The question before us is not whether Christians are responsible to be generous with their wealth in giving back a portion of it to support the work of the ministry. 2 Corinthians 8-9, as well as other texts, make it quite clear that we are. The question, rather, is whether New Covenant Christians are biblically and morally obligated to give according to Old Covenant laws. The question is not whether Christians are free to tithe of their income. Certainly, they are. The question is whether Christians are obligated to tithe of their income. Does the Bible legislate to believers under the New Covenant a specific percentage of their income that they are to give?
A. The Secular, Extra-biblical Tithe
In ancient times tithing was not restricted to religious people, such as the nation Israel. Giving a portion of one's income either to a pagan deity or to the governing authority was a widespread custom. One need only read Genesis 47:24 where the Egyptians were required to pay 20% of their harvest to Pharaoh. Other extra-biblical documents indicate that tithing was commonly practiced throughout the ancient world among such people as the Syrians, Lydians, and Babylonians (see the discussion of this in the article on the "Tithe" in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, V:756).
B. The Pre-Mosaic Tithe
Was tithing a mandatory or even common practice among God's people prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law? There are two examples of pre-Mosaic tithing.
(1) We read in Genesis 14:18-20 that Abraham gave "a tenth of all" to Melchizedek. Personally, I am reluctant to appeal to the example of Abraham to justify contemporary tithing for the following reasons:
First, did Abraham tithe because of some divine mandate that was binding on all God's people at that time, or was it because he was following a common ancient near-eastern custom? We don't know. There is nothing in the OT which indicates that Abraham ever received divine or revelatory instructions concerning tithing. There is no command associated with this incident or any other evidence that would indicate that what Abraham did on this one occasion is binding and normative for all believers in every age.
Second, observe that Abraham tithed out of the spoils or booty of war (see the preceding context in Gen. 14:13-16; cf. also Heb. 7:4). Nothing is said about his tithing from his yearly income.
Third, to whom did Abraham pay this tithe? It was not to God, but to a man, Melchizedek.
Fourth, there is no evidence that Abraham ever tithed to anyone again. He may have, but we have no record of such activity and thus no way of knowing if this was a singular event or one example of a common practice.
Fifth, the only other reference to this incident is in Heb. 7. There the author is determined to prove the superiority of the New Covenant priesthood of Jesus Christ to the Old Covenant priesthood. He does this by proving the superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham. Remember, it was Abraham who paid a tithe to Melchizedek, not the other way around. It was Melchizedek who blessed Abraham, not the other way around. And as Hebrews 7:7 states, "the lesser is blessed by the greater." Our author then says that, in a certain sense, Levi also paid a tithe to Melchizedek because he was in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham when the incident recorded in Gen. 14 occurred. The point he is making is this: "Abraham was a great man indeed, . . . but in the account of his interview with Melchizedek, it is Melchizedek who appears as the greater of the two. And if Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, his priesthood must be greater than a priesthood which traces its descent from Abraham" (F. F. Bruce, 139-40). Therefore, Jesus, who is our high priest "according to the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 6:20), is greater than any and all priests of the order of Aaron and Levi. It is exegetically tenuous, then, to appeal to this text in defense of contemporary tithing.
(2) In Genesis 28:22 it is said that Jacob promised to give a tenth of all he had to God. Is this a solid biblical reason why we should?
First, note well that this is a vow made upon the condition that God would bless Jacob. This isn't the case of someone saying, "Tithe to God and God will bless you," but rather "God, you first bless me and then I will tithe to you."
Second, do we have good reason to believe that Jacob's act is to be taken as normative for all believers in every age? I might be willing to grant that we should follow Jacob's example if the rest of Scripture were silent on the subject of financial stewardship. In other words, if all we had on the subject of giving was the story of Jacob, perhaps then it would be wisdom to pattern our giving after his. But the New Testament is anything but silent on this subject, as our study of 2 Cor. 8-9 will reveal.
[We should remember that circumcision was also practiced by God's people prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law, yet no one would use this as grounds for mandating that ritual today.]
B. The Mosaic, or Old Covenant, Tithe
There is some dispute among OT scholars concerning how many tithes the children of Israel were required to pay. Some believe they paid nearly 22% of their income to the Lord every year! Let me summarize their argument:
First, according to Leviticus 27:30-33, 10% of all grain, cattle, fruit, etc. was to be set aside as a tithe to the Lord. We read:
"A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. The entire tithe of the herd and flock --- every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's rod --- will be holy to the Lord. He must not pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If he does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed."
