Origin and Definition of Tithing

An Exhaustive Examination of "Tithe," "Tithes" and "Tithing"

Should the Church Teach Tithing?

A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine

Russell Earl Kelly, PHD


Section 28 – Acts 20:16-35: Paul’s Sermon is Not Preached

Paul wanted others to follow his example of not receiving tithes or any other sustenance as payment for the gospel ministry. If this is a correct conclusion from Acts, chapter 20, then Paul’s statement in First Corinthians, chapter 9, verses 16-19 cannot be interpreted as the exception to the general rule. Personally, at least, Paul preferred that his principle of “liberty” would become the superior principle which is more important than the principle of “rights. “While I have personally received full-time support in the past, I am now forced to consider that receipt of such, at least in Paul’s mind and era, was following the lesser principle of my “rights,” rather than following the greater principle of exercising my “liberty” to preach the gospel un-pressured by those who contribute the most to my sustenance. Like many others, as a minister receiving a denominational paycheck, I was certainly expected to teach and preach the denominations’ doctrines.

This is an uncomfortable subject, to say the least. Every serious Bible student will eventually encounter teachings in God’s Word of which he or she will at first find hard to accept. The answer to my question, “Should preachers accept full-time salaries?” was startling to one who has received full-salaried support. The answer shook me, and should disturb the very foundation of the modern church system. It was one thing to question whether tithing was the New Covenant principle used to support the gospel ministry. However, my studies led me eventually to First Corinthians 9 and the “rights” that gospel ministers had to receive financial support. Next, the cross-referencing and commentary searches led me to Acts 13:1-3; 18:1-4; 20:16-35; 2 Cor. 11:7-9; 2 Cor. 12:13-15; Phil. 4:15-19; 1 Thess. 2:9-10; and 2 Thess. 3:6-15. Although I had read these texts many times over forty years as a Christian, I had never “put them together” to see the entire picture. My conclusions follow.

The Historical Setting of Acts 20

20:16 For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia; for he hastened, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost.

The historical setting of Acts 20 is important. The event occurred at approximately A.D. 58-60, which is at least twenty-eight years after Calvary and after the church had been established at Pentecost. After ministering for over ten years, Paul had just completed his third and final missionary journey. At least three of those years had been continuous or from a base at Ephesus (20:31). When Acts 20 is combined with First Corinthians 9, a powerful message about gospel priorities and the ethics of gospel workers emerges.

The Sermon Was Specifically for Preachers (20:17-18, 28)

20:17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.

Paul wanted to reach Jerusalem before Pentecost and did not have time to await another ship. He had sent word ahead for the elders of the area around Ephesus to come and meet him at Miletus on the coast west of Ephesus. These texts contain a sermon especially for the leaders of the churches, the elders! The “elders” are also called “overseers”; they are the shepherds of the “flock,” the church of God (20:28), the pastors of the various churches in and around Ephesus. Everything Paul had to say about false teachers taking advantage of the flock and about work ethics related specifically to them.

Paul’s Example (20:18, 20, 26-27, 35)

20:18 And when they came to him, he said to them, You know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons. . . .

20:20 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable to you, but have shown you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house.

Even before presenting the problems which burdened him, Paul offered his own example as the solution. They had observed his manner and lifestyle for three years throughout all seasons (v. 18); they had observed him declare the whole gospel in public (vv. 20, 27); they knew how he had treated everybody fairly (vv. 26, 31); and they knew that he had set an example for them in everything he did (vv. 20, 35). To the best of his ability, Paul was following the example of Christ. Therefore, he asked his understudies to follow his example.

Paul’s Farewell Sermon

20:22-24 And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there, Except that the Holy Ghost is witnessing in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. And now, behold, I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more.

Paul fully believed that this would be his final farewell to the leaders of the many house churches which he had started. He felt convinced by the Holy Spirit that this was his last missionary trip. Being a farewell sermon, he would surely tell them the most important things on his mind to safeguard the church in the future without him. They must first realize that the gospel of the grace of God is a most solemn thing; it is not to be treated lightly. Paul had accepted the possibility of martyrdom, if necessary, in order to preserve the integrity of the gospel and to fulfill his calling (v. 24).

Warning Against False Teachers (20:28-31, 33)

20:28 Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock . . . .

20:29-31 For I know this, that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.

