Tithing in the New Testament

By: G. Ernest Thomas

Tithing has a relatively insignificant place in the New Testament. That fact explains why many contemporary leaders of the Christian Church have hesitated to accept and proclaim the tithe as an essential for Christian living.

It is important to discover why the New Testament writers failed to stress the tithe, while they continually spoke of money in such a manner that the tithe must have seemed a minimum necessity for followers of Jesus who were eager to fulfill their obligations to their faith.

The early Christian Church had to break away from the Law in the Old Testament in order to lay claim to the allegiance of the Gentiles of that day. In Jerusalem, at the end of his Second Missionary Journey, the Apostle Paul fought and won the battle with the legalism then prevailing in the Jewish section of the Christian Church. It was clear to Paul, and it soon became evident to other leaders in the early Church, that Christianity would be greatly handicapped, and might eventually end as an obscure sect, if faithfulness to the Law rather than to the teachings of Jesus was made the first demand upon the new converts to Christianity.

Tithing had a definite and unmistakable association with Old Testament Law. In the centuries which preceded the Christian era the Hebrew people regarded tithing more and more as a fulfillment of meticulous commandments in the Law rather than as an act of worship arising out of the awareness of
Jehovah’s providential care. Tithing became less an act of dedication than a tax which was levied upon every citizen.

It is easy to understand why the New Testament writers were silent upon this theme when we consider the history of tithing in Hebrew life. Yet many current critics express opposition to the principle of tithing on grounds totally different from those which dictated the silence of New Testament writers on the subject. Jesus and those who wrote the Gospels and the Epistles never regarded their broader emphasis upon stewardship, and their warnings about the use of money, as an invitation to faithful followers of
Christ to give less than a tenth of their income to God’s work. Their teachings and writings assumed that the tithe was not enough. Their challenge was for Christians to go farther than the Jews did in their
traditional regard for the tithe.

It is at this point that the modern critic of tithing most frequently falls into difficulties. Too often those who regard tithing as a legalistic principle are looking for a justification by which church members can give
lesser amounts, and still be regarded as faithful. The eloquent assurance that “all that I have belongs to God” often becomes the curtain behind which one hides when he wishes to give meagerly to the church and to those causes which help to build the kingdom.

A certain church official was well known for his lack of generosity in giving. On one occasion he piously defended himself by saying, “Of course I do not tithe. Tithing is legalistic. I believe that all I own belongs to
God.” Someone who knew the man well was heard to whisper to a companion, “The Lord would come out far ahead if he could have even a tenth of that man’s income.”

No Christian is justified in criticizing tithing as Old Testament legalism if he is motivated by a desire to escape his obligation to give generously to the work of God in the world.

Tithing a Part of Stewardship

The New Testament offers a revelation, beyond any given in the old covenant, to the followers of Jesus who seek to be faithful in the use of their money. The Christian teaching calls for an attitude of stewardship.
It assumes that God is the giver of all, and therefore the owner of all life. Money is God’s. A man is responsible for that portion which he has in his possession. All wealth is God’s and every man is privileged to administer it as a sacred trust.

This teaching does not do away with the tithe. Indeed, the idea of Christian stewardship places emphasis upon tithing as a practical and historic measure of giving which is available for any person who seeks to
be faithful to his stewardship.

The Gospels report only two occasions when Jesus of Nazareth mentioned tithing. Both of those references are significant, however, because they reveal the unexpressed assumption which Jesus made that His followers would practice tithing.

Both Matthew and Luke record the passage in which Jesus implied that tithing is expected of those who propose to be faithful to God. His words are a scathing rebuke to people who substitute legalism for spiritual reality, but they also assume the idea of tithing. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” cried Jesus, “for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these ye ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23-24).

Here Jesus is rebuking them for injustice, lack of mercy, and lack of faith. He did not free His followers from the obligation to tithe; He assumed that they would at least go that far in their evidence of devotion
to their Heavenly Father.

The early Church faced the problem created by those followers of Jesus who endeavored to avoid the implications of tithing by relegating it to an Old Testament custom. John Chrysostom, who lived from A.D. 347-407 was outspoken in his criticism of those Christians who endeavored to avoid their obligations by attacking the principle of the tithe. “For what, in dealing with this obligation,” he said, “did the Jews not do? They contributed tithes, and tithed again for the orphans, widows, and proselytes. Now, however, we are wont to hear such and such a one say with astonishment, ‘So and so gives tithes!’ How great a disgrace, I ask, is this: and what among the Jews was no matter of astonishment or celebrity, has now among Christians become a matter of surprise. If it were a dangerous thing to fail in giving tithes then, to be sure it is much more dangerous now.

