And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need. Acts 2:44-45
A difficult subject to contend with is the issue of money, its place in the Christian's life, and the believer's responsibility when it comes to giving. A related subject, often inseparable to the subject of money (and giving) in the minds of many Christians, is the matter of tithing. Usually, the issue of tithing is itself a non-issue for many believers who have been taught that tithing is a command of God for Christians today.
Were one to ask most teachers of tithing to cite a passage of Scripture supporting the practice, a few verses--I like to call them "the usual suspects"--can be rounded up. Frequently, only parts of Scripture passages are cited, and usually they are rendered out of context. For example, have you ever heard that The tithe belongs to the Lord, or Will a man rob God? or The house of the Lord is neglected?
A familiar passage of Scripture frequently used in challenging Christians to greater spiritual, and sometimes material, reward is Malachi 3:8. Will a man rob God? is an often repeated "battle cry" delivered from pulpits across America. Unfortunately, this passage of Scripture is most often encountered during annual stewardship sermons or when a project or building needs financing. One thing seems relatively certain these days; a predominance of teaching from the prophet Malachi will often accompany a squeeze upon the pocketbook. When believers buy in to the bad teaching offered from the commonly misrepresented words of Malachi, they are often prevented from enjoying true Christian stewardship.
In Part I of this paper, I will examine the primary scriptures used to finance American Christianity. In Part II I will offer a scriptural pattern of Christian stewardship that opposes modern pulpit appeals. Along the way, I'll refute common arguments used to persuade believers that tithing is biblically required. One goal of this commentary is to liberate the Christian from mechanical, legalistic, and often coercive giving; however, the primary goal is to open evangelistic opportunities as individual believers learn to heed more closely biblical instruction by channeling their resources to places where need is greatest. Evangelistic opportunities will open when Christians develop habits of stewardship that follow scriptural patterns.
This exposé comes as a result of numerous questions over the past several years regarding the issue of tithing. The matter was brought to my attention by friends and acquaintances so many times that I decided to write this brief paper in an attempt to provide some clarity.
The most common--though not all--defenses of tithing are examined in this work and a liberating, more rewarding challenge to Christian stewardship is offered.
The Offensive Nature of Truth
Truth often offends those who believe they already have it. Keep this in mind as you read this exposé. It's not uncommon for those who believe they already know what the Bible teaches about a given subject to be offended (sometimes even angered) about an alternative. Challenging certain teachings that have been accepted as true tends to be agitating. This is sometimes true of many Christian leaders--in virtually any capacity--who generally don't appreciate challenges (cordial or otherwise) to doctrines they sincerely believe and have taught for years. Thankfully, sincerity and time have no effect on scriptural truths. Keep in mind that with regard to all matters of faith and practice the only standard for believers is the Bible.
Some Words About Tradition
Because certain practices have grown to reflect man-made traditions instead of biblical truths, it is important to remember that tradition is good only when it complements Scripture. The old saying: "What's popular isn't always right; what's right isn't always popular" is appropriate here. For many, the subject of tithing is sensitive, hotly contested, and deeply passionate. It is, therefore, important to remember that what we strive for in this endeavor is scriptural truth.
The ground rules for this study are quite simple. Basic rules of biblical interpretation  (the plain meaning of Scripture)  is utilized in this work to examine the most common scriptures used to defend modern teaching. If the reader would like to learn about biblical interpretation, a few helpful books are worth mentioning. How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm, and An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics by Walter Kaiser and Moisé Silva are excellent resources. Fee and Stuart's text is an excellent primer on biblical interpretation, Ramm's work is a time-tested introduction used at seminary level as is the text by Kaiser and Silva.
The interesting things that are done to scriptures commonly used to support a "thou shalt tithe" doctrine are actually quite abusive. These abuses stem from either an ignorance of basic interpretive rules, or a perceived need to manipulate people. I'm sympathetic to the ignorance that often comes with tithing doctrines but not the outright deceit that comes with manipulation. Manipulating people into following modern tithing doctrines seems to be motivated or inspired by one or more of the following: 1) greed; 2) the financial obligations or poor management of a given church or ministry; 3) the pride, ego, or need for recognition of the teacher (usually a pastor), e.g., the "kingdom building" sometimes associated with bigger buildings and flashy programs, and; 4) misplaced faith, i.e., faith in money or faith in a clever teaching to accomplish certain goals rather than faith in God.
Adjusting Causes Agitation
One thing that seems common regarding the matter of tithing is that people who have been manipulated into following modern teachings have the most difficult time adjusting to biblically liberated stewardship. This is generally because they have been manipulated or persuaded into believing something that has no scriptural support. Sadly, the manipulation or persuasion often comes from people they respect who utilize poor Bible interpretation, and weak--but sometimes clever--arguments. Incidentally, those who have been truly manipulated into practicing a tithing doctrine won't know they've been misled, but if they come to realize it, sometimes anger results. This is understandable.
Let's begin our "journey to liberated stewardship" with a definition and history of tithing; then, we'll examine the most common arguments used to defend modern practice.
A Brief Definition and History of Tithing
The predominant concept of tithing today involves the giving of money to one's local church. It is often regarded to be the same as the Old Testament Jewish practice of giving first fruits.