Paul’s first concern was that false teachers with false doctrines would arise from outside and from inside the church after he had gone. From past experience he knew that others would follow him and preach a “different” gospel (Gal. 1:6-7). “Take heed,” he said, “savage wolves” from outside Ephesus and “men speaking perverse things” within the church would not spare the flock and would draw away disciples to themselves (vv. 28-30).

God’s Inheritance Will Suffice

20:32 And now, brothers, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

What a great pity it is! The last four verses of Paul’s farewell sermon concern money going in the wrong direction! Surely Paul would have preferred to end his career at Ephesus on a better note. Perhaps he feared that the ravenous wolves he just mentioned were going to pervert the gospel he preached by coming in and fleecing the flock. There must be some connection between those Paul warned about and the direction of the flow of money.

Just think about it! This is an extremely important last farewell sermon to some of his nearest and dearest fellow workers in the gospel. He will never see them again, and, of all things, he warned them about false teachers. Hinting that the elders were concerned about their financial future, Paul told them that God “is able to build you up and give you an inheritance,” and then he gave his own example of his attitude towards wealth. It seems as if Paul had peered into the future and had seen the rich church leaders and their poor parishioners throughout the ages. The solution he presented for staying in the center of God’s will was to allow God’s Word to build them up and to remember our “inheritance,” that is, what we have in Christ.

Paul Chose His Right to Liberty Rather Than Financial Support

20:33 I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel.

20:34 You yourselves know that these hands have ministered to my necessities, and to them that were with me.

1 Cor. 9:18 What is my reward then? Truly that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I do not abuse my power in the gospel.

Paul had exercised his higher “right” to refuse adequate sustenance which would have allowed him more time to evangelize. In doing so he had refused his inferior “right” to financial sustenance which a few other gospel workers had evidently chosen to accept. Evidently Paul was so industrious and efficient making tents that his co-workers in the gospel did not have to ask for sustenance from the churches either. Oddly enough, Paul’s co-workers may have been more free to evangelize because their leader worked long hours night and day.

Imagine this — Paul, not the church, provided the “necessities” for his co-workers in the gospel. [How many are running in that direction to be just like Paul?] Although it is true that choosing the principle of liberty involves more sacrifices on our part, it is also true that it yields greater rewards in soul-winning.

At this verse I will repeat a very frank and amazing admission is made by George E. Ladd in the Wycliffe Bible Commentary: “Paul reminded the Ephesians of his custom of making tents not only to support himself but to provide for the needs of others with him. He quoted a saying of the Lord which is not recorded in any of the Gospels, about the blessedness of giving. . . . The main objective of giving in the early church was to provide for the needs of the poor brothers rather than to support the preaching of the gospel, as is the case today”.

Who Should Give What to Whom?

20:35 I have shown you all things, how that so laboring YOU [church leaders] 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.

Paul was concerned that too much money was flowing the wrong direction in the church! Using his own life as an example for others to follow, he said “so laboring, you ought to support the weak.” The Greek word for “labor” means hard work and toil. Thus, the Apostle Paul, in his very last recorded words to a large group of church elders at the very end of his missionary career, told them to follow his example, work hard, and help the poor. Robertson says that “support,” or “help,” is in the middle voice and means to do it personally.

Exactly the opposite of any doctrine of tithing is taught here! Instead of asking everybody to tithe in order to support himself, Paul was asking church elders to work harder in order to support the poor church members! Paul’s very last words of what he thought might be his very last sermon to the Ephesian elders is a quotation of Jesus which is not recorded elsewhere. In some unwritten tradition Jesus had said “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (see John 21:25). How many times have we heard these words used at offering time! Yet, how much of the offering goes back into the direction of the poor, as Jesus and Paul so earnestly preferred?

It is impossible to conclude from this chapter that Paul wanted tithes, offerings, or any other item provided to him on a regular sustenance basis. It is also clear that Paul preferred that other elders and gospel workers follow his example. Paul preferred the “high road” principle of gospel “liberty” over the “low road” principle of gospel “privilege.”

Again, I am not against full-time support of the clergy and missionaries as long as such support comes with “no strings attached” and is not the result of the false doctrine of tithing.

Paul’s Work Ethic

Acts 18:3 And because he was of the same craft, he stayed with them, and worked, for by their occupation [Greek: technee] they were tent-makers.

Paul insisted on working for a living. The Apostle was a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5). He was a teacher of the law of Moses trained under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and was therefore, a rabbi himself; however, he earned his living by making tents.

