THE LAW OF TITHING IN BIBLICAL TIMES
& THE LAW OF TITHING IN THE NEW COVENANT CHURCH
Resolving a Complex Issue
by J.G.S.S.Thomson & Christopher C. Warren
The custom of tithing is a very ancient one and pre-dates the Mosaic Law (Genesis 14:17-20). It was practiced among many ancient peoples, including the Hebrews.
1. Requirements of the Tithe
The Torah legislated that "the seed of the land" (crops), "the fruit of the tree", and "the herd, or...the flock" were to be tithed (lev.27:30-32). The manner of tithing live-stock was as follows: the owner counted the animals as they passed out to pasture, and every tenth one was given to God. In this way there was no possibility of selecting inferior animals for the tithing of the flocks and herds (Lev.27:32f.). If a Hebrew preferred to dedicate the tenth of his cereal and fruit yields in the form of their monetary value he wad free to do so, but a fifth of that sum had to be added to it. He was not allowed to redeem the tenth of his flocks and herds in this way (Lev.27:31,33).
2. Recipients of the Tithe
The Tithes were paid to the Levites (Num.18:21ff). But in Hebrews 7:5 it is said to be the sons of Levi "who receive the office of the priesthood" who are to be the recipients of the tithes. This departure from the Law may have been due to the Levites' unwillingness to fulfil their duties in Jerusalem after the return after Ezra (Ezra 8:15ff). The Levites, because of the nature of their status and functions in the community, had no means of income, livelihood, or inheritance to ensure their support; therefore, and in return "for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle", they were to receive "all the tenth of Israel" (Num.18:21,24). This passage in Num.18 mentions only the tithings of cereal and fruit crops (v.27). The Levites, however, were not allowed to keep the whole of the tenth. They were directed to "offer up an heave offering" which was to be taken out of the tenth, representing "a tenth part of the tithe" (Num.18:26). This "tithe of the tithe" was to be "of all the best thereof" (v.29) and was to be given to the priests (v.28; Neh.10:39).
3. The Location of the Tithe Offering
The Hebrews were to bring their tithes "unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes, and put His Name there" (Deut.12:5f., 17f.); i.e. Jerusalem. And the offering of the tithes was to take the form of a ritual meal, in which the Levite was to share (Deut.12:7,12).If Jerusalem was a long way off from a man's village the transporting of the tithe of his crops might create a problem, but he could always take his tithe in the form of money (Deut.14:22-27). Every third year the tithe was to be offered in each man's own locality (Deut.14:28f.), although on these occasions he was still obligated to go up to Jerusalem to worship after the offering of his tithes in his home community (Deut.26:12ff).
4. Corruptions of the Law of Tithing
To these comparatively simple laws in the Pentateuch governing tithing there was added a host of minutiae which turned a beautiful religious principle into a grievous burden. These complex additions are recorded in the Mishnaic and Talmudic literature. This unfortunate tendency in Israel undoubtedly contributed to the conviction that acceptance with God could be merited through such ritual observances as tithing (Luke 11:42), without submitting to the moral law of justice, mercy, and faith (Matt.23:23ff.).
5. The Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthoods
The tithes paid by Abraham, the ancestor of Israel and, therefore, of the Aaronic priesthood, to Melchizedek (Gen.14:20), and his receiving the blessing of this priest-king (Gen.14:19), signifies in Hebrews 7:1ff. that Melchizedek's priesthood was infinitely superior to the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. Why Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek is not explained in Genesis 14:18-20.
THE LAW OF TITHING IN THE NEW COVENANT CHURCH
by Christopher C. Warren
We learn quite alot from the New Testament how the first Christians approached economic stewardship and find mention of three systems:
With three different systems of financial stewardship found in the New Testament, which should the modern Christian follow? It is argued by some that the gentile Christians actually did pay a tithe and that Paul's request to be generous was in fact a call to go beyond the tenth. We have no way of knowing. One thing that is certain is the spiritual thread that links all three systems, namely, that to give freely and generously is a sign of being in Christ. They do, in a way, represent three different degrees of financial stewardship
- (a) The Law of All Things In Common. It was the practice of the Church at Jerusalem to have "all things in common" (Acts 2:44) which was evidently the "apostles' teaching" (v.42). This particular economic law was practiced by those Christians who had achieved spiritual unity of mind and heart for "all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had...and much grace was upon them" (Acts 4:32-33, NIV). This is consistent with the change of Priesthood from Aaronic to Melchizedek, "for when there is a change of priesthood, there must also be a change of the law". The New Law for those entering the Christian Melchizedek priesthood is the law of all things in common;
- (b) The Free-Will Offering. A different law apparently obtained in the gentile congregations outside Israel, where unity was often a big problem (e.g. Rom.15:5; Eph.4:3,13; Col.3:14; etc.). Instead of "putting [all their money] at the apostles' feet" (Acts 4:35) or of giving fixed, specified amounts to defray congregational expenses, the gentile churches were to give "according to what one has", giving "what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor.8:12; 9:7, NIV). They were told to support "the elders who direct the church....especially those whose work is preaching and teaching" (1 Tim.5:17), yet at the same time the elders were not to "expect" to be supported. Paul set an example in seeking to avoid bringing an undue financial burden on the congregations he ministered to (Acts 18:3; 1 Thess.2:9).
