An Exploration of Tithing In Holy Scripture
If stewardship is a way of life, then do we have to talk about money? After all, if we, the faithful, dedicate our whole lives to the service of the Lord, then giving money offerings for the support of His Church and His work would seem natural. No one would need to be instructed or motivated to give offerings.
The Holy Scriptures prove that this assumption is not practical. The scriptures are not silent about the topic of money. Money was an important theme of the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ about stewardship. Someone has counted that of the thirty-eight parables of Jesus, sixteen deal with the matter of money and possessions. In the Gospels, one of ten verses deals with money. Moreover, the Bible contains approximately 500 verses on prayer, and about the same number on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.
The reason is clear if we understand the teachings of scripture. Christian giving must be from the heart, yet the People of God need guidance in how to convert the impulses of the heart into the actions of the hands. Without such guidance--and even correction—most of the faithful are bound to miss the blessings of monetary giving and fail in this aspect of the use of their money as stewards of the grace of God.
Nevertheless, church leaders must broach the topic wisely and carefully. If the annual stewardship program concentrates on funding the parish budget without teaching the context of stewardship as a way of life, then many will see stewardship as a method of fundraising, much easier than a bazaar or ethnic festival. If the way of promoting generous offerings is coercive, then many will consider it a new form of church tax, no better, perhaps, than dues. If the bulk of the parish members are not ready to meet the challenge of generous giving, then they will resist efforts, either actively or passively.
Thus, the teaching of money offerings requires leadership that is guided by Holy Tradition and inspired by the Holy Spirit. No formula or timetable can apply to all parishes across the diocese. Each parish has its own dynamics and challenges. The priest, parish councils, and stewardship leaders, therefore, must first pray together for wisdom and then work together for a unified and clear-cut goal for each year. Some parishes may not be ready to change from a dues and/or fundraising system to a freewill offering practice. (Some may be making this change by combining free will offerings with a dues minimum.) Some who have changed to a free will offering practice may not be ready for the teaching of proportional giving. Others may not be ready for the teaching of tithing. Only the local leadership in the parish can access the readiness of the parish year by year.
The following thoughts, therefore, are offered only as a basis for study, conversation, and prayerful consideration. Their focus is tithing, commonly understood as the practice of setting aside ten percent of one’s income as offering for the service of the Lord and His Church. This paper concentrates on the question of tithing because it raises most of the issues of money offerings. This paper will discuss the Holy Tradition of Tithing according to the sub-titles in bold print before each section.
The clearest standard for money giving in scripture is the tithe. The Old Testament sketches out a complex system of tithes as part of mandates for sacrifices and offerings in the worship of God. In America, the fires of controversy continue to blaze whether the practice of tithing that is rooted in the Old Covenant has any bearing on the stewardship practices of those who belong to the New. Advocates of tithing and detractors both pounce on selected verses to prove their argument. Overlooked in the uproar is the question of understanding the historic uses of the tithe beyond simply the support of the church. Understanding what the tithes have funded will give deeper insight into the use of money in Christian stewardship.
TITHING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Old Testament presents a clear-cut standard for the offering of material blessings. The Book of Leviticus puts it: “Now all the tithe of the land, whether seed of the land or fruit of the tree is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). In the primary sense, tithing was a matter of worship of God the Creator, and it acknowledged that all things belong to the Almighty God who is the source of every blessing. Therefore, at the beginning of the harvest, offerings of “first fruits” were to be taken for the House of God in thanksgiving for His goodness and prayer for His blessing. Then tithes were to be given of the harvest according to the command of God and again in prayer for His blessing (Deuteronomy 26:12-15).
It is easy to stop and hastily grab onto the tithe as the standard measure of God’s will for the use of money. However, to gain further understanding of the tithe, we need to probe into the various types in ancient Israel.
Tithing is part of the Law of Moses given at Mt. Sinai as the Israelites made their way back to the Holy Land. It is part of a system of tithes, sacrifices, and offerings for life in the Holy Land that would insure the worship of God, provide for the ministers of worship, and supply the needs of the poor.
ANALYSIS OF A KEY PASSAGE IN DEUTERONOMY: THREE TYPES OF TITHES
Unfortunately, tithing is not presented in a systematic way in the scriptures, and the practice of tithing had a development even past the time of Jesus and the apostles. However, for the sake of clarity, we can sort out the tithes according to types, though these overlap. The traditional types are:
1. The tithe to support the Levites [and priests], the ministers of the House of God
2. The tithe to provide food and drink for the feast in the House of God
3. The tithe for the relief of the poor.
We find the ancient practice of these three types if we analyze an important passage from the Law Code of Deuteronomy given to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Deuteronomy 14:22-29).
