Money 5: Tithing

Watch the video or read the lesson text … or both.

Lesson Text

Scripture reading:

Matthew 23:23
Genesis 14:20
Genesis 28:22
Hebrews 7:4
Numbers 18:6
Numbers 18:20-24
Deuteronomy 14:27
Numbers 18:26-28
Genesis 4:4
Numbers 18:30
Deuteronomy 14:22-23
2 Chronicles 31:5-6
Nehemiah 10:35-39

Numbers 18:29
Mark 12:1-9
1 Corinthians 6:19
Genesis 1:1
Acts 17:24
1 Corinthians 10:26
Luke 12:16-21
Malachi 3:8-10
2 Corinthians 9:7
Acts 11:29
Deuteronomy 16:17
Mark 12:42-44
Mark 7:1-13


Tithing is a touchy subject. Boy, it feels good to get that out of the way!

Few other areas of Scripture are the subject of more controversy and long-standing disagreement in the church than tithing. It is prone to misunderstanding by believers and misapplication by ministers. It has the power to bring a person into bondage to legalism, yet it is wholly ineffective to save us or make us right with God.

Let’s first define tithing. The earliest recorded tithe in Scripture is found in Genesis 14:20 where “tithe” means a tenth. Here, a tenth was given of Abraham’s spoils, or increase. Genesis 28:22 In retelling this account, Hebrews 7:4 makes it a point to describe the spoils as the “choicest spoils.”

God gave us an example of the tithe by setting apart a portion of people for service to Him. The tribe of Levi was set apart unto the Lord for service. Numbers 18:6 In the same way, the tithe is a portion of our increase set apart unto the Lord as support for this service. Numbers 18:20-24, Deuteronomy 14:27 The temple was also called upon to tithe on the tithe. Numbers 18:26-28 Most churches contribute to denominational districts and conferences, missions, and have outreach programs that benefit the poor and needy in the community.

So the first part of the definition of tithing is a tenth. This is the very meaning of the word and where we derive 10% in our giving. The second part of tithing is the source of our giving. Our tithe is to be from the increase of our labor and first fruit of our increase. Genesis 4:4, Numbers 18:30, Deuteronomy 14:22-23, 2 Chronicles 31:5-6, Nehemiah 10:35-39

Not just from our increase, but from the best of our increase. Numbers 18:29

Our definition now is that tithing involves giving back to God 10% of the best part of the increase from your labor. In this sense, tithing is specifically connected to our labor because we generally only have an increase if we work to obtain it. Let’s stop here and use one of Jesus’ own parables in Mark 12:1-9 to illustrate the point.

Here, a landowner plants crops and rented the land out to vine-growers (the art of husbandry). The growers do not own either the vines or the land, thus, the fruits derived from their labor are not rightfully their own. We are the rightful owner of what we have harvested, but in this case, the land, vines and fruit belonged to someone else. Thus, the fruit harvested by the vine-growers did not rightfully belong to them. They are to be paid for their labor, but they are not entitled to retain all of the fruit. (In this parable, God is the landowner, the landowner’s son is Jesus Christ, and the growers are you and me – although in its context, Jesus was most likely referring to the Pharisees. In this sense, the parable is an excellent discussion on stewardship, but the main thrust of the parable is Jesus Christ.)

This is the underlying principle of tithing. God created our bodies and our ability to labor, therefore, we do not own the creative work of our hands. 1 Corinthians 6:19 God created the heavens and the earth and everything in the earth. Genesis 1:1, Acts 17:24 Therefore, the fruits we obtain from the earth, though they are obtained by our labor, belong to God. 1 Corinthians 10:26

The tithe is the portion we owe back to God because the fruits of our labor come from His property, and it honors God when we pay our tithe. Proverbs 3:9 When understood this way, tithing helps to align our hearts with God and satisfy the respect and reverence due to God from us. God doesn’t need our money, but we do need to tithe to remain spiritually viable. In other words, tithing meets our personal spiritual needs more than it meets any needs the church has.

A question I have heard quite a bit over my lifetime is whether a person is sinning if they don’t tithe. Another way of putting this question is whether a person can be saved if they don’t tithe.

The answer is that it’s far more complex than a simple yes or no. You may be sinning if you do tithe, but not tithing is not necessarily a sin. In my training as a financial planner, it was drilled into me that we can safely disregard possible solutions which include the word “always” or “never.” We would do well to keep this in mind.

We are expected to do our part to further the work of the Lord in the world, and it very well may be sin if we willfully ignore this duty. On the other hand, there is no Biblical support for tithing to maintain our salvation – particularly if other Biblical mandates are ignored. Matthew 23:23 It is noteworthy that Matthew 23:23 represents the only words of Jesus on tithing. If we tithe but neglect our other obligations to the Lord, then we cannot expect the best from the Lord. Tithing is not singled out as a saving grace above all else. It is one part of an overall attitude toward God.

On this point Luke 12:16-21 is a very helpful passage of Scripture. It was certainly wrong for the person in the passage to withhold from God, however, the act of withholding was not the first sin. Malachi 3:8

Let’s be careful to pay attention to this point. The man’s sin originated from an attitude that excluded God or refused to acknowledge God. Whether he withheld his resources or offered up his resources to God really wouldn’t matter as long as the heart isn’t right. If the heart is right, you will be giving, whether it amounts to 10%, 3% or 50%.

And the fact is that you may be tithing 10% of your gross income and still be sinning. How is that possible?

In the New Testament, neither Jesus nor the apostles repeated the command to give 10%. In fact, Hebrews 7 makes a good argument for the 10% rule to no longer hold true.

