Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
(1) TITHING WAS BEFORE THE LAW AND IS THEREFORE AN ETERNAL MORAL PRINCIPLE
A tradition is not automatically an eternal moral principle merely because it is very old, very common and very widespread. The fact that tithing was a common law of the land before the Bible was written does not make it a moral principle. Idolatry, worship of astrological bodies, child sacrifice, temple prostitution, witchcraft and necromancy are equally very old, very common and very widespread in pagan cultures. The practice of giving is found in natural law, but an exact percentage is not.
In obedience to the law of the land Abraham tithed before the Law of Moses. But that does not prove that tithing is an eternal moral principle. If we followed Abraham’s example (as we are told), (1) we would only tithe spoils gathered from our enemies; (2) we would only tithe once; (3) we would not tithe any of our own property and (4) we would give the 90% to the equivalent of the king of Sodom. See my book, chapter two and my essay, Tithing is Not a Christian Doctrine, point four.
(2) TITHING IS THE BIBLICAL STANDARD, THE MINIMUM STARTING POINT AND/OR “IT’S A GOOD PLACE TO START”
This lie is built on two false assumptions: (1) that everybody in the OT was required to begin their level of giving at 10% and (2) that everybody in the OT gave 10% of all increase as a tithe regardless of where they lived.
First, only those Israelites who earned a livelihood from farming and herding clean animals inside Israel were required to tithe under the Mosaic Law. All sixteen (16) of sixteen (16) Bible texts which describe the contents of tithes porve tihis point. The tithe increase only came from God’s miracle hand. Second, those whose increase came from their own crafts and skills were not required to tithe products and money. The poor and needy who did not tithe and received from the tithe gave freewill offerings. See my book, chapter one and my essay, point two.
(3) TITHES ARE THE SAME AS FIRSTFRUITS
The first-fruit was a very small amount of the first crop harvest and the first-born was the first offspring of animals. The first-fruit was small enough to fit into a hand-held basket (Deut. 26:1-4, 10; Lev. 23:17; Num. 18:13-17; 2 Chron 31:5a).
First-fruit and first-born offerings went directly to the Temple and were required to be totally consumed by ministering priests only inside the Temple (Neh. 10:35-37a; Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 18:4). Tithes went directly to the Levitical cities (Neh 10:37b) and a small portion was then taken to the Temple storehouse (Neh 10:38-39).
Teaching that the first tenth of ones increase must go to the church organization is wrong. It is not taught to the Christian or the Church . It violates the instruction found in 1st Timothy 5:8 that one acts like an infidel if one does not care for family essentials first. And it robs the poorest in society of food, medicine and necessary care.
(4) TITHES INCLUDE MONEY
One argument to support non-food tithing is that money was not universally available and barter from food must have been used for most transactions. This argument is not biblical. Genesis alone contains “money” in 32 texts and the word occurs 44 times before the tithe is first mentioned in Leviticus 27. The word shekel also appears often from Genesis to Deuteronomy.
In fact many centuries before Israel entered Canaan and began tithing food from God’s Holy Land money was an essential everyday item. For example money in the form of silver shekels paid for slaves (Gen 17:12+); land (Gen 23:9+); freedom (Ex 23:11); court fines (Ex 21 all; 22 all); sanctuary dues (Ex 30:12+); vows (Lev 27:3-7); poll taxes (Num 3:47+), alcoholic drinks (Deu 14:26) and marriage dowries (Deu 22:29).
According to Genesis 47:15-17 food was only used for barter after money had been spent. Banking and usury laws exist in God’s Word in Leviticus even before tithing. Therefore the argument that money was not prevalent enough for everyday use is false. Yet the tithe contents never include money from non-food products and trades.
(5) THE CHURCH IS THE STOREHOUSE AND THE TITHE MUST BE TAKEN THERE
Thie lie can be easily refuted from both the Bible and from early church history. First, the OT Temple which was a literal physical building has been replaced by the body of the individual believer in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Second, the word “church” means “assembly” and not a building. The early church did not even have buildings for over 200 years after Calvary.
(6) THE FULL TITHE MUST GO TO THE PREACHER
This lie is a gross distortion of the OT doctrine of tithing under the Law. First, the OT tithe went to the Levites who were both servants to the priests and who also served as government employees. Second, the Levites only gave a tenth of their tenth to the priests. Third, as tithe-recipients neither Levites nor priests were allowed to own or inherit land inside Israel.
All of these points are discussed in detail both in my book, Should the ChurchTeach Tithing, and in my essay, Tithing is Not a Christian Doctrine.
Russell Earl Kelly, Ph. D.