- (c) The Law of Tithing. Throughout His ministry, Jesus criticized the legalistic way in which the Pharisees were obeying the law of tithing, for they paid it to build up merit and get a good reputation for themselves while neglecting much more important spiritual matters (Matt.23:23-24). But at no time did Jesus attack the tithing system as such -- which everybody agrees is the finest way ever devised to raise money for church purposes -- but rather rebuke its abuse. He stressed that only the tithe paid in love is pleasing to God. Millions of Christians live this principle today and can testify of the blessings they have received through faith in God's promises through his prophets (Mal.3:10-12).
New Covenant Christians regard the free-will offering as representing the substance of financial stewardship. Paying as one is moved in one's heart has much to commend it because that payment will reflect the sincerity of one's heart. Paying because one has to, and grudgingly at that, never pleased God. It is for this reason that the Free Will Offering is the financial law of unordained members. The saints pay according to their own consciences.
This system works so long as people are truly living with a pure conscience. Its weakness is that it provides no means of financial assessment, operating only on "promptings" which may, or may not, be the Holy Spirit. Some people are mean and pay little, and others are generous to foolhardiness.
It is here that the Law of Tithing helps us set landmarks in our financial stewardship. This is the law practiced by members of the Priesthood and is a condition of their service as priests and priestesses. Here they are taught to be more conscious of how they use their money by budgeting wisely and discerning between needs and wants (luxuries). The "free will" part still applies and is the spiritual foundation of tithing -- a tithe paid grudgingly is no tithe at all.
There are three different tithing systems in operation amongst Christians who observe this practice. The first and simplest, and perhaps most common, is paying a tenth of all one's increase, before tax and expenses. There is no doubt that this was the method practiced in the Old Testament. The people paid 10% of livestock, cereals and fruits, or (if they paid in money), 10.5% (10% + 5% of the 10%).
The second system is paying 10% after tax but before paying out necessities. The last, which is quite complex, is paying 10% after tax and basic necessities have been paid for. The latter two are modern developments devised to accommodate the complexities of the modern financial world.
The New Covenant Church of God at present follows the first and second systems, allowing its members to choose. It previously followed the third system. It practices the law of tithing as preparation for those entering the Holy Order where all things are held in common.
The tithing laws binding on Israel were not excessive. Nor should it be overlooked that God promised to prosper Israel by opening "the floodgates of heaven" if His tithing laws were observed (Mal.3:10; Deut.28:1-2,11-14). When the people became negligent in tithing, the priesthood suffered, for the priests and Levites were forced to spend their time in secular work and consequently neglected their ministerial services (Neh.13:10). Such unfaithfulness tended to bring about a decline in true worship. Yet when Israel was faithful and was under the rule of righteous administrators, there were no shortages (2 Chr.31:4-12; Neh.10:37-38; 12:44; 13:11-13).
Under the Law there was no stated penalty to be applied to a person failing to tithe. The Lord placed all under a strong moral obligation to provide the tithe; at the end of the three-year tithing cycle, they were required to confess before Him that the tithe had been paid in full (Deut.26:12-15). Anything wrongfully withheld was viewed as something stolen from God (Mal.3:7-9).
Paying a full tithe with integrity of heart is a condition of members of the New Covenant Church of God being able to worthily partake of the Lord's Supper.
By what right, though, does a Church change tithing systems? Is there not one absolute system of tithing? No, there isn't. The Law of Tithing is, mathematically speaking, imperfect. If you have nine goats, how do you pay a tithe of nine-tenths of a goat? You may need all nine goats to feed your family with milk and cheese so you can't sell them and then pay a tithe. And you may not be able to afford to give one goat in nine as a tithe. Here the tithe payer must be sensible and honest. He could, for example, pay a little more in some other product that he has much more of.
The Law is not totally inflexible on little things. And the New Testament teaches that the apostles have the right to make rulings to meet local situations. Jesus said to the apostles: "...whatever you [apostles] bind [that is, permit by regulation] will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose [permit] on earth will be loosed in heaven. I repeat, I tell you that if two of you here on earth agree about anything people ask, it will be for them from My Father in Heaven. For wherever two or three are assembled in My Name, I am there with them" (Matt.18:18-20, JNT). What this means, translated into the language of first century Jewish legalism, is that when an issue is brought formally to a panel of two or three apostles, and they render a unified decision in the Holy Spirit, they can be assured that the authority of God stands behind them. This is called halakhah.
We see halakhah in practice in the Council of Jerusalem where all the apostles were gathered, together with some of the elders of various congregations. When unity was obtained, by the witness of the Spirit, then the presiding apostle (James) confirmed the final decision (Acts 15). Where there was disagreement, then the presiding apostle had to act according to the revelation given to him. It was always to James that the other apostles reported (Acts 21:18).
For the moment, the Apostolate of the New Covenant Church of God has determined that the tithing laws described above shall be followed. This decision may be altered either by direct revelation to the presiding apostle or through an assembly of the apostolate so long as it does not in any way contradict the Law as stated in the Bible.
This page was created on 1 June 1998
Last updated on 1 June 1998
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