Jesus did not feel that His mission was to overthrow the Law. He said, “I came not to destroy, but to fulfill the Law.” He expected more from His Heavenly Father than was promised in the Law, and He Himself gave greater allegiance than that which was demanded by the Law. But He never indicated that His followers were to find an easier path of loyalty by giving less of their money and of their talents to their Heavenly Father than did a faithful child of Israel.

Jesus mentioned tithing on one other occasion. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, He quoted the Pharisee as saying: “I tithe of all that I possess.” In speaking critically of this man’s religion there
are those who argue that this passage is an indication that Jesus was opposed to tithing. Following the same reasoning, we must also assume that He was opposed to prayer. The criticism of Jesus here was leveled against the manner of prayer as well as at the legalism implied in the habit of tithing. Jesus was rebuking the pharisaic idea that formal tithing and formal prayer are acceptable to God as a substitute for humility and sacrifice.

The Gospels do not report a single teaching of Jesus which excuse His followers from the need to acknowledge the goodness of God by giving a tithe of their material goods. He challenged those who loved Him to go farther than the tithe in recognition of their debt to the Creator. It was a debt which could be paid by a faithful stewardship of all life’s possessions.

Money Often Mentioned

No subject in the New Testament is discussed with greater frequency, and more directly, than the matter of money. The writers had differing purpose in writing each of the Books, but almost every one of the Gospels and the Epistles gives a prominent place to a discussion of the relationship between money and a vital faith in God.

Much is said in the teachings of Jesus, and in the instructions given to the early Church, concerning the dangers of money to the life of the soul and to the abundant life. Jesus returned to that theme again and again. “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!” he said (Mark 10:23). When His disciples expressed amazement at that statement, He continued, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).

When Jesus discussed the idea of divine judgment for the human soul, He declared that the severest penalties will come to those who have been unfaithful in their stewardship of money. He related the familiar story of the man who had reaped bounteous material rewards from his labors. When the man planned to use his gains selfishly to build greater mansions and storehouses, Jesus declares that God spoke to him, saying: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose
will they be?” Then is he added a reminder for all those were listening to Him: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (See Luke 12:16-21.)

When He told the story of the dangers of accumulated wealth, Jesus did not mention tithing as a measure of a man’s giving, but the implication in His words leaves no room to doubt that He expected God’s people to give so generously that a tithe would, by comparison, seem a very small part.

The emphasis of the Master upon the dangers of money was accentuated by the leaders of the early Church. No more frightening picture appears in the Bible than the fate of Ananias and Sapphira when they proved unfaithful to their obligation to share what they had of material goods with their fellow Christians. No one can read of these misguided and selfish individuals without becoming aware that every Christian who possesses even a minimum amount of worldly goods is immediately confronted with the danger to the
life of his soul when money is used primarily to satisfy his personal desires.

The Apostle Paul spoke positively about the dangers of the use of money. On one occasion he wrote: “The love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith…” (I Tim. 6:10). He went on to give Timothy instructions which were to guide him in his teaching about money. “As for the rich in this world,” he says, “charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to be good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is me indeed” (I Tim. 6:17-19).

The writer of the Book of Hebrews is no less definite in his warnings concerning the dangers of money. “Keep your life free from love of money,” he says, “and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never fail you nor forsake you'” (Hebrews 13:5).

So also does James speak of the threat of wealth to the soul. He paints a vivid picture of a hot summer day when the scorching sun withers the grass and burns the flowers. “So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits” (James l:11b). Then James, who among all the New Testament writers is less prone to vivid words of denunciation, dramatizes the paralyzing dangers of money. “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you,” he says. “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire” (James 5:1-3).

These New Testament teachings must be understood against the background of the total attitude of the early Church toward riches. Jesus and His Disciples regarded every person as wealthy in the possession of the gifts and grace of God. These teachings are not merely a denunciatory word directed against the indefinite group who are outside the Christian fellowship. There is no encouragement here for the followers of Jesus to take self-righteous attitudes, and to rejoice in the scathing words which are meant to apply to someone else. We are all rich in the treasures which God has entrusted to us. Each one of us stands in mortal and eternal danger, if we are unwise and selfish in the use which we make of our material goods.

In view of the New Testament warnings about the use of money, the tithe as a measure of Christian devotion becomes not the end but the beginning of the sharing me. Its worthiness as a tested and useful measure of the stewardship of money becomes immediately apparent. A faithful follower of Jesus, after listening to stern warnings concerning the danger of wealth to the me of the soul, may turn to the tithe with the assurance that it is a workable, historic, and satisfying measure of loyalty.

