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How Should Christians Understand Tithing?

"The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.”

Psalm 24:1

When the topic of biblical stewardship and finances comes up, what is one guiding principle that quickly comes to mind? The most common answer is almost certainly tithe. And yet, for a word that is so common in the language of church life, there’s a good deal of misunderstanding about what it means. So let’s clear up some of the confusion by looking at what the Bible teaches about tithing and the Christian’s relationship to it.

First of all, the tithe (which simply means “a tenth”) was the basic pattern of giving in the Old Testament. From the beginning, the Jewish people were to bring tithes of their crops and livestock to the Lord (Lev. 27:30). These tithes were brought to the Levites, who would then give a tenth of the tithe to the priests. This pattern was established firmly and fairly in the Mosaic law, but as spiritual indifference set in among the people, the practice fell into disregard. For example, we read of Nehemiah’s dismay when he discovered that this practice was being neglected: “I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them …. So I confronted the officials and said, ‘Why is the house of God forsaken?’” (Neh. 13:10–11).

Secondly, we observe that while tithing is the pattern of giving in the Old Testament, it is not stated as an obligation in the New Testament. There we are confronted by an eloquent silence. This silence must be significant. We would expect that someone like Paul, with his intimate knowledge of the law, would have affirmed the Old Testament pattern, or at least alluded to it as a principle to be applied. But he does not.

How, then, is a Christian to respond to these two observations? Should we tithe in the way the Israelites were commanded to do, or do we ignore that pattern, the way the New Testament seems to?

It is true that the tithe is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament—but neither is it explicitly rejected.

Let’s make one more observation before drawing either one of those conclusions: it is true that the tithe is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament—but neither is it explicitly rejected. So while we are not to offer tithes as a matter of obedience to the Old Testament law, neither should we simply ignore the principle. The idea of giving ten percent could be a good starting point for Christians. But should we leave it at that?

If we’re not careful, the principle of the tithe can be used to alleviate our conscience as we give the bare minimum and try to keep God out of our business. The problem with that kind of approach is that, as the psalmist writes, “The earth is the LORD’s”—including every last penny and possession we claim as ours! No matter what percentage we “give” to God, He owns it all.

The relationship of the Christian to the principle of tithing, then, is not a neat-and-clean one. Ten percent may be far too much for you at the moment—or it may be far too comfortable! So perhaps the best way for us to respond is to use that number as a starting point, and then to ask God for wisdom and integrity as we look at our finances and at our hearts, expecting Him to reveal how we can most faithfully use our finances for His glory.

Adapted from the sermon “Pattern for Giving” by Alistair Begg

Grace of Giving

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.