The first place to start is by asking the Christian, “Do you want to give at least a tithe of your income to the Lord?” The question is not “Are you able to give?” but “Do you want to give?” To those who are searching for reasons not give, because tithing is a burden to them and not a joy, the recommendation of Jesus would be, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Mat 19:21) But to those who wish to give to the Lord anything that they have that can be better useful for the work of the Kingdom, and are only willing to know if tithing is specifically mandatory in the New Testament, this article will try to provide an answer.
Tithing in the New Testament and the Early Church History
Temple Giving as Applied to Church Giving
Jesus did not forbid tithing among the Jews. In fact, He asserted that they ought not to neglect tithing (Matt.23:23). However, there seems to be no specific commandment that Christians should practice tithing in the local church as the Jews practiced tithing in the Temple. Yet, the New Testament does lay a theological rationale for Christian giving to ministry when it applies the Old Testament scripture related to support of priests to the support of full-time Christian workers in the church.
For it is written in the Law of Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us…. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you.... Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1Co 9:9-14 NIV)
Yet, it doesn’t seem at all that tithing was specifically made mandatory for Christians in the early church; on the other hand, the writings of the Church Fathers indicate that the early church did expect Christians to surpass tithing by considering all their possessions as belonging to Christ. Now, this was not just a matter of saying “All that I have belongs to Christ, so I don’t need to specifically tithe anymore.” Jesus rebuked this kind of an attitude in which a person refrains from practically giving anything to those he is due by declaring that all he was supposed to give is given to the Lord (Mark 7:11-13). To consider one’s possessions as belonging to God means to really use these possessions every day for the sake of the Kingdom and not just for personal use. We are told about the early church in the apostolic era that “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” (Act 4:32 NIV). Now, today, this kind of an attitude looks too difficult and almost impractical for Christians, especially in a very materialistic age. However, there is no denying the fact that this was the way Christians generally lived in the early church era. Of course, this did not mean that they didn’t have possessions of their own at all or they didn’t lock their houses; but, whatever they had they didn’t consider as theirs apart from Christ. We are told that “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Act 4:34-35 NIV).
Around AD 130, the Church Father Mathetes wrote about Christians: “As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.” Similarly, in his Against Heresies, Irenaeus (AD 120-202) wrote:
And for this reason they (the Jews) had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him, but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things [hereafter]; as that poor widow acted who cast all her living into the treasury of God.
In fact, Irenaeus taught that Christ “instead of the law enjoining the giving of tithes, [He told us] to share (Matt. 19:21) all our possessions with the poor.”
Tithing as Minimum Standard
However, by the 3rd century, it seems that Christian giving had greatly declined and the Church Fathers began prescribing tithing as the minimum standard of Christian giving. Thus, John Chrysostom (AD. c.349-407) wrote in his Homily on Ephesians 2:10:
Woe to him, it is said, who doeth not alms; and if this was the case under the Old Covenant, much more is it under the New. If, where the getting of wealth was allowed, and the enjoyment of it, and the care of it, there was such provision made for the succoring the poor, how much more in that Dispensation, where we are commanded to surrender all we have? For what did not they of old do? They gave tithes, and tithes again upon tithes for orphans, widows, and strangers; whereas someone was saying to me in astonishment at another, “Why, such an one gives tithes.” What a load of disgrace does this expression imply, since what was not a matter of wonder with the Jews has come to be so in the case of the Christians? If there was danger then in omitting tithes, think how great it must be now.
A document called the The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, compiled probably between 375 and 380, gave instructions regarding the pastor/bishop:
Let him use those tenths and first-fruits, which are given according to the command of God, as a man of God; as also let him dispense in a right manner the free-will offerings which are brought in on account of the poor, to the orphans, the widows, the afflicted, and strangers in distress, as having that God for the examiner of his accounts who has committed the disposition to him.
However, again, there appears to be no specific reference in either the New Testament or in the writings of the early Church Fathers in which tithing was made mandatory for the church. Yet, there are several instances where it was expected that the Christian give more than the tithes; in fact, his all for the service of Christ.
Tithing by Law Vs Tithing as Grace
The above study showed us that tithing only emerged in church history when Christian giving declined, and the Fathers had to set the minimum standard of giving for Christians. Thus, tithing somewhat assumed a very legal nature in the course of history. But, from the beginning it was not so.
For certain, we know this that the commandments of Grace are tougher than the commandments of the Law. The Law only said, “Do not murder” but Grace teaches us not to even get wrongfully angry with our brother. The Law talked of tithes, but Grace demands our all.
Also, the divine institution of giving to the Lord did not cease with the fading away of the Old Testament era. The work of the Lord has not ceased. Both money and substance are still needed in the work of the Lord. If the Jews were obligated under Law to pay tithes, first-fruits, and free-will offerings towards the service of the temple and the support of the priests and Levites, Christians today are much more obligated to give towards the work of the Kingdom of God. But, they must not give out of legal compulsion but cheerfully, for “God loves a cheerful giver” (2Cor.9:7). Anybody who only calculates the minimal (tithe) that he can give to God and feels legally satisfied that he has at least fulfilled the Law and is not obligated to give any more towards the work of the Lord is not behaving as someone who has experienced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; he acts as someone who is still under the Old Covenant of Law. Of course, one must give only as one is able and willing (2Cor.8:12; 9:7). At the same time, do not forget that the widow who cast the two mites, all that she had, was praised by Jesus as having given more than all others.
We must remember that even in the New Testament, giving to the work of the Lord and to the servant of God is the practical way in which one gives to the Lord (Phil.4:18). The Christian must not be thinking just of giving tithes; the Christian must give more than the tithes.
Where Should I Give?
Malachi 3:10 clearly commands to bring all the tithes into God’s storehouse that they may be food in the House of the Lord. In the New Testament, we see that the believers would bring their offerings and place it at the apostles’ feet. Scripturally then, the Christian is expected to bring his offerings to the local church that he belongs to and fellowships with. These offerings are then to be used by the church for the support of full-time workers, of missionaries, and for charitable assistance of the needy ones in the church (2Cor.8, 9; Phil.4:18; Jas.1:27; 1Tim.5:3-10). In case that the local church has specified tithes, first-fruits, and offerings to be given separately (for the sake of proper allocation; some allocating tithes to support of the pastors, and offerings for various other expenses in the ministry, for instance), it is noble and good to harmoniously cooperate with the order for the smooth functioning of the local body and for the work of ministry.
We must assert again here that the Christian must not look at tithing as a burden or as a legal obligation to grudgingly fulfill. Salvation is not dependent on tithing or not tithing. The Pharisee who tithed was not justified, but the publican who humbled himself and cried out for mercy was justified (Lk.18:9-14). However, a person who claims to be justified but is covetous about his possessions and has not gratefully understood and embraced the grace of God has no place in the New Covenant (Matt.18:21-35). Of course, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant talks about forgiveness here; however, one must not forget that this servant was not willing to forgive in the first place because he was a covetous person—one who grabbed the immense free gift of God but was not willing to part with even a little for the benefit of others. He was alien to the grace of God. But, we ought not to be so; we are stewards of the manifold grace of God; let us be rich towards God (1Pet.4:10; Lk.12:21).