What is Tithing?

Article by R. Joseph Ritter, Jr. CFP® EA

Tithing is a very touchy subject. 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.

This is the first in a series of articles on money and Christian living, or perhaps it would be better to say, a God-honoring approach to money.

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 (see also Genesis 28:22, Hebrews 7:4). Hebrews 7:4 makes it a point to describe the spoils as the “choicest spoils,” which will be important in a moment.

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 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 to the church 10% of the best part of our increase. 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 to illustrate the point. In Mark 12:1-9 we read,

And He began to speak to them in parables: “A man PLANTED A VINEYARD AND PUT A WALL AROUND IT, AND DUG A VAT UNDER THE WINE PRESS AND BUILT A TOWER, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. 2 “At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, in order to receive some of the produce of the vineyard from the vine-growers. 3 “They took him, and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 “Again he sent them another slave, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. 5 “And he sent another, and that one they killed; and so with many others, beating some and killing others. 6 “He had one more to send, a beloved son; he sent him last of all to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 “But those vine-growers said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!’ 8 “They took him, and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others.

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 created, 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.

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).

We are indebted to God both for our life and for everything we enjoy on the earth. He created it for our pleasure and for us to use, yet we are merely stewards of His property (Matthew 25:14-30). A steward is much like a fiduciary who must treat the property as if it were his own. We would want our own property to be productive and not to be wasted, thus, we must do the same as stewards of God’s property. As a fiduciary is due reasonable compensation for a job well done, we are also due compensation for managing God’s property.

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.

Some people trip over the idea in the Old Testament that tithes were never to be paid in money (Deuteronomy 14:22). This is a technicality over which hairs can be split because in the Old Testament currency was not used as it is today. Instead, the majority of the people lived off the land, and the harvest was their currency. In modern times, many people work in non-farm settings and are paid in currency. The spirit of the law includes the increase of our labor in whatever form it takes, and simply because a monetary currency system was not widely used in the Old Testament does not mean the currency we earn from our labors is exempt from tithing. God actually did contemplate that there may be times when it might be impractical to tithe with the increase and provided the for harvest to be exchanged into money (Deuteronomy 14:24-25).

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