Today we begin a new series where I try to tackle some of the questions and topics that have been suggested by you. I want to thank everyone for their input, and I apologize in advance that I won’t be able to address everything that was submitted. I also apologize inasmuch as I fail to address the question or topic in the way that was originally intended – that is, if I’ve failed to properly identify the intent or main point of the original question. Indeed, how I address some of these will likely reflect my own biases and interests more than they reflect those of the original questioner.
Nevertheless, I hope that this endeavour will be helpful to everyone. And I hope that it’s a reminder, among other things, that we try to tackle these things in community, as a community. And what I mean is that the questions that we have, the interests that we pursue, are not isolated within ourselves. Rather, inasmuch as we share them with others and tackle them together, I hope that we will help and encourage one another.
The question that we are looking at today was submitted as follows:
“Tithing in general. What does it mean? What does scripture say about it? Why tithe?”
Now right off the bat, we should acknowledge that tithing is (more or less) a technical term that refers to the giving of one-tenth. And this is related to, but distinct from, offerings more broadly speaking. That is, one’s offering may be a tithe, but it’s not necessarily so. So the question may be referring to tithing specifically, but it may be referring to offerings generally speaking.
Furthermore, we should recognize that offerings has a specific context within Israel’s sacrificial system. Basically, what I mean is that offerings has a particular place and function within the worship of God.
With that much said, in thinking about it today, I’m going to look at some of the specific things that scripture has to say about tithing, but we’re going to keep in mind the practice of offerings, or sacrifice, or giving to God in a more general way.
I want to begin with what scripture has to say. However, for better or for worse, there’s an awful lot that scripture has to say about all of this. Today, I just want to highlight a few of these passages that I hope will help us develop a little bit of a framework in thinking about the question.
So firstly, let’s begin with Genesis 4. This is the story of Cain and Abel. As we are probably familiar, the story of Cain and Abel begins with the two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve, who each give an offering to God. Abel’s is determined to be acceptable while Cain’s is not. In a fit of jealousy and anger, Cain murders his brother Abel. Now what’s important for our purposes is that, again, this is all precipitated by the sacrifices or offerings of the two brothers. We read:
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”Genesis 4:2b – 7
Now we are not doing a study of this narrative today. I simply want to point out that, right from the very beginning, offerings are a part of human beings’ relationship to God. Now some have argued that Cain’s offering was rejected because his was an offering of produce, and not blood; whereas Abel’s offering was acceptable because his was an offering of animals (i.e. of blood). However, though the text is not explicit, it seems evident that the acceptability of the offering had primarily to do with the attitude of each brother’s heart. And what I want to suggest – and this is purely an assumption on my part – is that Abel’s had a heart of thanksgiving and humility before God, whereas Cain’s was only concerned about obligation and recognition (again, this is not at all in the text).
Moving on, the first specific mention of a tithe that we see in the biblical text occurs in Genesis, when Abraham (here, Abram) rescues his nephew Lot from foreign kings. After Abram’s victory, he encounters Melchizidek, described as “priest of God Most High”:
17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20 And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.Genesis 14: 17-20
Again, without digging into this text, what we see is that Abram’s response to the priest of God Most High, and his response to the blessing of this priest (which is presumably a blessing from God) is to give a tenth of everything.
We see this same principle repeated in the account of Abraham’s descendent, Jacob. In Genesis 28, after cheating his brother Esau out of his father Isaac’s blessing, Jacob flees his brother’s wrath. While on his journey, Jacob has a dream, in which God speaks to him. The passage reads:
13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”Genesis 28: 13-15
And what’s important for our purposes:
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, d though the city used to be called Luz.
20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”Genesis 28: 16-22
So in short, God affirms His covenant with Abraham in the life of Jacob. And Jacob’s response is to commit himself to God: “The Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
Here, Jacob recognizes that giving a tenth (of what God has given to him) is an appropriate response of fealty and faithfulness to God.
Now as we move into the post-patriarchal period, specifically to the Law, we know that there are a lot of texts regarding sacrifices (animal, and otherwise, and for a variety of purposes). However, we also see numerous references to tithing in particular.
In Deuteronomy, we read that tithing, again, is tied to worship. We read that the Israelites are commanded to be set apart from the peoples around them. And inasmuch as their identity is tied to the fulfillment of God’s promises, tithing is tied to both the worship of God (YHWH) and the promises fulfilled in Him. We read:
4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. 5 But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; 6 there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. 7 There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.
8 You are not to do as we do here today, everyone doing as they see fit, 9 since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance the Lord your God is giving you. 10 But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety. 11 Then to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name—there you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to the Lord. 12 And there rejoice before the Lord your God—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites from your towns who have no allotment or inheritance of their own. 13 Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. 14 Offer them only at the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you.Deuteronomy 12: 4-14
Now Deuteronomy has much more to say about tithes and offerings, but I want to quickly take a look at only one more passage – and this picks up a different theme regarding tithes:
22 Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. 23 Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always. 24 But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), 25 then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. 26 Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice. 27 And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.
28 At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.Deuteronomy 14: 22-29
Now this is interesting because it extends the notion of tithing from something that is given to God (out of thanksgiving) to something that is used for the benefit of others. You may remember that the responsibility to care for foreigners, orphans, and widows is a theme that is pervasive throughout the Old Testament (it’s also obviously in the NT, but the motif is repeated throughout the OT).
