Thoughts on Christian giving offered last month in this column lead one naturally to the subject of tithing and the place of tithing in the service of the New Dispensation saint. There are denominations in which this practice is enforced assiduously, and there are individuals in many other denominations (ours?) who carefully lay aside precisely a tenth on the Lord’s Day. To this question the answer must be given, not simply that tithing is unnecessary, but that tithing is wrong. For the New Dispensation saint to give a tenth of all his substance or of his income, be it ever so conscientiously, is wrong. To show this in the light of Scripture is the burden of this article. But the purpose is not merely negative; God has provided some better thing for us, and thus we will also be led into an understanding of the glorious liberty of the children of God!
TITHING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The first indication Scripture gives that tithing is strictly an Old Dispensation requirement is found in the fact that the word occurs in only four New Testament passages. Three of these occurrences are in the Gospels. Since the period that the Gospels cover belongs properly to the Old Dispensation, only one passage actually belongs to the present era; this isHebrews 7:5-9. The use of the word here is to demonstrate very strikingly the excellency of the priesthood of Christ compared to the Levitical priesthood. Clearly, the passage can never be used to teach tithing at the present time! In fact, it can be used convincingly to show that tithing is no more, since the priesthood which had “a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law” is no more.
We read in Genesis 14 and 28 of the tithing of Abraham and Jacob. Although this tithing is basically the same as the later tithing of Israel, it had a special significance for these patriarchs. For this reason we will pass it by and consider the tithe as it belongs to Mosaic Law. At point are the following passages:
And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s: it is holy unto the Lord. And if a man will at all redeem ought of his tithes, he shall add thereto the fifth part thereof. And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord. He shall not search whether it be good or bad, neither shall he change it: and if he change it at all, then both it and the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service deemed. These are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel in mount Sinai.
And 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 . . . . . . . Thus he (the Levite) also shall offer an heave offering unto the Lord of all your tithes, which ye receive of the children of Israel; and ye shall give thereof the Lord’s heave offering to Aaron the priest. (
Cf. entire passage)¹
And thither ye shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and heave offerings of your hands, and your vows, and your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and of your flocks: and there shah ye eat before the Lord your God, and ye shall rejoice in all that ye put your hand unto, ye and your households, wherein the Lord thy God hath blessed thee.
From these passages we may gather: 1.) that one tenth of the produce of the soil and of the flocks and herds was to be given to the Lord by way of maintaining the Levites; 2.) that out of the tithes that the Levites received, the Levites were to give a tenth for the use of the high priest; 3.) that a second tithe was to be given periodically for festival occasions; and 4.) that every third year a tithe was to be given for the poor, which the people ate with the poor and the Levites. Whether this last mentioned tithe was a third tithe or took the place of the second tithe is difficult to determine, nor is it germane to our subject.² The point is that the giving of the Israelites was very carefully delineated by the law of God given through Moses at Sinai and modified somewhat according to Deuteronomy.
The significance of the one-tenth must not be overlooked. The fact that the ten occurs in the denominator of the fraction does not mean that the number ten has a meaning here different from the number ten elsewhere in Scripture. The steady emphasis of Scripture in regard to the number ten is that of fullness or completeness, and that according to the will of God. The Ten Commandments reveal thewhole will of God for the moral life of man. The keeping of the law is the whole duty of man. This completeness and perfectness of the law was further indicated by the fact that the two tables of stone were written full on both sides. Again, the Ten Plagues express the fullness of the wrath of God against a people ripe for judgment. When the Israelites, therefore, were instructed to bring a tenth unto the Lord, as He was represented in the priesthood, that tenth was a confession on their part that all they had and were belonged to the Lord their God! The earth and its fullness is the Lord’s! The nine-tenths that were not brought forth as well as the tenth that was, it was all the Lord’s. Thus it was through tithing that Israel was holiness unto the Lord; through the tithe they dedicated their all unto Him. If a man did not bring forth his tithe, as happened often in later history, he robbed God (Mal. 3:8) and showed that he did not have a right understanding of his relationship to God as steward. He sinned in that he was not rich toward God.
