably 25% goes to facilites, so the collecting of money (no cows yet) goes to perpetuate the institution (everybody likes the clean sanctuary with air conditioning and awesome powerpoint). So my guess is they will keep on preaching it, especially if offerings fall off. Maybe that's why our outreach focuses mainly on middle class couples with children.

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Great article! Often people approach tithing wondering how little they have to give to meet the standard - that's like asking how close I can come to sinning without sinning: it's the wrong perspective. In addition to what you have above, I think there are three things that I think are helpful in building a correct perspective:

1) With the disestablishment of state churches most churches are not receiving income from the state or taxes. Ministers are often trained professionals who could be doing something more lucrative. Knowing that we are not just giving away money for the church to fritter away but rather investing in an institution that we believe in helps. Also, knowing that this money goes to further ministry, mission, and mercy helps.

2) Tithing is a spiritual discipline. It acknowledges Jesus as Lord even of our money and forces us to trust Him for our daily bread. Just as observing a sabbath declares that 6 days with Jesus is more productive than 7 days without, so tithing declares that the Lord can multiply 90% (or less) just as he did with the loves and fishes.

3) I don't think the church can ask anything of its people that the church itself is not willing to do. I am blessed to be at a church where 10% of the church income is given as a tithe to mission and mercy at the denominational level.

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob Kuo


Great stuff, especially in establishing proper context of tithing. I was about to ask a question when I noticed you anticipated it toward your conclusion, about 10% being a good starting point as merely a "tradition."

It seems to me that while you're not willing to state a % that it appears to be there in a seminal form. What do I mean? Well, your suggestion a 1% annual increase in our giving.

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterT.C. R

Sure. It's also an attempt to meet people where they are. Let's put aside those in poverty a moment. Let's focus on the the average middle or upper class church member. Most of these folks could be giving more, and statistics would show most aren't even giving the 10% that is legalistically preached so often. Most give around 2% of their income (the Islamic requirement, by the way). I have no problems with churches encouraging giving, but rather they should encourage it in non-legalistic ways. Why not say, "If you're giving 2%, aim for 3%"? "If you're giving 14%, aim for 15% next year."

Honestly, I don't think the percentage matters. But people think in those terms. It's also easier to give when done in habit. I set a budget every month for our income. I'm not certain exactly what percentage we're at, and I don't really care, but I have a set amount and every so often we raise that amount and try not to lower it, although sometimes we need to temporarily.

We also need to be ready to give at other times in terms of both our abilities and resources. We have to work on that "cheerful giver" inside of all of us and become not only that, but also a "ready giver."

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

Thanks Rick, this is thoughtful and insightful. I've also had a pastor encourage us to give what we can and consider increasing by 1% a year. I think it's a good way to help people think about giving.

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Bartlett

|"...I have no problems with churches encouraging giving, but rather they should encourage it in non-legalistic ways. Why not say, “If you’re giving 2%, aim for 3%”? “If you’re giving 14%, aim for 15% next year.”|


I'm with you on this. Yes, restructuring our presentations on giving around grace-giving is what we need. I like this balanced approach you've put forth.

|We also need to be ready to give at other times in terms of both our abilities and resources. We have to work on that “cheerful giver” inside of all of us and become not only that, but also a “ready giver.”|

But it's going to be difficult to change the rhetoric.

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterT.C. R

Great post and I agree with each point. Have said much the same thing when teaching, but never articulated it so well. The fact that Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek predates the Mosaic law is often brought up as a reason that the tithe has some sort of "eternal" application that supercedes the law. Care to expand on the whole Melchizedek thing?

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark Allison

Rick, terrific post! I have long disavowed the notion of "tithing" being a mandate for today's church, while wholeheartily agreeing that people should give whatever they are able and prompted by the Spirit to give, be it 1%, 10%, or 90%. If we actually let God control our checkbooks rather than traditional and unbiblical doctrine, then I believe we would never need to worry for the church's financial affairs... Especially if we follow the *real* New Testament model of making sure our fellow brothers and sisters are taken care of whenever there is need.

I wish preachers would focus less on something that's never commanded in the NT, and instead speak on something that *is* commanded but rarely followed: "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another." (Romans 13:8 NIV) If we Christians would make a more concerted effort to free ourselves of the consumer debt that many of us are sinking in, and maybe even help each other to do so, then we would have that much more to be generous and support the church with -- a "win-win" all around!