The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says, “It was customary for Jewish rabbis not to receive pay for their teaching, and therefore, Paul, who had been raised as a rabbi, had learned the trade of tent-making. The apostle did not at once launch into the evangelization of Corinth, but joined Aquilla and Priscilla in practicing his trade during the week. The Sabbaths he devoted to preaching in the synagogues (Acts 18:1-4).”

The New Bible Commentary says “even rabbis were expected to earn their living by manual labor and not to make the teaching of the law a means of gain; thus Paul maintained himself by leather.”

Acts 18:5 And when Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit [better, “the Word’] and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ.

Few Christians realize that Paul did not preach for a living! Acts 18:1-4 occurred during the second missionary journey; yet Paul was still working a secular job for a living! He worked at his trade six days a week and preached at least one day. Although Acts 18:5 is translated in most versions to give the impression that Paul stopped working for a while and preached full-time, these are only guesses about what the word “pressed” means in the context. I believe that the King James’ translation is best here. The Greek word is sun-eicheto (Strong’s 4912) which can also mean “compel,” or “pre-occupy.” Having been “depressed” from the outcome at Athens, Paul was elated by both the good news from Silas and Timothy. He certainly became “taken” with a new drive to witness for Christ. However, there is no compelling reason either in the context of Paul’s convictions, or in the varied definition of “pressed” to demand that the text proves that Paul ever worked long periods full-time as a gospel worker. (See sun-eicheto, Strong’s 4912).

It is clear that Paul personally never intended to stop performing manual labor and become a full-time salaried minister! His strict education, respect for tradition, and work-ethic compelled him to work very hard during the week from morning to evening. To the Thessalonians Paul said, “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak of covetousness; God is witness” (1 Thess. 2:5). He would not place himself in a position where he could be accused of preaching for financial gain. “Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ” (1 Thess. 2:6). Although Paul had a right to ask for financial assistance, “nevertheless” he did not exercise that right, and he urged others to follow his example (1 Cor. 9:12; Acts 20:35)!

Instead, Paul exercised his liberty in the gospel and freely chose to work. “For you remember, brothers, our labor and travail: for laboring night and day, because we would not be chargeable to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and un-blamably we behaved ourselves among you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:9-10). In performing hard physical labor, Paul said he was “devout, upright, and blameless” among believers.
The New Bible Commentary says, “This policy [working night and day] not only reflected a desire to be financially independent of those among whom they ministered, but it also marked them off from the ordinary religious traffickers of the day, and showed the converts a good example.” What an amazing statement!

2 Thess 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.

2 Thess. 3:7 For yourselves know how you ought to follow us; for we did not behave ourselves disorderly among you;

2 Thess. 3:8 Neither did we eat any man’s bread for free; but worked with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable [a burden or expense] to any of you;

2 Thess. 3:9 Not because we have not power [right to do so], but to make ourselves an example to you to follow us.

2 Thess. 3:10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

2 Thess. 3:11 For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.

2 Thess. 3:12 Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.

2 Thess. 3:13 But you, brethren, do not be weary in well doing.

2 Thess. 3:14 And if any man does not obey our word by this letter, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.

Since Paul had previously told how he worked night and day (1 Thess. 2:9-10), it is reasonable to conclude then that the repeat statement in his second letter applies especially, though not exclusively, to gospel workers who had stopped performing manual labor for a living (3:8 above). Paul’s counsel to “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly” in 3:6 is strong, especially if it refers to free-loading preachers. This was because they should follow his example (3:7). None of Paul’s traveling companions ate anything for free; they worked hard night and day to prevent owing anybody any favors (3:8). They did this, not because they had no legitimate rights to sustenance, but to be an example of Christian liberty for others to follow (3:9). In fact, Paul commanded that none should eat if they are lazy and not working (3:10). He personally considered those who refused to work to be disorderly busybodies who should be avoided (3:11-13). Of course, tithing is completely foreign to these discussions.

Paul personally denounced capable persons who depended on others for support. Was this an inspired opinion? Perhaps only for his time? Not appropriate for our times of affluence and freedom? In Galatians 6:2-6 the general work ethic is again discussed. While we should help bear each other’s heavy loads (Greek: baree), we have an individual responsibility to bear our own portion (Greek: phortion). According to Paul, so did gospel workers!

Paul Boasted about Not Burdening Churches for Money

Paul often boasted that he did not ask for money and was not a burden to the churches. Therefore he had much more freedom to preach the gospel with full conviction.

