29. Secular History of Tithing

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From the book.

Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD

Video version of essay point 19: History of Tithing

The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that early church leaders did not even attempt to introduce tithing for at least 200 years after Calvary. During this period early church leaders preferred to be extremely poor and predominantly ascetic rather than be sustained by any elaborate system of tithes and offerings. It will be clearly seen that, not only did the inspired writers of the New Testament not teach tithing for the church, neither did those who immediately followed them as leaders of the churches.


The “church” was very far from being a united system for many ­ centuries. Competing centers of Christianity arose in Rome, Ephesus, Antioch of Syria, Jerusalem, Caesarea, and North Africa. After the barbarian invasions of the 4th century began, the Roman Empire moved its ­ capital city to Constantinople, where Constantine protected and assisted the church in Constantinople as the most wealthy and influential church for many years to come.


While most church historians will laugh at the thought, not only was tithing NOT a doctrine, it was very far from being discussed by the early church. The locations of the earliest church councils show that Rome was not dominant. The first council at Nicea in A.D. 326 was necessary to ­ discuss the deity of Christ; the second at Constantinople in A.D. 381 was necessary to discuss the deity and person of the Holy Spirit. This was ­ followed by Chalcedon (451); 2nd Constantinople (553); 3rd Constantinople (681); 2nd Nicea (787); 4th Constantinople (869) and, finally, the 1st Lateran Council in Rome in A.D. 1123.

Beginning around the middle of the third century, the tithe only had the authority of a “suggestion” in Cyprian’s small area of influence in North Africa. And Cyprian had no authority over other zones of the divided church. Tithing would not even become a local church law for over five hundred years after Calvary. The introduction of tithing emerged in direct proportion to the disintegration of the doctrine of the priesthood of believers and the emergence of the power of the bishop-priests.


New Testament doctrines concerning the church and giving experienced a drastic change from the end of the first apostolic century to the middle of the third century. The first stage of decline was the removal of spiritual gifts from the laity. The second stage was the distinction of the bishop as a level higher than the other (formerly equal) elders in the church. The third stage of decline occurred when the bishop was given a high priestly status with spiritual power over the laity. In the fourth stage, the bishops, elders, and (sometimes) the deacons were encouraged to stop performing secular work and devote themselves full-time to the church. Tithing became the fifth stage of this doctrinal decline.


Instead of the priesthood of every believer replacing the Old Testament priesthood, the church had gradually reorganized itself to resemble the Old Testament hierarchy. The bishop had become the equivalent to the Old Testament high priest, the presbyters to the Old Testament priests, and the deacons to Old Testament Levites. Full sustenance followed by using the Old Testament pattern of priesthood, sacrifices, and forgiveness controlled by priests. Thus some types of tithing was introduced into the church only after a long period of at least 200-300 years of steady doctrinal decline and only to follow the pattern of Old Testament worship. Even then, tithing was not mandatory or compulsory for many more centuries.

Non-Christian Jews

A noted authority on Judaism, Alfred Edersheim, gives several important points which prove that tithing did not exist in the early centuries of the church. He reminds us of the Jewish customs which were surely followed by at least the Jewish-Christian apostles and disciples. First, tithing was not universal, even in Israel, because it did not apply to crafts and trades, “And it is remarkable, that the law seems to regard Israel as intended to be only an agricultural people—no contribution being provided for from trade or merchandise.”[1] Second, proper tithes could only come from the holy lands of Israel (p. 15-17). Third, most Jews considered it a sin to make a profit from teaching the law, “Then, as for the ­ occupation of ordinary life, it was indeed quite true that every Jew was bound to learn some trade or business. But this was not to divert him from study; quite the contrary. It was regarded as a profanation—or at least declared such—to make use of one’s learning for secular purposes, whether of gain or of honor. The great Hillel had it (Ab. I. 13); ‘He who serves himself by the crown [the Torah] shall fade away’” (p. 118). Fourth, rabbis, such as Paul, were not expected to earn a living from teaching the law, “For, in point of fact, with few exceptions, all the leading Rabbinical authorities were working at some trade, till at last it became quite an affectation to engage in hard bodily labor…” (p. 173). And, fifth, honest labor was considered a cherished virtue, “And this same love of honest labor, the same spirit of manly independence, the same horror of trafficking with the law, and using it either as a ‘crown or as a spade,’ was certainly characteristic of the best Rabbis.” (p. 172).[2] Edersheim leaves no room in his conclusions for any idea that rabbis might have taught God’s Law to provide for their own financial sustenance. This very strong tradition among Jews certainly would have been extended into the Jewish Christian church by former Jewish rabbis such as Paul.


