Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
JOHN OWEN DID NOT TEACH TITHING
Famous Calvinist Apologist
JOHN OWEN (1616-1683), HEBREWS 7, Observation XXIV
JOHN OWEN’S VIEWPOINT OF TITHING:
Restated and clarified by Russell Earl Kelly, Ph. D., www.tithing-russkelly.com
Owen: And without solicitousness concerning offense, I shall take leave to say, that it is no safe plea for many to insist on, that tithes are due and divine, as they speak, — that is, by a binding law of God, — now under the gospel.
Kelly: Knowing that he is going against the prevailing sympathy of the Church, Owen hesitatingly admits that many teach that gospel workers are now due tithes because they are the law of God.
Owen: For be the law and institution what it will, nothing is more certain than that there is nothing due under the gospel, by virtue of God’s command or institution with respect unto his worship, unto any who do not wholly give up themselves unto the ministry, and “labor in the word and doctrine;” unless they be such as are disenabled by age and infirmities, who are not to be forsaken all the days of their lives.
Kelly: Without approving of tithing, Owen strongly opposes paying any gospel worker anything from any source who is not wholly dedicated to ministry.
Owen: For men to live in pleasure and idleness, according to the pomp, vanities, and grandeur of the world, neither rising early, nor going to bed late, nor spending their time and strength in the service of the church, according to the duties required of all the ministers thereof in the gospel, to sing unto themselves that tithes are due to them by the appointment and law of God, is a fond imagination, a dream that will fill them with perplexity when they shall awake.
Kelly: Owen says that gospel workers who are not wholly dedicated hard workers only “imagine” or “dream” that they are due tithes.
Owen: But as unto the question in hand, I shall briefly give my thoughts about it in the ensuing observations and propositions:
Kelly: Owen does not claim to be the last inspired word on this subject. He is much more forceful when supporting Calvinism.
Owen: — By “tithes” is understood either (1) the express law of tithing, or (2) paying the tenth of all our substance and of the whole increase of the earth; or (3) only the dedicating of a certain portion of what we have unto the uses of the worship and service of God.
Kelly: Owen states several different possible definitions of “tithes.”
(1) The express law of tithing.
(2) Paying the tenth of all one’s substance and increase.
(3) Dedicating an indefinite portion, or percentage, of what one has similar to freewill offerings.
Owen is merely quoting what others believe. The true biblical HOLY tithe (from the express law of tithing) was always only food from inside God’s holy land of Israel which God has miraculously increased.
Owen: 1. If this latter be intended, it is with me past all doubt and question that a bountiful part of our enjoyments is to be separated unto the use and service of the worship of God, particularly unto the comfortable and honorable supportment of them that labor in the ministry.
Kelly: Owen has no quarrel with the (3rd above) definition of tithes as merely another word for freewill offerings. This will be his final observation XXIV that only freewill giving is for the Church today.
Owen: And it is no small part of that confusion which we suffer under, that Christians, being in all places compelled to pay the tenth by civil laws unto some or other, whether they will or no, are either discouraged, or disenabled, or think themselves discharged from doing that which God certainly requireth at their hands in a way of duty.
Kelly: Owen criticizes the civil state church for teaching that the “freewill portion” should be 10%, Some who are required to tithe to the state civil church (Anglican) become discouraged. Others erroneously think that such forced giving relieves them of other Christian duties.
Owen: However, this will be no excuse for any, for generally they have yet left unto them that whereby they may discharge their duty in an acceptable manner; and I cannot but wonder how some men can satisfy their consciences in this matter, in such circumstances as I shall not now name.
Kelly: Just because the state forces tithing to its official Church, such is no excuse to fulfill other Christian duties.
***Owen: 2. If the strict legal course of tithing be intended, it cannot be proved from this text [Hebrews 7] nor from any other instance before the law;
***Kelly: Owen now switches his attention to the strict OT law of tithing which (he thinks) teaches that everybody must give 10% of all their increase to the church.
Owen very clearly states that the law of tithing (from OT to the Church) cannot be proven either from Hebrews 7 or from any other Bible text. Owen does NOT believe that New Covenant tithing for the Church is biblical!
***Owen: [Genesis 14:18-20] … for Abraham gave only the tenth of the spoils, which were not tithe-able by law. For if the places taken or destroyed in war were anathematized, as Jericho was, and also Amalek, no portion was to be reserved, under a pretense of sacrifice or any other sacred use; as Saul found to his cost.