Second, this tithe was to be given to the Levites. The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe from whom the priests were taken. Numbers 18:20-32 explains why they received the tithe. The relevant portion of that passage reads as follows:
"The Lord said to Aaron, 'You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites. I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting. . . . They [the Levites] will receive no inheritance among the Israelites. Instead, I give to the Levites as their inheritance the tithes that the Israelites present as an offering to the Lord. That is why I said concerning them: They will have no inheritance among the Israelites.' The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Levites and say to them: When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord's offering. . . . In this way you also will present an offering to the Lord from all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. From these tithes you must give the Lord's portion to Aaron the priest. You must present as the Lord's portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you."
Thus, it would appear that the first 10% of the Israelites' income was to be given to the Levites, who in turned tithed from that 10% (1%), giving it to the high priest.
Clearly, the Levites, or those who ministered in the tabernacle and Temple, were supposed to live off the tithes of the other eleven tribes. In 1 Corinthians 9:13-14, Paul says: "Do you not know that those who perform sacred services [in the temple] eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar [of sacrifice in the temple] have their share with the altar." Here Paul reminds the church that in the OT economy the Levites who worked in the Temple lived off the tithes brought to the Temple. Then he says in 9:14, "So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel." Paul's argument is that those who spend their lives ministering the Word of God should be supported by other Christians. To make his point, he draws attention to the way it was done in the OT. At minimum, Paul is saying that other believers are to financially support those in so-called "full-time ministry." Whether or not he is saying that they should do it by giving precisely 10% is less certain.
Third, according to Deuteronomy 14:22-27, some argue that a second tithe (or 10% of the remaining 90%, hence 9%) was to be taken once a year to Jerusalem, there to be consumed by a man and his family in a sacred feast or meal. If a person lived too far away to transport his tithe to Jerusalem, he was permitted to exchange his goods for silver. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he was to convert his cash back into cattle, sheep, wine, etc. (Deut. 14:24-26). If this is the correct interpretation, we now have Israelites paying 19% of their income in tithes. But there is more to come.
Fourth, according to Deut. 14:28-29, an additional (?) tithe of 10% was to be paid every third year. This tithe was to be given to the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless, and the widows. In other words, every third year the Israelite was to take an additional 10% from the remaining 81%. If my math is correct, this means that every year the Israelite was required to pay approximately 21.7% of his income in tithes to the Lord!
Others have objected to this interpretation, arguing that these passages in the OT all refer to the same tithe. It is only one tithe, 10%, to be used in different ways. In other words, 10% of one's yearly produce/income (Lev. 27) was to be taken to Jerusalem and consumed there (Deut. 14:22-27). Whatever was left over was to be given to the Levites (Num. 18:20-32). Every third year, however, the entire 10% was to be given to the Levites, the aliens, and to the orphans and widows. On this interpretation, the Israelite was required to pay only 10% a year.
Regardless of which view one takes, the important point to note is that the Israelite was required to pay his tithe. It was tantamount to a national income tax, That is why Malachi 3:6-12 speaks of those who did not pay their tithes as "robbing" God. In Israel, under the Mosaic Covenant, there was no such thing as separation of church and state. One's tithe was a "religious tax" designed to sustain the theocratic state of God's chosen people.
The New Testament twice (Matthew 23:23 [Lk. 11:42]; Luke 18:12) refers to people who were still living under and therefore morally obligated to obey the dictates of the Old, Mosaic Covenant. But these people were required to pay their tithes for the same reason they were required to bring a lamb for sacrifice and required to observe the civil code of Leviticus and required not to touch a dead body and required to obey all the legislation instituted by God in the covenant with Israel. On what grounds, then, do we say that the OT law concerning tithing is still binding on the conscience of New Covenant believers but its laws concerning other matters is not?
Galatians 6:6 also causes me to wonder: If tithing were a New Covenant law, why does Paul exhort the believers in Galatia: "Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches" (6:6)? Why didn't he simply say, "Pay your tithes"?
Is it permissible to tithe? Not only is it permissible, I would strongly recommend and urge you to do so. In choosing to give 10% of our income to the Lord, we are honoring a God-given, Old Testament principle. In the absence of a prescribed percentage for giving in the New Testament, why not adopt the Old Testament pattern? This does not mean you are sinning if you don't. To give only 8% or to give 12% is equally permissible. Not to give at all, or to give disproportionately to your income (which is the case with most Christians today), or to give grudgingly, is indeed sin. Let us be joyful and generous in our giving. After all, everything we own belongs to God anyway!