Briefly expounding upon first fruits will offer some help in clarifying exactly how confused the matter of tithing has become. While it is not within the scope of this work to comment on every Scripture pertaining to either first fruits or tithing, it is important to note that an examination of God's Word reveals that first fruits and tithes were not likely the same thing. Contemporary believers equate the giving of tithes as being the same as first fruits. This, however, is disputed among scholars. Nevertheless, biblical evidence seems to support the notion that first fruits and tithes were different.
That being said, both first fruits and tithes, to the Jew, were the edible provisions from God that were produced of crops and herds. First fruits were primarily agricultural (with a noted exception below) and included produce "in the raw state (grain and fruit); those prepared for use as food (wine, oil, flour, and dough), including wool" (Ex. 22:29; 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 18:4). Offerings of first fruits were to be the choicest portions (Num. 18:12) and the amount of the offering was apparently left to the discretion of the giver. According to Nelson's Quick Reference Bible Dictionary:
The law ordered in general that the first of all ripe fruits should be offered in God's house. It was an act of allegiance to God as the giver of all. No exact quantity was commanded, but it was left to the spiritual and moral sense of each individual. First fruit offerings were the "perquisite of the priests" (Num. 18:11; Deut. 18:4). In other words, the Temple priests received part of their wages (or, perks) in the form of edible provisions or commodities, e.g., wool; first fruit offerings were one means of this support. Tithing, on the other hand, while eventually serving some of the same purposes as first fruits, e.g., the support and provision for priests, was different from the giving of first fruits. The portion of an individual's first fruits was at the discretion of the giver--the amount could vary--while the amount of a tithe could not.
The Antiquity of Tithing
Many Christians are unaware that tithing was not first practiced by the ancient Jews. It was an ancient practice to be sure, but it was exercised in many cultures. Even prior to the earliest biblical record of tithing (Gen. 14:20), it was a custom practiced by several people groups as noted by Christopher Hill in his Economics of the Early Church:
The system of appropriating 10 per cent. [sic] of the produce of the community to the maintenance of a priest is of great antiquity. It existed not only among the Jews, but also in many pagan tribes.
And, according to Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible:
the institution of offering tithes of the fruits of the field and of the flocks is one which dates back to a period greatly anterior to Israelite history. A tenth of the flocks, fruits, and possessions of all kinds, as well as of the spoils of war, was given to their gods [referring to pagan tithing] by many peoples.
The widespread practice in the ancient world of tithing by giving a portion of one's profit or spoils of war extended from Greece to China. Donation of a tenth portion was common apparently because most people "counted in tens, based on ten fingers."
The word "tithe," it should be noted, actually means "tenth." The word's history is tied to "the old ordinal numeral in English." Phonetic changes in the prehistory of the English language are responsible for the word looking very different from the word ten.
The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says that tithing is the "practice of giving one-tenth of one's property or produce to support religious institutions." This is quite an interesting definition since it allows two ways to understand the word "produce."
In Elwell's definition above, the word "produce" could easily be understood to mean fruits and vegetables or that which has been produced for the expressed purpose of exchange, e.g., wages or money. The definition allows both an ancient and modern understanding of tithing.
It accurately reflects modern practice as long as "produce" is understood to mean "money," but it fails to adequately represent the Old Testament contextual institution of biblical tithing.
More History Don't forget, tithes and first fruits were items of consumption, i.e., the yield of crops or herds. Biblically, tithes--as well as first fruits--didn't involve money per se. While the giver never actually submitted money as a tithe, transporting a tithe could be very difficult for some people living great distances from where the Lord desired tithes to be submitted. So, the Deuteronomic code provided relief from the burden of transporting large numbers of animals and produce by permitting the farmer to sell the tithe, then use the money to buy what was needed for the feast when he arrived to the designated place (Deut. 14:24-26). Later on, this "place" was the temple at Jerusalem. This appears to be the only instance where money actually had anything at all to do with tithing, and it certainly doesn't support modern practice.
It's important to note that the Old Testament instructed tithes to be brought to the "place where the Lord chose to put his Name" (Deut. 12:5-6; 14:23). In other words, the chosen center of worship, i.e., the Tabernacle or Temple, was the place where the Jews were to bring their tithes. The required tithes (possibly three different tithes) were submitted in anticipation of a festive meal and were ultimately used in providing for the Levites and priests (Nu. 18:21) as well as "aliens, the fatherless and widows" (Deut. 14:27-29; 26:12), i.e., those in need. Tithing, as it was prescribed and followed in Old Testament times, evolved into a sort of theocratic welfare system; it really grew to be a ten-percent tax. Today, many preachers make the application (from Old Testament passages) that the modern "place where the Lord chooses to put his Name," is the local church and that priests have been replaced by today's pastors.
Tithing was a practice that failed to enjoy consistency throughout Jewish history. However, during some episodes of neglect, certain reforms became necessary whereby tithing was reintroduced (II Chron. 31:4-5). In some instances, special officers were appointed to take charge of the storerooms (storehouses) that were established within and about the Temple area to secure the supplies of goods (31:11-20, Ne. 12:44). Today, a forced application drawn from such passages is that individual churches are "mini storehouses," or "temples."