Principles of Giving

It will be helpful to examine the positive teachings of the New Testament about the method and amount of giving. First, Christians are challenged to give regularly. That emphasis marks a change from the Old Testament association of tithing with periods of harvest, or the sales of flocks and herds. Paul enjoins the Christians at Corinth to make weekly gifts to the Christian cause. “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper… (I Cor. 16:2).

Evidence that regularity in giving was expected in the early Church is seen in the Second Letter of Paul to the Christians at Corinth. He is speaking of the offerings, and says, “Achaia has been ready [to give] since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them” (II Cor. 9:2-3). The measure of faithfulness in the Christian congregation was the regularity and generosity of the people.

Second, the New Testament Christians were challenged to give such offerings as would constitute a sacrifice. Jesus dramatized unforgettably that attribute of faithfulness by His story of the widow and her mite. The Master noted the woman as she placed two copper coins upon the altar. “Truly I tell you,” He said, “this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:3-4). The woman was praised because her gift was a genuine sacrifice. Jesus seemed to teach the idea that sacrificial gifts are the only worthy gifts which should be offered to our Heavenly Father.

This emphasis in the teachings of Jesus quickly found a place in the early Church. The Apostle Paul praised the sacrifices which were made by the Christians of Macedonia. “Their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… (II Cor. 8:2-3).

It became a mark of the early Church that the followers of Jesus gave generously of their money for the support of the Kingdom. Some of the earliest Greek and Roman authorities who commented upon the growing Christian movement were impressed by their willingness to give.

Aristides sent a letter to the Emperor Hadrian in Rome about the year A.D. 135. The Syriac version of that letter was only recently discovered. It becomes a vivid commentary upon the generous and unselfish giving of the early Christians.

“They [the Christians] walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not among them. They love one another. They do not refuse to help widows. They rescue the orphan from violence. He who has gives ungrudgingly to him who lacks. If they see a stranger, they take him home and entertain him as a brother. When one of their poor passes from this world, any one of them who sees it provides for his burial according to his ability… Truly this is a new people and there is something divine in them.”

All the evidence which can be found in the Scriptures and in the literature of the early centuries of the Christian era points to the unmistakable fact that the early followers of Jesus gave sacrificially of their material goods to the cause to which they had dedicated their lives.

Third, writers in the New Testament report that happiness comes to those who share their worldly goods. The key message of joy in giving is found in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul was laying the foundation for practices in the Church which were to become fixed in the centuries ahead. He said, “In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'” (Acts 20:35). While not taking any conscious thought for themselves, the early Christians learned that sacrificial giving brought happiness to the lives of those who were faithful in the use of their money.

This teaching is expressed at greater length in another letter which Paul wrote to Corinth. He says: “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap
bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you my always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (II Cor. 9:6-8).

New Testament Demands More

It is evident that the New Testament conception of giving never demanded less of faithful servants of God than did the legalism of the Old Testament. Rather, every challenge and every summons is couched in such
words that the Christian is called upon to make far more generous gifts than those which were required by the stern legalism of the earlier days. Instead of a pressing necessity, tithing becomes a satisfactory measure of the basic giving for all those who seek to be faithful to God.

The rewards of sacrificial giving are numerous, as seen in the experience of Christians in the early Church. Generous sharing makes for an abundant life every day, and develops as well those qualities of soul which become a foretaste of the life everlasting.

The New Testament has little to say directly upon the subject of tithing. However, a study of the New Testament books leaves no room for comfort and satisfaction for those who endeavor to utilize the meager mention of tithing as an excuse for parsimonious giving. The New Testament requires more of the followers of Jesus than the Old Testament asked of adherents to the Law. Tested at every point, the challenge of Jesus must be interpreted as requiring a greater amount of devotion and sacrifice.

As the Old Testament offers many instructions which help to guide the followers of Jesus who seek to pray or to worship, so the Old Testament has provided the tithe as a minimum measure of what is expected of those who would be faithful to God in the use of their money. To assume that the Christian life allows a lesser loyalty than that of the Old Testament is to miss the heart of the New Testament revelation of God’s nature and will.

The tithe may be a fumbling standard of a person’s giving, and measured by the New Testament concept of Grace, it is a poor place to stop; but for millions of Christians the tithe is a first and essential step in moving
away from the kind of life which is dominated by materialistic desires. The tithe is a doorway to an abundant life.

(The above material was taken from the book Spiritual Life Through Tithing.)

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