The second tithe is found in Deuteronomy 14:22-23. This was a tithe to provide necessary supplies of food and drink for a feast of worship. It was an annual tithe of grain, wine, olive oil, and the firstborn of oxen and sheep (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). These supplies are to be taken to the House of God. The farmer and his family are to eat these bounties of the earth “before the Lord” in His sanctuary in a celebration that involved much rejoicing (Deuteronomy 14:26).
Further the instructions in Deuteronomy underscore the importance of celebrating the feast in the place of worship. If the worship center is too far, the tithes may be sold for money. In that case, the farmer and family are to travel to the worship center and use the money for the tithes to purchase food for a feast there.(Deuteronomy14:24-26). Furthermore, what the farmer may buy for the feast is “whatever your soul desires” (Deuteronomy 14:26). It is to be a sacred party!
If we ask who was invited to this celebration, we can identify the first tithe in this passage. The instructions mandate that the Levites who serve the Lord in His tabernacle or temple are to be invited to the feast (Deuteronomy 14:17). The significance of this detail is that it shows how tithing was a primary way of supporting the ministers of God in worship.
To explain, these Levites were members of the tribe of Levi. Of the twelve tribes of Israel, members of this special tribe were not given a share of the Holy Land when it was divided up among the tribes of Israel. Their inheritance was to be the Lord Himself. Thus, they were dedicated to serving the Lord in His dwelling place. Specifically the role of the Levites was to assist the priests (the descendents of Aaron) in the tabernacle and later, the temple (Numbers 18:1-7). For this service, the Levites were given rights to the tithes of their fellow Israelites and special cities with surrounding pasturelands for places to live.
A more significant tithe to the Levites was later called the first tithe, and it was a full ten percent assigned to the Levites for their services in the House of God. Not all these tithes were offered in the Tabernacle or Temple. A system was set up to distribute these tithes to the cities of the Levites according to the Lord’s Word: “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation” Numbers 18:21).
What about the priests of the House of God? These were not descendents of Levi but of Aaron, the High Priest. In the Book of Numbers, God decrees that the priests have the rights to the “first fruits” of the offerings and sacrifices (such as trespass and sin offerings) given by the people (Numbers 18:8-9). However, God also commands the Levites to give the “choice portion” of the tithes (a tenth of a tenth) to the priests (Numbers 8:28). Thus, the priests were tied to tithing system.
These instructions in Deuteronomy and Numbers bind tithing and the ritual worship of God together. Not only that but they tie tithing to the support of those who serve God in His worship place. The instructions stipulate that the Levites who serve the Lord in His house are to be invited to the feast).
Yet analysis discovers the third tithe. The Levites were not the only non-family members invited to the feast. Yet another set of people were to share in the feast. The inclusion of these to the feast adds another dimension to the practice of tithing. In Deuteronomy, there are specific instructions to invite the poor to the party. Every third year there was a second tithe that was given to the needy: the strangers in the land, the fatherless, and the widows (Deuteronomy 14:29). This invitation was not a formality. It was one of the ways to meet the needs of the poor.
HOW WELL DID TITHING WORK?
Tithing was an essential part of the Law of Moses because it was meant to be a way of worship, a way of supporting those who served the Lord in worship, and a way of meeting the needs of the poor. How well did this intricate system of providing for the worship of God achieve its purposes?
There is no mention of tithing during the period of Judges and hardly any in the history of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon or the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
A significant incident that shows the neglect and restoration of tithing is found in the story of King Hezekiah. Sometime before 701 BC under threat of Assyrian invasion, King Hezekiah set out to cleanse the land and the temple of idolatry and to restore the system of sacrifices and tithes. First, the king sponsored a Passover more glorious than any since King Solomon. Then, the pious king re-commissioned the priests and Levites for their service in the Temple in Jerusalem. For their support, he commanded the people to bring in the “first fruits” of grain, wine, olive oil, honey, livestock, and of “all the produce of the field” (2 Chronicles 31:4-7). This was called a gathering of “tithes,” and it was so successful that in less than five months, the offerings piled up on the ground in heaps (2 Chronicles 31:7-8).
Hezekiah became concerned at the overflowing piles of food. The priests and Levites said that they had more than enough. So Hezekiah ordered storerooms to be built in the temple (2 Chronicles 31:11) for the extra tithes. Moreover, he appointed overseers in the temple and in the cities of the Levites in charge of the distribution of the tithes to the priests and Levites for their temple services (2 Chronicles 31:12-19). No mention is made in this reform of tithes to the poor, however.
