Old Testament Laws: Is Tithing Required in the New Covenant?
Does the Bible tell us to pay at least 10 percent of our incomes to the church? This paper examines the biblical evidence.
Abraham and Jacob
The first biblical mention of tithing is in Genesis 14. After four Mesopotamian kings had taken Lot captive, Abraham attacked them and recovered all the booty. After his victory, the king of Sodom came out to meet him, and so did Melchizedek, a priest of God. Melchizedek blessed Abraham, and then Abraham “gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:20).
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The text does not tell us whether Abraham had ever tithed before, or ever tithed afterwards. Perhaps it was a custom of his culture. Abraham was generous, and gave the rest of his booty to the king of Sodom (verses 23-24). Abraham kept all of God’s laws that were relevant in his day (Genesis 26:5), but Genesis does not tell us whether tithing was a law in Abraham’s day. Many of God’s decrees and requirements were built around the nation of Israel and the Levitical priesthood and tabernacle. Abraham could not have kept such decrees and laws. He may have tithed regularly, but we cannot prove it.
The next mention of tithing is in Genesis 28:20-22. Jacob had a miraculous dream at Bethel. In the morning, Jacob vowed to tithe if God helped him during his journey. He was trying to make a bargain with God. He wanted special help, and in return for that help, he was willing to worship God, and to tithe as a part of that worship. Tithing may have been part of the common worship practices of that time and culture, or it may have been an extra-special vow for those who desperately desired divine help.
Biblical commands about tithing are generally about grain, wine and oil.1 A different system of giving was required for some animals. In the last plague on Egypt, God killed the firstborn male of every animal and human, but he spared the Israelites and their animals. Therefore, God claimed ownership of every Israelite firstborn and firstling male animal (Exodus 13:2; Numbers 3:13).
This applied not only to the generation that left Egypt,2 but every future generation as well. Firstlings of clean animals were to be given to the priests and sacrificed (Numbers 18:15-17); priests and people ate them during the festivals (Deuteronomy 15:19-20; 12:6, 17; 14:23). Unclean animals and humans were to be redeemed (Exodus 13:12-15; 34:19-20). This continued o be the law in Nehemiah’s day (Nehemiah 10:36) and in Jesus’ day (Luke 2:23).
The people also gave firstfruits of their harvest (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Leviticus 2:14), but these firstfruits do not seem to be a fixed percentage.
Tithing was required on flocks: “every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod”3 Leviticus 27:32). Was this in addition to the firstlings, or was it instead of firstlings? We do not know exactly how these laws would be administered. It is not necessary for us to take a position on these details.
“A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30).4 The tithes and firstfruits belonged to God, and he assigned the Levites to receive them on his behalf (Numbers 18:12-13, 21, 24). They could keep 90 percent of what they were given, but had to give 10 percent as an offering (verses 26-32).
Tithing was done in the days of Hezekiah (2 Chr. 31:5-6), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 10:35-39; 12:44) and Jesus (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). In Malachi’s day, tithing was required (Malachi 3:8-10), and physical blessings were promised for obedience, just as physical blessings were promised for obedience to the old covenant.
God gave the tithes to the Levites, but the people could eat their tithes during festivals (Deuteronomy 12:5-7, 17-19; 14:23). Some have concluded that Deuteronomy is talking about an additional tithe, a festival tithe. It is possible to have two tithes, but it is not possible to have two sets of firstborn animals. The firstlings were holy to the Lord, and given to the Levites (Numbers 18:15-17), but Deuteronomy 15:19-20 says that they were eaten by the people. Apparently the firstlings were shared between the original owners and the Levites. It is possible that the same is true of the tithe.5
The people needed a tithe for the festivals, since the festivals constituted about 5 percent of the year, plus travel time. During sabbatical years, farmers would not have their regular income, so they may not have been able to go to every festival in every year. Or perhaps they saved the festival tithe from year to year.
At the end of every three years of farming, the Israelites were to set aside a tithe for the Levites, resident aliens, orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:12-15). It is not clear whether this was an alternative use of a previous tithe, or an additional tithe.6
Tithing in the new covenant
Now let us consider whether tithing is required in the new covenant. Tithing is mentioned only three or four times in the New Testament. Jesus acknowledged that the Pharisees were very careful about tithing (Luke 18:12), and he said that they should not leave it undone (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). Tithing, like other old covenant rules and rituals, was a law at the time Jesus spoke. Jesus criticized the Pharisees not for tithing, but for treating tithing as more important than mercy, love, justice and faithfulness.
The only other New Testament mention of tithing is in Hebrews. The fact that Abraham was blessed by and gave tithes to Melchizedek illustrates the superiority of Melchizedek and Jesus Christ over the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:1-10). The passage then goes on to note that “when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also” (verse 12).