Unger's Bible Dictionary aptly describes the symbolism inherent within the Jewish institution of tithing, but it's questionable that it describes most contemporary practice. Tithing "constituted a practical confession and acknowledgment that all possessions belonged to God and that it is he who confers them upon those who enjoy them."
There is little doubt that many who pay tithes today regard their giving as acknowledgment that everything belongs to God. However, it seems that most tithing is done mechanically, out of obligation, and with little thought. In fact, modern practice often resembles a mindless act of habit or an exercise performed under the pressure of coercion rather than the thoughtful and loving pattern of Christian giving outlined in the New Testament.
While directives for tithing are found in the Old Testament, there are only a couple of references in the New (we'll explore these later). A reading of New Testament passages reveals that tithing was indeed a practice followed in Jesus' day (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42), but there is an absence of any directive that designates tithing being required of today's Christian. The Revell Bible Dictionary states the case a little stronger when it says:
there is no indication that a tithe is required. This is partly because the tithe was a unique expression of God's ownership of the land of Israel, but it is also because the NT lays out new principles of giving
Though there is an absence of New Testament directives to tithe, there is, however, a challenging doctrine of Christian stewardship in the New Testament that offers greater satisfaction and reward than present practice.
The Early Church and Tithing
Some people wonder if the early Church Fathers taught tithing. The answer to this somewhat depends on what is meant by "the early Church."
As far as the earliest early Church is concerned, neither the Apostles nor their disciples (the early Church Fathers) taught that tithing was a Christian obligation. Prior to tithing gradually becoming a mainstay in some corners of the early Church, "there was no support of the clergy by a systematic giving of a tithe." In time (several centuries after the Cross), "the tithe came to be regarded generally after the pattern in the Jewish synagogue." Up to this time, tithing was simply a suggestion that apparently generated more and more support as the power of bishops and presbyters grew.
As the power and position of Church leaders grew to reflect Temple era priests and the provisions that supported them, the Church eventually prescribed a tithe that included "money, clothes, and all your possessions," something generally not taught today and which is conspicuously absent in contemporary practice. Tithing in the early Church (ca. 4th Century) was supported by an appeal to passages like Matthew 10:10 that says "the worker is worth his keep" (cf. Luke 10:7), and First Corinthians 9:11 that says "If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?" Some early Church leaders, however, "(like Irenaeus and Epiphanus) showed the argument drawn from these texts was not valid. Rather, freedom in Christian giving was emphasized."
By the 6th century, the practice of tithing had adopted numerous man-made regulations which included certain portions to be designated for priests and parishes. This practice reflects common notions that Old Testament tithing directives regarding priest and temple maintenance have counterparts to church leaders--usually pastors--and church buildings. This belief in parallelism is shared by many Christians, and even has the support of numerous Christian leaders today.
After covering a brief history of tithing, it's now time to turn to the common arguments used to defend modern practice. We'll start with Genesis and work our way through the commonly mishandled scriptures regarding tithing, beginning to end, but not before we take a look at a few scriptures that will no doubt be eye-opening. Let's start with a frequently cited passage that's often used as an introduction and summary to tithing sermons.
Will a Man Rob God?
Malachi 3:8-10 and some related passages are the most popular scriptures used as a foundation for many elaborate tithing doctrines. Malachi is usually used to generate large doses of fear and personal introspection during fund-generating campaigns. Christian teachers often use this challenge from Malachi as an attention-grabber; after all, what Christian would ever want to rob from God? The robber-of-God tactic is, quite simply, an easy way to capture a listener's attention. The subtle effect is that one asks himself consciously or subconsciously: Good heavens! What must I do to avoid being one of those dreaded "robbers of God?" The answer: Subscribe to the teacher's tithing doctrine, of course.
Teaching from Malachi is, quite honestly, often loaded with a measure of guilt. Too often a teacher will indiscriminately repeat what he's been taught while utilizing tired, faithless, and unbiblical arguments to generate funds. This is sometimes done with noble, though ignorant, intent as churchgoers are encouraged to reap the blessings of God through the teacher's tithing doctrine. Unfortunately, sometimes the teacher knows these tired arguments are unbiblical, yet he still uses them to open the wallets of the saints. When this occurs, it is plainly dishonest. Taking a closer look at the Will-a-man-rob-God approach reveals that this Scripture passage can't be applied in the manner so frequently offered.
Context, Context, Context
Malachi 3:8-10 says:
Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse-the whole nation of you-because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.
Unfortunately, we don't normally receive the historical context of this passage when it's delivered during a tithing sermon. The greater context of verses 8-10 is that the Jewish people, having returned to the Promised Land from Babylonian captivity, failed to maintain the order and reforms implemented by Nehemiah, a contemporary of Malachi. Nehemiah played a crucial role in overseeing the rebuild of Jerusalem as well as the Temple upon the return of the former captives. One of several reforms implemented by Nehemiah was that of helping the poor (Ne. 5:2-13). The poor were being financially taken advantage of at the time and Nehemiah insisted that the abuses cease. The book of Malachi was written after the city's rebuild as well as Nehemiah's return to royal service in Persia, and his subsequent return to Jerusalem. Upon his return to the city after a thirteen-year absence, he discovered the numerous failings of the people (Ne. 13:7-31). It was the sins of the Jewish people during this time that were encountered by Nehemiah and which were addressed in the prophet Malachi's words.