Again, after the Exile in Babylon, Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest oversaw a program of cleansing the temple. In solemn assembly, the people heard the reading of the Law of Moses and confessed their sins (Nehemiah 9:1ff.). Then after a prayer by Ezra the priest, they swore that they would no longer “neglect the House of our God” (Nehemiah 10:39). They bound themselves to offer the “first fruits” of the crops, fruit, new wine, and olive oil, along with the first born of their sons and of their herds and flocks to the priests to be put in the temple storehouses (Nehemiah 10:35-38). Moreover, they vowed to offer the tithes of the land to the Levites in their cities and once again to insure that a tenth of these tithes would be brought to the storehouses of the temple.
Nevertheless, when Nehemiah returned from a trip to Babylon, he found that the priest Eliashib had leased space in the temple storehouse to Tobiah, an Ammonite who did not even belong in the temple (Nehemiah 12:1 & 4). Moreover, Nehemiah found that the Levites had gone home to their cities because they had been deprived of their tithes and the priest had been deprived of their firstfruits (Nehemiah 13:.5 & 19). Nehemiah took charge and restored the storehouse to its proper function (Nehemiah 13:7-8). Once again, the people brought in an abundance of tithes of grain, new wine, and oil (Nehemiah 13:12). And again, Nehemiah appointed officers in charge of the distribution (Nehemiah 13:13).
Tithing, therefore, has a patchy history in the Old Testament. Tithing was never abolished. Yet the need for the restoration of tithing shows that it was frequently abandoned. It waxed and waned according to the cycle of unfaithfulness and repentance.
But even if tithes were made, the prophecy of Amos suggests that they were not always offered in the right spirit. Amos targets the pampered women of Samaria who oppress the poor and order their husbands to bring them more drink (Amos 4:1) Sarcastically, the prophet says they should go to the worship centers of Bethel and offer sacrifices every morning and tithes every three days (instead of three years) (Amos 4:4-5). These offerings, Amos says, would only increase their sin, because they were only given to show off. Further, as we see in the festival type of tithe, the tithes provided the food and drink for feasting. Yet these are the very feasts, sacrifices, and offerings that that the Lord hates since they are corrupted with the people’s idolatry and injustice (Amos 5:21)
Tithing in the Deutero-Canonical Literature Up to the First Century
The scriptures of the “second canon” leading up to the time of Jesus Christ continue the emphasis on tithing seen in Nehemiah. The Book of Tobit describes the righteousness of the Tobit. While all the tribes fell into idolatry, he alone observed all three types of tithing (Tobit 1:5-9). He said that he would go to Jerusalem for the feast days with the offerings of first fruits, tithes, and first-shearings to offer to the priests together with a tenth of all the harvest to the Levites. This was the second tithe. Moreover, he would use the money from a second tenth, the first tithe, for his religious observance in Jerusalem. And he would give a third tenth, the third tithe, “to those to whom it was fitting,” that is, the poor and needy.
When he gave counsel to his son, Tobias, Tobit emphasized the later type of giving. In this discourse, almsgiving (offerings to the poor) is the first example of how to walk in the way of righteousness (Tobit 4:6-7). Tobit should give alms in proportion to his riches. If he has only a little, he should not hesitate to give according to the little he has (Tobit 4:8). Tobit recommends almsgiving “based on the quantity of one’s possessions” because it has eternal benefits. If Tobias does not reject the poor, God will not reject him. Rather almsgiving has the power to save us from the darkness of death. (Tobit 3:11).
We find an echo of these principles in the book of the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). The preacher counsels his readers to give offerings with cheerfulness and to “sanctify your tithes with joy” (Sirach 35:10 New Advent). The Almighty rejects offerings that are funded by wrongdoing and injustice (Sirach 34:18 and 35:15-16). On the other hand, the Almighty accepts the sacrifices of the righteous (Sirach 35:9) and will return seven times as much to the giver (Sirach 35:17).
The Deuterocanonical scriptures stress the offerings to the poor: almsgiving is the equivalent of a “praise offering” (Sirach 35:2). Yet this concern for the poor does not cancel the responsibility for the temple and its ministers. Once again as in the time of Hezekiah, Josiah, and Nehemiah, the Book of First Maccabees records the restoration of the temple offerings, sacrifices, and tithes. Having defeated the enemies of the Jews, Judas and his brothers chose righteous priests who purified the temple in 164 BC. The Gentiles had defiled the altar of whole burnt offerings, so they tore it down. They then constructed a new altar of uncut stone (1 Maccabees 4:44-46). . Then in an eight-day festival, they consecrated the altar and offered sacrifices. Not only the doors and decorations of the temple were restored, but the living quarters for the priests (1 Maccabees 4:57). Presumably, these were once again to be supported by the sacrifices and offerings of the people.
