Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian's Conclusions
about a Taboo Doctrine
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
A SERMON ON TITHING, JOHN PIPER, 1982
JOHN PIPER, 1982
FEBRUARY 10, 2015
Since my original appraisal
of John Piper as a supporter of grace giving, I am forced to conclude that he indeed teaches tithing. In fact he teaches both
directions; he speaks two different directions. In my opinion that is worst than not taking any stand. In You Tube he
teaches children to give their first ten percent, their firstfruits, to the church. God's Word never equates tithes with
firstfruits and Piper should know better.
I Seek Not What Is Yours but You
Original Comment by Russell
Earl Kelly, PH. D.: Piper, like myself, teaches that most Christians can and should disregard any mention of a fixed percentage
of giving and give much more than those who gave a tithe in the Old Testament. Piper correctly points out
that OT tithes were only from food. He does not discuss the fact that those who earned their livelihood from crafts and trades
were never required to tithe and that the poor were never required to tithe.
Does Piper teach that Christians should tithe? Yes and No. Does Piper
teach that many Christians should give much more than a tithe because of missionary needs? Yes. Does Piper teach that even
the poor and sick should begin their giving level at ten per cent? I personally do not read this interpretation into Piper’s
intentions. [Definitely yes.]
on Tithing, John Piper
January 24, 1982
2 Corinthians 12:15; And so as I pondered the possibility of preaching
on tithing, the text that lay closest to hand was in the verse just before the words, "I will most gladly spend and be
spent for your souls." In verse 14 Paul says, to the church at Corinth, "Here for the third time I am ready
to come to you. And I will not be a burden for I seek not what is yours but you." I seek not what is yours but you! What
a great sentence. That is the flag waving over this sermon. It is the preface, heart and conclusion. I seek not what is yours,
but you. I seek to build up a church of whom it can never be said, "They honor me with their tithes [[MISQUOTED:
lips]] , but their heart is far from me" (cf. Matt. 15:8). Of whom it will never be said, "Woe to you, Bethlehem, for you tithe every honorarium, birthday gifts
and before-taxes-income, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith" (Matt. 23:23). I seek not what is yours but
How many marriages deteriorate into empty motions because husbands do not hear the silent yearnings of the
wife: "I don't want your money, I want you." How many parents have lost their children because they failed to
interpret the signs: "I don't want your presents, Daddy, I want you." And how many tithing churchgoers will
be lost to the kingdom because the word of God never reached their hearts: "I will seek not what is yours but you."
So let there be no mistaking it, in this sermon on tithing I seek not what is yours but you. My desire is to spend and be
spent out for your souls not your silver. Things are utterly subordinate. Life essential is the life of the heart.
What I would like to do then is get before us an overview of the Old Testament and New Testament teaching about tithing
and then draw some implications for how people today who have first given themselves wholly to God should then give of their
possessions to the work of God. You may want to look up the passages with me or jot them down for later perusal.
The oldest reference to tithing in the Bible is found in Genesis 14 where Abraham pursues a king named Chedorlaomer to rescue
his kinsman Lot who had been captured. With
300 armed men Abraham defeats Chedorlaomer and not only saves Lot, but regains all the goods stolen from Sodom. On the way back a mysterious figure named Melchizedek, called priest of the Most High God in verse
18, met Abraham and blessed him. Verse 20 simply says, "And Abraham gave him a tenth of everything." There is
no command in the later Mosaic Law or anywhere in Scripture that men are to give one tenth of their captured booty to the
priest. But Abram did it, evidently as a token of gratitude to God who had just given him such a great victory. So our
first encounter with tithing is one where the giver is not paying God to stir him into action, but one where the giver
is responding to God who has just fought for him and given him victory and great blessing. That is a pattern we must not
The next time we hear of tithing is in Genesis 28:22. Abraham's grandson, Jacob, had a dream at Bethel in which God promised to be
with him and give him a great land and many descendants (Genesis 28:13-15). Jacob responds with a vow in verses 20-22 which
climaxes with this promise: "And of all thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee." Notice well that Jacob recognizes
everything that he has disposal of as a gift from God. Therefore, his tithe is not really something he has produced that he
then transfers over to God's possession. Instead the tithe seems to be a symbolic statement that all we have is from God
and that we do not count it our own. It is all at God's disposal and we signify that by letting a tenth of it go completely
out of our control for some uniquely religious purpose. Surely Jacob did not mean that since God gave him everything therefore
he would glorify God with a tenth, but not with nine-tenths. Surely if God gives us anything it is for us to handle in trust
for his glory. Giving a tenth to him in a burnt offering, or the service of the temple or the like is a token, a pledge
that all we are and have are at his disposal all the time.