Reply to Letter, March 4, 2008
The “10% is a good place to start” is the clarion call of my own Southern Baptist background. They give that reply automatically without any thought whatsoever.
It sounds good — but it is not biblical. It is based on the false assumption that every OT Hebrew was required to BEGIN his giving at 10% of income —which is not biblical.
The truth is that 16 of 16 verses which DESCRIBE the CONTENTS of the tithe always only include food from the herds and farms from INSIDE Israel. Tithes were still only food 1000 years later in Malachi 3:10-11 and 1400 years later in Matthew 23:23. Read Alfred Edersheim’s Sketches of Jewish Social Life. A Hebrew who lived outside of Israel could not bring a tithe from other lands. And the INCREASE was not from man’s hand; it was from the herds and lands which God had MIRACULOUSLY increased. The increase can only come from God. That prevents man from claiming that he had a part in crafting the increase. These points are missed by tithe-teachers.
Is 10% a good starting place, a minimum starting place, training wheels for giving (Randy Alcorn) or a minimum expectation (Southern Baptists)? It sounds good — but it is not from God’s Word. Why? The Mosaic Law required a double portion to the firstborn male. That would make the land portions too small and force most out of land ownership within 4-5 generations. The displaced persons would work as day-laborers for their richer relatives (the first-born lineage) or move into the cities and take up trades for a livelihood.
The day-laborers would not be required to tithe if the tithe had already been paid by the landowner. And the craftsmen would not be required to tithe because the increase came from their own hand rather from a miracle from God.
Use 10% as a guideline if you wish. It is better than nothing. But do not say that it is taught in God’s Word. That is what I am saying. In his book on Malachi the esteemed J. Vernon McGee says that the problem with a lot of wealthy tithers is that they stop at 10% when they should give more. I agree and it is hurting the churches. There is no set percentage in the New Covenant. It is probably true that most Christians should give MORE than 10%. That is sacrificial giving.
My complaint it that many poor are giving sacrificially when they give less than 10% and they should not be made to feel like cursed and second-class church members. Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 5:8 that we are worse than the infidels if we do not take care of our family’s essentials needs FIRST. And the poor who cannot give 10% do not hold church offices even though they may have great spiritual gifts. That is contrary to James, chapter two and 1 Corinthians 12.
Calling the tithe FIRSTFRUIT is also very wrong. The tithe was the TENTH. The biblical “firstfruits” were extremely small token offerings which must be eaten inside the Temple by the ministering priests per Deu 26:1-5 and Neh 10:35-37.
“Corban” was a method of taking that which rightfully belonged to the invalid elderly parents and promising it to God. The same kind of “corban” is attached to tithing when it is called “firstfruits.” In the CBS video my own wife was told she would be cursed if she stopped tithing in order to buy medicine for her sick husband. Howard Dayton basically said the same thing to a mother who was drowning in debt; she must continue tithing.
I do not think that God gets the glory from that kind of false theology. Read the blogs on the CBS site and see how many are out of the church because of that kind of garbage doctrine.
In Christ’s love
LAW: STEALING A BASE OR A BALL
Pro-tithers often retreat to the last battlefield of Abraham and Jacob and content that tithes were more than food from inside Israel.
For the following reasons I think this hermeneutic is wrong.
1. It ignores the law of the land and refuses to accept anything from outside the Bible regardless of how well it can be verified from extra-biblical sources.
2. It ignores the fact that these pre-Law tithes were not holy tithes from inside God’s unique holy land of Israel.
3. It ignores the fact that these pre-Law tithes had not been miraculously “increased” by God’s hand rather than by man’s hand.
4. Most important, the tithe taught in the Law are, without a doubt, defined by the Law and are not defined by pre-Law tithes. Leviticus 27:34 reminds the reader “These are the commandments, which the LORD commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mount Sinai.” Numbers 18:8 calls itself an “ordinance” of the Law. Nehemiah 10:29, the context of Malachi, says “They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes.” Malachi 4:4 reads “Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments.” And Matthew 23:23 is in the context of “matters of the law.” None of these texts apply to the Church.
5. A court of law would not permit a definition of “tithe” from outside the boundary of the Law being discussed, that is, the Old Covenant Law of Moses given at Sinai.
For example the word “steal” in baseball mans to “steal a base” while the word “steal” in basketball and football means to “steal the ball.” It is the same difference trying to define “tithe” from pre-Law when the context is Law.
6. When Jesus used the word “tithe” he used it in the context of its definition from the law.
7. Therefore the argument that tithes can includes money and materials from outside God’s holy land should be thrown out on the grounds that neither the Law nor Jesus defined it as such.