Should the Church Teach Tithing?

A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine


By Russell Earl Kelly,

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Kelly: I am placing these two articles under “Rebuttals” because Carson, as a leading Baptist theologian, does not take a position on tithing. Since there is no discussion of the biblical definition of the tithe, I must guess that he would probably take the “minimum expectation” position if forced to choose.

D A CARSON, 1-23-2010, BLOG, The Gospel Coalition

Carson: THE LANGUAGE IN Matthew 23 is frankly shocking. Jesus repeatedly pronounces his “woe” on the Pharisees and teachers of the law, labeling them “hypocrites,” calling them “blind guides” and “blind fools,” likening them to “whitewashed tombs” that “look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” They are “sons of hell,” a “brood of vipers.”

Kelly: Agreed. But it must be remembered that Jesus is speaking to those who are still under the full jurisdiction of the law and is discussing “matters of the law” in Mt 23:2,3,23.

Carson: What calls forth such intemperate language from the Lord Jesus?

There are three primary characteristics in these people that arouse Jesus’ ire.

The first is the loss of perspective that, with respect to the revelation of God, focuses on the minors and sacrifices the majors. They are ever so punctilious about tithing, even putting aside a tenth of the herbs grown in the garden, while somehow remaining unconcerned about the massive issues of “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (22:23). Jesus carefully says that he is not dismissing the relatively minor matters: his interlocutors should not neglect them, for these prescriptions were, after all, mandated by God. But to focus on them to the exclusion of the weightier matters is akin to straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. Similarly, carefully crafted rules about when it is important to tell the truth and when and how one can get away with a lie (23:16-22) not only overlook that truth-telling is of fundamental importance, but implicitly deny that this entire universe is God’s, and all our promises and pledges are before him.

Kelly: Carson calls tithing a “minor” part of the law but does not say that it only applied to national Israel. He fails to point out that the scribes and Pharisees had actually added garden herbs to the usual understanding of what was titheable. I wish he had said “mandated by God only for national Israel under the Old Covenant.” Instead of taking a position, he himself is among those who “carefully” avoid taking a position.

Carson: The second is love for the outward forms of religion with very little experience of a transformed nature. To be greeted as a religious teacher, to be honored by the community, to be thought holy and religious, while inwardly seething with greed, self-indulgence, bitterness, rivalry, and hate is profoundly evil (23:5-12, 25:32).

Kelly: In my opinion the modern usage of tithing places far too much emphasis on the “outward form of religion” and urges even the poor and sick to give their first ten per cent to the church instead of buying medicine and food.

Carson: The third damning indictment is that because they have a major teaching role, these leaders spread their poison and contaminate others, whether by precept or example. Not only do they fail to enter the kingdom themselves, they effectively close it down to others (23:13-15).

Kelly: Almost every leader with “major teaching roles” promotes tithing today. That is why Carson needs to take a stand and state his position rather than avoiding the issue. He has a “major teaching role and should speak up.

Carson: How many evangelical leaders spend most of their energy on peripheral, incidental matters, and far too little on the massive issues of justice, mercy, and faithfulness — in our homes, our churches, the workplace, in all our relationships, in the nation?

Kelly: And how many evangelical leaders, like Carson, completely avoid taking a stand on an issue which is dividing the church more and more every day?

Carson: How many are more concerned to be thought wise and holy than to be wise and holy? How many therefore end up damning their hearers by their own bad example and by their drifting away from the Gospel and its entailments?

Kelly: Part of being “wise and holy” is to speak out like Jesus and Paul when error is being taught. In my opinion “drifting away from the gospel” means adding law back into grace. This is what Paul was correcting in Galatians 1:8-9 and 3:1.

Carson: Our only hope is in this Jesus who, though he denounces this appalling guilt with such fierceness, weeps over the city (Matt. 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44).

Kelly: The seven woes of Matthew 23 were in the context of abuse of the law by the leaders of Jewish society. Many of us are weeping over our churches who have added law back into better New Covenant principles of grace and faith.



Is Tithing Biblical? Nov 15, 1999

Carson: The only passage in the New Testament that explicitly authorizes the tithe does so in a rather backhanded way … Matt. 23:23).

Kelly: Carson is hinting that this is not an explicit endorsement of tithing for New Covenant post-Calvary believers.

Carson: Jesus’ primary point, of course, is to criticize the scrupulous tithing of even a few herbs grown in the back garden if it is at the expense of fundamental issues of justice, integrity, and mercy.

Kelly: Correct. Garden herbs were not part of the OT tithing laws. They were added by the scribes and Pharisees and created a burden.

