Is Tithing A Christian Mandate?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglected the others.” (Matthew 23:23, NASB)

Jesus believed in tithing. He lived on earth in the dispensation when the Old Testament Mosaic Law commanded Jews to tithe. The dispensation of the Church began in Acts 2 after Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Interestingly not a single church-related epistle includes a command for Christians to tithe. Why is that? (The answer to this and other financial stewardship questions goes beyond the narrow scope of this post, but they can be found in my book, Wretlind, Dennis O., Shekels, Dollars & Sense: A Biblical Theology of Financial Stewardship, available at Amazon.com). The quotation from Matthew 23:23 summarizes the essence of tithing found in the Old Testament and indicates the giving pattern for Christians but not in the way tithing is normally presented in the Church.

The Mosaic Law according to Jewish scholars contains around 613 separate commands. These are summed up in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” Jesus reiterates the contents of this verse in his condemnation of the Pharisees as well as provides the paradigm for giving in the Church. (Wretlind, Shekels, Dollars & Sense, Chapters 4, 5)

What connection was Jesus making between tithing, justice, mercy and faithfulness? A. B. Bruce suggests: (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, I, 282, slightly altered):

“The idea seems to be: they [the Pharisees] made a great show of zeal in doing what was easy, and shirked the serious and more arduous requirements of duty.—[the justice, τὴν κρίσιν], righteous judgment, implying . . . the love of righteousness, a passion for justice—[the mercy, τὸ ἔλεος], . . . sadly neglected by Pharisees, much insisted on by Jesus.—[the faithfulness, τὴν πίστιν], in the sense of fidelity, trueheartedness. . . .”

Nolland (The Gospel of Matthew, 937) writes similarly, “Though Matthew’s list is not identical to any OT list, it has a family likeness to various attempts to give a set of principles that would sum up the whole will of God.”

Numerous commentators identify a peripheral connection between tithing, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. However, there are grammatical and historical bases for a direct connection.

The Old Testament mentions three different tithes (debatable but see Wretlind, Shekels, Dollars & Sense, Chapter 2): one for the Levites as their inheritance instead of land, one for the poor as a social program of financial aid, and one for the people to finance a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of the three required annual feasts. These three tithes equate to Jesus’ terms justice, mercy, and faithfulness respectively.

This historical connection to Matthew 23:23 is imbedded in the Greek definite articles in the Greek text but not included in the English translations (τὴν κρίσιν, τὸ ἔλεος, τὴν πίστιν). These underlined and particularizing articles (“the” in English) ask the hearer/reader to think in specific rather than in general terms as would be natural with indefinite nouns. Thus, justice easily ties to the first tithe, it is unjust to rob Levi of his inheritance; mercy, to the second tithe, the people of God are to be merciful to the poor in their midst; faithfulness, to the third tithe, attendance at the annual feasts required under the Mosaic Covenant as an indication of faithfulness.

In conclusion, there are real historic connections between tithing, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And although the New Testament nowhere reiterates the Old Testament commands to tithe for Christians, the New Testament everywhere affirms the giving emphases on the “more weightier” matters: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. As a direct application tithing is not about money but spirituality. To focus Christian giving primarily on tithing, whether by church leaders or individual Christians, cannot be justified exegetically, and to do so may marginalize the “weightier” matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

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