Later, after the Jews had been banished from the land of Israel, Jewish law was modified concerning tithing. To the question, “How much must a man contribute to charity?”, the answer given in the Code of Jewish Law involved “tithes,” which had become little more than alms. The first year required a tithe of his capital; afterwards he was to tithe net profits. He could chose, instead, to give a fifth of his capital each year, but never more than a fifth. “The tithe money (set aside for charity) must not be used for the purpose of any other religious act, like buying candles for the synagogue; but it must be given to the poor.” However, there were exceptions to this rule. Tithes could be used to pay for circumcision, dowry for poor couples wishing to get married, and setting those couples up in a secure trade (p. 1-112).The Jewish sage was expected to either know a craft or learn a craft in order to avoid idleness. In the event that worker did not know or have a craft, the community was to provide a craft or training and help that person as much as possible to earn a living through a trade (p. 1-114).Also, the poorest were still not required to tithe, or give to charity, “But he who has barely sufficient for his own needs, is not obligated to give charity, for his own sustenance takes precedence over another’s” (p. 1-111).[3]

Jewish Christians (Especially Around Jerusalem)

Almost every denomination’s historians of early church history agree that, until A.D. 70 the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem faithfully attended the temple in obedience to Jewish law and, as faithful Jews, supported the Jewish temple with tithes and offerings in addition to their church support. Acts 21:21-24 can hardly lead to any other conclusion!


The Jewish Christians had merely added their unique brand of Judaism into the already diverse Judaism of their day. Although the Sadducees did not accept them, the Pharisees did not oppose them and applauded their high moral conduct within Judaism. Jewish Christians narrowly escaped when the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 by fleeing to Pella. The final banishment of Jews under Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 132-135 ended all hope of Jewish Christian leadership from Jerusalem. (However, the Gentile Christians had an influential church there in the new Roman city.)


From the destruction of Jerusalem until the end of the fourth century the “Nazarenes” were identified with a small group of Jewish Christians who held themselves bound by the Law of Moses, but did not refuse fellowship with Gentile Christians. While later splitting into Pharisaic Ebionites, Essenic Ebionites, and Elkaisites, they also considered Paul a false teacher and eventually found themselves outside of the recognized church. These Jewish Christians never ceased teaching that strict obedience to the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation. Thus, for many Jewish Christians, tithing never left the spiritual environment of the Mosaic Law.[4][5]

The Second and Third Century Apostolic Age Universal Church

It is very easy to demonstrate from Scripture that none of the first century post-Calvary Apostolic fathers like Paul, Peter, John, James, Jude and Luke, taught tithing. Several chapters in this book demonstrate that no teaching of tithing exists in Scripture after Calvary.


The second and third generation church leaders (c. A.D. 100-200) were almost totally devoted to living an ascetic (self-denying), or semi-ascetic, lifestyle, preaching the gospel, defending the gospel, and helping the poor and needy. Research this for yourself! They abstained from worldly pleasures and took great pride in doing so. Constructing fine houses of worship and accumulating financial independence were completely foreign to their lifestyle. They took literally Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:21, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell that which you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” and Paul’s words to elders in Acts 20:35, “I have shown you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”


The first generation church fathers wrote very often about the Lord’s Supper being the occasion for offerings for the needy. Almsgiving was considered better than both fasting and prayer. Tithing, however, was not included! The verifiable presence of freewill-giving in their writings, along with the verifiable absence of tithing in their writings presents a real dilemma for those who support tithing and insist that it was a valid doctrine of the church from the very beginning. Obtain a copy of the ten-volume Ante-Nicean Fathers and settle this issue! Tithe-teachers do not quote the very earliest church leaders in order to validate their doctrinal position.