Carson: But one might have expected Jesus to say, “You should have practiced the latter, and let the herbs take care of themselves”–or some thing equally dismissive. Instead, he says, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Kelly: I disagree with the motive Carson is implying for Jesus’ comment. Jesus did not endorse tithing of herbs because the law taught such. Rather he endorsed it because “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not” per 23:2-3. Jesus would have been sinning if he had ended tithing before Calvary while the Law was still in full force (Gal 4:4-5).

Carson: After the Cross and the Resurrection, the New Testament provides no passage with the same explicit conclusion. That raw fact leads to all the usual debates about the nature of the continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants.

Kelly: Carson cannot and does not attempt to refute this fact.

Carson: Does the tithe continue as a divine mandate because it has not been explicitly abrogated?

Kelly: The Covenant theology hermeneutic states that everything in the Old Covenant continues in the New Covenant except that which has been explicitly abrogated after Calvary to the Church. Carson does not answer his own question here and take a stand either way.

Carson: Or is it part of the “old order” that is passing away?

Kelly: The Dispensational hermeneutic states that nothing in the Old Covenant is found in the New Covenant except that which has been repeated in the New Covenant to the Church after Calvary.

Carson: However we resolve that broad question, all sides agree that some New Testament writers insist that Christians be a giving, generous people (1 Tim. 6:18).

Kelly: Carson does not take a position here.

Carson: So, at very least, we must insist that believers under both covenants are expected to give generously.

Kelly: Agreed. In my opinion the NT command to give sacrificially is superior to OT tithing. Carson does not say (as so many do) that Christians should “at very least” begin their giving level at ten per cent.

Carson: Some may wonder, Is the dispute about nothing more than the amount?

Kelly: Most certainly. It is about what the Bible teaches in its context. If tithing is to be taught as a valid NT post-Calvary doctrine, then so should all of the other parts of the tithing statute from Numbers 18. This would mean that tithing recipients not be allowed to own or inherit property.

CarsonIs there something about 10 percent that is entrenched in moral law?

Kelly: Again Carson does not clearly answer his own question. What is there about tithing which causes many to tech that it is an eternal moral principle? The fact that something is very old and very common does not make it eternal or moral because that is also true to idolatry, child sacrifice and temple prostitution.

Carson: The following two points will help focus the issue.

Kelly: “Focus,” not solve or answer.

Carson1. Beware of pride. There is always a great spiritual danger in thinking that if in some area we have satisfied a specific, concrete demand we have done everything that God requires. Ten percent is a lot of money to some folks; to others it’s not very much. Isn’t that one of the lessons to be learned from Jesus’ comments about the widow’s mite? To suppose that God demands 10 percent–and nothing more–can itself foster a remarkably independent and idolatrous attitude: “This bit is for God, and the rest is mine by right.”

Kelly: Carson thinks that it is a “great spiritual danger” to set a “specific concrete demand” such as ten per cent because this can “foster a remarkably independent and idolatrous attitude.” I say “Amen, amen and amen.”

Carson: Likewise, if you choose to give more than 10 percent, you may become inebriated from the contemplation of your own generosity.

Kelly: Depends upon your motives.

Carson: 2. Remember why you’re giving. A strictly legal perspective on giving soon runs into a plethora of complicated debates. Is this 10 percent of gross income or of net? How does this play out in a country where a progressive income-tax system rises to 90 percent of in come? If we choose to tithe from our net income, are we talking “take-home pay” only, or does it include what is withheld for medical insurance and retirement benefits?

Kelly: These kinds of debates rage among tithe-teachers.

Carson: It would be easy to list such questions for a page or two without ever asking, “How can I manage my affairs so that I can give more?” That is surely a better question than “What’s the correct interpretation so that I can do whatever’s required and then get on with my life?”

Kelly: I agree. Again Carson does not take sides on tithing here.

Carson: Christians will want to acknowledge with gratitude that they are mere stewards of all that they “possess.” Moreover, New Testament ethics turn not so much on legal prescription as on lives joyfully submitted to God.

Kelly: Carson prefers to avoid OT legal prescription which says ten per cent.

Carson: This is why the most penetrating New Testament passage on giving is 2 Cor. 8–9. Under severe trial, the Corinthians’ “overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (8:2). Even so, they first gave themselves to the Lord (8:5).

Kelly: Agreed. This has the blessing of the Holy Spirit after Calvary to the Church.

Carson: So, why not aim for 20 percent in your giving? Or 30? Or more, depending on your circumstances (8:12)? “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that . . . for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (8:9).

Kelly: Agreed. There is not percentage either up or down.

Russell Earl Kelly, PHD

Author of Should the Church Teach Tithing?