What Does the Bible Say about Tithing?

Many churches speak of a “tithe,” literally a tenth, latching onto biblical language to support their calls for financial contributions. Though some countries provide financial support for state-recognized churches through taxes (e.g., the Church of England; or the Catholic, Lutheran, and other churches in Germany and Austria), many churches throughout the world depend on direct donations by attendees for financial survival. The link between the Bible’s own understandings of tithing and modern church practice might seem straightforward, but in fact, most biblical examples of tithing bear little resemblance to our financial support of churches. So, what does the Bible say about tithing?

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In Scripture, the tithe takes several forms. First, it can simply be a general tax or gift showing deference to a ruler. A second category includes clearly religious scenarios of bringing a tithe to a sanctuary or to religious leaders, presumably for maintaining the sanctuary and sustaining those who work there. Third—a striking exception to the previous two categories in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament—some tithes fund a feast for those who bring them and for society’s marginalized. Fourth, New Testament conceptions of tithing build on several of the earlier categories, but, surprisingly, none of them address financing churches. The last section will therefore consider ways that the New Testament does talk about supporting churches and the marginalized in ways that have some connection with biblical notions of tithing.

Tithe as Deference and Subordination to a Ruler

In itself, the tithe (or tenth) does not have a special relationship with religion in the ancient world of the Bible. Rather, it is a general term that fits well with any kind of financial contribution, such as paying a tax. This basic notion of a tax appears in the prophet Samuel’s warning to the Israelites in response to their request for a king:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: . . . He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves (1 Sam 8:11, 15–17, NRSV).

And, as also seen here, taxes at this time were often paid in foodstuffs, like grain, wine, and animals because coinage only came into regular circulation in the region of Israel towards the end of the period reflected in the OT/HB, in the Persian period (sixth–fourth centuries BCE). Such taxes or tributes could also be rendered through labor or in pieces of metal. Gifts of precious goods, like unique dishes, cut ivory, or spices, were also brought in tribute.

In any case, rulers were often the main supporters of temples, as with David and Solomon for the First Temple in Jerusalem (1 Chr 28–29; 1 Kgs 6–8) that was constructed under Solomon and maintained by subsequent kings of Judah until the destruction of this temple and the monarchy by the Babylonians in 587/586 BCE. This intertwining of state and religion was typical in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria as well.1Peter Altmann, Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context, BZAW 424 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 222–25. Kings paid for considerable portions of the upkeep and the salaries of those working there.

Tithes were intended to show deference and subordination to the one who received them. This general meaning emerges from the cryptic narration of Abram (Abraham) giving “a tenth of everything” upon receiving a meal and blessing from the otherwise unknown figure of Melchizedek (meaning “king of righteousness/justice”), priest of God Most High in Gen 14:18–20. No more explanation appears, but Abram’s one-time, ten-percent gift honors this figure and the God Most High whom he serves as priest. Jacob makes a similar commitment to God in response to his dream while sleeping at Bethel (“God’s House”) during his flight from his brother Esau (Gen 28:22). He commits to tithing if God brings him back safely to that place, which would mean that he was able to find safety from Esau’s wrath.

Tithe as Sanctuary Contribution

Most OT/HB passages about tithing are concerned with worshipers’ regular financial contribution at a sanctuary. These texts thereby undergird the notion of devoting one’s financial resources to God. Leviticus 27:30 states plainly, “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s, they are holy to the Lord” (NRSV), and v. 32 adds a tithe of edible animals, which likewise “shall be holy to the Lord” (NRSV). Numbers 18:21–28 details the distribution of a tithe, stating that one type of religious worker, the Levite, receives the tithe and must give a tenth of what they receive to the priests.

Several narratives written after the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple (ca. 515 BCE) address the topic of the people bringing tithes to the temple. On a positive note, 2 Chr 31 depicts a joyous earlier time under King Hezekiah of Judah when:

. . . the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps (2 Chr 31:5–6).

The Israelites do so in response to hearing the Law/Torah of the Lord, so their actions display reverence toward God.

In contrast, the situation under Nehemiah, around 450 BCE, is fraught with complications. Without a king to guarantee maintenance of the temple and its personnel, many Levites have abandoned their work at the temple to support themselves (Neh 13:10–13), so Nehemiah as governor steps in to regulate the problem. Around the same time, a group of Judeans living in the area make a compact to bring a tithe of agricultural goods, among other contributions, to pay the workers and costs required to keep the temple functioning (Neh 10). This tension also appears in the prophetic book of Malachi, which condemns people for shorting the amounts they bring as their tithes, in effect robbing God (Mal 3:8–10). Therefore, the concept of financial contributions to a sanctuary carries through the entire OT/HB narrative; however, given that the New Testament does not identify places of worship to be maintained, the connection between these OT/HB and Christian practice becomes more indirect, as will be discussed below.