Now, with the help of historical context the reader is in a better position to determine what God meant when he chastised the Jewish people and accused them of robbing him. This will help in applying the passage to our own lives. Let's back up a few verses in Malachi. Reading from 3:5 to verse 12, it says:
So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me, says the Lord Almighty.
I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord Almighty. But you ask, 'How are we to return?'
Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.
But you ask, "How do we rob you?"
In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse-the whole nation of you-because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the Lord Almighty. Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land, says the Lord Almighty (italics added).
A careful reading of the above passage shows that God was intimately concerned about the indifference of his people and their lack of care for those in need, i.e., widows, the fatherless, aliens, etc., (v. 5); the poor and others in need were being neglected, and God attempted to correct the people through Malachi for their failing to bless the poor with necessary care.
Failure to care for the needs of the Temple priests, those given charge over the religious training of the people, was also an issue. The apparent fact that Temple priests had abandoned their responsibilities of training the people in religious matters (Mal. 2:1-9) seems evident in the people's reply of 3:8 when they said: "How do we rob you?" Their ignorance of God's law supports the idea that they were failing to be trained in religious matters. The people, apparently unaware of their transgressions, seemed sincere in their ignorance; they weren't aware that they were "robbing God." Those in the Temple service weren't being cared for through the required tithes. They were, therefore, forced into the fields (Ne. 13:10) concentrating on their own survival. Their vocation to instruct the people in matters of faith and practice was neglected.
Take notice of the connection between Malachi 3:5 and 3:8. Verse five indicates that certain individuals are found to be quite contemptible to the Lord, and if we heed our Lord's words in Matthew 25:35-40 (see below), it becomes clear how it is possible to truly "rob God" today.
Many tithing sermons say that to avoid robbing God the Christian should "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse" (Mal. 3:10). The storehouse is usually presented as a modern-day equivalent to the local church. It's significant that we understand what the storehouse was and how it was supposed to function prior to applying the Scripture passage in question.
The Temple storehouse actually consisted of multiple rooms. There is even some indication that there were storerooms not only located in the Temple, but also in the town areas (Deut. 14:28). The Temple storehouse rooms, however, were utilized for, among other things, storage places for the goods (first fruits and leftover tithes from the festive meal) that the people brought to the priests (II Chron. 31; Ne. 10:37-39; 13:12-13). The gifts brought to the Temple served as provision for the Temple maintenance, the sustenance of the priests, as well as care for the poor (Nu. 18:21; Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12; Ne. 12:44).  It is within the context of the poor that attention is directed regarding Malachi 3:8 and "Will a man rob God?"
Narratives Tell Stories
To draw an appropriate application from Malachi with regard to the "Will a man rob God?" query, it's important to recognize some things. This portion of Scripture is contained in a narrative. A narrative tells a story or conveys facts. Proper applications of narratives are limited and should reflect the message clearly conveyed in them. For example, from the narrative about Noah we learn about such things as faith and patience, not sail boating or weather forecasting. Likewise, the book of Malachi as a narrative in itself contains particular lessons. Malachi was written with regard to specific circumstances and to specific people. Any application we draw from Malachi 3:5-12--and especially the immediate contextual details of the passage--should have a correlative for today. Before exploring what this passage actually means, taking a look at what it cannot mean will help us appreciate the author's intent.
What Malachi Doesn't Mean
First, though individual churches should function like Temple storehouses to meet the needs of the poor, the truth is that the local church simply isn't the actual storehouse; the Jewish Temple was, and it was destroyed by the Roman conqueror Titus in August of 70 A.D. So, when God said to the Jews to "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse," he referred to the Jewish Temple, not the modern individual church on "Fifth and Elm."
Second, since there isn't a Temple today whereby believers are compelled by Scripture to submit a tithe to priests (or pastors), it's an inaccuracy to import meaning to the scriptures by assuming that tithes must be paid to local churches, or elsewhere for that matter.
Third, it's an improper modern-day application to say that a person is robbing God because of a failure to pay tithes. There is, however, a clear way that a believer can fall under the judgment of Malachi 3:8, but the judgment must complement what Malachi and, hence, what God meant when he conveyed the words: "Will a man rob God?"
What Malachi Does Mean
In Malachi 3:8 the prophet uses a figure of speech that proposes God has one or more human qualities, by suggesting that it is possible to rob him. Now, the notion that God could actually be robbed seems rather absurd, and it should not be supposed that one could somehow really take or withhold anything at all from the Lord--except, perhaps, love.
God suggests through Malachi's words (and within the context of Malachi's and Nehemiah's day) that he is "robbed" when we fail to provide for those in need around us. God chastised the Jews for failing to bring their tithes, or taxes (God's welfare system) to the storehouse (the place where provisions were stored) in order that there would be "food in [God's] house," the Temple (Mal. 3:10) to distribute to those who needed it, i.e., the priests, widows, the fatherless, aliens, etc. This complements God's concern noted in Malachi 3:5. It also clearly establishes God's advocacy for the poor and those he has entrusted to instruct people in religious matters when he essentially says that if you refrain from providing care to those in need, you might as well steal from him (God).
God's concern for those in need is made clear throughout Scripture and this idea includes ministers of the gospel (not exclusively pastors). With regard to the poor, the intensity of God's care for them is best expressed by him, so, consider Christ's words in Matthew 25:34-40.
Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"
The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (italics added).
Christ's words are penetrating in his advocacy for the poor. His words here complement the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and other occasions whereby he commanded individual believers to "Love their neighbor as themselves" (Matt. 22:39).
Robbing God also happens when believers fail to provide for the needs of Christian ministers. This is not limited to pastors but extends to other Christian ministers as well. New Testament directives complement the Old Testament instructions of assisting those commissioned to instruct in religious matters. Some related passages are Matthew 10:10 that says "the worker is worth his keep" (cf. Luke 10:7), and First Corinthians 9:11 that says "If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?" Clearly, then, those committed to Christian ministry should be met with necessary provision.
Here's a paraphrased summary of God's message conveyed through Malachi and supported by our Lord's own words in Matthew: "If you fail to give to those in need, you 'rob' from me, says the Lord" (Malachi 3:5-8; Matthew 25:34-40).
Collection Plate Robbery
While it would be clearly absurd--not to mention unbiblical--to oppose taking up church collections (I Cor. 16:1), criticism is, in fact, warranted regarding the manner by which collections are often gathered.
So far, we've cleared some muddy water regarding what it means to rob God, but are there any other related ways by which God is robbed? Indeed there is. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a dramatic tithing sermon where the account of the "Widow's Offering" is used as a proof-text to support sacrificial giving? Frequently, this approach is offered along side the Robbing-God sermon, so, this is an appropriate place to expound upon it.
Give 'til it Hurts
Every time I hear a Christian minister appeal to Malachi and say, "Will a man rob God?" before (or after) an offering plate is passed, I consider for a moment the plight of a certain widow. Often times one will hear a tithing sermon where a certain widow is noted for her sacrificial giving. Frequently, the passage of Scripture in Luke 21:1-4 (cf. Mark 12:41-44) that tells the story of "The Widow's Offering" is used as a springboard to encouraging greater generosity. The poor widow, noticed by Jesus, is often praised for her sacrificial giving because she contributed two small copper coins-- "all she had to live on" (v. 4)--to the temple treasury.
While there is certainly room for practical teaching regarding sacrificial giving, and there is indeed a place for sacrifice in Christian stewardship, the account of the widow is often removed from its context. Frequently, this passage is used to teach people to "give 'til it hurts."
Context is very important to proper biblical interpretation; it can mean the difference between understanding God's message and missing his truth altogether. Taking a closer look at the account of "The Widow's Offering," the passage reads:
As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."
Most have been led to believe that Jesus praised the woman for her generosity and sacrificial giving. However, closer examination yields something different.
In order to understand the message Jesus conveys, it's important to back up a few verses into the previous chapter to discover his lesson. Reading the passage again while disregarding the unfortunate and unnatural chapter division between chapters 20 and 21 will be helpful. Jesus was teaching and many people were apparently gathered. Luke 20:45-47 through Luke 21:1-4 says:
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, "Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."
As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (Emphasis added).
Having just warned his listeners concerning the pride and misdeeds of the religious leaders, Jesus notes that they not only set themselves above others, but they felt no shame in "devouring widows' houses" (v. 47). It seemed to be divine appointment that as Jesus looked up after warning his listeners, there, right before their very eyes, was a poor widow contributing to the temple treasury (the Temple, the storehouse, the place where her needs should have been met) as a real-life example of what he was talking about. We can almost sense the concern for the widow in Christ's voice, his condemnation of the religious leaders who would allow her to give her meager funds, and the certainty of judgment against those encouraging her gift. The religious leaders had grown accustomed to "oppressing widows" and had no fear of the Lord (Mal. 3:5). They "robbed God" by accepting or by somehow compelling her gift.
Far from a passage of Scripture that praises the generosity of the poor widow, Christ's words in Luke are a clear condemnation of those who "devour widows' houses" and, thus, a condemnation of those who "devoured" the woman's limited funds, her last two copper coins.
Jesus demonstrated much concern for the poor. His actions and commands indicate that caring for the poor needs to be a primary focus of Christian giving. New Testament stewardship directives indicate that people are the most important beneficiaries of Christian giving, not buildings and programs, or salaries and land acquisitions.
A modern-day parallel to the account of the widow is that sometimes God is "robbed" when collection plates are passed, and the needy within his Body--the Church--are compelled (often coerced) into giving.
Over and Above?
A word about the proverbial "over-and-above" tactic is important. When tithing teachers attempt to extract additional money "over and above" a tithe already imposed through a misrepresentation of God's Word, they build a doctrine that follows from their erroneous interpretation of the "robbing-God" passage in Malachi 3:8. D. A. Carson comments on the problem of juxtaposing texts. He says that an erroneous interpretation of one text, gives rise to another, then another, and so on. This yields a catena of erroneously interpreted scriptures and creates one giant error.
This "over-and-above" notion that tithing teachers refer to proceeds (they believe) from Malachi 3:8 where God is quoted in reply to the people's question How do we rob you? God says, "In tithes and offerings" (italics added).
Tithing teachers frequently insist that believers are compelled by God to not only give a tithe, but are equally required to give "over and above" a tithe through various offerings. This, however, is incorrect for the simple fact that: 1) tithes are not required in the first place; and, 2) the offerings spoken of here refer to firstfruit offerings (edible provisions, agricultural produce) for the maintenance of the Temple workers and priests.