Robert Baker (Southern Baptist) wrote “The leaders [before A.D. 100] usually worked with their hands for their material needs. There was no ­ artificial distinction between clergy and laity.” He later added, “The ­ earliest bishops or presbyters engaged in secular labor to make their living and performed the duties of their church office when not at work”.[6]


Alfred Edersheim (Anglican), in his book, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, devoted an entire chapter to the Jewish work ethic. “Thus…to come to the subject of this chapter…we now understand how so many of the ­ disciples and followers of the Lord gained their living by some craft; how in the same spirit the Master Himself condescended to the trade of his adoptive father; and how the greatest of his apostles throughout earned his bread through the labor of his hands, probably following, like the Lord Jesus, the trade of his father. For it was a principle, frequently expressed, if possible ‘not to forsake the trade of the father.’”[7]


Lars P. Qualben (Lutheran) explains this in detail in, A History of the Christian Church. “The local church had elders and deacons who supervised and directed the work of the congregation, administered its charity, took care of the sick, and saw to it that services were regularly held. But the early church organization was not centered in office and in law, but in the special gifts of the Spirit. The teaching, the preaching, and the administration of the sacraments were conducted by the ‘gifted men’ in the congregation. An elder might also teach, preach, and administer the sacraments, but he did not do so because he was an elder, but because he was known to have the ‘gift.’ None of these ‘gifted men’ held church office in a legal or judicial sense. The preaching, the teaching, and the administration of the sacraments were not legally confined to any specific office. The gospel could be preached and the sacraments could be administered in the presence of any assembly of believers, gathered in the name of the Lord.”


“Toward the end of the first century a change took place. A general lack of confidence in the special gifts of the Spirit, a desire for more specific order, and a pressing demand for proper safeguard against heresy resulted in a gradual transfer of the preaching, the teaching, and the administration of the sacraments from the ‘gifted men’ to the local elders….”


“During the second and third centuries another important change took place. Instead of government by a group of elders, the local churches were headed by single officials for whom the name ‘bishop’ was exclusively reserved…. The election of the bishop became a legal ordinance and the bishop alone had a right to preach, to teach, and to administer the sacraments…”.[8]


Philip Schaff comments on church growth before the great persecutions which followed, “Until about the close of the second century the Christians held their worship mostly in private homes, or in desert places, at the graves of martyrs, and in the crypts of the catacombs. This arose from their poverty, their oppressed and outlawed condition, their love of silence and solitude, and their aversion to all heathen art (p. 198).” “The first traces of special houses of worship occur in Tertullian, who speaks of going to church, and in his contemporary, Clement of Alexandria, who mentions the double meaning of the word ekkleesia. About the year 230, Alexander Severus granted the Christians the right to a place in Rome…. After the middle of the third century the building of churches began in great earnest….” (pp. 199-200).


“Thus we find, so early as the third century, the foundations of a complete hierarchy; though a hierarchy of only moral power, and holding no sort of outward control over the conscience…. With the exaltation of the clergy [in the third century] appeared the tendency to separate them from secular business, and even from social relations…. They drew their support from the church treasury, which was supplied by voluntary contributions and weekly collections on the Lord’s Day. After the third century they were forbidden to engage in any secular business, or even to accept any trusteeship” [as per Cyprian in North Africa only] (p. 128).[9]


While there were many pre-Nicean (pre A.D. 325) early church fathers whose writings still exist, until Cyprian, they did not write about any form of suggested enforced tithing at all. These include Clement of Rome, Mathetes, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, Justin, the Pastor of Hermas, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Commodianus, Origen, Hippolytus, Caius, and Novatium.


In an effort to support early tithing, the McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature ­ actually verifies my claims. Under tithes it says, “The obligation from ecclesiastical literature has been put forward from the earliest period. The Apostolic Canons [c. 300], the Apostolic Constitutions [c. 300], St. Cyprian (d. 258], and the works of Ambrose [d. 397], Chrysostom [d. 407], Augustine [d. 430] and the other fathers of both divisions of the Church [East and West, but not Greek] abound with illusions to it.” For this resource, although “abound” is an exaggeration, “the earliest period” skipped the first 200 years after Calvary. (See Cyprian following.)


Clement of Rome (c. 95) began writing about the same time the Apostle John died. His writings do not use the word, “tithe.” He is not specific when he wrote, “He [God] has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours” (First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 40). Most likely, at this time, Jewish Christians in the Roman church would have objected to any hint that tithes be taken away from Levitical priests.


Justin Martyr (c. 150) (from the area of old Samaria) wrote, “And the wealthy among us help the needy…when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgiving, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us” (First Apology, chap. 67). In accordance with the first century Scripture, “presidents,” or church leaders, are only capable administrators, and not necessarily pastors or teachers of the Word.


Justin’s writings only use the word, “tithe,” four times: twice from Matthew 23:23 to point out that the Jews did not like Christ, and twice from Genesis 14:20 while proving that Melchizedek did not require circumcision (Dialogue with Trypho, chap. 17, 19, 33, 112).


The Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve (150-200?), was discovered in the late 19th century at the Jewish Monastery of the Most Holy Sepulcher at Constantinople. It is not known if it is authentic, represents the norm, or is from an aberrant offshoot. It appears to be a Jewish-Christian document from approximately the middle of the second century, and it gives some interesting ideas about how prophets and church leaders were supported.


Paragraph XI:…“Now, as concerning the apostles and prophets according to the teaching of the gospel, so do; and let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord; and he shall stay but one day, and, if need be, the next day also; but if he stays three days he is a false prophet. When the apostle goes forth, let him take nothing but bread, until he reaches his lodging: if he asks for money, he is a false prophet…. But whosoever shall say in spirit, ‘Give me money, or other things,’ you shall not listen to him; but it he bids you to give for others that are in need, let no man judge him.”


Paragraph XII may (or may not) only refer to ordinary travelers. Its location between paragraphs 11 and 13 should be considered. “Let every one that ‘comes in the name of the Lord’ be received” and proven…. “If he wishes to abide with you, being a craftsman, let him work and eat. If he has no craft, use your common sense to provide that he lives with you as a Christian, without idleness. If he is unwilling to do so, he is a ‘Christ monger.’ Beware of such.”


Paragraph XIII: “But every true prophet that desires to abide with you is ‘worthy of his food,’ In like manner a true teacher is also, like the laborer, ‘worthy of his food.’ Therefore you shall take and give to the prophets every firstfruits of the produce of the wine-press and the threshing floor, of oxen and sheep. For the prophets are your high priests. If you have no prophet, give them to the poor….”


Paragraph XV: “Elect therefore of yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men that are gentle but not covetous, true men and approved; for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and leaders.”[10]


Although many tithe-teachers quote paragraphs XIII and XV to prove that the early church taught tithing and conveniently ignore paragraphs XI and XII, they greatly deceive when they do this! Paragraphs XI and XII make it clear that paragraphs XIII and XV cannot possibly be stretched to teach tithing. The word, tithing, does not even appear. Also, when the church finally did try to teach tithing, it did not give the whole tithe to the deacons as Paragraph XV would require if they were the Levites. Perhaps this non-authoritative document is placed in the middle of the second century because of some elevation of bishops, but before the authority urged on them by Cyprian. Noticeably, though, the firstfruits match the description of only food items from Numbers 18 and are not the same thing as tithes. Also, it seems that even these would not be totally supported by the church if it were small, but would be required to retain a trade. It is interesting to note that paragraph XIII says, if there is no prophet in the church, then give the firstfruits to the poor.


Irenaeus (150-200) (bishop of Lyons in France and teacher of Hippolytus), clearly did not teach tithing. “And for this reason did the Lord, instead of that [commandment], ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ forbid even concupiscence; and instead of that which runs thus, ‘You shall not kill,’ He prohibited anger; and instead of the law enjoining the giving of tithes, to share all our possessions with the poor; and not to love our neighbors only, but even our enemies; and not merely to be liberal givers and bestowers, but even that we should present a gratuitous gift to those who take away our goods” (Against Heresies, book 4, chap. 13, para. 3). If anything, this teaches extreme asceticism.


“For with Him there is nothing purposeless, nor without signification, nor without design. And for this reason they (the Jews) had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him, but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things [hereafter]; as that poor widow acted who cast all her living into the treasury of God” (Against Heresies, book 4, chap. 18). Again, poverty and asceticism are indicated. Irenaeus clearly taught that the church was a dispenser of necessities for the poor. His life and writings reveal that he believed that its leaders should live as meagerly as ­ possible.


Tertullian (150-220) was a prolific writer from Carthage in northern Africa whose writings do not teach tithing. He was also a Montanist who lived an extremely ascetic lifestyle. For the Montanists, extreme poverty was a virtue which allowed absolutely no room for a doctrine of tithing. Since he taught that all incoming offerings should be given to the poor, Tertullian would not have taught that church leaders should be supported through tithes. His only recorded uses of the word, “tithe,” appear when he quotes Matthew 23:23 to compare Marcion’s hypocrisy with that of the Pharisees (Marcion, book 4, chap. 27) and Genesis 14:20 when he argued, like Justin Martyr, that Melchizedek was not circumcised (book 5, chap. 9).


Tertullian also wrote, “Our presidents are elders of proved worth, men who have attained this honor not for a price, but by character. Every man brings some modest coin once a month or whenever he wishes, and only if he is willing and able; it is a freewill offering. You might call them the trust-funds of piety; they are spent…on the support and burial of the poor…” (Apology, xxxix, 1-18). From these it is clear that, at least near the end of the second century, no tithing existed solely to support full-time clergy.


