The topic of tithing in the church divides opinion amongst theologians, pastors and congregants alike. Some theologians argue that tithing, the mandatory giving of ten percent of one’s harvest (‘āśar and ma’ āśar in Hebrew) in the Old Testament has been carried forward to the new covenant. In the New Testament, the Greek words utilised to refer to tithing include: apodekatoute (Luke 11:42), apodekatō (Luke 18:12; Matthew 23:23), dekatēn (Hebrews 7:2,4,8).
The question then, is whether the new covenant has a tenet mandating giving ten percent of one’s income. Should the church be teaching this as a doctrine that applies to believers in Jesus Christ? If yes, which New Testament verses support such a view?
The epistle to the Hebrews is the only New Testament book that alludes to tithes and tithing after calvary (Kelly 2007:147). Should pastors rely on Hebrews 7:1-12 as a basis for teaching about mandatory giving in their congregations?
Hebrews 7:1-12 is a continuation of the author’s argument about the superiority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with believers expected to adopt a different system of worship. The system should place our Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest at the centre of it all. This passage relies heavily on Genesis 14:17-20; Numbers 18 and Psalm 110:4. The author provides an exposition of Genesis 14:17-20 and Psalm 110:4 in this pericope.
Hebrews 7:1-12 is part of a longer passage (6:13-7:28) about our Lord Jesus Christ and the New Covenant. The passage focuses on the prophetic Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4) as a type of Christ, as opposed to the historical Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-20). Melchizedek, who has no genealogy, was able to undertake priestly duties, therefore our Lord Jesus Christ of the tribe of Judah likewise qualified to be a priest forever. The ‘Mosaic law’ assigned the priesthood only to the descendants of Aaron (Leviticus 3:10-12; Deuteronomy 10:8-9; Ezra 2:61-68; cf. Nehemiah 7:63-65) and this priesthood was carried out by mortal beings.
The Levites were commanded to collect tithes from the rest of Israel, yet their ancestor Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek. The superiority of Melchizedek can be deduced from Abraham’s tithe as described in Genesis. The author of Hebrews argues for a separate priesthood (Hebrews 7:11). Moreover, the Melchizedek priesthood is a prototype of that of our Lord Jesus Christ as promised in Psalm 110:4. The Messiah promised therein is a “priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7:3).
The passage provides better appreciation of our Lord Jesus Christ’s high priestly ministry and does not offer support for the doctrine of mandatory tithing. Tithing in this passage is a secondary issue, and is used as part of a broader argument about the priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church cannot rely on Hebrews 7:1-12 in arguing for mandatory tithing.
Tithing is not part of the theology of the book. The theology of Hebrews, in its exhortation and rhetoric includes that believers should separate themselves from all past religious practices and form a new identity, coupled with recognising the supremacy of Jesus Christ. It also encourages growth in spiritual matters.
There is also no secondary meaning that can be deduced from the mentioning of tithes in Hebrews 7. There is no significance that can be attached to the historical event where Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Genesis 14) in relation to tithing for Christians.
The challenge for the church is that our Lord Jesus Christ did not teach that tithing is mandated for Christians. The passages (Matthew 23:23; cf. Luke 11:42; Luke 18:12) wherein tithing is mentioned describe mandatory tithing under the ‘Mosaic law’. The Lord dealt with the spiritual issues of the day, where the Pharisees and the scribes had elevated tithing beyond what it was supposed to be. Tithing had become a source of pride among the elite religious class and other important tenets of the ‘Mosaic law’ had been relegated to the periphery.
The early church did not mandate tithing on the part of Gentile converts. The ‘Council of Jerusalem’ mentioned four instructions to the Gentile converts in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, which did not include mandatory tithing (Acts 15:4-31).
Given the challenge that the world we live in requires financial and other resources to be able to advance the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ, what should the church do? There are expenses to be paid, whether the congregation is a house church or a mega church or in between. What should a Bible-based church do?
In the next blog, we will look at what the Bible does teach about financing church ministry.
Short Bio: Matodzi Lawrence Mukwevho CA(SA) BTh Hons (cum laude) BCom Hons CTA HCCL MBA has held financial management executive positions across several industries. He is now in full time ministry in Pretoria East with his wife Tumi.
Cole SJ 2013. Why you should not tithe? (Selected Scriptures). Online article. Accessed from https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-4-why-you-should-not-tithe-selected-scriptures , 2020-12-24.
Constable TL 2021. Notes on Hebrews. Sonic Light, www.soniclight.com.
Croteau DA 2005. A biblical and theological analysis of tithing: toward a theology of giving in the new covenant era. Doctoral dissertation, South Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Wake Forest, North Carolina, United States of America.
Kelly RE 2007. Should the church teach tithing? a theologian’s conclusions about a taboo doctrine. New York: Writers Club Press.