TITHING IN THE TIME OF JESUS
During the period from the Maccabean Revolt into the first century, tithing and almsgiving in proportion to one’s wealth were in force. For our purposes, the practice of tithing during this period can be divided between three groups: 1) the Sadducees; 2) the Pharisees; 3) the peasants (am-ha-aret-“People of the Land”).
The Sadducees were the conservative upper class in Judea who were in charge of the temple. They included many of the priests. They were the ones who received the tithes and offerings. During the time that the Hasmonean (Jewish) kings ruled after the Maccabean Revolt, the first tithe (formerly to the Levites) had to be brought to Jerusalem to the High Priest in the Temple. The High Priest then distributed the offering to the priests and, perhaps, the Levites.
The intended recipients of these tithes may have changed because few Levites returned to Holy Land from Babylon. Thus, the Levites lost their right to them. Definitely, the change was part of the ongoing trend toward centralization of the religious-political-social life in the Jerusalem Temple. This centralization meant that the only place where the second tithe could be taken was the Temple in Jerusalem, and this was where the feast had to be celebrated.
In addition, according to the Mishnah, there were thirteen “charity boxes” in the Temple for offerings of the third type. These were shaped like horns to prevent thief. Coins were dropped into these horn-shaped boxes for relief of the poor as well as for support of the temple.
Gathering all the tithes and offerings in the Temple, of course, increased the power of the High Priest and made corruption of the system more possible. Nevertheless, the system of tithes and offerings was part of a comprehensive way of life that was directed by the Law of God (Torah).
The Pharisees were the party of the pious who applied the Torah to every moment and all aspects of life. Above all, the Pharisees were the ones who conscientiously gave the tithes and offerings prescribed in the Law of Moses.
Besides the Sadducees, the Pharisees distinguished themselves from the third group of Jews, the peasants. The Pharisees despised these am-ha-aret (“People of the Land”) because they either neglected the laws of tithes and offerings or were totally ignorant of them. The taxes that the Romans imposed were already a heavy burden on the people. Moreover, the original purpose of supporting the Levites who had no land of their own had been lost. Many of the priests and Levites were wealthy landowners, and most only served in the Temple two weeks out of the year. Many of them were paid as government workers. Thus to many in the Holy Land, the tithes seemed like an extra burden. This did not mean that they gave no offerings at all: the wave offering of first fruits and dough offering, (a portion of the baked bread) were widely observed.
Having listed those who received the tithes, those who gave them, and those who largely neglected them, we must return to the Pharisees who were careful to keep them. The Pharisees dedicated themselves to keeping the Law of God in all aspects of life. However, for the Pharisees, the Law of the written Torah (First Five Books of Moses) was an insufficient guide. In addition to the written Torah, another source of instruction in the Law of God developed, the “oral Torah.” To explain, during the period leading up to the first century AD, the role of Rabbi (Teacher of the Law) developed. The Rabbi’s job was to guide the application of the Law to life.
Some of the Rabbinical rulings on the application of the Law were passed down to the next generations by “oral tradition.” Eventually, well after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, these rulings were codified in the writing of the Mishnah.
Thus, the Mishnah developed between the first century B.C and second century A.D on the basis of the “oral Torah” or oral tradition. Significantly, the Mishnah, therefore, records the rulings of the Rabbis during the timeframe that includes the ministry of Jesus. Finally written down after 200 A.D., it is the core of the larger collection of rabbinical teachings of the Jewish canon called the Talmud.
Why should we mention a Jewish source as we study the matter of tithing in scriptures? The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were followers of developing “oral Torah.” Because the Mishnah wrote the rulings of the “oral Torah” down, it became the written record of the way of thinking of the Pharisees. It is necessary to understand this mindset expressed in the Mishnah because the Pharisees were the chief opponents of Jesus.
For example, the Mishnah helps us understand the saying of Jesus: "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you pay tithes of mint and dill, and cumin but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy, and faith" (Matthew 23:23). In the Law of Moses, the items of the first tithe are grain, wine, olive oil, and livestock. The Mishnah expands the list of the items that must be tithed by ruling that grain represents all seed from the ground; wine refers to all fruit grown on vines; and olive oil represents all the fruit of trees. Further, the Mishnah adds vegetables and dill, cumin, and fennel, and many other items,
Moreover, the practice of tithing was so important that the emerging Rabbis (Teachers of the Law) began to expand on the fine points of the law in minute detail. The Mishnah deals with the complications of when these items must be tithed. The general rule of the Mishnah is that one must tithe everything used for food. For example, if a farmer cuts off the green tops of vegetables while he is taking them to market to lighten the load, he must offer a tithe of those greens. However, food that is set aside to ripen is not liable to tithe until it is ripe and ready to eat. For instance, mulberries are not subject to the tithe until they turn red, a sign that they are ripe.
