Are we really poor miserable sinners?
In a new series, David Instone-Brewer becomes the Doctrine Detective and investigates whether there’s really a biblical basis for many popular teachings. This month: Should Christians be tithing 10%?
Are you likely to be found fumbling in every pocket when the offering comes round at church? Or are you that organised person (beloved by the church treasurer) who has previously filled out a standing order form? Either way, you will need to decide how much you are going to give: is it really one tenth, as many Bible teachers say? Delving into rarely visited Old Testament passages unearths some extremely practical and innovative principles about money.
The concept of tithing – giving a tenth of one’s income – is certainly found in the Old Testament, but the details are enlightening, and the amount given was always more than 10%. When the 12 tribes of Israel came to Canaan, the Levites (the religious workers) were not given any farmland of their own, so they had to be supported by others. This gave the Levites freedom to live throughout the land, and freedom to devote themselves to supporting their neighbours.
The early Church decided that supporting religious workers was one of the Old Testament laws that they wanted to maintain. However, as the Church grew, the number of church leaders was far fewer than one in 12 of the population, as it was in Israel; and consequently the top church leaders grew very rich. In medieval times, the Church built tithe barns where everyone who farmed even the tiniest strip of land had to deliver a tenth of their harvest. This kept the bishops and their clergy in relative luxury. And even today, it is often the wealthiest churches that teach tithing most assiduously. But is this what the Bible actually teaches about supporting the Church?
In fact, the law of Moses demanded three tithes of 10%. As well as the tithe for the Levites, there was a Festival Tithe and a Poor Tithe. By Jesus’ day, the Jews interpreted this in a way that reduced it to 20%, because they couldn’t afford 30% on top of
the Roman taxes. So they paid the Poor Tithe about every third year and the Festival Tithe on other years.
I am really surprised by the Festival Tithe – it was a lovely provision for families and unique among the ancient nations. In some ways it was a ‘compulsory savings account’ for holidays and celebrations. The money was put aside throughout the year and could only be spent on food and other expenses during festivals in Jerusalem. These were the only types of holidays the Israelites took, and they were expensive! Each holiday included at least one sacrifice in the Temple. The sacrificed animal was eaten by family and friends; usually only the inedible bits were burned on the altar. This meant that during the festival you were quite likely to eat a roast meal every day! Since most families rarely ate meat, this made the holiday significant and special.
THE POOR TITHE
The Poor Tithe helped those who had no land or occupation, or those who were too sick to work. Everyone put aside a tenth of their harvest or income, and local distributors gave weekly allowances to the poor in their community. Itinerant beggars only got one day’s food at a time to prevent them claiming a weekly handout in different villages. Jesus and his disciples fell into this distrusted category as we see in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (ESV). The normal Jewish daily prayer thanked God for the annual harvest, not for the daily or weekly handout.
THE NEW TESTAMENT DOESN’T GIVE US ANY COMMANDS ABOUT A TITHE
But even farmers were liable to go hungry after the Sabbath year – the seventh year of the agricultural cycle in which they rested the land by not planting or harvesting. The previous year’s harvest had to last them two years, so the poor tithe was especially
important during this time. Ancient historians tell us that severe hardships occurred when that crucial harvest was disrupted by war or social unrest.
PAUL’S TEACHING ON GIVING
The Old Testament laws about tithing might be complex, but didn’t Paul give his congregations some clear instructions about giving? He told the Corinthians to put aside money each week (1 Corinthians 16:2-3) but this wasn’t a general instruction; it was
for a special collection he was making for believers in Israel. This was likely to have been penned in AD 54 when Corinth (like many other places) was suffering famine, but Paul knew that there would be a much worse food crisis in Israel during the following two years. Perhaps a prophet had told him (Agabus foretold a previous famine in Acts 11:27-28), but actually anyone could have predicted it.
The following year was due to be a Sabbath year and those living in Israel hadn’t been able to store up enough food during the famine to last them until when they’d next have a harvest. I am amazed that these believers were prepared to make a sacrificial offering for a future need in another country – especially as they were suffering famine themselves at the time. Their generosity to complete strangers is inspiring.
WHAT ABOUT TODAY’S TAXES?
Today, we might argue that our state taxes towards welfare, pensions and health absolve us from giving to the poor as we already pay a quarter of our income to the poor and needy.
However, Paul’s congregations were also tax payers; yet Paul still asked them for money. He didn’t say that this collection was a tithe – it was in addition to any tithing they might choose to follow. These contributions didn’t fulfil any legal requirement; Paul said they should give out of generosity towards those who were suffering (2 Corinthians 9:7). He showed us that compassion for the poor is part of the Christian calling, just as it was part of Jewish life in the Old Testament.
Saving up for family events and celebrations (as seen in the Old Testament) is encouraged by many churches that help organise Credit Unions. These are a great alternative to high interest-rate loans from banks and other sources. For some, this can be a lifeline when unexpected expenses come up, and they are a good way of encouraging thrift and saving for family celebrations such as Christmas or holidays.
And, of course, Paul taught that churches and ministers deserve support too (1 Timothy 5:18) – although he doesn’t prescribe an amount. While Jesus and Paul say much about giving, the New Testament doesn’t give us any commands about a tithe – how much to give. What we do read is that God loves our willing gifts – not the ones extracted by enforcing rules. We are called to give through love, not legalism.