Are We Still Required to Tithe to the Church? (Nehemiah 10:37-39)
Are we obligated to tithe in the new covenant? Let me set you all at ease. I have no intentions of sending the offering bags around a second time after this sermon.
R.C. Sproul does not mince words when discussing the tithe. In his book, 5 Things Every Christian Needs to Grow, Sproul writes:
A poll of people claiming to be evangelical Christians indicated that only 4 percent of them tithe. A similar poll indicated that the average percentage of income evangelical Christians give to God’s work is less than 2.5 percent. If the tithe principle is still in effect and the polls are accurate, then 96 percent of professing evangelical Christians are systematically robbing God.
Many presbyterian ministers follow in his train of thought. When I went to seminary, I assumed the ongoing validity of the tithe was standard practice in presbyterian churches. My experience in the only two PCA churches that I had been a member used the language of “Tithes and offerings”. The implication was that we remain obligated to give a tithe (10%) and we are occasionally encouraged to give an offering that goes above and beyond the tithe.
Last week, I mentioned that this passage teaches us some principles of giving. We learn to make a commitment to give money regularly, generously, and proportionally. It is this third point that I want to focus our attention on this morning.
What would a survey of your expenses reveal about the things your heart treasures? Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Our modern obligation seems to boil down to this: Christians should give generously, joyfully, and voluntarily.
Read Nehemiah 10:32-39
A Commitment to Give Money Proportionally
Derek Kidner reflects upon the temptations of the covenant community regarding the Temple before and after exile.
Before the exile, the Temple had too often been a mere talisman, and its well-patronized activities a sedative for the conscience (see, above all, Jer. 7). Now the temptation was the opposite: to grudge the effort and expense of it all.
Before the exile, the people gave to God so that they might live as they pleased. For instance, they assumed that their gift gave them the license to disobey God’s Law and worship other gods. Since returning from the exile, their temptation is to desire the blessings of the covenant without the cost.
We can relate to both tendencies today. Those who have grown up in the church, or at least with some recognition of the obligation to give, may use their gift as a bribe or penance for their sin. They give to improve their odds when they pray and shake their magic 8-ball. They think, “If I give this money, God will give me what I want.”
The other tendency is to abandon the obligation altogether. To avoid turning God into our personal lucky charm, we deconsecrate our wallet. Our spending looks no different from the secular world, who cares nothing about God’s Kingdom.
We want to approach our giving much differently. And I think we can learn some important principles from this passage and others, to correct our hearts.
The Moral Obligation of the Tithe in the Old Covenant
The covenant renewal included instructions to give and receive tithes (37-39). The Hebrew word translated “tithes” literally means “tenth”. They were obligated to bring a tenth of the production of their ground to the Levites. That would include their vegetables, fruit, grain, wine, and oil. They brought a tenth of whatever they earned from their labors.
The agreement ensured that no one complained when the Levites collected the funds, but even the collection was supervised. The rules minimized opportunity for rogue Levites to take advantage of the people (or to run off with temple funds).
The Levites were not exempt from giving a tithe. Out of the portion they collected, they gave a tithe to the priests. When Moses originally received the law, the number of Levites was much greater. After the return from exile, this arrangement left the priests with much less.
Notice how all of these contributions go toward sustaining the work of ministry. Financial gifts, wood offerings, firstfruit offerings, firstborn offerings, and tithes sustained Temple ministry. Out of gratitude for what they had received from God, they gave back to him. The church—in every generation and in every geographic region—should be sustained by the contributions of her members.
A Tendency Toward Neglect
Generally, the prophets reveal a tendency among Israel to neglect the needs of Temple worship (39). The gifts that were received were inadequate to fund the offerings stipulated by the law, which led to neglect and corruption among the Levites and priests. When a church does not support its ministers with adequate funds, they will either neglect the work or mismanage the funds to make ends meet. There are plenty of examples where the neglect occurred in reverse order.
To have the burden of financial concerns on top of the burden for the care of souls is too much for many to handle. Burnout among ministers is increasingly common due to conflict or financial concerns. The pandemic of these past few years has heightened both to unprecedented numbers.
Giving Should Be Sacrificial
The parable of the widow’s mite encourages us to give sacrificially. C.S. Lewis wrote: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”1 That means it will vary for all of us. $50 for one person might be just as sacrificial as a $1,000 for someone else. We are called to give according to our means.