***Kelly: Unlike almost every tithe-teacher, Owen places no value on Abraham’s tithe because it was from accursed spoils of war which would have been rejected as tithes under the Law.
Spoils of War Tithes After Abraham
Owen: And if they were not anathematized, all the spoils were left entirely unto the people that went to war, without any sacred decimation. So the Reubenites and the Gadites, at their return over Jordan into their own land, carried all their rich spoils and cattle with them, no tithe being mentioned, Joshua 22:8; — although there is no question but many of them offered their freewill offerings at the tabernacle.
Kelly: This is new to me. Owen says that un-cursed spoils of war went to the conquerors and NOT to the priests for sacred use.
Owen: And when God would have a sacred portion out of the spoils, as he would have in the wilderness, out of those that were taken from the Midianites, to manifest that they fell not under the law of tithes, he took not the tenth part, but one portion of five hundred from the soldiers, and one of fifty from the people, Numbers 31:28-30. Wherefore the giving of the tenth of the spoils was not from the obligation of any law, but was an act of free-will and choice in the offerer.
Kelly: I disagree somewhat with this conclusion. Numbers 31 calls the commands a “statute-ordinance” and makes it an official statute-ordinance of the law –though far from being equal to the Levitical or HOLY tithes.
Owen: But yet there was so great an equity herein also, — namely, that God should have an acknowledgment in the fruits of those successes which he gave in war, — that out of the spoils of his and his people’s enemies David made his provision for the building of the temple. And the captains of the host that went against Midian, after a tribute was raised for the Lord out of the spoils according unto the proportions mentioned, when they found the goodness of God in the preservation of their soldiers, whereof there was not one lost, they made a new voluntary oblation unto God out of their spoils, Numbers 31:48-50.
Kelly: Owen agrees with me that spoils-of-war tithes could be used, not for HOLY Levitical purposes, but for Temple maintenance. Not discussed is the fact that this only applied to metals which could be cleansed by passing through fire per Numbers 31:23.
Genesis 28 and Jacob Tithes
***Owen: [Genesis 22] And as for the instance of Jacob, who vowed unto God the tenth of all, it is so far from proving that the tenth was due by virtue of any law, that it proves the contrary. For had it been so, it could not have been the matter of an extraordinary vow, whereby he could express his obedience unto God.
***Kelly: Owen really shows disdain for Jacob’s “tithe.” If it had been a commanded holy tithe, then it could not have also be a freewill vow.
Matthew 23:23 and Jesus’ Tithe Teaching
Owen: [Matthew 23:23] 3. The precise law of tithing is not confirmed in the gospel. For that saying of our Savior’s approving the tithing of mint and cummin, evidently respects that legal institution which was then in force, and could not be violated without sin. And by his approbation of that law, and of the duty in observance of it, he did no more confirm it, or ascribe an obligatory power unto it under the gospel, than he did so unto all those other ceremonial institutions which both he himself observed as a man made under the law, and enjoined others so to do. They all continued in full force “until the time of reformation,” which gave them their bounds and limits, Hebrews 9:10, and ended with his resurrection.
***Kelly: This is a remarkable conclusion from one of the greatest Calvinistic theologians of all time! He fully agrees with the position of Martin Luther and myself that Jesus’ remarks in Matthew 23:23 had absolutely nothing to do with the gospel.
Owen: His other saying, of “giving unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” respects our whole moral obedience unto God, and not this or that particular institution. The meaning of it is, that we are to pay or perform unto God all whatever he requireth of us in a way of obedience; but what that is in particular, is not here determined. And other mention of tithes in the gospel there is none.
Kelly: Owen is going through the list of common arguments to support tithing in his time.
Best Arguments for Tithing (to be rejected)
Owen: 4.  Whereas by the light of nature, all rules of reason and positive institutions, a portion of what God is pleased to give unto every may, is to be returned unto him, in the way of his worship and service, wherein it may be used according unto his appointment; and  whereas before the giving of the law sundry holy men fixed on the tenth part, as that which was meetest to be so dedicated unto God, and that, as is probable, not without some especial conduct of the Holy Spirit, if not upon express revelation;  and whereas this was afterwards expressly confirmed under the law by positive institution,  the equity whereof is urged in the gospel; (5) it is the best direction that can be given unto any what proportion of their estate should be set apart unto this purpose.