Cyprian (200-258) followed Tertullian in Carthage (North Africa only) and was probably the first influential leader to suggest (unsuccessfully) that tithes should support a full-time clergy. It must be remembered that, by Cyprian’s time at least the first departures from the apostolic age ­ doctrine had occurred. Spiritual gifts had mostly been taken from the laity and placed within various levels of the clergy. The office of bishop had been distinguished above that of elder and presbyter, and each bishop had spiritual power over the laity through the crude sacramental system. Also his church now erroneously compared the bishop to the Old Testament high priest, the presbyters to the Old Testament priests, and the deacons to Old Testament Levites. Cyprian merely took what he thought was the next logical step (in this scenario of the role of bishops) and insisted that the clergy should cease all secular work and depend on tithes for full-time ­ support. At least in the Western church, the Old Testament pattern of priesthood, sacrifices, and forgiveness was now controlled by so-called Christian high priests, Christian priests, and Christian Levites. Such is the context of Cyprian’s tithing appeals! Yet all of the pro-tithing apologists I have read point to Cyprian as their prime evidence of early tithing. While only a bishop in Africa, Cyprian did not have authority beyond his own sphere of influence. Those who quote Cyprian to support early church tithing should place their quotation in this limited historical context!


However, Cyprian’s tithing still does not qualify as “proof” that the early church taught tithing. Although not as ascetic as the Montanists and his favorite teacher, Tertullian, Cyprian was, nevertheless, an ascetic who gave up his considerable fortune at his baptism. While he strongly advocated that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should receive tithes and devote full-time service to the church, he did not suggest that they should live above the poverty level (Letter 65, para. 1). At one occasion, in his Letter 4, he said that the “whole of the small sum which was collected” was given to the clergy and they distributed it to those in need. Any person who has read Cyprian knows of his generation’s many uses of Christ’s injunction, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me.” Cyprian’s understanding of tithing was that church leaders should only take the bare minimum and distribute the remainder to the poor. Read Cyprian yourself!


The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (book 2, section 4), is a fictional account probably dating from the third or fourth century. It was not accepted by the Church until many centuries later. Its use of tithing reflects an evolution of the doctrine to about the same level as that of Cyprian.


“On the Management of the Resources Collected for the Support of the Clergy and the Relief of the Poor:”


“Let the bishop esteem such food and raiment sufficient as suits necessity and decency. Let him not make use of the Lord’s goods as another’s, but moderately; ‘for the laborer is worthy of his reward.’ Let him not be luxurious in diet, or fond of idle furniture, but contented with so much alone as is necessary for his sustenance.”


On Firstfruits and Tithes, and After What Manner the Bishop is Himself to Partake of Them, or Distribute Them to Others


XXV. Let him use those tenths and first-fruits, which are given according to the command of God, as a man of God; as also let him dispense in a right manner the free-will offerings which are brought in on account of the poor, to the orphans, the widows, the afflicted, and strangers in distress, as having that God for the examiner of his accounts who has committed the disposition to him. Distribute to all those in want with righteousness, and yourselves use the things which belong to the Lord, but do not abuse them, eating of them, but not eating them all up by yourselves: communicate with those who are in want, and thereby show yourselves unblameable before God. For if you shall consume them by yourselves, you will be reproached by God….”


“For those who attend upon the Church ought to be maintained by the Church, as being priests, Levites, presidents, and ministers of God; as it is written in the book of Numbers concerning the priests….


“Those which were then first-fruits, and tithes, and offerings, and gifts, now are oblations, which are presented by holy bishops to the Lord God, through Jesus Christ, who has died for them. For these are your high priests, as the presbyters are your priests, and your present deacons instead of your Levites; as are also your readers, your singers, your porters, your deaconesses, your widows, your virgins, and your orphans: but He who is above all these is the High Priest.”


XXVI. “The bishop, he is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit. He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate; he is, next after God, your earthly God, who has a right to be honored by you.”


XXVII. “You ought therefore, brothers, to bring your sacrifices and your oblations to the bishop, as to your high priest, either by yourselves or by the deacons; and do you bring not those only, but also your first-fruits, and your tithes, and your free-will offerings to him. For he knows who they are that are in affliction, and gives to every one as is convenient, that so one may not receive alms twice or more often the same day, or the same week, while another has nothing at all”.