A little research yields the above truth, yet tithing teachers don't seem to feel the import of "correctly handling God's Word" (II Tim. 2:15).
Tithing Prior to the Law
We've dealt with a couple of scriptures thus far recognized by anyone who has had to endure their misrepresentation during a tithing sermon. Having offered proper interpretation for those popular texts, it's time to examine other commonly mishandled passages--and a couple of others that seem to be conveniently neglected--which are used to teach tithing.
A popular defense of those who teach tithing doctrines has been to cite the fact that Abraham--known as Abram at the time--tithed to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20), priest of Salem. Melchizedek greeted and blessed Abraham after Abraham defeated an enemy. Melchizedek extended a visit to him after the military victory, and in return Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of the captured booty.
Many ministers appeal to Genesis 14:18-20 as a supposed demonstration that tithing was an institution established prior to the Law, which would include any tithing directives--being given to Moses. Usually, this so-called explanation is offered as a sort of preemptive strike against those who would point out that the Old Testament institution of tithing is no longer required of Christians since believers are not "under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).
These same teachers sometimes also attempt to reinforce their tithing doctrines by supposing that Melchizedek was a manifestation of God. This notion, however, is disputed among scholars. But, even if Melchizedek was a manifestation of God, it doesn't follow that it establishes a tithing doctrine. An assumption that Melchizedek was a manifestation of God simply affords an unwarranted and forced example whereby the teacher can challenge people by saying: "Abraham tithed to God. Shouldn't you?"
The Abraham Argument
The "Abraham Argument" of many tithing proponents usually goes something like this:
There are those who say that the New Testament believer is no longer under the Law, that tithing was a matter that was given to Moses and the Jewish people, and that the Christian is no longer required to tithe since believers are under the New Covenant of grace. But God's Word clearly teaches that even prior to the Law, tithing was a practice he blessed and established for all time. We see that prior to God giving the Law to Moses and the Jewish people, that Abraham, one of the 'Faith Hall of Famers' noted in the New Testament book of Hebrews, tithed. Therefore, since Abraham tithed, and since he tithed prior to the establishment of the Law, and since he has been memorialized in the 'Faith Hall of Fame,' God has given us an example in Abraham that tithing is required of believers today.
Examining this often persuasive argument shows that it doesn't hold up under the scrutiny of proper biblical interpretation.
A Customary Courtesy
As we noted above in the commentary regarding the context of Malachi, narratives tell a story or convey historical facts; their applications are limited.
In this account, Abraham demonstrated gratitude and customary courtesy to Melchizedek when he tithed to him. It was a custom that was exercised by numerous neighboring peoples (pagans included) such as the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arabs, as well as the Greeks and Romans. Tithing was even a practice known to the ancient Chinese. It was a very common cultural practice, and it wasn't until the Mosaic Law that tithing was given the status of a compulsory contribution in the lives and culture of the Jewish people.
In addition, Abraham acknowledged God when he tithed to Melchizedek in that he willingly parted with a portion of the booty of which God blessed him. His tithe was "his confession that God was his Lord, the Possessor of heaven and earth, and the Giver of victory." This willingness on Abraham's part is significant. Abraham, by his own free will, and in the absence of any request or coercion from Melchizedek, submitted a customary ten-percent, or tithe, of the material blessing provided by God.
Abraham's encounter with Melchizedek shows that blessing others, especially perhaps blessing the man of God, is something that should be done. Abraham demonstrated that faithfulness and gratitude to God are things to be exercised. All these things are proper applications drawn from the story. There is, however, something that should not be pulled from this narrative, but it is, nevertheless, often thrust upon the uninformed believer, and unfortunately, upon the heads of new Christians and visiting churchgoers. This, I believe, has a very negative effect upon the uninitiated.
Not a Teaching Passage
This brief narrative where Abraham gave "a tenth of everything" to Melchizedek shouldn't be used to teach tithing. The reason for this is because this portion of Scripture is not a teaching portion of Scripture. Teaching portions of Scripture directly instruct us to do something, e.g., how to pray (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2), or that we should put on the armor of God (Eph. 6:11). We simply can't justify the practice of tithing as a result of Abraham's experience with Melchizedek any more than we could justify taking concubines or practicing polygamy because Abraham also practiced these things (Gen. 16; 25:6).
In addition, an approach of many modern teachers is to attempt to disarm those who suggest that tithing was an Old Testament requirement and that Christians are no longer under the Law. These teachers say that since tithing came before the Law, criticism of tithing being an Old Testament requirement and no longer required of believers should be dismissed. However, if their interpretive methods were correct, then one could justify such things as marital infidelity (Gen. 16:4) and deception (Gen. 20:2) using precisely the same methods since Abraham dabbled in these things prior to their prohibition in Exodus 20:14; 16. I think it's disingenuous that some modern teachers selectively cite their texts and either ignore or attempt to avoid the obvious criticisms that naturally follow their methods.
Abraham's encounter with Melchizedek teaches many things, as noted, even some principles of genuine Christian stewardship; however, tithing, which is different from stewardship, isn't one of them.
Here's an example of a great Bible character who is never used as an example of what a tither ought to do. Yet, one would think that since many tithing teachers eagerly use Abraham's story to persuade people to tithe, that Jacob's tithe would be a helpful example as well. While the account of Jacob's tithe isn't utilized by modern teachers for obvious reasons, the account in Gen. 28:20-22 is an instance whereby another Old Testament patriarch also tithed prior to the Law. A short commentary is included about Jacob's tithe because of its interesting absence from modern tithing sermons. The next time a teacher uses the Abraham Argument, ask a few questions about Jacob's tithe and whether his example is O.K. to follow. If the teacher believes Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek is a model to follow, then he shouldn't exclude Jacob's tithe to God.
The story suffers from the same or similar criticisms as the Abraham Argument, so, I'll not repeat the interpretive issues already discussed, e.g., narrative vs. didactic passages. Jacob's tithe is worth noting for one reason: He offered a conditional tithe! The passage reads:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth" (italics added).
It seems that Jacob's pre-Law method of tithing loses modern-day appeal because of its conditionality. How often does one hear tithing teachers encouraging people to tithe only when the circumstances of life allow it or the conditions to tithe are satisfactory to the giver? This writer would argue that most readers of this paper have probably never been instructed to give a tithe only when conditions were satisfactory to them. In fact, many people have probably been instructed some time in their Christian experience to pay a tithe even before paying the mortgage, buying groceries, or even caring for the needs of a struggling family member. Ask yourself: "If tithing is supposedly a biblically required pre-Law thing to do, and if modern interpretive methods are correct, then why isn't Jacob's conditional tithe taught? The answer is obvious. A conditional tithe conflicts with the pressures and coercive tactics often accompanying modern "thou shalt tithe" sermons. Usually the teaching is insistent and absolute, no exceptions--you must tithe according to the rules being taught.
The narrative of Jacob's tithe fails to complement modern tithing doctrines. Therefore, it will never be used by contemporary teachers who somehow seem compelled to generate funds through the misrepresentation of God's Word.
The Tithe Belongs to the Lord?
Keep that Money Right Here
While the book of Leviticus provides the instructions behind the ancient practice of Jewish tithing, one verse (27:30) is important to this study since it is frequently utilized in modern tithing sermons. It reads:
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.
This passage is often partially quoted; usually it's paraphrased and incorporated into a tithing sermon. Frequently, teachers of tithing weave this verse into sermons by simply saying "The tithe belongs to the Lord" or "Your tithe belongs to the Lord." This, however, can and usually does imply a couple of things.
First, when the teacher says that "The tithe belongs to the Lord," he assumes that tithing is required of the believer.
Second, when the teacher says "Your tithe belongs to the Lord," he not only assumes that tithing is required but often implies that if you're not giving a tithe to your church, then you're robbing God and under a curse for failing to pay it. So, quite often Leviticus 27:30 is served up with Malachi 3:8 to reinforce that you need to either "start givin' that tithe," or make sure you "keep on givin' it"--to avoid divine curse, of course.
A related teaching has been to try to get around what Leviticus 27:30 clearly says. The "grain and fruit from the land and trees" are sometimes presented as having been replaced by money. The argument goes something like this:
The Christian is under obligation to pay a monetary tithe today as opposed to the edible produce of the land noted in the passage. This is because we have shifted from a bartering society where commodities were used for transactions, to a monetary society that uses coin and paper money for such exchanges today.
Folks, this is utter nonsense, and it's an argument that fades away by a simple reading of numerous passages where the exchange of money for goods and services was practiced.
Abraham bought land with shekels of silver (by weight, yet prior to coinage) to bury his wife (Gen. 23:15-16); Jacob purchased land with silver (Gen. 33:19); Joseph was sold into slavery for twenty shekels of silver (Gen. 37:28); Jewish religious leaders purchased the betrayal services of Judas (Matt. 26:14-15); the chief priests paid soldiers money to lie about Christ's body (Matt. 28:12-13), and numerous other passages indicate that actual coin money was used to pay taxes, even by Jesus himself (Matt. 17:24-27).
Some Instructions Ignored
Back up to chapter 25 of Leviticus. It's interesting to note that if modern tithing practices supposedly reflect Old Testament directives, then why is freedom from the tithe every seventh year not taught? Ask yourself: Why don't I get a sabbath rest from tithing every seventh year (Lev. 25:2-7)? Furthermore, why am I not free of any debt I've incurred during that same year (Deut. 15:1)?
It's interesting that among the numerous Old Testament passages about tithing, the only ones retained by modern teachers are those that most easily persuade people to tithe. This is dishonest.
The House of God Neglected?
Just Look at the Disrepair!
This is an often repeated manipulation. The passage appealed to is Nehemiah 13:10-12. Nehemiah, having returned from Persia, found that the reforms he had established years earlier were being ignored. The passage reads:
I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, "Why is the house of God neglected"?
All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms (italics added).
The idea here is that the local church is supposedly "the house of God," and any repairs or building programs that need financing simply cannot proceed if God's people are going to be so neglectful. While caring for church facilities is something that ought to be done, it's simply not the case that the local church building is a modern "house of God." This should be obvious to all believers since the scriptures declare that "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands" (Acts 17:24). We, as Christians, are the "temples of God" (II Cor. 6:16).