But what about harvesting fruit and vegetables? Those who gather figs may eat of them one by one in the vineyard without tithing them. But if they take the the figs home or give them to their children, the figs are subject to tithes. It gets rather complicated.
This investigation explains the lengths to which the Pharisees would go in their scrupulous obsession to keep the laws of tithing. In the Gospels, Jesus does not criticize the practice of tithing In fact, He says, “This they ought to have done” (Matthew 23:23) However, the obsession with intricate details led to the neglect of the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). This the Pharisees ought to have known from their own developing tradition. In another division of the Mishnah, the Tractate “Ethics of the Fathers” includes the saying of Simon the Just who said, “The world rests of three foundations: the Law of God (Torah), services to God (in prayer and offerings), and loving-kindness.”
The case of the tithes of “mint, dill, and cumin” reveals the rigorous practice of the Pharisees. A candidate would first pledge to keep the tithing laws. After a prescribed amount of time, the new member would graduate to vows of keeping the purity laws, such as stricter laws of contact with those who are ignorant or neglectful of the Law.
The Gospels do not record whether Jesus paid tithes. From Luke we know that his parents were careful to follow the Law in all respects (Luke 2:39). On February 2, the Orthodox calendar recalls the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple when his parents went to the Temple and offered the required sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24) as they presented the firstborn to the Lord (Luke 2:22-24). Furthermore, Saint Matthew records that Jesus paid a tax for the support of the temple (Matthew 17:24-27). And at His baptism, Jesus told John, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteous” (Luke 3:15. Though Jesus was renowned for eating with “publicans and sinners,” He was also considered worthy to eat at the home of Pharisees (Luke 7:36-50 and Luke 11:37-38) who shunned the unrighteous.
The issue of tithing for Jesus was not whether they should be paid. Instead, like the prophet Amos, He questioned the spirit in which they were given. The Pharisees in the Parable of the Pharisee and Publican exemplifies this attitude. He boasts, “I give tithes of all I have” (Luke 18:12). In contrast, Jesus said, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing. So that your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4). Note here that Jesus was speaking of the third tithe, the giving to charity.
In summary, the Gospels indicate that Jesus assumed the practice of tithing and related almsgiving. He did not abolish them, just as He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). But Jesus taught a far different spirit of giving offerings than the Pharisees. He said that if one has something against his neighbor, he should first be reconciled to him, and then offer his gift at the altar (Matthew 5:24). He said that the poor widow who gave two mites had given more to the Temple treasury than any of the rich who put in large sums (Mark 12:41-44). He demanded total commitment even to one’s very life of those who wanted to follow Him as His disciples (Mark 10:21; Mark 8:34-37).
TITHING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AFTER THE RESURRECTION
After the resurrection, the New Testament gives no indication that the apostles and early church tithed. Instead of tithing, the book of Acts records that the believers in Jerusalem sold their property and possessions and held the proceeds in common (Acts 2:44). Then they distributed the resources from the common fund according to need (Acts 2:44).
This system led to the first two issues that the early church faced. The first was the temptation to hold back property from the common fund. This issue came up in the case of Ananias and Sapphira both of whom paid for their subterfuge with their lives (Acts 5:5 and 5:10). The second was the complaint that the widows of the Greek-speaking converts were not getting their share of the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1). The resolution of this issue was the ordination of the new order of deacons who would take care of the distribution of resources (Acts 6:3-6).
In a sense, the communal collection and distribution of goods was a new way to do what had been done by the third tithe. But instead of an offering ten percent for the poor, the Church demanded all of one’s resources. By the time of St. Paul (or in his circles), this practice of communal property had been abandoned. But not the importance of offerings of charity. Much of the guidance for Christian giving comes from the Apostle Paul’s promotion of the collection for the “saints in Jerusalem.” This collection was on the forefront of St. Paul’s mind, and it appears in his letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, and probably the Galatians. Moreover, it is recorded in the book of Acts.
