The 3 kinds (or uses) of tithe

I’ve been on a bit of a financial kick here recently and I’m continually amazed at the stuff I didn’t know was in the Bible. I feel like I am learning new things every day as I read and study and think. With that said, I’d like to share a few things with you and also note that my thinking and opinions will likely change as I continue to study.

I’ve never hesitated to say that I am a fan of tithing. Even before I became a pastor and earned a living serving a church I was a fan of tithing. It is something that makes sense to me and I’ve never understood why people are so against it. But talking about tithing gets more people upset than just about anything else. Simply google “perspectives on tithing” and you will come up with all sorts of arguments and opinions. Some of them are quite enlightening, others not so much. This isn’t intended to be a “be all, end all” sort of article, I just want to share some interesting things I’ve learned.

First, what I initially thought was a cut and dried subject is anything but. I figured there was only one way to understand tithing and tithing was only for one purpose – wrong. It turns out there are (at least) three different things the tithe is used for in the Law: provision for the priests and levites, a mandatory celebration in Jerusalem, and offerings to the poor. (see Numbers 18:21-31 and Deuteronomy 14:22-29)

Offering to the Priest and Levites
This is what I first think of when I think of the tithe. Since the Priests and Levites were forbidden from owning property, the only way they could make a living was from their work at the Temple. Thus, God commanded that the Priests and Levites were to receive a portion of whatever was brought to the Temple for sacrifice. Essentially, this tithe paid for the work of the priests/Levites and the upkeep of the Temple.

The Party-Tithe
Deuteronomy 14:22-27 is a pretty fascinating passage in regards to the tithe. It is so good I’ve copied it below:

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other strong drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.

Rabbinic tradition suggests that each use of the tithe was tied to the time remaining until the Sabbath year. For instance, the offerings to the priests happened in years 1 and 4, the party-tithe happened in years 2 and 5 and the third use, offerings to the poor, happened in years 3 and 6, the seventh year no one worked, thus no tithes.

This means that twice every seven years, the Jews of Israel collected their tithes (either hard goods or their equivalent monetary value) and headed to Jerusalem to “eat in the Presence of the LORD”, that is, within the walls of the city. Those that brought their tithe in monetary form were able to buy “whatever their heart desired” and were required to spend the entire amount on food and strong drink so that they could celebrate and rejoice in the LORD’s Presence.

How wild is that!?

Can you imagine taking a tenth of your income and throwing a party because it was required of you as a form of worship? And can you imagine each of your guests bringing a tenth of their yearly income and using it to make the party even better? That would be sheer craziness! And that is exactly what God commanded the Jews to do. The party was supposed to be so big, so lavish, that it would take at least a week to do correctly and they were to invite everyone – the poor, the priests, the levites, the widows and whoever else was around – so that the whole city would rejoice in the goodness of God.

Offerings to the Poor
In years 3 and 6 (see Deuteronomy 14:28-29), the Israelites were to bring their tithes into their local storehouses. As opposed to the other years where the tithe went to Jerusalem, this was a time to fill out the food pantries in the local community. Anyone who had a legitimate need was allowed to access the stored food over the next couple of years. The poor, the widows, the foreigners, even the Levites, were allowed to come and live off of the bounty of God’s people. It is a beautiful system that allowed the people to tangibly better the lives of those in their communities by prospering themselves.

Those are the uses of the original Biblical tithe as far as I can tell. The concept of tithing appears to change when the Israel sets up the kingship – the tithe becomes a type of tax where a portion goes to the king and the rest to the Temple.

Some other thoughts…

Jews don’t tithe. Many Jewish Rabbis consider it a sin for Jews to tithe because there is no Temple and no Levitical priesthood. That isn’t to say that Jews don’t give away money – they certainly do, lots of it! – it’s just that you will never hear a Rabbi talk about tithing during their corporate gathering.

Should Christians tithe? Yes. Here is why: God is an extravagantly generous giver and we are made in His image. Therefore, we should give extravagantly. Though it might not seem like it to you right now, giving away 10% of your income is not extravagant, but it is a good place to start. But whatever you give, give it cheerfully and not under compulsion (2 Corinthians 9:7) and give according to your income (1 Corinthians 16:2). If you make a lot, give a lot. If you make a little, give at least ten percent – God will bless your remaining income and you wont be any more stretched than before.

Another reason I encourage Christians to tithe is 1 Corinthians 9:14, “The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” If you have a pastor serving you, you are obligated to provide for them at least as well as the Jews did for the priests serving in the Temple (the context of Paul’s argument). If your pastor chooses to preach for free as Paul did, that choice accrues blessing for him or her, but your obligation remains. And chances are that if you have a pastor, then you have a building that needs to be maintained. And if you have a building, then the poor will come to it looking for help and they shouldn’t be turned away emptyhanded. Congregations need money to operate in our current church model. Others models exist, but if you attend a “regular” church there will be expenses that you need to help pay.

The Church’s Obligation
If individuals in a congregation have an obligation to give, the Church has the obligation to make sure it is used wisely and well. Based on the passages discussed above (Numbers and Deuteronomy) an ideal split would be in thirds – 1/3 covering staff and building expenses, 1/3 used to care for the congregation and have some outrageous parties and 1/3 to be given to the poor. I don’t know of any congregation that operates that way (mine certainly doesn’t), but it is a goal to shoot for. How amazing would it be to take 1/3 of the church’s income and use it to bless the city the church is in? How fun would it be to honor the LORD by celebrating with outlandish parties once in awhile? How nice would it be for the pastors who labor so hard for their congregations to be cared for with extravagant generousity?

I think a congregation can accomplish it’s main functions with the tithe of it’s people, so I highly encourage individuals to give above and beyond their tithe to other organizations. Support missionaries, give to charity, invest in start up businesses you believe in – whatever. Just look for opportunities to bless others in proportion to how you have been blessed.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And thanks again for reading!

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