Monday 23 April 2012

Why it's impossible to Tithe today - What is Biblical Tithing?

A little bit different to what we usually post about here but I  think the issue of how we use our resources to be highly important. Especially if what we're doing with it is in fact rather un-biblical. We are responsible for using our minds when answering sceptics objections, and we should  be using it when we give our money away or feel pressured into doing so. This post will briefly describe tithing as understood in the Old Testament (OT) and in my next post on tithing I will examine some arguments given in support of Christian tithing and give a short response to each of the points.

So before we can get into any debate of whether or not we should tithe its important to define our terms. This is because many Christians start from the assumption that what they practice in their churches today is actually biblical tithing. However if you start from that assumption you will always misunderstand what tithing actually is and isn't. It may come as a surprise to many Christians but what is practised in many churches today is not tithing as prescribed in the scriptures. It also often comes as a surprise to Christians when they find out that Jesus and Paul wouldn't have tithed and that the total amount tithed by individuals whom actually met the specific requirements in the OT would have resulted in a total of 23%+. In fact its actually impossible to tithe biblically today. Especially so if your outside Israel as that already rules you out, not forgetting that there is no temple (destroyed in AD 70), storehouse, and no Levitical Priesthood to receive your tithe offerings.

 OT biblical tithing worked in a 7 year agricultural cycle known as the Shmittah cycle similar to the 7 days of creation.

- The 7th day of creation was the day God rested from creation and the 7th day of the week became known as the Sabbath, a time to honour God and rest from work.

- Every 7th year was a time for the land to replenish itself known as the sabbatical year or Shmita.

Shmittah Cycle

 Within this cycle there are four key terms that describe actions and tithes made during this time and they are  1. Maaser Rishon, 2. Maaser Sheni, 3. Maaser Ani and 4. Shmita. The term Maaser literally means "a tenth" and can be applied to either agriculture (Cattle, wine, olive oil, grain etc) or money. However there is only one exception where money was actually spoken about (Maaser Sheni). It can be safely argued that 99% of the time anything was tithed under the law in the OT it was referring to agriculture and not finances. Tithing was applied only to produce grown in Israel, anything else simply couldn't be tithed by definition. This meant that if you were part of a trade such as carpentry or tent-making (Jesus and Paul), one would not be obligated to tithe since your produce wasn't from the land of Israel. Giving a tenth was also a common practice in many middle eastern nations/cultures and is mentioned in the OT before the Law of Moses was given (Gen 14:17-20, 28:22). Tithing in middle eastern culture was often used to support kings and religious sanctuaries.

 Maaser Rishon

Literally means first tithe. This was the 10% of an individuals produce and would include grain, olive oil, wine, fruit or cattle and was then given to the Levites. The Levites would then give 10% of that to the Priests as the Lords sacred portion as outlined in Numbers 18:21-29. This tithe was to be performed on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th years of the Shemittah cycle. The Levites served God as the spiritual leaders of Israel and because they had no land inheritance as the other tribes this maaser served as their livelihood. Part of the Levites job involved ministering to the priests and looking after the Tabernacle (Num 18:4-6). 

Maaser Sheni 
Literally means the second tithe and consists of 10% of the remaining food/produce after Maaser Rishon has been taken. This tithe was to be paid on the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th years of the shemittah cycle. It was then to be brought to the temple in Jerusalem where it could be consumed. However if someone was coming from a great distance to Jerusalem it was permitted that they could sell their produce for its monetary value. It could then be easily brought to Jerusalem where the money could be used to buy anything you wanted to have in the presence of the Lord with your family, which amounted to having a big party (Deut 14:22-27).

Maaser Ani
 This was commonly referred to as the poor man's tithe and was to be made on the 3rd and 6th years of the Shemittah cycle. This was to be given to the foreigners in the land, Levites and the widows and orphans who were allowed to either eat it themselves or sell it to buy what they may have needed. It was also 10% of the food left over after Maaser Rishon had been given. It was seen as a God inspired obligation to support and protect those who were less fortunate than themselves. This can be seen in Deuteronomy 14:28 and 26:12. This tithe demonstrates the compassion and love that God expected from his people, such compassion, love and care should likewise be inherent in our giving. We are also responsible for making sure that we are giving our resources to those whom can be trusted to actually use what we give effectively and honestly.

 This was the 7th year of the Shemittah cycle and was a sabbatical time where the land was left alone and no tithe was given. The land was allowed to replenish itself and the poor were also allowed to take freely anything that grew during that time period (Exo 23:10-11 and Lev 25:1-7). Also during this time if a fellow Hebrew who had given himself to another to serve him to pay a debt it was during this time that the debt was settled and the servant to be freed. Hence why the Shmita was known as the year of release (Exo 21:1-6, Deut 31:9-13). 
Biblical Giving
 Now I'm not saying we shouldn't give, we should be the biggest givers on earth. We should be giving to the poor, widows, orphans and anyone who is in need more than any people. Even if we can't practice OT tithing, the principle of helping the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners ought to remain in our giving. Paul says we should give out of freewill, in proportion to what we have, willingly and never in response to pressure from anyone no matter how many times your pastor may quote Malachi at you (2 Cor 8:5-12, 9:5:13). Jesus in fact calls us to a much higher standard than what is described as tithing in Christian culture today. In Jesus' sermon on the mount 25 of 109 verse talk about money and possessions which should demonstrate to us the importance of doing what's right with our money. Using OT verses as support for practising tithing today is like arguing that because Peter cut off someone's ear once we should do that as-well.

In my next post I will examine some of the arguments given by those who practice what can only be described as Christian pseudo-tithing. The above present a basic summary of tithing in the OT and will hopefully allow people a little more insight into the subject. What is practised today is far removed from the scriptures and has its roots in the land-leasing laws of the middle-ages. Jesus came to free us from bondage, not to enslave us. The psychological abuse associated with a heavy focus on tithing in many charismatic and pentecostal churches today can only be described as a type of abuse and spiritual slavery.

Before anyone asks I'm not opposed to people using a tithe of your wages as a starting point in our giving, however there should still remain cautious in that approach. Only God truly knows what is sacrificial giving for an individual and ten percent can often be burdensome for a single parent when a well-paid bachelor wouldn't even notice that the money had gone. With that in mind it should remain up to the individual how much they actually feel/think they should give. Remembering that the tithe was to help the poor, not to place a burden upon them.

Please leave a comment if there's any particular question you would like answered about tithing.


  1. very good points

  2. From top to bottom, this argument simply doesn't work.
    To get rid of the simple points first:

    "Using OT verses as support for practising tithing today is like arguing that because Peter cut off someone's ear once we should do that as-well."
    No, it isn't comparable. One is a repeated, specific instruction by God, the other is an action by a flawed human being. Many of the actions of Biblical characters are reported as sinful, it's clear that we shouldn't follow them blindly. To use the fact that Abraham paid a tithe to make the same assertion is possibly akin to that argument, though the fact that Peter was rebuked for his action whereas Abraham is blessed implies that there's a significant difference even there.

    "The psychological abuse associated with a heavy focus on tithing in many charismatic and pentecostal churches today can only be described as a type of abuse and spiritual slavery."
    Again, simply in correct. Now don't get me wrong, the prosperity gospel is nonsense. The suggestion that a donation can buy God's favour is profoundly unbiblical. Preaching about tithing isn't the same. And since you assert that it can only be described as "abuse and spiritual slavery", here's a few other ways it can be described:
    Encouraging people to evaluate their priorities. (see Luke 12:15)
    Promoting dependency on God and not on financial wealth (see Matthew 6:24)
    Equipping the Church with the funds to get involved in the community and do Good Works (see Acts 5).

    "Only God truly knows what is sacrificial giving for an individual"
    This is true. However, until you can extricate this from the comparable situation in the Old Testament you can't justify it. Also bear in mind that even a Single Mum with several kids in the modern UK may be better off than the typical farmer in the Old Testament.

    "Tithing was applied only to produce grown in Israel, anything else simply couldn't be tithed by definition."
    This reveals a lack of consistency within the article. On the one hand it accepts supersessionism in splitting up from the Old Testament commands, but at the same time it ignores the same doctrine. There are a lot of things that originally applied only to the Israelites but we consider our inheritance too. Therefore "if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. (Romans 15:27)" Of course I recognize that that verse could refer to a donation, not necessarily a tithe. The fact remains that we can't just ignore the Old Testament if we believe ourselves heirs to the covenant.
    There is indeed no Levitical priesthood to recieve our tithe, but that doesn't matter. We don't have a Levitical priest to intercede for our Sins either. We have a priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6) who intercedes before the father and to whom we can direct our tithe. The church is certainly as able to hold stewardship for those resources as the Temple system.

    1. Once again we appear to differ in our opinions Josiah. The simple fact is that is impossible to practice tithing as outlined in the scriptures, this is not debatable.

      Remember when you making a counter argument to deal with the persons stronger claims rather than attacking the clearly rhetorical and weaker points. Case in point would be the reference to Peter chopping someones ear off, surely you didn't think that the tongue on cheek sentence was really worth responding to.

      Like you recognised its better in reference to Abrams tithe, which I will go into in the next post that will deal with some of the arguments people give in support of Christian tithing. A few points about Abrams tithe may be helpful here still though.

      Look if you wanted to, I'm not saying you would but many do use his example as a sort of proof-text to support what they do. A few points that demonstrate the weakness of that point.

      - Abram did this when he was 80 years old and this is the only time in his 175 years of life where it is recorded that he tithed, not every sunday morning.

      - It was a one time event.

      - He tithed 10% of the plunder he won in battle against not what he had previously earned.

      - Abram wasn't commanded from God to tithe he did it of his own free will.

      - Abram didn't tithe of his regular income.

      If people want to tithe like Abram they should only tithe once in their lives when they are 80 years old. It simply does not function as a text to support what Christians do today, not one bit.

      Your second paragraph demonstrates your presuppositions rather than someone dealing with what was actually written. My point was where people are forced and made to feel guilty if they don't their money to their leaders, that was clear I thought. But to clarify, many people practice tithing where no spiritual abuse takes place, that's fine. However as someone who was part of a church that practised heavy shepherding in terms of tithing I can tell you it is spiritual abuse. You may not have experienced that but there is no other way to describe it I'm afraid.

      Paul was aware of such people who were trying to get rich for Jesus - 'You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us (2 Cor 2:17).'

      The points raised in your last paragraph will get covered in the next post. Stewardship is not tithing, no Christian is asked to tithe in the NT, to give sacrificially YES but you simply have zero case to support tithing for Christians today. Does your church practice a seven year cycle of tithing? Do you tithe from the produce you made from the land of Israel? Do you not tithe in the seventh year to let your land recover? The answer to these is most likely no.

      Coming from a single parent family, your point about her/him being wealthier than a OT farmer demonstrates more prejudice than an actual valid argument. Its quite possible to be poor here in the UK, trust me. The OT tithe was to help the poor, not a burden on them.

      Look up the history of when Christians first started tithing and why. Its a horribly corrupt system, although I do acknowledge that many churches practice it in a way that people often feel no pressure to do so if they are unable to afford to. Of course only the individual will truly know if this is the case.


    2. I do think that a "tongue in cheek" argument that suggests something is absurd should be dealt with. You know that it's simply bad exegesis, so don't put it in. You'll also note that I don't say Tithing can be justified on the grounds that Abraham did it, but on the grounds that God said it. There's a world of a difference, and you're taking half your post to take out a point I'm not making...

      Allow me to tell you a little about myself. My parents were Missionaries,so for about half my childhood life I've lived in Sub-Saharan Africa. As an aside, the way the Bible comes alive when you live in a comparable rural culture is incredible. I don't dispute that there are poor people in the UK, but there simply aren't nearly as many as in rural farming communities. Even so, in those places there are groups who are exceptionally poor, particularly the disabled, widows, orphans, and immigrants, exactly as in the Bible. These people can be helped

      I acknowledge that in some cases heavy teaching on tithing may be difficult to bear, but to generalize that from your personal experience to every church that advocates tithing is both unwarrented and unkind. There were times in Biblical history when the Tithes and sacrifces were abused; that doesn't give you the right to condemn the whole system and all who stuck by it.

      The only point that could work in your argument is that the tithe could only be applied to Israeli agriculture. However, even this is not justified. The whole law applied originially only to Israel. Even so, it is the revealed will of God for how we should live our lives. Responsible Bible study both takes account of how the culture of the day would interpret a message, and applies that (accounting for cultural differences) to our lives. It doesn't discard the whole thing on a technicality. Should we now not respect our parents because we no longer live in Israel? Clearly not! If you want to say we don't have to tithe, explain why it is surplanted by the NT system. And please, don't suggest it's impossible.

  3. You still seem to have missed the major point which is that whether you like it or not you cannot tithe as stipulated in the OT. The burden of proof is on you to prove otherwise. Please let me know how you got your practice of tithing from the OT? Its more than likely that you do it out of tradition, you've always known the giving of money to be done through the pseudo Christian system. Much of what we do today comes from tradition and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but its not from the Bible.

    How much do you tithe? Do you do the full 23% stipulated in the OT or the traditional 10%, does that mean the rest of your money is yours?

    God also told his people to cut off bits of their penus's but we don't do that any longer either. However we do keep many of the principles behind many of the OT laws. To ignore that, is to be placing us back under the burden of the law.

    Your next two paragraphs fail to deal with the actual points I made, I'm not deriding all people who practice Christian tithing. What I am saying is that what they are practising has nothing to do with OT tithing. Christians are compelled to give not to tithe, and to give generously.

    I have and will continue to argue that it is impossible to tithe biblically because it is, its so clear I'm struggling to understand how you are unable to comprehend it.

    There are moral laws, which we understand through Gods commands, since Gods nature never changes these laws are objective and universally binding. Tithing is not such a law, however there in it lies a moral principle, that is to give generously, use our resources to help the poor, widows and orphans etc.

    There are different types of laws. Tithing like other commands were given directly and only for the Israelites to practice. Such as not trimming the sides of your hair, not eating certian foods, not wearing clothes with two different fabrics etc. Behind all of these laws are certain principles that as Christian we keep. For example they didn't trim their beards because there were nations around them that would shave the bits round their ears as a sign of their worship of a deity. We take the principle from it but no-longer grow the bits of hair around our ears. Tithing was never taught for Christians anywhere in the NT, do you think Paul would have mentioned it somewhere or did God forget to tell him?

    Look how generously Christians are compelled to give throughout Acts etc but it was never tithing. The Christian world is not going to fall apart because we don't tithe, we should be compelled to give generously if we are able to. Why are you so interested in keeping tithing but not keeping all the other stuff God told the Israelites to do?

    Perhaps if you respond one more time, I'll let you have the last word and then when I get time next week I'll write the next post. What verses in the Bible in both the OT and NT best support your claim that Chrstians are obligated to to tithe? And not tithe in teh way you do by giving 10% of your money, once per week/month I mean the biblical way as stipulated in the OT. Then I can try my best to respond to waht you have written.

    I appreciate your comments and thoughts as always.


    Apologies if I come across as blunt, its difficult to sound pleasant online sometimes as I'm sure you appreciate.

  4. I stumbled across this article, and wow, Dan. As a student of the Torah, I didn't expect to find such a remarkably accurate article on this subject here. Kudos to you.

    As I was reading it, I thought 'The author's name seems familiar...' And then it turns out you're also an admin of Unbelievable - very small world!

    Aside from lauding the article, I would differ from you as to the Christian's obligation to the Torah, any hint of supersessionism, divvying commandments as moral, ceremonial, etc. - and probably much of your interpretations in the final paragraph. But still, the main subject you got spot on.

    It might be worth addressing in your next post the prominent act of charity (tzedekah) in the NT. It's not the same as tithing (as you are keen to note), though it is often confused as such.

    If anyone's interested in learning about tithing in-depth, I highly recommend these:

  5. Excellent blog check out Master Science

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