Instead, we are called to give according to our ability. 2 Corinthians 9:7, Acts 11:29, Deuteronomy 16:17 The focus is on the heart, not formality. So if God called you to give 20% of your gross income, and you refused to answer the call because you are already doing your duty at 10%, your refusal will be held to your account. God is definitely not limited to any 10% rule, and we are not at liberty to impose it as a minimum or maximum. The true test is the condition of the heart, not the percentage.

This is why Jesus said in Mark 12:42-44 that the destitute widow, who gave an offering of only two mites, gave more than anyone else. In numbers, no, she did not give more. But in the heart, she gave everything. The point of the widow’s story was that those who give tithes and offerings do so from their “abundance,” whereas the widow gave everything she had. One of the best attitudes we can embrace in giving is to truly see ourselves as “rich” even when we have little. We can then freely give because our needs have been met and are being met. We can give in such times because we have truly tasted the hand of God in our times of want.

Are there times when we are not required to tithe? In the Old Testament where tithing began, orphans, children, widows and single women did not have property rights. Instead, they received their support from those held in responsibility over them, the generosity of those who had plenty, or directly from the hand of God. If they labored, it was either in slavery, employment or gleaning from someone else’s property. When we bring tithing into our modern society with property rights and government benefits, it’s easy to lose the original principles and purposes of tithing.

Scripture does not obligate tithing by those who are unable to labor. This might be you if you are retired, disabled, legitimately unemployed, living off your savings, etc. If you are receiving government benefits for a legitimate purpose, such as unemployment, inability to work, or working to your full ability and unable to make ends meet, the benefits you receive are a form of the Lord’s providence during your time of need. The same goes for a person living off savings or retirement income saved over the years.

Again, you have a greater need to give than the recipient has a need for your money. If God is calling you to give, then by all means give. No hard and fast rules should be applied here, except that giving may be an offering rather than a tithe.

The purpose of this discussion is to free you from bondage to the rote behavior of giving 10% of your income. On the other hand, this discussion is not to be used as an excuse to stop giving. If your income is unrelated to labor, then is your giving a tithe or an offering? If it is an offering, then we are not called to give 10%. Instead, we are called to give according to our ability. As I read Scripture, this is likely a far higher standard than tithing.

A few paragraphs ago, I said that Matthew 23:23 is the only place where Jesus discusses tithing. I used to believe that, until I came across Mark 7:1-13 while conducting an unrelated study on Malachi. Recall that in Malachi 3 God instructs on tithing. Through the help of scholarly articles, I was able to connect Mark 7 with Malachi 3 and Matthew 23:23.

The mint, dill and cummin in Matthew 23:23 represent the exactness of their tithing. The Pharisees applied a legalistic approach to everything, so they were careful to obey down to the smallest detail. Comparatively speaking, the tithe on mint, dill and cummin are insignificant when the original command dealt with entire fields of harvest, grape juice from large vineyards, and new born calves, lambs and goat kids. Jesus is not Lord of the exact but of the heart. Precision eliminates any tenderness the heart would otherwise show in giving extra or caring for significant needs among us.

Here’s why this is important. In Mark 7, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for the exactness in their rituals. These rituals appear in Malachi (as well as some other minor prophets). This means that in Malachi’s day, for 400 years between Malachi and the birth of Jesus Christ, and into Jesus’ earthly ministry in Mark 7 rituals and exactness were the way of the Pharisees. Jesus rebukes them because they ignored the call to repent all the way back in Malachi. Ok, some of this is side information that isn’t necessarily relevant on tithing, but hopefully it makes the point. Jesus is denouncing the ritualistic exactness of their effort and the use of legalism as a substitute for faith in the grace of God.

Notice also in Mark 7:11-12, “But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God), you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother, thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”

Jesus is giving the Pharisees an example of the weightier provisions of the law which they ignore in tithing. Hold that thought, because we’ll dig into this more in just a moment.

What about if I’m in debt and cannot keep up with my debt payments, paying tithes and providing for my family? We will discuss this in depth in another lesson. For now, let’s focus on Malachi 3 where God calls Israel to bring the whole tithe into the storehouse and test Him that He may provide for their need.

Are you trusting God? This is not a question a Bible study can answer. God may want you to love your neighbor (creditors) before giving to the church. We cannot say to our creditors, “Anything I might have given you is Corban.” I had a client a number of years ago tell me this was his strategy. This Bible study began way back then because that client’s position was very damaging to his witness as a Christian, to the church in general, and to the image of God.

While Jesus does say that we should not ignore tithing, the weightier provisions of the law (such as honor your father and mother in Mark 7, or love your neighbor in Matthew 22) cannot be ignored. “Anything I might have paid you is Corban.” We must not hide behind God in the name of avoiding sin or maintaining our salvation. We’re just as guilty as the Pharisees if we do that and at risk of committing far worse sin than we claim to avoid.

God may want you to tithe when in debt or facing difficult circumstances and trust Him with your gaps. This is not an issue this or any other Bible study can resolve. This is a question that only you and God can answer. God points out in Malachi 3 that if we tithe with a cheerful heart and are glad to honor God with the first and best of our resources, He will protect us against loss. Tithing during a difficult time may very well be a way in which God wants to show you who He is and teach you greater trust in Him. However, there may also be times when it is appropriate to reduce tithing.

God is also not limited to 10%. The purpose of this Bible study is not to answer these questions but to challenge your thinking and give you a starting point in your prayer. Bring God into your circumstances first and give Him room to both speak and work.