One final note from the OT/HB is that bringing a tithe did not necessarily mean that a person had fulfilled their commitment to God. Amos 4:4 depicts this point poignantly, stating:

Come to Bethel—and transgress;

   to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;

bring your sacrifices every morning,

   your tithes every three days.

Jesus will pick up on this line of thinking in the New Testament, in part by way of the contrary formulation of the tithe in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy’s Tithes for the Marginalized

In Deut 12:6, 11, 17, tithes are one kind of offering that Israelites should bring to the central sanctuary. However, both here and especially in 14:22–29; 26:12–13, two different conceptions of the tithe emerge. Though religious workers likely participate, those bringing the tithe in Deuteronomy use it to put on a feast for themselves and marginalized people from their household or neighborhood. This is made explicit in Deut 12:18:

These you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God at the place that the Lord your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God in all your undertakings.

Building further, in 14:24–26, if an Israelite lived far from the sanctuary, then they could bring silver and buy the ingredients they desire for the feast.

The second, alternate notion of the use of the tithe goods was intended to take place every third year. According to 14:28–29; 26:12–13, in these years one simply gave all the tithe to the marginalized in one’s community: the Levites (religious workers), outsiders, orphans, and widows.

What Does the Bible Say about Tithing in the New Testament?

In the Gospels, Jesus uses the tithe as an example of presumed holiness. In Matt 23:23 (and its parallel Luke 11:42), Jesus chastises religious leaders by commenting on the general rule of expressing worship through tithing food items—in this case basic garden herbs—to the Jerusalem Temple. He comments that such gifts lack importance if unaccompanied by faith, justice, and mercy. Jesus thereby switches the focus from small, token gifts to broader concepts that remain less defined but could call for much greater contributions. Similarly, in Luke 18:9–14, Jesus condemns a seemingly pious person who tithes and does other good deeds for their presumption of justification before God, including (v. 12): “I give a tenth of all my income.’” Jesus instead praises a hated and certainly impious tax collector for acknowledging his need for divine mercy.

The discussion in Heb 7:1–10 uses the notion of the tithe in a very different manner. It picks up on Abram/Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek from Gen 14 as part of an argument for Jesus’ superiority over the Levitical priests serving in the Jerusalem Temple. The argument is developed on the basic idea that a tithe is given by a subordinate (Abraham) to a superior (Melchizedek). The complex logic of the section rests on the analogy between Jesus and Melchizedek on one hand and the Levitical priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple and Abraham on the other, with the Levitical priesthood having participated vicariously in giving a tithe to Melchizedek through the action of their forefather Abraham.

These examples of discussions of tithing in the New Testament underline the fact that tithing in these texts remains a positive action in relation to the Jerusalem Temple, it had very little to do, at least directly, with the support of churches and those working in them.

Financing Churches according to the New Testament

Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament books lay out some impulses that follow paths set out by the tithe conceptions found in the HB/OT. Jesus has only praise for the poor woman giving a large percentage of her money to the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12:41–44), which suggests that financing a religious institution can be justified. Paul notes that he and other apostles receive financial support for their work, and he argues that he could ask the churches he has planted for similar gifts (2 Cor 11:7–11; Phil 4:14–18). Providing hospitality for traveling leaders is encouraged in 3 John 8.

However, the New Testament instead focuses much of its concern with financial giving on providing assistance to poor people, thus picking up on the directives in Deut 14:22–29. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke advocate sharing one’s riches with the poor (e.g., Matt 19:21; Luke 19:1–9; cf. Luke 16:10–31). Paul admonished the Corinthian church for its lack of sharing with hungry and destitute participants (1 Cor 11:17–34), while he also goes to great efforts to raise financial gifts throughout the Eastern Mediterranean for the poor church of Jerusalem (2 Cor 8–9). The book of Acts depicts various rich individuals like Barnabas (4:32–37) making contributions that would be distributed among those in need (cf. Acts 6).

In other words, the Bible does not provide any specific instruction on a percentage—such as a tithe or tenth—of one’s income or wealth that a churchgoer should give to a church, though it assumes that financial maintenance of religious places and workers is justified.

End Notes

1. Peter Altmann, Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context, BZAW 424 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 222–25.

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