At the time of Moses, tithing was made part of the
law which governed the people of Israel. There are two key texts. The first is Leviticus 27:30-33. "All the tithe of the land, whether of the seed
of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord's. It is holy to the Lord. If a man wishes to redeem any of his
tithe, he shall add a fifth to it. And all the tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal that passes under the herdsman's
staff shall be holy to the Lord." Here the law made explicit what is to be tithed: namely, the produce of the field—grain,
and the produce of the trees—fruit, and the herds and flocks.
In Deuteronomy 14:22-29 some instruction is
given as to how to give the tithe and what it is for.
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed which comes forth
from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place which he will choose, to make his name dwell there
(Jerusalem), you shall
eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herd and flock; that you may learn to
fear the Lord your God always. And if the way is too long for you so that you are not able to bring the tithe, when the Lord
your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses to set his name there, then you
shall turn it into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses, and spend
the money for whatever you desire, oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves; and you shall eat
there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not forsake the Levite who is within your
towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
At the end of every three years you shall bring forth all
the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns; and the Levite because he has no portion or inheritance
with you, and the sojourner and the fatherless and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled;
that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
Let me make six brief observations
from this passage about the practice and purpose of tithing.
First, according to verse 23, there was to be a yearly
trip to the holy place, the place God puts his name (later Jerusalem). The people were to take their tithe to that place and then eat it there, or at
least eat part of it in a feast of joy. Tithing was not to be reduced merely to the pragmatic function of paying the priests
and sustaining the temple. It was an expression of joy and gratitude. God did not need the tithe. In commanding it, he
was seeking not what was theirs but them.
So the second observation at the end of verse 23 is that the purpose
of the tithing feast was "that you may learn to fear the Lord your God." Take a tenth of your year's produce,
go to the holy place, offer it to the Lord, eat it (or part of it) to his glory in gratitude "that you may learn to fear
him." Tithing was a means of remembering how dependent they were on God and how much one should fear to displease such
a God by joyless ingratitude.
Third provision was made for those whose grain was too heavy and flocks too many
to take them all the way to the holy place. They could sell them and then use the money to purchase substitutes when they
arrived in the holy place. Fourth, the tithe is not to be totally consumed by the family bringing it. The Levites who were
scattered through the tribes of Israel with no land of their own were to be supported by the tithers of the other 11 tribes (v. 27). The Levites were
set apart for special religious purposes and had no crops or herds [[WRONG]]. The tithe was given to God not only in the
sense that it was eaten in a feast celebration of his faithfulness (cf. 'blessing" in v. 24), but also in the sense
that part of it supported God's institution of the Levitical order.
Fifth, verses 28 and 29 describe a triennial
tithe which was designed not only to support the Levites, but also the three most helpless groups of people in that society:
the refugees, the orphans, and the widows. It seems that a sort of benevolent fund was replenished every three years for the
needs of these people, by the calling in of a special tithe.
Finally, the section closes with a promise of blessing
on the people if they are faithful in this act of mercy to men and gratitude to God. And this is a good place to remind ourselves
of two things. One is that the way most tithes were "given to God" was by giving them to people [GOOD]. God
cannot be enriched by us. He has no needs that our possessions can satisfy. But he can be honored by the way we treat others
in his name by special acts which celebrate his bounty and by our willingness to trust him to supply all our needs when we
***And the other thing
we must remember is that God always honors people who tithe from a good heart of faith. The promise is not to make us
rich, but it is this: those who love and trust God enough to honor him with at least a tithe will never lack the resources
they need. I believe that is still true today.
Two other important passages on tithing in the Old Testament
are Numbers 18:21-24 and 2 Chronicles 31:4-18
which I won't read for lack of time. But the point of both is that the tithes are especially for the Levites. Numbers
18:24 says, "The tithe of the people of Israel
which they present as an offering to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance." And 2 Chron. 31:4 says
that Hezekiah, "commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, that they might give themselves
to the law of the Lord." Thus, tithing was God's prescribed way of supporting certain ministries which he had
In summary, then from the Old Testament tithing goes back to the very beginning of Israel's
history before the law was given and seems to have been an expression of gratitude to the Lord who fights for his people
and gives them all they have. Then as a part of the Mosaic law, tithing was made a part of Israel's formal worship and its various forms and purposes were prescribed. It was used to support
religious orders; it was used for religious feasting in celebration of God's goodness; and it taught the people to fear
the Lord, that is, to fear not trusting him to meet all their needs.