There was a change of the priesthood from the Levites to Jesus Christ, and this implies a change in the law that assigned the Levites to be priests. How much has been changed? Hebrews says that the old covenant is obsolete. The package of laws that commanded tithes to be given to the Levites is obsolete.
Humans should honor God by voluntarily returning some of the blessings he gives them — this is still a valid principle. The only place that a percentage is required is within the old covenant. There is good precedent for tithing before Sinai, but no proof that it was required.
Responding to the better covenant
Under the old covenant, tithing was required for the support of the old covenant ministers. The Israelites were required to give 10 percent — and their blessing was only a physical one! Christians in the new covenant have much better blessings — spiritual ones. How much more willingly ought we to give in thankfulness for the eternal blessings we have in Christ Jesus?
The Israelites were commanded to give 10 percent under a covenant that could not make them perfect (Hebrews 7:19; 9:9). How much more joyfully should we give to God under the new covenant? We have the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which does cleanse our conscience (9:14). And yet it seems that in America today, even though we have so much more than the Israelites did, people give on average a much smaller percentage. Many people give less to the church than they spend on luxury items. Some people cannot give very much, but many people could if they wanted to. God calls on us to examine ourselves, to examine our priorities, and to be generous.
The old covenant gave us condemnation; the new covenant gives us justification and peace with God. How much more should we be willing to give freely and generously so God’s work can be done in the world — to proclaim the gospel, to declare the new covenant ministry that gives us true life, and gives that message of life to others?
People who entrust their lives to Jesus Christ are being transformed by Christ to be more like Christ. They want to give to support the gospel and to support the poor. Christians should give generously — but giving is a result of their relationship with God, not a way to earn it. We are given grace through faith, not through tithing.
Some people act as if Christ liberates us from the law so that we can keep more physical blessings for ourselves. That is false — Christ liberates us so that we can be free to serve him more, as loving children and not merely as slaves. He frees us so we can have faith instead of selfishness.
When it comes to money, the real question is, Is our heart in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are we putting our money where our heart is? We can tell where our heart is by seeing where we are putting our money. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said (Matthew 6:21).
Needs in the new covenant ministry
In the new covenant church, there are financial needs — to support the poor, and to support the gospel by supporting those who preach it. Christians are obligated to give financial support for these needs. Let’s see how Paul explained this obligation in his second letter to the Corinthians.
Paul describes himself as a minister of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6), which has much greater glory than the old (verse 8). Because of what Christ did for him in the new covenant, Christ’s love compelled Paul to preach the gospel, the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).
Paul exhorted the Corinthians “not to receive God’s grace in vain” (6:1). How were they in danger of doing this? Paul had gone out of his way to serve them, but they were withholding their affections from him (6:3-12). He asked them for a fair exchange, for them to open their hearts to him (6:13).
Paul told the Corinthians that they had a duty to give something in response to what they had been given. This response comes in terms of morality (6:14-7:1), which the Corinthians had done (7:8-13), and in terms of affection, which the Corinthians had also done (7:2-7), and in financial generosity, which Paul addresses in chapter 8. This is the way in which the Corinthians had closed their hearts to Paul and withheld their affections.
Paul cited the example of the Macedonian churches, who had given generously, even to the point of self-sacrifice (8:1-5). The example is powerful; the implications are strong that the Corinthians needed to respond to Paul’s sacrifices by making sacrifices themselves. But Paul did not make a command (8:8). Instead, he asked first for a turning of the heart. He wanted the Corinthians to give themselves to the Lord first, and then to support Paul. He wanted their gift to be done in sincere love, not from compulsion (8:5, 8). Paul reminded them that Christ had become poor for their sakes; the implication is that the Corinthians should make financial sacrifices in return.
But then Paul reminded the Corinthians that they could not give more than they had (8:12). Nor did they have to impoverish themselves to enrich others; Paul was only aiming for equity (8:13-4). Paul again expressed confidence in their willingness to give, and added the peer pressure of he Macedonian example and the boasting he had done in Macedonia about the generosity of the Corinthians (8:24-9:5).
Paul again noted that the offering must be done willingly, not from compulsion or given grudgingly (9:5, 7). He reminded them that God rewards generosity (9:6-11) and that a good example causes people to praise God and puts the gospel in a favorable setting (9:12-14).
This was a collection for the poor in Judea. But Paul said nothing about tithing. Rather, he appealed to the new covenant environment: Christ had made many sacrifices for them, so they ought to be willing to make a few sacrifices to help one another.
In asking for this offering, Paul was also making a financial sacrifice. He had a right to receive financial support himself, but instead of that, he was asking that the offering be given to others. Paul had not asked for any financial support from Corinth (11:7-11; 12:13-16). Instead, he had been supported by Macedonians (11:9).
Paul had a right to be supported by the Corinthians, but he did not use it (1 Corinthians 9:3-15). This passage tells us more about our Christian duty to give financial support to the gospel. Workers should be able to receive benefits of their work (9:7). The old covenant even made provision for oxen to be given benefits of their work (9:9).