[My comments on the Constitutions of the Apostles. While attempting to use the language of the Old Testament Law, several differences are apparent. First, now the high priest, not the Levites, receives the tithes directly. Second, the bishop is to maintain a bare sustenance level from what he takes from the tithes and offerings. Third, the bishop is directly responsible for re-distributing both tithes and offerings back to the needy. Fourth, the new priestly caste system does not refer to Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek in Genesis 14 for pre-Law justification, nor to “It is holy to the Lord” in Leviticus 27:30 for an eternal principle. Clearly, the justification for re-introducing tithing into this particular early church, even if only a voluntary offering, was the result of the abandonment of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer and the elevation of the position of priest and high priest. Therefore, it is easy to understand why modern Protestant tithe-teachers do not appeal to this document for validation of tithing as a legitimate doctrine. Finally, even this document was rejected by the Roman Catholic Church because tithing did not become church Law until the end of the sixth century.]

A Summary of Historical Reasons to Reject Tithing

For the following reasons which have been supported by many ­ reputable authorities in this chapter and elsewhere in this book, tithing cannot be supported as a valid doctrine found in early post-biblical ­ history.

One: It is certain that Jewish-Christians in Palestine continued to send tithes to the temple as part of their obedience to the law (Acts 15 and 21) at least until A.D. 70. Post-biblical history proves that most of these never abandoned the Mosaic Law, refused full fellowship with Gentile Christians, rejected Paul, later split into factions, and disappeared around the end of the fourth century.

Two: Jewish Christians, like Paul, who had been trained in the strict traditions of the Mosaic Law would have never accepted full-time support for teaching the Old Testament Sacred Writings concerning Christ.

Three: Jewish Christians viewed tithing as purely law, which they specifically ordered Gentile Christians not to obey (Acts 15 and 21).

Four: Jewish Christians were taught to earn their living through a trade and not depend on charity. Both Jewish and Christian sages were ­ supported by the communities through support of their trade.

Five: The secular crafts and trades of many rabbis and later church leaders are recorded in history. Many church historians comment on the fact that the early church leaders sustained themselves by a trade (rather than by tithing). This is documented by numerous footnotes in this book, especially the chapter on First Corinthians 9, Acts 20, and this chapter.

Six: The church was early considered “un-licensed (or illegal?)” and it was ­ considered an “outlaw” since approximately A.D. 80. The Romans required all citizens to register their livelihood and proof of sustenance. For at least the first two hundred plus years after Calvary, anybody claiming to be a full-time gospel worker would have been arrested as an insurrectionist who had no evident means of support such as a trade.

Seven: Since Christians were sporadically killed by mobs and the government for much of the first three centuries, it seems improbable that the earliest leaders would openly reveal themselves (by not having an obvious trade) that they were full-time church leaders.

Eight: When the New Testament was written, very few, if any, of the churches were organized into a ruling-bishop system which would require or sustain a full-time minister. The churches were too primitive, too small, too poor, and often had to hide from the authorities to meet. Church buildings did not exist because they would not have been tolerated until about A.D. 200 and did not flourish until after A.D. 260 before being destroyed again in 303.[11] Persecution varied widely around the Roman Empire.

Nine: The earliest churches did not distinguish between “clergy” and “laity” for several centuries. Gifted lay members preached and carried out other functions which were later restricted to full-time ordained clergy. For example, a gifted “administrator” may have been in charge while another gifted person “preached” and another gifted person “taught” the Word. This fact would preclude giving tithes when numerous laity exercised their spiritual gifts.

Ten: It is very likely that even slaves held leadership roles as elders and bishops in the early church. The noted scholar, F. F. Bruce, says that “Pius, bishop of the Roman church towards the middle of the second century, if not a slave himself, was at any rate the brother of a slave; and Callistus, bishop of the same church in the early part of the third century, was an ex-slave”.[12] Slaves would certainly not accept tithes for their sustenance!

Eleven: Perhaps the best post-biblical argument against tithing in the Ante-Nicean church is the church’s overall attitude towards Christian virtues, ethics, poverty, and asceticism. To state it plainly, “Poverty was ­ considered a virtue, especially among the clergy!” While still retaining fresh memories of the first apostles and disciples, the miracles of the first ­ century, and, while still expecting a soon return of Jesus Christ, the pre-Constantine (pre-A.D. 325) church, was a charity organization which received offerings only to serve the poor, widows, and orphans of society. See Philip Schaff’s detailed comments in my chapter on First Corinthians 9.