2 Cor. 11:7 Have I committed an offense in abasing myself that you might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel of God freely?

2 Cor. 11:8 I robbed other churches, taking wages [daily rations] of them, to do you service.

2 Cor. 11:9 And when I was present with you, and in need, I was chargeable [an expense] to no man; for that which was lacking to me the brothers which came from Macedonia supplied; and in all things I have kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself.

2 Cor. 11:10 As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting in the regions of Achaia [around Corinth].

2 Cor. 11:11 Why? Because I love do not love you? God knows.

2 Cor. 11:12 But what I want to do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we.

[2 Cor. 11:12 (TLB) I will do it to cut off the ground from under the feet of those who boast that they are doing God’s work in just the same way we are.]

2 Cor. 11:13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

2 Cor. 12:13 For in which way were you inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong.

2 Cor. 12:14 Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be burdensome to you; for I do not seek yours, but you; for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children [i.e. parents should provide for their children].

In its comments on Second Corinthians 11:8, The New Bible Commentary says, “Paul is really indicating that he did not receive wages at all for preaching the gospel. If what was given him for his support by other churches was to be regarded as ‘earnings,’ then he had in effect ‘robbed’ them since the service given was not to them but to the Corinthians.” Also, the Greek word for “wages,” opsoonion, means “daily rations” and is that which Roman soldiers were provided. For a real twist of modern logic, rather than receive sustenance from the Corinthians, as a spiritual parent, Paul felt that it was his obligation to care for their needs, rather than their obligation to take care of his needs (2 Cor. 12:14; Acts 20:35).

Paul Worked to Help the Needy

Jas. 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
Paul only received temporary partial sustenance from Philippi in Macedonia, not because he was due any tithe, or offering, but because he was in need. In contrast, he told churches in Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus that he refused to be a burden on them. The statements in First and Second Corinthians relating to giving are in the context of giving for the needy, both church members and otherwise. True Christian religion is not found in a system of tithing to support a hierarchy of church officers, but in helping the needy. At least to Paul, every penny given for salaries is one penny not given to the poor. The gospel worker should (at least according to Paul’s ideal) earn his own living and give to the poor. Times have really changed, but so have social circumstances.

Early history reveals that church giving flowed from those who had more toward those who had less. However, today the huge cathedrals, fancy homes, cars, and clothes of the clergy mock Jesus words. Peter was poor and shared what he had to those poorer than himself (Acts 3:6). One proof of the great power of the resurrection was that the early church was fully capable of taking care of its own needy.

As a needy person, Paul received sustenance from Philippi because other churches did not contribute. The “main” church in Jerusalem plainly did not instruct Paul to solicit tithes and offerings for their support. Instead they only asked that Paul collect for the poor (Gal. 2:9-10).


Just because one has a “right” to act in a certain way does not make that “right” a necessity! Christ had a “right” to defend himself against false accusers, but often refused to use it. We have a “right” to take the nearest parking spot and force the elderly to walk farther, but that does not mean that we should do so. Paul wanted others to follow his example and disregard the “right” for the sake of the liberty of preaching the gospel in all its power. Again, it is a shame that a conservative Bible commentary must admit that, “The main objective of giving in the early church was to provide for the needs of the poor brothers rather than to support the preaching of the gospel as is the case today”.

Paul’s “churches” (rather, “assemblies of believers”) met in homes, not fancy buildings. Instead of going “from house to house” to worship, as Paul did in Acts 20:20, the vast majority of money given by believers today goes to pay for buildings and salaries, rather than to the poor. To most believers the word, “church,” brings up thoughts of a building rather than an assembly of believers. (On houses, see Acts 2:46; 5:42; 20:20; Rom. 16:5; 2 Tim. 3:6; Tit. 1:11).

What this New Covenant conclusion does to tithing is evident. The truth is a radical change from tradition and life under the principles of Mosaic Law. Paul’s last letters were written from 30-35 years after Calvary. Yet not a word is said about tithing. While specifically discussing the “matter of giving and receiving,” he called the gifts “a fragrant offering and an acceptable sacrifice” and, again, no mention is made of tithes (Phil. 4:15-18). On the other hand, Paul seemed concerned about greed, covetousness, and the love of money when writing to Timothy. Since such problem definitely existed, Paul addressed the problem of elders and deacons in regard to money matters.