For this cause, St. Paul outlined an impressive list of the basic principle of Christian giving:
• Giving regularly (on the first day of the week) (1 Corinthians 16:2)
• Giving proportionately (1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 8:11-15
• Giving to meet material needs of others (in response to spiritual blessings) (Romans 15:27; 2 Corinthians 9:12)
• Giving generously (2 Corinthians 8:2; 2 Corinthians 9:6)
• Giving willingly (2 Corinthians 8:3; 8:12)
• Giving cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:6)
• Giving in faith that God provides (2 Corinthians 9:8-9)
• Giving in trust that God will use it to produce fruit (2 Corinthians 9:10)
• Giving to glorify God and increase thanksgiving (2 Corinthians 9:12-13)
We see that St. Paul here spoke of everything but the tithe, though he was trained as a Rabbi and knew the laws of tithing perfectly well. Perhaps this omission is consistent with his theme of that those who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ are “not under the Law but under grace” (Romans 6: 14). To insist on the third tithe as an external obligation of the Law of Moses would put his hearers “under the Law.” Rather, St. Paul expected that believers who are joined to Christ and share in the “New Adam” will live and give according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1). His approach, therefore, was different than the teachers of the Law: He did not insist that his spiritual children follow the rules of the external Law. He appealed to their hearts trusting that “each one will give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity…” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
THE THREE TYPES OF TITHE and the New Testament: The Counterpart to the Third Tithe
Nevertheless, a point may be overlooked. The collection is for the relief of the “saints in Jerusalem” many of whom are in need (Romans 15:26). St. Paul said that those who have in abundance should now supply the needs of those who have little—so that there may be equality (2 Corinthians 8:14-15). Again he said that since the Gentiles have been blessed spiritually through the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, now it is their turn to bless the poor in Jerusalem with material things (Romans 15:27).
The Apostle Paul was eager to bring a generous offering from the Gentile churches of the empire in part because he wanted to strengthen the ties of love (agape) and fellowship (koinonia) between the Gentile churches and Jewish church in Jerusalem. In a sense, the offering for the support of the mother church in Jerusalem would bring legitimacy to the Gentile churches as the offering would be a sign of mutual sharing between them.
However, whatever else the collection was, it was an ingathering of charity. It therefore served the purpose of the third tithe even though it was not structured as a tithe. The early church may not have practiced tithing, but it did practice almsgiving according to the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ:
“Do not fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms, provide for yourselves purses that do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches or moth destroys. For where your treasure is there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32-34).
It is the giving of alms (offerings to the poor) that puts one’s heart in the right place. Giving alms is a sign of faith in the providence of the Heavenly Father and an investment in the spiritual riches of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the same vein, the Apostle James teaches that faith is nothing if it is not expressed in works. Moreover, chief among these works is the feeding and clothing the brother or sister in need (James 2:14-18). Like the prophets of the Old Testament, the Apostle James derides the rich for their debauchery and callousness. They have stored up treasures of material things. But their riches are already corrupted, and the corrosion of their gold and silver will testify against them at the Judgment. In so far as the rich have cheated the poor out of fair wages, they are condemned as if they had murdered the righteous (James 5:4-6). The remedy, of course, is humility. Yet it also involves something more: the pure religion is to “visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).
Likewise, in 1 Timothy, the Apostle Paul observe that “The love of money is the root of all [kinds of] evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Rather, we should be content with the basics of food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8). But what about those who have more, even to the point of being rich?
Timothy is to warn the rich against pride and trust in material things. Timothy is to command almsgiving:
“Let them do good, that they may be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay ahold of eternal life” (1 Timothy 18-19).
Certainly, though the tithe is not mentioned, the relief of the poor that was the purpose of the third tithe appears repeatedly.
THE CONCERN THAT CORRESPONDS TO THE FIRST TITHE
But what about the first tithe, the support of the Levites? Christianity includes no Levites and/or priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the equivalent of these Old Testament “holy orders” are the hierarchs, priests, and deacons who serve before the Altar of God, along with the teachers, musicians, and workers necessary for the administration and nurture of the Church. The central importance of the tithe for the support of Levites and priests raises the question of how these are to be supported.
A single principle runs through the New Testament about the support of servants of the Church: “a laborer is worthy of his hire.” The Lord Jesus taught this principle in the Gospels; St. Paul appealed to it in his letters; and St. Paul also referred to it in his letter to Timothy.
The principle first appears when the Lord Jesus sent out the twelve to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God. They were not to bring along money, extra clothes, or sandals, or staffs, because of this principle (Matthew 10:9-10). That is, they were to be supported by those with whom they bring the Good News of the Kingdom.
Then too, when the Lord Jesus sent out the Seventy in Luke to gather the harvest of the Kingdom, they too we told to depend on those to whom they are sent. Indeed, they must not go from house to house but must stay in one place and eat and drink whatever is set before them (Luke 10: 7). Again the reason is the same. Those who receive the benefits of the Lord’s servants are to support them.