The Church from the Fourth Century until the Eighth Century

The church in the first centuries had a very different use for money than the typical church today. Williston Walker reports that, in the year A.D. 251, the church of Rome under Bishop Grainelius had a membership of approximately 30,000 members and supported over 1,500 dependents. This amounts to one dependent per 20 members![13]


Although Cyprian tried to enforce his idea that church workers should not pursue secular trades, Walker comments, “By the middle of the third century the higher clergy were expected to give their whole time to the work of the ministry, yet even bishops sometimes shared in secular business, not always of a commendable character. The lower clergy could still engage in trade”.[14]

It may, or may not, be noteworthy that Schaff does not mention church “buildings” until the lapse of persecution between 260-303. It is unclear to what extent church edifices existed prior to this time. As long as Christians were blamed for almost every disaster such as famines, earthquakes, floods, battle losses, and barbarian invasions, the pagan population very often punished the church as its scapegoat and would have quickly destroyed highly visible and accessible structures associated with the church.


The Encyclopedia Americana says, “It [tithing] was not practiced in the early Christian church, but gradually became common by the 6th ­ century.”[15] The statement assumes Cyprian’s failure in North Africa and probably means that tithing was not practiced “by enforcement of Church or secular law” until the 6th century.


The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912 edition only) says, “In the beginning ­ [provision] was supplied by the spontaneous support of the faithful. In the course of time, however, as the Church expanded and various institutions arose, it became necessary to make laws which would insure the proper and permanent support of the clergy. The payment of tithes was adopted from the Old Law, and early writers speak of it as a divine ordinance and an obligation of the conscience. The earliest positive legislation on the subject seems to be contained in the letter of the bishops assembled at Tours in 567 and the Canons of the Council of Macon in 585.”[16]


While it may appear that both the Encyclopedia Americana and the Catholic Encyclopedia ignore all of the tithing references made by Cyprian and the Constitutions of the Apostles as invalid, actually, they must be agreeing with the premise of this book that the early church did not teach tithing! When tithing was first re-introduced into the church, it was voluntary and was built on an erroneous comparison of the New Covenant bishop as a high priest to the Old Testament priesthood.


Centuries later, the church acquired wealth in the form of land. At first wealthy landowners donated land to the church for parishes, but retained the privileges of nominating the bishops and keeping the profits and tithes from the land in their own secular hands. Therefore, tithing soon became a source of abuse. Eventually, however, the church gained enough secular authority to regain appointment of its own priests and bishops again, along with keeping the tithes in the church. The church soon owned from one half to one fourth of the land in many European countries and enacted tithes from those who rented its lands.

Historians usually agree that, not until A.D. 567, five hundred and thirty seven (537) years after Calvary, did the Church’s first substantial attempt to enforce tithing under its own authority appear in history! The Council of Tours in 567 and the Council of Macon in 585 enacted regional church decrees for tithing and excommunication of non-tithers, but did not receive authority from the king to enforce collection through civil decrees. It is significant that tithing did not emerge historically until the church became powerful in the secular realm. Even at this late date tithes were still only food. Eventually the Roman Church even refused to administer last rites if it was not given wealth or land in wills.


Between 774 to 777 the Frankish king, Charlemagne, destroyed the Arian Lombard kingdom which separated his empire from northern Italy. After his defeat of the Lombards, Charlemagne’s unopposed rule included northern Italy and Rome. By quoting the Mosaic Law as its authority at a Church synod, the pope finally convinced Charlemagne to allow enforced agricultural tithing in support of the fast-growing parish system of churches. In 785 Pope Hadrian attempted to impose tithing on the Anglo-Saxons. In appreciation of his church support, on Christmas Day, A.D. 800, the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, thus making official the renewed “Holy” Roman Empire.


In 906 King Edgar legally enforced food tithing in England. In 1067 and 1078, at the Church Councils of Gerona, and in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, tithing was increasingly applied to all lands under Christian rule. All citizens, including Jews, were required to tithe to the Roman Catholic Church. A typical peasant was giving the first tithe of his land to his secular ruler or landlord (which was often the church) and a second tenth to the church outright. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council decreed that only the pope could release persons from the obligation to tithe, and he exempted the Crusaders.