Randy Alcorn lost an $8.2M settlement against an abortion clinic that required him to quit his job as a pastor, donate 100% of his book royalties, and work for minimum wage for ten years. Whatever he earned above minimum wage would be garnished and given to the abortion clinic. After ten years, the abortion clinic had yet to receive any money from Alcorn, so the judge extended the settlement for another ten years. Alcorn continued to write books and live off a minimum wage. By 2019, Alcorn realized that the donations from his book royalties added to $8.2M. He commented,
Some have wondered if I realize what we could have done with over $8 million dollars. My answer is always the same: “Nothing that would have brought us nearly as much joy as we’ve found in giving it away.” I firmly believe they’re not my book royalties—they’re God’s. Nanci and I certainly don’t need them, and it delights us to see God using them to touch lives all over the world!
In The Treasure Principle, Alcorn mentioned that it seems the gracious component of the new covenant would serve to make us more generous, not less.
Whether or not the tithe is still the minimal measure of those firstfruits, I ask myself, Does God expect His New Covenant children to give less or more? Jesus raised the spiritual bar; He never lowered it (Matt. 5:27-28).2
If the average evangelical is giving 2.5% of their income, we may have a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between grace, gratitude, and giving.
2 Cor. 8:1-4 We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.
The Moral Obligation of the Tithe in the New Covenant
The tithe seems to take a significant shift under the new covenant. Rev. Thomas Peck, a Presbyterian pastor and professor, wrote an article titled “The Moral Obligation of the Tithe,” in 1890.
Peck recognized that all men are morally bound to acknowledge their dependence upon God. They are obligated to give thanks to God by offering to him a portion of what he has given to them. The question is not whether we are obligated to give something, but whether we are obligated to give a tenth.
Arguments From the Light of Nature
He argues that there is no perpetual tithe, according to both the Light of Nature and Scripture.
- According to the light of nature, no one has proven a universal obligation to give a tithe.
- Israel adopted the custom of tithing to sustain the priesthood. Before that, any offerings that were made did not have a precise percentage attached out of obligation. Abraham gave a tithe to the priest Melchizedek on a particular occasion(Gen. 14:18-20). “If the instance proves anything for the theory of moral obligation, it proves that there ought always to be a visible priesthood to receive the tithes.” Jacob voluntarily committed a tithe to the Lord after his reassuring dream (Gen. 28:10-22).
- The new covenant church spoke nothing of the tithe for the first three centuries. They said plenty about almsgiving, but nothing about an obligation to give a tenth.
According to the light of nature, the most we can say is that we are obligated to give to God a portion of our substance. In other words, we ought to recognize that God has graciously provided us with all that we have. It is our responsibility to steward those resources in such a way that glorify him.
Arguments From Scripture
- Some assume that Abraham was obeying a custom when he offered a tithe to Melchizedek. Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils of war (not his income/property) to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20). If this were an obligation, it is odd that this remains the only biblical example of it occurring. Throughout Joshua, there isn’t any mention of this. The spoils of war were either entirely destroyed or entirely devoted to the Temple.
- Others look to Hebrews 7 and suggest that the tithe is a perpetual obligation because the priesthood is perpetual in Christ. We will see when we preach through Hebrews that the purpose of comparing Christ to Melchizedek is not to establish the tithe, but to justify the mysterious order of Christ’s priesthood. If Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah, then how could he be considered a priest in any way? It is after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:17).
- The required structure to adopt the Old Testament tithe would seem out of accord with what we find in the New Testament. Giving would be more like a tax collected rather than a gift received. It would be referred to as lawful obedience rather than voluntary and generous. It would be an act of submission rather than an act of faith. It would require a prescribed order to collect and distribute the tithe. It would also require discipline for those who failed to give their portion. This means we would need a system of tracking taxes and performing income audits among our members. We find none of this in the New Testament.
- The New Testament is not merely silent on the requirement of the tithe, it actually proposes something contrary to the tithe in its place. If the Philippians church members were required to tithe, why was Paul so thankful for their generosity (Phil 4:17-18)? When Paul argues that pastors should be paid (1 Cor. 9:8-14), he doesn’t refer to the tithe, but the natural right of a pastor to be paid for their labor (1 Tim. 5:18). What is perfectly clear from the teaching of the New Testament is that our giving should be generous and joyful (2 Cor. 8-9). It conveys the gratitude that we have for our redemption and our trust in God’s ongoing provision. If the offering in the New Testament is everywhere found to be voluntary, then it is safe to conclude that it has replaced what was obligatory under the Old Testament.
Supporting the ministry generously and joyfully requires sacrifice, regardless of your present economic condition. Listen to how Paul articulates his argument and connects it to the gospel.
2 Cor. 8:8-9 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
We become givers because God is the ultimate Giver, who did not spare his only Son (Rom. 8:32).