Yet it was in the ministry of the Apostle Paul that the issue became acute. St. Paul took a rather complex stance toward his support. On the one hand, he made his living as a tentmaker and refused to be paid for his missionary work. His self-support was in keeping with the Rabbis of his day. Many of these Rabbis had different occupations: for example, the famous Rabbi Hillel was a woodcutter, and his opponent Rabbi Shammai was an engineer.
On the other hand, St. Paul insisted on his right to be paid (1 Corinthians 9:3-12), though he also reserves the right not to accept payment. Central to his defense was an Old Testament passage: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” (1 Corinthians 9:9 from Deuteronomy 25:4). St. Paul explained that this passage should be applied to the servants of the Gospel. He even said bluntly, “The Lord has commanded that those who preach the Gospel should live from the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14).
The issue of St. Paul’s financial support, though, had larger implications. It was tied to his apostleship. St. Paul’s opponents said that he could not be a true apostle like Peter and the others because he was not paid. He was an imposter who was not worth wages—and he knew it. That is why he refused payment for his services.
St. Paul’s defense of his apostleship, therefore, was mixed with his defense of his self-support. He said that he did get some money for support from other churches in Macedonia (2 Corinthians 11:8). But he did not ask for money from the Corinthians lest he be a burden to them (2 Corinthians 12:13). Finally after St. Paul was forced to boast of his background, his labors in the Gospel, his visions, and the signs of God’s power in his ministry, the issue seems to have been resolved in Corinth. St. Paul never received payment in Corinth, though he did receive monetary gifts from Macedonia and Philippi (Philippians 4:15-18).
With this in mind, we are surprised to find that St. Paul advised Timothy that the elders who teach the Word should receive a double honor, a payment given with reverence (1 Timothy 5:17). Once again, St. Paul evoked the principle that the laborer is worthy of his hire. He did so in terms of the command not to muzzle the ox while it treads out grain. Thus, we have found that even though it does not specifically recommend tithing, the New Testament clearly and repeatedly advocates the financial support of the servants of God.
THE QUESTION OF WHAT REPLACED THE SECOND TITHE
But what about the second festival tithe? The New Testament Gospels mention the major feasts of Judaism. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus cleansed the Temple during the Passover (John 2:13–17). He also taught in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:14–39). And He also instituted the Eucharist during the Passover (Matthew 26:17–30). Before the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, there was a transition time when the Christians seemed to worship both in the temple and in their own gatherings. Thus, St. Luke records “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking break from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2:46). Later the books of Jude and 2 Peter mention “love feasts” that included interlopers only interested in their pursuing own sinfulness (Jude 12; 2 Peter 2:13). We can presume that the participants in these rituals offered the necessary provisions for them.
Certainly, the common fund was the source of support for the believers as well as the Eucharistic “breaking of bread.” However, we would have to investigate the development of the Holy Mysteries and feasts of the Church in the church fathers to make further comments. Regrettably, that is beyond the scope this paper.
Promotions of tithing often extract the ten percent rule from its context in the scriptures. Consequently, they beg the question of the function of the tithe in the scriptures. Granted, tithing acknowledges that the Almighty God is the Creator who is the rightful owner and ruler of all that exists. Moreover, the Almighty is the source and benefactor of life and every blessing. Therefore, He has every right to expect that His creation should return to Him a portion of what He so freely bestows. Beyond that, however, tithing has its sacred uses. The Lord our God is not arbitrary in His ways, asking us to wantonly waste His good things. Rather, the Lord requires the stewardship of our offerings as well as our lives and resources.
This study of tithing is meant to help priests and church leaders think about the teaching of the offering and use of money in their parishes. Invariably in today’s society, the question of tithing will come up when offerings of money are mentioned. A study of the church fathers would show that it should not be hastily dismissed as a “Protestant” practice but that, to this day, it is recommended as a standard of monetary giving in Orthodox circles.
The study shows that the matter of tithing goes much deeper than the simplistic appeal that the parishioners should give ten percent of their income “to the church.” Without careful instruction, promotions of tithing can readily evoke controversies that are confusing and counterproductive. For example, charts that show percentages of income up to the tithe are easily misunderstood unless explained. They can become measures of pride or guilt. Alternatively, they can simply be dismissed as the wishes of church leaders for their fellow members to “give more.”
