A Biblical Understanding of Tithing (Part 2: New Testament)

In the first post on tithing in the Mosaic Law, I outlined specifically how the tithe was to be used by the Israelites. The tithe, always food, was both eaten in celebration for God’s provision and also used to provide for those who were in need. Only a tenth of the tithe was specifically taken in the third and sixth year for those Levites ministering within the temple itself.  As we saw in Malachi 3, when the Israelites neglected to follow these commands and did not provide for those in need, God placed the land under a curse.

With the Old Testament tithing regulations alone, we already know the heart of God in giving is focused on providing for those who are truly in need.  God cares for the weak, the humble, and the down-trodden. This becomes even more clear as we begin to study what Jesus and the Apostles taught in the New Testament.

Christians Aren’t Bound by Tithing Laws

There actually is very little said about tithing in the New Testament.  This is mostly because tithing is something that was specifically for the Jews who were under the Mosaic Law. Once the temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, it would be impossible even for practicing Jews to fully observe the tithing commands.

When the question of whether the Gentile believers needed to submit to the Mosaic Law through circumcision, the church leaders were clear that they were not under the Mosaic Law.  Instead, they were only told “to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (Acts 15:20) Of course, we are still under the Law of Christ (which is different than the Mosaic Law), since obedience to God in regards to good and evil existed since the beginning of time.

So instead of focusing on tithing, we’ll have to study the heart of the matter.  We’ll look at financial giving in the New Testament and apply this to our understanding of modern “tithing.”

Jesus Emphasized Giving to the Needy

One could easily write a book about Jesus and giving, since generosity was a major theme of His teaching. We’ll touch on a couple key verses here, but they consistently teach us to care for those in need.

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus directs us to not hesitate to give when someone asks us for something.  He told his disciples, “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)  This applies not only to our friends, but even our enemies.  We are not to show partiality.

Later Jesus taught in parables, explaining the Day of Judgement when all the nations are gathered before Him.  Those who are welcomed into the kingdom are those who cared for the needy.

34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ (Matthew 25:34)

I could go on, but Jesus’ teachings are clear and consistent. Those who are obedient to Jesus are generous with their possessions towards those in need. And when we give, we are not to “sound a trumpet” before us, so our charity is noticed by others. Rather, we are to give in secret and God will reward us in eternity. (Matthew 6:4) There is a reason why Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21) Only those who are willing to put the needs of others above their own are worthy of the kingdom of God.  This is key to understanding God’s intention to giving.

Practices in Early Church

After Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples, the early believers lived out Jesus’ teachings within the Christian community almost immediately.  Luke tells us in Acts 2:44-45 that “all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;  they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.”  They were not only supporting one another financially, but sharing life with one another.

As time went on, this attitude of sharing only continued within the fledgling church in Jerusalem.

32 And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Notice what happens after the financial proceeds were given to the apostles. It did not go to acquiring land for a church building or to the leader’s salaries. No, it was distributed back to the believers “as any had need” (v. 35). This was not a mandatory practice, but was done freely without compulsion.  As Peter told Ananias when he brought only a portion of his proceeds, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” (Acts 5:4)  Whenever someone did freely give to the church, the apostles redistributed back out to the church members.

Contributions Towards the Jerusalem Famine

In addition to the mutual support occurring within the local church, more extreme circumstances within the larger geographic area required special care.  Through the Holy Spirit, the believers learned that a severe famine would soon arise.  This required additional financial contributions to be taken across all of the Christian communities to support those most adversely affected.

27 Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders. (Acts 11:27-30)

In 1 Corinthians, we read the specific instructions Paul gave to the Corinthian church in regards to this specific collection.

Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem; and if it is fitting for me to go also, they will go with me. (1 Corinthians 16:1-4)

Addressing practical concerns, Paul instructed the Corinthians to put aside a portion money every week, as they were willing and able. Essentially, Paul was encouraging them to start a savings plan, in order that the contribution would already be together upon his arrival. This monetary gift would then be sent to the Jerusalem church where the famine hit the hardest.

In Paul’s second letter to the same Corinthian church, he speaks of the generosity of the churches elsewhere towards their fellow believers. They gave “of their own accord,” meaning they gave exactly as each personally decided, regardless of the amount.

For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints (2 Corinthians 8:3-4)

Clearly, we see a biblical example being set by the early church. Financial giving was done specifically in response to a known need among the church.  Furthermore, any giving that was done was not mandated by the apostles, but was rather done freely as each felt led.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  And that’s exactly what we see in scripture.  The early church gave cheerfully out of their abundance to support the needs of their brothers and sisters, so that “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack.” (2 Corinthians 8:15)

Paul’s Pastoral Example

The closest example we have from scripture that reflects the current practice of giving to support church leaders can be seen through Paul’s ministry. Paul, like some of the other apostles, traveled from city to city throughout the Roman empire preaching the gospel.

This itinerant lifestyle made it more difficult to earn a living for most evangelists.  For this reason, Paul is clear that those who work for the gospel should be allowed to receive compensation so they could continue their work.  He appeals to Jesus as the authority for his instruction, saying “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14).

Despite having this right to be supported by the church, Paul said “we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” (1 Cor. 9:12) He was able to do this, since he could support himself through his tent-making business (Acts 18:3), allowing him to be financially independent. Paul again emphasizes his decision to not receive compensation from the Corinthian church several sentences later in verse 15.

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:15–18)

Although Paul did not take money from those he directly ministered too, we do know that at one point he received some support from the church in Philippi. (Phil 4:15)  We also find this mentioned by Paul in 2 Corinthians.

And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so. (2 Corinthians 11:9)

What can we take away from this?  1) The Lord allows those who are working for the gospel to receive a living from their work, especially in a culture where itinerant travel hindered any ability to hold down a job. 2) Despite having this right, Paul wanted to ensure he was not hindering the gospel by accepting compensation.  He sets an example by working hard as a tent-maker to support his own needs. 3) Even when he did receive some funding, this was not from those he was directly ministering to. By his own admission, Paul “worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone” while preaching the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

Summary of Biblical Teachings on Tithing and Financial Giving

As we covered in part 1, the heart of the Mosaic Law tithing commandments focused on giving thanks to God for his provision, and just as importantly, providing food for those in need. Even the tenth of the tithe brought to the temple was to provide food for those ministering there. We saw God’s love for the down-trodden through these commands and the consequence of ignoring it was severe.  In Malachi, God rebuked the Israelite’s for neglecting the Mosaic tithing system. They would be under a curse until they would obediently begin to provide food for their needy widows, orphans, foreigners, and Levites. Overall, the tithing system was designed specifically for the Israelite nation, and only the heart of caring for others can be applied within our modern churches.

The importance of providing for the needy, seen in the Old Testament, is even more pronounced in the New Testament. Jesus repeatedly taught to give generously, just as God has provided for us. The early church shared everything in common, even selling property and redistributing the proceeds back out to those who needed it the most. When the famine arose, a voluntary collection was taken from churches across the Roman empire and many generously contributed. It was important to Paul that financial resources be used wisely and only as necessary. Consequently, throughout his own evangelistic ministry, Paul went out of his way to not receive support from those he was ministering to despite having the right to do so. He sets a high standard to anyone wishing to go into ministry full-time.

Now that we know what the scripture teaches in regards to tithing and giving in general, what does this really mean for us? How do we apply this within our Christian communities?  These are more difficult questions, some of which don’t have clear cut answers. I’ll reflect on this in part 3, and share my thoughts now that the foundation of scripture has been established.

 

4 thoughts on “A Biblical Understanding of Tithing (Part 2: New Testament)

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