As we come over to the New Testament the picture changes significantly. Jesus mentions tithing twice, both
times in reference to its legalistic abuse. He says in Matt. 23:23, "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill
and cummin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith; these you ought to have done without
neglecting the others." In Luke 18:9-14, "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they
were righteous and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust,
adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.'"
Jesus did not regard tithing as a spiritual cure all. He does not reject it. He affirmed it for Israel.
But he is much more intent on the weightier matters of the law like faith. You can tithe everything and not trust God. Jesus
was not seeking what was theirs, he was seeking them: the love of their soul, not the load of their silver.
apostle Paul never once even refers to tithing. Whether he taught his churches to tithe when he founded them we don't
know. But his rules in his letters seem to be as follows. First: "On the first day of the week each of you is to
put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper" (1 Cor. 16:2). And second in 2 Cor. 8:3, "they gave according
to their means and beyond their means of their own accord." And third in 2 Cor. 9:7, "Each one must do as he has
made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." And finally 2 Cor. 9:8, "God
is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide
in abundance for every good work."
The only other place in the New Testament where tithing is mentioned is
Hebrews 7:4-12 where the reference is back to Genesis 14 and the point is simply to show that Christ is like Melchizedek.
Therefore, with regard to positive, explicit teaching on tithing, the New Testament is almost totally silent.
I have a growing conviction why this is the case. I think God took the focus OFF giving a tithe in the early church because
he wants his people to ask themselves a new question. The question that Jesus drives us to ask again and again is not,
"How much should I give?" but rather, "How much dare I keep?" One of the differences between the Old Testament
and New Testament is the Great Commission. By and large the Old Testament people of God were not a missionary people. But
the New Testament Church is fundamentally a missionary people.
The spiritual hope and the physical and emotional sustenance that Jesus brought to earth is to be extended by his church to
the whole world. The task he gave us is so immense and requires such a stupendous investment of commitment and money that
the thought of settling the issue of what we give by a fixed percentage (like a tenth) is simply out of the question.
My own conviction is that most middle and upper class Americans who merely tithe are robbing God. In a world where
10,000 people a day starve to death and many more than that are perishing in unbelief the question is not, what percentage
must I give?, but how much dare I spend on myself?
It is a Biblical truth beyond all dispute: that all your
money is God's (Ps. 24:1) and has been loaned to you as a steward to use in ways that maximize the glorification of God's
mercy in the world (Matt. 25:14-30). And it is irrational to think that giving ten percent of that money to the church
settles the issue of good stewardship. In a world of such immense need, and in a country of such immense luxury, and under
the commission of such a powerful Lord the issue of stewardship is not: Shall I tithe?, but rather, How much of God's
trust fund dare I use to surround myself with comforts?
I had every intention, as I began to write this
message, to argue that even though the New Testament is almost silent on tithing; yet, surely we who know Jesus should
do no less than the Old Testament saints who did not know him.
***I was going to urge
everyone to tithe and give reasons why you can always afford it. I still believe that is true.
But that is not the lightning
bolt of God's word in the New Testament. The word of God is always more radical than percentage.
commend tithing as the ideal simply does not capture the New Testament view of discipleship. "He who has two coats let
him share with him who has none. And he who has food let him do likewise" (Luke 3:11). That's 50% not 10%. Zacchaeus stood and said, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I
give to the poor" (Luke 19:8). Again 50%. Jesus said to the rich young man, "If you would be perfect, go sell what
you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me" (Matt. 19:21). That's 100%. "So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce
all that he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33). Again 100%. "A man said to him, 'I will follow you wherever you go.' And Jesus said
to him, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head'" (Luke
9:57f). "All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed
them to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:44f). "There was not a needy person among them for as many as were possessors
of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet" (Acts 4:34f).
"In a severe test of affliction their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality
on their part. For they gave according to their means... and beyond their means" (2 Cor. 8:2,3).
way that I know how to capture the spirit of the New Testament generosity is simply to say: the issue is not, How much must
I give?, but How much dare I keep? Not: Shall I tithe? But: How much of the money that I hold in trust for Christ can I take
for my private use? The financial issue in the church today is not tithing, but exorbitance of life-style. The question
is not can I afford to tithe, but can I justify the life-style that consumes 90% of my income? And behind that is the
question: Do I love to use God's money to spread justice and mercy and spiritual hope in the world, or do I prefer to
embezzle his money to purchase more and more personal comfort? The question whether the work of Christ here at Bethlehem in 1982 will be adequately supported is really
the question of where your treasure is. And where your treasure is there is your heart. Therefore, I do not seek what is yours
but you. Amen.