For several centuries the right to collect agricultural tithes shifted back and forth between the Church and the secular authority –depending on which was the strongest power. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), in order to strengthen and purify the church, ordered that tithes for the support of the church be given precedence over all other taxes, excluded all lay interference in church affairs, and prohibited any one man from drawing the income from more than one church office. Theologian Thomas Aquinas defended tithing by stating, “During the time of the New Law the authority of the Church has established the payment of tithes” (Summa Theologica, Vol. 3, The Second Part of the Second Part). He did use Genesis 14 and Melchizedek to substantiate his argument.


Exacting agricultural tithes from Jews became especially severe in England and Germanic countries. Beginning around the 14th century, Jews were not even allowed to own land in many nations. This forced the Jews off the land and many went into banking and commerce because those occupations and money were not included in tithing. In 1372 even the clergy in Germany revolted at having to pay tithes to the pope.


Not long after the Bible had been translated into the language of the common man, Otto Brumfels in 1524 proclaimed that the New Testament does not teach tithing. Later that century, Pope Gregory VII, in an effort to control secular ownership of tithes, once again outlawed lay ownership of tithes.


In 1714 the English Anglican exacted agricultural tithes from Roman Catholics and Presbyterians for the support of the Church of Ireland. Soon revolt became ripe in France. Some of the earliest stages of the French Revolution were actions which struck at the privileges and status of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1789, tithes were abolished in France by the secular authority.


Other revolts against tithing followed. Between 1836 and 1850 tithing was mostly abolished in England. It was later commuted to a rental to be paid in cash. In 1868, as a result of agitation which began at least as far back as the 1830’s and which was pushed by Dissenters, the compulsory payment of local parish tithes for the maintenance of the church was abolished and was made purely voluntary. However, the final tithe rent charges were not abolished until 1936 in England.


In Canada, as late as 1868, the Fourth Council of Quebec declared that tithing was mandatory. For a while tithes were even made mandatory in the French lands of the New World until the territory was sold in the Louisiana Purchase. In 1871 tithes were abolished in Ireland. In 1887 they ended in Italy. In West Germany residents must formally renounce church membership in order to avoid mandatory church taxation. Elsewhere, the Eastern Orthodox Church has never accepted tithing and its members have never practiced it. The Roman Catholic Church still prescribes tithes in countries where they are sanctioned by law, and some Protestant bodies still consider tithes obligatory.


Today most religious bodies have abandoned the practice of compulsory tithing, particularly in the United States, where no system of tithing was ever generally employed after the American Revolution. Tithing was never a legal requirement in the United States. Nevertheless, members of certain churches, including the Latter Day Saints and Seventh-Day Adventists are required to tithe and some Christians in other churches do so voluntarily. Southern Baptists define tithing as an “expectation” and some of its churches are pushing to make tithing a requirement for membership (in addition to holding church offices). For further study, most books on church history briefly discuss the history of tithing since Bible times. As Europe slowly rejected church-state taxation and the divine right of kings, it also rejected enforced tithing to state-supported churches.

Relevant to this book, the biblical model of tithing best fits a church-state economy similar to Israel’s theocracy. History reveals that tithing became a “Christian” doctrine only after the Roman Catholic Church joined hands with secular and political forces. However, just as tithing was an unprofitable ordinance which never produced spiritual growth in national Israel under the Old Covenant, even so tithing never led to spiritual growth when used by Christians and was eventually forced into retirement a second time by state churches.

Both Roman Catholics and Protestants have been guilty of oppression and persecution regarding state mandated tithing laws. And, like Old Covenant tithing in national Israel, nothing good has ever resulted from such attempts to enforce tithing on another.


Note: The historical source material from this chapter has come from the following: Encyclopedia Americana; Encyclopedia Britannica; The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912 and New); Baker, A Summary of Christian History; Durant, The Reformation; Latourette, A History of the Christian Church; Qualben, A History of the Christian Church; Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2; and Walker, A History of the Christian Church. See Bibliography.

[1] Edersheim, Temple, CD-ROM, chap. 19.

[2] Edersheim, Sketches, 15-17, 118, 173, 172

[3] Code, 1-112, 1-114, 1-111.

[4] Qualben, 73-74.

[5] Schaff, 428-434.

[6] Baker, 11, 43.

[7] Edersheim, Sketches, 169.

[8] Qualben, 94.

[9] Schaff, 128, 198, 199-200.

[10] Didache, 64-65.

[11] Schaff, 63.

[12] F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (Waynesboro: Pater Noster Press, 1958), 192.

[13] Walker, 83.

[14] Ibid., 84.

[15] Americana, s.v. “tithe.”

[16] The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIV, 1912, s.v. “tithe.”