When the matter of money arises, above all, the emphasis should be on the spirit of giving—and that within the context of the teaching of stewardship as a way of life. The study of tithing shows many negative as well as positive examples of the spirit of giving. The teaching of Jesus on humility in giving together with the principles of St. Paul listed above and the teaching of the Church Fathers (not reviewed in this article) provide a firm foundation for the teaching of money offerings. Nevertheless, any such teaching must be carefully done because it is so susceptible to misunderstanding, especially the mistake of legalism.
Over all, this study of tithing shows that tithing was first and foremost a matter of worship. This understanding was so strong that tithes had to be physically taken to the tabernacle, temple, or worship center. If the distance was too far, the tithes could be sold for money, but then provisions would have to be purchased from that money upon arrival at the house of worship.
If tithes were sacred to the Lord, so the offerings of the faithful are also holy and should be treated that way. In this regard, the study suggests that dues and funds raised in bazaars and sales are not stewardship. Dues are contracts for the privilege of membership. Money exchanged in bazaars and sales are payments for goods. None of these are worthy to be called offerings to God.
This study also shows that tithing was a viable means of supporting the servants of God, providing supplies for worship feasts, and giving aid to the poor. But it only functioned well as long as it was a way of worshipping the true God within the covenant relationship of the Law of Moses. In times when the kings and people strayed from the Law through of idolatry and injustice, tithing was either neglected or abused.
Note that the renewal of the covenant relationship with God in worship was the way that tithing was restored. These blessed times of renewal required the strong and godly leadership of men like King Hezekiah, King Josiah, the priest Ezra and governor Nehemiah, and the Maccabees. As the priest Ezra did, these set out the Law of God in the Moses covenant before the people. The clear proclamation of the Law that defined the people’s relationship with their God was the motivating factor.
These findings suggest that the renewal of stewardship in the diocese and parish requires strong and inspired leadership. Its basis must be the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, not desperation over meeting the church budget. Appeals for money, especially the promotion of tithing, will not turn the hearts of the people toward fruitful stewardship. What will turn their hearts is the clear, Spirit-inspired, and forceful preaching of the Gospel.
An understanding of the intentions of three tithes also suggests some considerations that might be useful. For example, the intention of the first tithe was to support the servants of God in their ministry. The question for the diocese and parish is whether the Word that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” is taken seriously. Insufficient support of parish priests cannot help but cripple their ministry. To the extent that priests have worries about providing for their families, they can no longer concentrate on their calling. Special concern must be given to the mission priests who carry the critical burden for all in the diocese of establishing new communities of faith throughout America. Their work of outreach is greatly advanced when they are given ample resources.
Perhaps this study of tithing will bring the issue of the sufficient support of priests in this economy out in the open. The priests cannot take the leadership here, but depend on the guidelines of the diocese and informed and caring lay leaders to make sure that they have a level of support that is critical to their full effectiveness.
A second consideration follows from the third tithe of charity. What about almsgiving in our parishes? Of yes, we have the International Orthodox Christian Charities and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, as well as local charities—food banks, homeless shelters, orphanages, etc. Yet these are often funded by special offerings and not considered central to the funding of the life of the parish. In the system of tithing in the Old Testament, the third tithe was much more important. In the prophets, care for the needy and justice for the oppressed was even more so.
On the model of the tithing system, all parishes should make charity central to their mission. Fundraising and dues systems fund the church budget. The church budget invariably is limited to what is needed for parish “operating expenses.” The study of the tithe suggests that parishes should consider putting significant funds for charity, as well as funds for the diocese, in their church budgets. Offerings for special causes would be extra.
A final consideration concerns the intentions of the second (festival) tithe. This study has not found enough material from the New Testament to make extensive comments. However, the practice of bringing gifts from the home in the form of prosphora, perishable items for food banks, and items for coffee hours is a start in connecting the home with the church. Making these offerings visible would be a powerful way of demonstrating that offerings should come from the practice of stewardship as a way of life.
This study has tried to show that the teaching of tithing, when chosen, must be more than a well-oiled way of collecting money for paying church bills. Tithing must be set in the context of stewardship as a way of life and practiced in the right spirit. Whether it is a tithe or not, an offering of money is holy. It requires church leaders to manage the funds with faithful stewardship. In today’s society, the more the faithful can be engaged in this parish stewardship, not merely the giving and collecting of funds, the more they will be motivated to grow in their giving.
The matter of tithing and its uses is more important and more thought-provoking than one might think. Most often, discussions of tithing reveal the attitudes of the participants toward money and its role in stewardship. This study is incomplete and should be followed by a study of tithing and the church fathers. However, already it suggests a deeper approach and more reflective attitude toward the subject of tithing and the surrounding issues of the use of money in the diocese and its parishes.
By Father Basil Aden