Is Tithing Commanded for Christians?
A listener named David asks: “Pastor John, is tithing for all Christians today?”
This is really a question, isn’t it, about the relationship of the Old Testament law to the Christian today, because we all know that in Leviticus, and in Deuteronomy, and in Numbers tithing was taught as an obligation for the covenant people in the Old Testament. So, the question becomes: How does that Mosaic arrangement relate to us in the new covenant today. And it is a huge question [I mean book after book is being written about this], but I will give you the text and, just simple as I can, state where I am on this and give the answer.
New Covenant, Old Law?
Romans 7:4, 6: “You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you might belong to another, to him who is raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code.”
Or, Galatians 2:19: “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.”
Or, Ephesians 2:15: [In the cross of Christ, God was] “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.”
Or, Romans 6:15: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?”
“The law of love fulfills the Old Testament commandments.”
So, my answer is that in the new covenant, in the new relationship to God through the Messiah who has fulfilled the law for us, we are not under the law. It is not the primary way by which we relate to God, or by which we discern and find strength to do what is pleasing to God. And in its place has come what Paul twice calls the law of Christ. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Or, 1 Corinthians 9:21: “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” So, it is not as though we are set adrift without any bearings. Christ is our bearings, who he was, what he taught, what he said, the law of Christ. And, as it turns out, the law of Christ, that is, the law of love fulfills the Old Testament commandments.
Romans 13:8: “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
So, I think we are turned away from law keeping as the dominant, defining, primary way we relate to God, to Christ, and to the Holy Spirit — the new way of the Spirit. And then the question becomes: Okay, where does tithing fit in? Just taking tithing as a specific example of the law, where does that fit in?
Pastors, Levites, and Ten Percent
We know it was a way of supporting the Levites. The Levites didn’t have any land. They didn’t get an inheritance, and the way that tribe was supported was that all the others were taxed. Namely, they were to give a tenth and then bring it, and the Levites would live off the tithes of the people as the people shared. And so, you could say generally it was a way of supporting the covenantal religious system of that era.
So, we should ask: Well, then should that be the way we would support our covenantal system of the Church today? Because we know that the New Testament says pastors should be supported. “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18). “The elder should be worthy of double honor” in the context of the support of widows (1 Timothy 5:17).
“We should value our riches in Christ so highly that we would simply love to give.”
So, we know that Paul thought the pastors should be paid if they have given their whole lives to the gospel. Is that an implication that we should just bring over then the tithe? And Paul’s way of dealing with the support is to say, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). It seems as though Paul is jealous to raise the money that the people should be giving, not under compulsion, and not reluctantly, but cheerfully.
Greater Covenant, Greater Giving
Now at the end of the day, as Don Carson likes to say, I would say we should value our riches in Christ in this new covenant relationship so highly, and our freedom from sin so highly, and our gospel so highly, that we would simply love to give. Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). And we would be free from a love of things, and a dependence on things, and we would out give those who lived under the law because we have a better covenant and a better promise. Everything is greater with Christ. Why wouldn’t giving be greater?
So, I think I preached on tithing two or three times in 33 years at Bethlehem. I mean I talked about giving and sacrifice all the time, but as far as tithing goes... and when I did, I think the gist of it was: Brothers and sisters, why would we want to do less? I mean, the person who is saying: Do I have to? They are getting off on the wrong foot immediately. Everything is greater in the new covenant. We have better promises, a better covenant — Hebrews says — why wouldn’t there be better sacrifice, better giving?