And again, I’m short-handing and possibly making some assumptions here, but it seems reasonable to assume that worship and thanksgiving to God (i.e. for what we have or what we’ve been given) logically extends to care for those whom God loves (widows, orphans, and foreigners, among others).
Of course there’s much more to say about all of this and the topic is taken up in numerous other places in the Old Testament. However, I want to move on and consider a couple of aspects of how it is dealt with in the New Testament. There is an extent to which the practice (and presumably doctrine) of tithing and offerings is well-established by the time of the New Testament and therefore it is not much dealt with directly in terms of the NT teachings. One notable place is in Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ rebuking the religious leaders:
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.Matthew 23:23-24
Now this is interesting because of the way Jesus’ criticism emphasizes the elements that we just reviewed in Deuteronomy. That is, the religious leaders are great at looking after themselves – at doing what they have to do, what they’ll get credit for – but in doing so have ignored the widows, the foreigners, and the orphans. Here, Jesus seems to underline the principle that giving to God has (or should have) kingdom consequences.
Paul doesn’t deal with tithing per se, but he talks about giving on numerous occasions. Specifically, he seems to be talking about giving as a way to support or further the work of the kingdom. One of the circumstances Paul addresses is similar to what we have just been talking about. That is, giving for the sake of those less fortunate. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the collection for the Lord’s people:
1 Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.1 Corinthians 16: 1-2
Now this is a circumstance which Paul seems to be addressing in numerous places in his letters. And while the specific details are lost to us, the general gist seems to be that there is a expectation and assumption that those who have more will give to support and encourage those who have less.
In addition to this, in numerous places, Paul also talks about the financial support of his own ministry and (presumably) that of the other apostles or missionaries. For example, earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul says:
7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.1 Corinthians 9: 7-14
Here, it seems relatively clear that the practice of supporting apostles and others seems reasonably well-established. It seems that Paul has not asked or expected that of the Corinthians, but it seems that it would be considered reasonable to do so.
But having said that, it is likely that Paul has sometimes in fact accepted such support. In Philippians, Paul says:
15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.Philippians 4: 15-16
Now again, there is more to consider from the New Testament, especially when we expand our scope to the more general practice of giving. But lest we go on forever, it might now be a good time to try to draw some conclusions.
Firstly, what I would suggest is that tithing is rooted in relationship.
This substance of this relationship is that between a Sovereign God and a beloved subject.
Which is to say, at least in part, that unlike sacrifices in other paradigms, sacrifice or offering is precipitated neither by fear nor bargaining. We are not trying to placate an angry God, nor are we trying to coerce an unmotivated God.
Because God loves His people, He pours out blessings upon us. In spite of our sin, He ensures that our needs are taken care of. And the appropriate response of the subject is thanksgiving to the Sovereign.
All the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. So all we have is from Him, because of His great mercy and lovingkindness.
Therefore, the expression of this relationship is thankfulness and trust and has as its context worship. It’s here that the practice of sacrifice, offerings, and tithing is located. However, it would be wrong to assume that because it’s located here (in worship) that it is likewise limited to here.
But in the same way that worship has its place – at least from one point of view – as properly orienting our worldview, so presenting our offerings to God is an appropriate part of worship.
The other aspect of tithing or offering is that in a sense, we participate in God’s sovereign (Kingdom) work. That is to say, throughout both the OT and the NT texts, what we see is that the tithes and offerings given to God are to be used for the sake of the kingdom. In the OT, one such use as we’ve seen is for the sake of widows, foreigners, and orphans. But another use is the support of the Levites. The Levites, you may remember, were the priestly tribe of Israel. Unlike the other tribes, they did not receive a portion of the land of Canaan for their inheritance, but were supported through offerings.
It is this that may underlie what we see in Paul’s writings regarding the support of the workers of Christ (i.e. apostles, missionaries, etc.). And, of course, we’ve already seen how there was an understanding that those who were more fortunate would help support those who were less fortunate.
All of that to say that there seems to be a distinctly practical element to the giving of tithes and offerings. And the underlying purpose is that the people of God participate in the purposes of God by giving to God what was given by God.
Now I feel like I should say something here about our practices here at Grace.
We don’t take an offering here at Grace during our worship time. And I actually think we should (more or less) because it is an appropriate act of worship. However, if my understanding is correct, at some point it was decided to remove it from our liturgy because of the negative connotations that are attributed to churches regarding asking for money. Therefore, we have chosen to make it a, “whatever you decide to give, give in secret,” which also has biblical precedent.
So what I would be inclined to say, in conclusion, is that you should give what and how God has laid it on your heart to give. That is, it should be between you and God. But with that said, we should not lose sight of the fact that giving – offering and tithing – have real significance that extends beyond myself. We should each treat giving as an act of worship and thanksgiving, trusting that God will use these gifts for the good of His kingdom. Though it may not always be obvious, and though there are (most unfortunately) those who will abuse and misuse others’ generosity, our giving can be a real participation in the kingdom work of God. So we have both gone through a lot of material and not covered nearly enough. But I hope that what we have reviewed can be an encouragement to you. And regardless of how you decide to practice this spiritual discipline, I hope and trust that God will lead you along His paths.