Throughout his appeal, Paul does not cite any laws of tithing. He says that priests received benefits from their work in the temple (9:13), but he does not cite any percentage. Their example is cited in the same way as the example of soldiers, vineyard workers, herdsmen, oxen, lowers and threshers. It is simply a general principle. As Jesus said, “The worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). Paul cited the oxen and wages scriptures again in 1 Timothy 5:17-18. Elders, especially those who preach and teach, should be honored financially as well as with respect.
Jesus also commanded, “those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). This implies that those who believe should provide a living for some who preach. There is a financial duty, and there is a promised reward for generosity (though that reward may not necessarily be physical or financial).
A need to be generous
Christians have received riches of God’s grace, and are to respond with generosity and giving. Christians are called to a life of service, sharing and stewardship. We have an obligation to do good. When we give ourselves to the Lord, we will give generously.
Jesus often taught about money. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” said Jesus to a rich man (Luke 18:22). He said the same thing to his disciples (12:33). The new covenant demands all that we have, and that is fair, since Jesus gave all he had for us. He praised a widow who put two coins into the temple treasury, because she gave “all she had” (21:4).
Wealth is often an enemy of faith. It can “choke” people and cause them to be spiritually unfruitful (8:14). “Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus warned (6:24). He warned us about the dangers of greed (12:15) and warned about the danger of storing up wealth for self without being “rich toward God” (12:16-21). When we use wealth to help others, we gain “treasure in heaven” (12:33). This helps us have our heart in heavenly things instead of earthly, temporary things (12:34).
“No servant can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and money” (16:13). But money competes for our allegiance; it tempts us to seek our own desires rather than the needs of the kingdom. After the rich man went away sad, Jesus exclaimed: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:24-25).
Christians need to give, to share their resources and blessings with others. They have a duty to support the preaching of the gospel, to give financial support to their spiritual leaders, and the church needs this support. If disciples of Jesus Christ can give, but do not, they are falling short.
The old covenant required 10 percent. The new covenant does not specify a percentage, nor do we. However, the new covenant admonishes people to give what they can, and tithing still provides an instructive point of comparison. For some people, 10 percent may be too much. But some will be able to give more, and some are doing so. Christians should examine their own circumstances and the better blessings they have been given in the new covenant through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us and the gift of the Holy Spirit to us. Contributions should be given to the church for its collective work of preaching the gospel and the expenses involved in the local ministry and congregational needs.
Likewise, the new covenant does not specify any particular percentage for assisting the poor. Instead, it asks for equity — and we certainly have room for improvement in this.
The old covenant required simple percentages. Everyone knew how much was required. The new covenant has no set percentages. Instead, it requires more soul-searching, more training for the conscience, more selfless love for others, more faith, more voluntary sacrifice and less compulsion. It tests our values, what we treasure most, and where our hearts are.
1 The Bible describes tithing in an agricultural economy. It does not tell us whether, or how, potters, carpenters, merchants, etc. calculated tithes.
2 For the generation that left Egypt, God made a grand substitution: Instead of the firstborn male of each family and flock, God accepted the tribe of Levi and all its animals (Numbers 3:40-50; 8:16-18).
3 It is not clear how this worked. Was the entire flock counted, or only the lambs? In bad years, the flock would come back no larger than it had been the previous year, so it wouldn’t make sense to tithe on all the adults again, since there would have been no increase. Perhaps the “rod” served in some way to separate lambs from adults.
4 It might be argued that the tithes were holy and therefore had always been holy, even before the old covenant was made. That is possible, but it cannot be proven. The firstlings were also holy to the Lord, but this was based on events of the Exodus, not on creation. “Once holy, always holy” is not a valid principle.
5 A separate tithe for festival use is described in the apocryphal book of Tobit 1:6-8, Josephus’ Antiquities 4.4.3; 4.8.8; 4.8.22, and the second-century B.C. book Jubilees 32:10-14. Some sources suggest that this second tithe was calculated on the basis of the 90 percent left after the first tithe, not the original 100 percent (Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE–66 CE, p. 167; International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Tithe,” vol. 4, p. 863, citing the Mishna Maaser sheni 2.1.)
6 As noted above, Tobit, Josephus and Jubilees give evidence for three tithes. The Mishnah, however, combines the festival tithe and the poor tithe: the second tithe being used for the festival in years 1, 2, 4 and 5, and being used for the poor in years 3 and 6 out of the seven-year farming cycle (Sanders, p. 149). Since farmers had an increase in only six out of every seven years, they gave on average 3.3 percent of their increase to the poor. If tradesmen tithed (and no biblical law required them to) they would give about 2.8 percent on average, since they had income even during sabbatical and jubilee years.
Author: Michael Morrison