NEW DISPENSATION GIVING
This careful, legal prescription for giving obtained from Sinai until Pentecost. Does not the “selling of possessions and goods, and parting them to all men as every man had need” by the early church members (Acts 2:45; Acts 4:34) signal a tremendous change right after Pentecost? The trouble with those who maintain tithing today is that they grasp at a few texts, but do not have a well worked-out Biblical doctrine. All of Scripture is true, but all of Scripture does not speak to us in the same way! The church must do theology by comparing Scripture with Scripture so that the Word of God yields its riches! The result, then, is that present-day tithers see no advance in the work of salvation through the ages. They do not give a large enough place to the presence of the Spirit in the church and her members, by which presence the believer shares in the anointing of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. The church is one, but God is pleased to deal with the church under different dispensations: the time that distinguishes the dispensations is the fast advent of Christ or the fullness of time; the key difference between the dispensations is that the old did not have the Spirit of Christ and the new does! God dealt with the church before Christ as with a little child. God carefully revealed to this little child, through the law, just what he might and might not do. Every possible aspect of life was circumscribed by a code. Although the law was holy, just, and good, it must not have been very pleasant for the Israelite to have his every action and relationship so strictly defined. The revelation which God sent Israel was consistent with this childhood. He taught them through types, figures, symbols, and ceremonies. But what a radical change came about when the Spirit was given. Just as Peter and the apostles suddenly had their eyes opened, so it is with all the church. In Galatians 4, Paul likens Israel to a child in bondage to all those laws, but then he says that in the fullness of time the child suddenly grows up and matures. And it is nothing less than the Spirit of Christ that gives this maturity. It is true that Paul speaks primarily against the practice of circumcision, but his argument has weight in respect to all the practices of the Mosaic Law. The child has come of age. The child is no longer in bondage to fear. He has all the rights of sonship, and that implies knowledgeable sonship.
Because the Spirit now fills the church, God deals with us as those who have the mind of Christ in us, who know the truth, who have the law engraved in our hearts, who have wisdom that is from above. In a word, we are free! In the proper, spiritual sense, our liberty is that we may do as we will! We do not have the tithe-law looking over our shoulder. That simply does not fit with maturity and freedom. Besides, that is far too easy for the grownup church. God does not want us to exercise our sonship by dividing our salary by ten and giving that to Him. The moving of the decimal point one place to the left (and then some quibble as to gross or net income) is not the exercise of freedom nor of the mind of Christ. With thankfulness in respect to the past, with faith in respect to the future, we are to determine with the involvement of our heart, mind, and will what our giving shall be. How beautifully this fits with all of Christian liberty! This liberty is exercised when we exercise ourselves according to the indwelling Spirit. And that Spirit provides for a seeking of the things which are above where Christ is at the right hand of God, and for the making of sanctified judgments concerning temporal matters.
Writing to the Galatian churches, Paul is surprised, even dumbfounded, that anyone would wish to return to the weak and beggarly elements which can only lead to bondage. His language becomes strong because he sees this matter of cleaving to old rituals, ceremonies, and laws, as a fundamental error. “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised that he is a debtor to do the whole law.” (Gal. 5:2, 3) And he has already explained that as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse! We may certainly expand upon his statement: if a man insists on holding to any of the Old Testament ceremonial laws, he is a debtor to do the whole law. He places himself back in those times when Christ had not come, and thus he places himself under the curse. And then Christ, Who has come, profits him nothing!
We can only conclude that tithing is not binding on us in any sense. More, tithing is not even a nice guide for our giving, for to use it as a guide smacks of bondage.
It belongs to the freedom of sons that each one may decide for himself what part of his substance he offers to the cause of God’s Kingdom. And our only guide for this giving is cheerfulness, liberality, and according. as the Lord has prospered us. “Stand forth, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Gal. 5:1)
¹ Commenting on this passage, Calvin refers to Paul’s argument in I Cor. 9:14, “. . . as Paul correctly infers that a subsistence is now no lass due the ministers of the Gospel than of old to the priests who waited at the altar.” Significantly, no mention is made of the tithe by Paul or Calvin. Calvin’s Commentaries, in loco.
² Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, (Chicago, 1957), p. 1103