Churches are Just Buildings
The "house of God" was, but no longer is, the Jewish Temple. Nehemiah probably referred to all aspects of its operation as being a "house neglected" when he chastised the Jews for having not cared for those in the Temple service. The local church building is not a contemporary Temple counterpart, no matter how much tithing teachers want it to be so. So, when teachers refer to the local church building as the "house of God," it reminds me of Jesus when he responded to a mistake of certain Sadducees. He said, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures" (Matt. 22:29).
Honor the Lord with your Garden Trimmings?
Give a Tithe, Honor the Lord?
Proverbs 3:9-10 says: Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.
A lot of meaning is typically imported into this passage of Scripture. Usually the meaning of all the key words in it are construed to have modern counterparts. For example, "firstfruits" are often referred to as most people's understanding of tithing. Since we've already examined the differences between these two, I'll not repeat them here. Also, "barns" and "vats" have been offered to mean a few things, e.g., a bank account, a cupboard, a pantry, or any general means by which one stores what he needs.
In the context of a typical tithing sermon, however, this passage is used to get people to "honor the Lord with their wealth" by giving a tithe to their church. It's sometimes supposed that honoring the Lord with one's wealth primarily means giving firstfruits, or what's usually thought to be a tithe--no tithe, no honoring of the Lord. However, the contemporary Christian cannot technically give either firstfruits or tithes since there exists no Temple or priesthood.
Certainly, the Christian should honor the Lord with his wealth, indeed, with everything he is and has. This means that there is nothing--absolutely nothing--the Christian should withhold from God in honoring him.
New Testament Tithing?
Give your Church what's God's
Sometimes thought to mean that the believer should not withhold his tithe from the Lord,  Matthew 22:21 has also been used in tithing sermons to extract money from the saints. Jesus responds to an attempt by religious leaders of his day to trap him in his words in Matthew 22:21. The context is one in which the religious leaders hoped to get an incriminating response from him, or at least one that would discourage his followers. The verse in question says,
"Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God's."
This verse, usually the focus of a larger passage, is simply Jesus' response to those who attempted to trap him with a clever question designed to hurt him no matter how he answered it. When they asked Jesus whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, they wanted him to either say "No" and, therefore, commit an act of treason against Rome, or say "Yes" and, therefore, demonstrate disloyalty to his fellow Jew. The question was supposed to incriminate him legally, or turn his followers against him.
As far as this verse serving as a modern tithing text, there is no justification for this. It's clear that the passage has nothing at all to do with tithing per se, but is simply a response to a cleverly devised question.
Jesus did, however, make it clear that giving to God what is God's is a command. For the Jew of the Temple era, and of Christ's day, giving to God what was God's was in fact a tithe and first fruit, but we can't assume that the legal requirement of giving God a tithe or first-fruit--which may or may not be implied in Christ's response--means that the New Testament believer is likewise required to tithe. This can't be the case since there exists no Temple, priests, or New Testament tithing directives for Christians. But, there are new and different principles for giving.
Christ's Command to Tithe
Often in response to the notion that the New Testament doesn't teach tithing, one will hear something to the effect of "What about the time when Jesus told the Pharisees that they should have practiced tithing without neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness? Didn't Jesus teaching tithing there?" The passage in question is found in Matthew 23:23.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
A couple of things should be noted about this passage. First, this is not a passage that teaches tithing; it's a passage that calls attention to the misplaced priorities of certain religious leaders. Jesus was identifying certain sins of those whom he was chastising.
Second, the religious leaders that Christ addressed followed the letter of the law; they were required to tithe under that law. It should be noted that they were obligated to tithe as Temple-era Jews.
Third, those whom Jesus chastised gave actual tithes, e.g., mint, dill, cummin--not money. Remember, tithes were to be the edible provisions from God.
Jesus simply pointed out that they focused their attention on tithes (less important matters of law) while neglecting more important matters (justice, mercy, and faithfulness). He told them that they should in fact tithe--they were under the Law--while at the same time not neglect more important aspects of it. Perhaps Jesus had Deuteronomy 6:5, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" along with a certain widow in mind when he chastised those Pharisees. Does the Pharisees' error and the practice of modern tithing share anything in common? I think careful Bible reading and careful thought is conclusive. A similar pattern does seem to emerge upon examining the practice of tithing today. Based on scriptures explored thus far, it seems likely that Jesus would condemn the modern practice of tithing--perhaps with "Woe to you, teachers of tithing law!"
Some Final Thoughts
There are several other contrived arguments to support the modern practice of tithing not addressed in this work. None of them, however, hold up under proper biblical interpretation. I even recall a sermon a few years ago in which a pastor actually said that a non-tither will not go to heaven, and yet another more recently who said that a believer's financial security is assured when God's principle of tithing is obeyed. Still another pastor thought aloud to a friend of mine that parishioners should be required to tithe before being allowed entrance to church on Sunday morning (he wasn't kidding). Imagine that!
Folks, such tactics are shameless in prying open the pocketbooks of believers to finance buildings, salaries, and programs. New Testament principles of Christian financial stewardship accommodate genuine needs, but not at the expense of the Christian's duty to the Great Commission, or helping the poor
The original of this article is at In Plain Site