Biblical Framework for Tithing
Tithing can be a contentious topic in modern-day Christian giving circles. A tithe, which just means “10%,” is often taught as the biblical paradigm or baseline for giving. However, there are many differing opinions, on both a theological and functional level, on the meaning of tithing for the church. Practically, some believe employing a tithe is a harmful way of letting believers “off the hook” from more giving. Others that it can be a helpful starting point for greater generosity.
However, the actual biblical framework for tithing is more complex than the mere “10%” many associate with it. In the Mosaic Law, there were actually three separate tithes the people of God were called to give.
The first tithe, The Priestly tithe (see Numbers 18:21–26), was given to the Levites as compensation for their upkeep of the temple. The second tithe, the Festival tithe (see Deuteronomy 14:22–27), was actually a portion of crop harvested, taken, and consumed primarily by the grower at the three decreed gatherings of all of Israel in Jerusalem. This tithe wasn’t “given away” per se but just used at very specific times to celebrate God’s presence among his people. The third tithe, the Charity tithe (see Deuteronomy 14:28–29), was collected in each city and consumed locally by those who were foreigners, orphans, or other vulnerable parties in need.
There is some disagreement over the exact applications of each tithe for the Jews. For instance, the Charity tithe was called for once every three years, so some believe that it might only have required 3.3% a year. Also, there was tithing before the Law was given — Abraham and Jacob tithed out of their love for God (see Genesis 14:20 and Genesis 28:22). For a deeper dive, Cortines and Baumer’s insightful book, God and Money, offers a great window into these parallels.
However one interprets the exact nature of these tithes, it is possible that the three forms of giving could be helpful parallels for modern-day believers. Daniel Li, pastor of Alabaster Church in New York City, has taught that each category can have a practical application to the church. The Priestly tithe is remuneration for clergymen and professional ministers. The Festival tithe is for funding church activities. The Charity tithe is for outreach and aid to the poor. Personally, I have found these categories helpful in my own giving strategies. Following these directives has given me creative ideas for ways to help build the body of Christ.
Regardless of how the church believes tithing should be incorporated into a Christian’s life, its important that we understand the biblical frameworks God presents for tithing throughout His word. Doing so can shed new light on how New Testament believers can fulfill covenental ideas and build the church “God’s way” to the best of our abilities. And perhaps, for those stuck in the “10%” mindset, provide fresh inspiration to give generously, wisely, and whimsically. How can your bible reading better inform how you sow into God’s holistic kingdom work?