Peace, Paul

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Peterson

Rick, it's good to see that on this issue I, an Anglican, am in agreement with a southern Baptist!

Abundant generosity is a gospel value; the moment we start asking 'How much should I give?' we're missing the point. If the Holy Spirit was really transforming us on the inside, generous giving (of time, money, talents etc.) would be our greatest joy. To reduce that sort of abundant living to an issue of percentages is a travesty. No, I'm not there yet (at the life of abundant generosity, I mean), but I'm praying to get closer to it day by day.

May 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim Chesterton

Thanks again, Rick! I think that "Grace Giving" needs to be understood. It gives us the freedom to be even more generous when a need presents itself. Bravo!

May 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJosephus

Great post! Preaching should aim at exhorting Christians to be more gracious in every way, not just finances. More grace filled Christians will naturally be more generous when giving.

May 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

Thanks Rick for your blog article on exactly what scripture states about giving. A college friend of yours (who is a member of my church) recommended your blog.
Our church went through a turbulent season a couple of years ago over a couple of people's legalistic approach to a tithing requirement. You hit it on the nose when you stated it promotes legalism. I believe it does promoted it because there are legalists who propagate this thinking within the church. Thanks for speaking truth!

May 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterReid

I was reading the notes in the MacArthur Study Bible a couple of weeks ago on this issue where he wrote something to the effect of the OT tithe would equate to the NT command to pay our taxes (Ro. 13.7). I definitely had never considered that possibility before. (Sorry I can't give an exact quote, I don't have the MSB w/me now).

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark Bass

Mark, I think that's exactly right. The OT tithe also went to the infrastructure of the Israelite theocracy. Paying US taxes and a full tenth of one's income is much greater than what the Israelites gave on average.

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

Oh thank goodness, a sensible Biblical view of 'giving'. God bless you for your courage.

I was born again 12 years ago. I was struggling to make ends meet, but hearing that if I didn't give God 10% I was stealing from him I struggled but gladly put in £10 every week, which meant I only had £90 a week to live on, after morgage and taxes I literally had no money to buy food, and yet I still faithfully gave my £10 a week, which I have to say I know was looked down on. I sat and watched as the leadership gave food packages out to people I know weren't struggling. (because they were generous givers or Bible students and therefore deserved to be blessed)

My boiler broke down and I prayed reminding God that I gave gladly, I needed £100 to fix it. A member of the church called and made a big thing about God telling her to bless me, she gave me £50. I was still short, God told me He had tried, but in the hardness of their hearts people wouldn't give to me! (A few years later that same church member told me how God had told her to give me £100 but she felt that was too much, what on earth could I want that much money for? So I heard correctly, God had tried to get the money to me.)
My parents fed me that week and my mum gave me the money I was short, even though she couldn't afford it (their pension fund was stripped by the managers)

Ironically, my faith and my 'positive confession' made people think I was rich, and caused a road block when God told them to give to me, inspite of my faithful, cheerful tithing!

Finally, in desperation I sought the Lord on tithing. Why was it I literally had no money to buy food, surely God didn't want that. I truly believe that he showed me through the scripture exactly what you have said. I stopped giving the pastor £10 a week to put petrol in his BMW and fed myself instead.

I actually believe the Lord said, teaching tithing 10%, as you have said, limits many who should be giving far more, it's clear in Corinthians that Paul taught on looking after each other, that none should lack. Like you I agree we should make sure the church bills are paid, but it may be that God leads you to give somewhere else or to someone else, or even use the funds to do something yourself, projects that God wants supported, but that church leadership fail to recognise.

Since freeing myself of the legalism of tithing, I have bought Bibles, supported evangelists, all sorts as God leads, sometimes with my last penny and always cheerfully. But now, if I have no money to give for a week or several months to do anything other than support myself, that's what's I do, and I am after all, fulfilling the command to owe no man. Plus people forget that tithing was an annual thing anyway. The only debt I have now is my morgage, and I am believing God that I will be able to pay that off very soon. Then I'll be able to sow my morgage payments!

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

Mark Allison, I'm not Rick, but I'd like to respond to what you said. I think the difference between the Levitical and the Melchizedek orders in regard to 'tithing,' is that Abraham 'gave' his tithe (Hebrews 7:4), whereas Levi 'paid' his tithe (Hebrews 7:9).

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMilt

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