Kelly: Here Owen presents his best argument FOR tithing only to reject his own logic in the very next paragraph. (1) Whether by nature, reason or positive institution (law), “a portion of what God is pleased to give unto every may, is to be returned unto him.”(2) Certain men before the law were “probably” inspired by the Holy Spirit or express revelation o give a tenth. (3) Under the Law God made a positive institution that the amount should be 10%. (4) The gospel urges at least equal giving standards as the Law. Therefore (5) 10% is “the best direction that can be given unto any what proportion” is best to give. Conclusion: Owen is hesitant when he uses the word “probable” and “best direction that can be given.” I think that he is saying “If there WERE a certain percentage, then it should be 10%.”
However Owen has never dealt with the biblical facts that (1) the tithe was always only food from inside Israel, (2) tithes could not come from outside Israel, from what man increased or from Gentiles, and (3) not everybody in the Old Covenant began their level of giving at 10%. The percentage only applied to food producers who lived inside Israel.
Impossible to be Certain
***Owen: Herein, I confess, so many circumstances axe in particular cases to be considered, as that it is impossible any one certain rule should be prescribed unto all p0ersons.
***Kelly: Owen confesses that there are simply too many extenuating circumstances involved to make a definite declaration about tithing. “it is impossible any one certain rule (10% for all) should be prescribed unto all persons.” He calls it “impossible” to substantiate tithing from God’s Word for New Covenant believers.
Do Not Give Unconsecrated Preachers Good Arguments for Their Position
Owen: But whereas withal there is no need in the least to furnish men with pleas and excuses for the non-performance of their duty, at least as unto the necessary degrees of it, I shall not suggest any thing unto them which may be used to that purpose. I shall therefore leave this rule in its full latitude, as the best direction of practice in this matter.
Kelly: Owen does not want to validate anybody’s argument that tithes must be given to gospel workers –especially those who are not fully committed. He can only suggest a “best direction of practice” as the result (not of the tithing law or of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:23) but solely because of his “probable” guess that Abraham might have been told to give 10% by divine special revelation. In my opinion, this is very weak logic and I think that Owen knows that his own argument is weak. The next point is crucial to see Owen’s logic.
First Corinthians 9:7-14
***Owen: [1 Cor 9] . On these suppositions it is that the apostle, treating of this matter, makes no use of the right or law of tithing, though directly unto his purpose if it had not been abrogated. For intending to prove that the ministers of the gospel ought to be liberally supported in their work with the earthly things of them unto whom they do administer the things of God …
***Kelly: Owen is now arguing AGAINST his own just-mentioned conclusion that, if there were a definite percentage, then 10% should be the best direction. He points out (as I have) that, if 10% were for all Christians, then Paul missed his opportunity to teach such in First Corinthians 9 where the subject was that of gospel support. “If it (tithing) had not been abrogated,” then Paul would have taught tithing –but he did not.
***Owen: … [Paul] argueth from the light of nature, the general equity of other cases, the analogy of legal institutions, the rules of justice, with the especial institution of Christ in the gospel, but makes no mention of the natural or legal right of tithing, 1 Corinthians 9:7-14.
Kelly: Owen does not use the argument used by many that 9:14 only refers to 9:13. He agrees with my argument that 9:14 refers to 9:7 through 9:13 as a general principle.
Owen: And farther I shall not at present divert on this subject. And we may observe, that, — Obs. XXIV. Whatsoever we receive signally from God in a way of mercy, we ought to return a portion of it unto him in a way of duty.
Kelly: Owen’s final comment on the subject of tithing, his observation, is that all should return a “portion” but that “portion” is NOT 10%.
Owen: — That this was the practice of the saints of old might easily be proved by an induction of instances, from this act of Abraham (yea, from the sacrifice of Abel) down to the vow of Jacob, the dedications of David, Solomon, and others, in their respective places and generations. The light of nature also counted it as a duty among all the civilized heathens. The offerings and sacred dedications of nations and private families are famous on this account. And it was laid as a lasting blemish on good Hezekiah, that he rendered not unto the Lord according to the mercy which he had received.
Kelly: To demonstrate what Owen meant by the “portion, “ in addition to Abraham, he listed Abel, Jacob, David, Solomon and “the light of nature among all civilized heathens.”
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD