Yes, tithing is commanded in Scripture, but that is not the whole story.
Tithing actually began before it was commanded. When Melchizedek blessed Abram, he responded by giving Melchizedek “a tithe of all” (Genesis 14:19-20).
A “tithe” is, simply, a “tenth.” In the Old Testament, God commanded that a tenth of all the land’s produce and every tenth animal was to be set apart for Him. If this tithe were converted into money an additional fifth was to be added (see Leviticus 27:30-31).
This tithe provided support for the Levites who had no land inheritance of their own (see Numbers 18:21). The Levites also were to give a tithe: “When you take . . . the tithe that I have given you . . . then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe” (Numbers 18:26 ESV). Every third year, instead of the tithe being brought to the sanctuary, it was to be kept in the villages and shared with those in need (see Deuteronomy 14:28f).
This ten percent “off the top” was not all that the Children of Israel brought to the Lord. They also brought other required offerings and freewill offerings of various kinds. “ . . . you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings . . . ”
When the Children of Israel were faithfully serving the Lord, the tithe and offerings were not burdensome—it was their delight to serve the Lord in this way.
On the other hand, when the Children of Israel stopped trusting and serving the true God, their response of thankful obedience to His Law (tithe) and their overflowing thankfulness (offerings) waned into nothing. At those times, God rebuked unloving mechanical obedience to the Law (for example Amos 4, Matthew 23:23). When tithes and offerings ceased altogether, God said, “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.” (Malachi 3:8).
A lack of love-prompted tithes and offerings was a symptom of spiritual decline. At times of spiritual renewal, the tithes and offerings were also restored. Such a renewal took place under King Hezekiah, who “commanded the people . . . to contribute support for the priests and the Levites. . . . As soon as the commandment was circulated, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of grain and wine, oil and honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything” (2 Chronicles 31:4-5).
The Old Testament tithe is part of the ceremonial Law which was fulfilled in Christ and is no longer binding in the New Testament as far as its outward practice is concerned. However, the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law does not remove the spiritual and moral essence that lay behind the Law.
Thus, God still desires for us to understand that He is the owner of all (Psalm 24:1) and we are the stewards of His blessings with the opportunity to honor Him with gifts of thanksgiving. “Honor the Lord with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase” (Proverbs 3:9-10).
God still desires that those who minister to the souls of His people should be supported by those who are served. “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches” (Galatians 6:6, see also 1 Corinthians 9:14).
Just as the Old Testament tithe not only provided for the Levites but also those in need, so God says to us: “Let us not grow weary while doing good. . . . As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).
Just as God was never interested in mere outward giving of tithes and offerings, so also now, “Let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Our sinful flesh will always have the desire to pull us away from giving of ourselves to the Lord. There will be arguments based in fear, but God says, “Try Me now in this . . . If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3:10).
Our flesh can get caught up in doing “its duty”—giving a set amount without meaningful thought, giving just what is needed to balance the budget—almost as if it is a bill from God, and feeling satisfied that the job is done. But remember the Israelites’ joy in giving abundant gifts out of thanksgiving—offerings that went beyond what the Law commanded them to give.
There is genuine joy in giving of ourselves to the Lord Who first loved us (1 John 4:19), has redeemed us, and provides such rich blessing to both body and soul, day by day.
In our day, the terms “offering” and “tithe” are used in different ways among Christians, and the clarity of God’s Word does not always accompany their usage. In your conversations with others over matters of Scripture, it is always good to first come to an understanding in the definition of terms. Then the conversation can go forward and the doors that the Lord may open from that point are many.
As always, your pastor stands ready to study and discuss these matters of Scripture more fully with you.
Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.