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John asked, "What does the New Testament have to say about tithing?" I recall a time when as soon as the word "tithing" was mentioned my friends and I would begin immediately to talk about the Old Testament "legal" way of doing things as distinct from the New Testamentís "grace" way. I was very ignorant then of course (and only a little less ignorant now). But as Mark Twain has taught us, it isnít the things weíre ignorant about that should worry us but those that weíre well aware of, those we appear to have no real wish to implement.
Thereís nothing legalistic about the Old Testament! There never was! The notion that commands undermine grace is sheer nonsense. In the Bible commands are always and without exception set in the context of Godís prior grace that calls people to be gracious as well as righteous. But people arenít left without guidelines and straight injunctions because we are very greedy and lack wisdom even though at times we might feel deeply and know how to pity the needy.
No one can claim that he or she is a "self made" person. No one can say, "This I made, all by myself, I alone!" Only God can speak in this way (see Psalm 95:3-5) and in the Pentateuch he claims the earth as his own. And when he divides the land among the Israelites he takes the land itself off the market as a commodity (C.J.H. Wright). Then he makes a claim on all the means of production (man and beast) and the crops themselves (this he does in the firstfruits offering and the required redemption of human firstborn and the redemption of firstborn animals). He calls for a yearly tithe (Deuteronomy 14:22-27) and every third year the tithe was gathered together so that all the poor and needy could eat and be satisfied (Deuteronomy 26:12-15ósee Numbers 18). To "tithe" (the word means "a tenth") was to give a tenth of oneís income to God. Because Israel was mainly an agricultural people "a tenth" would vary depending on how well their crops, herds and flocks did, so it was never a static thing. While their giving was planned they gave "as they were prospered" (compare 1 Corinthians 16:2).
But the yearly tithe was only the tip of the iceberg in OT giving. Chris Wrightís Living as the People of God is a real eye-opener with its summary of Israelís giving. They were urged to forgive debts, they gave of their first-fruits, they left for the poor and animals the edges of their fields and the fallen fruit of their orchards (which they picked only once and didnít go back over). They gave goods and vehicles to newly freed slaves so they could make a new start, they offered loans without interest (to the needy) and they left their fields untouched in a Sabbatical year. They were constantly offering sacrifices of their flocks, herds and crops as well as paying ransom money, temple taxes (in addition to tithing) to maintain the priesthood and cult. In addition to all this they offered free will offerings! The levirate law (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and the book of Ruth, especially 4:6) where a brother raised up children to his dead brother so that the land might remain in the family was a serious economic commitment. By the time you put it all together you see that the OT is saturated with generosity and the call to generosity was always in light of Godís redeeming and sustaining grace (Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:19-22 and everywhere else). OT giving was grace saturated! Some of the most scathing words in the OT are about greed and hoarding while the needy went to the wall. Finally, to give a day to God or a fraction of the income or a section of land for the Tabernacle/Temple was Israelís confession that all time, produce and land belonged to God. To redeem firstborn humans confessed that all people belong to God and since they are the ones that worked the land to gain wealth (even the slaves and in some cases especially the slaves) God was the Lord of all generated income (be sure to see Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
So what does the New Testament say about "tithing"? Our modern situation differs in many respects from the ancient Israelite situation so we shouldn't uncritically bring across the OT guidelines but the heart and character of the OT teaching about giving (tithing) is to be pursued by believers in the Christ. With the entrance of sin greed came in with a vengeance and part of the transforming work of God is to redeem us from that covetous and acquisitive spirit. And one of the ways he accomplishes that is to make his own generosity and grace the foundation of our giving response. He follows it up with plain instruction and a clear call to share the blessings he has made us steward of.
In the NT we donít find the level of specific instruction and guidance about giving that we find in the OT but the book of James leans heavily on the truth taught by the OT about the right use of money. Paul looks back at it in his extended piece on giving in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9. (Itís true that that section has his own theological agenda but itís nevertheless immediately relevant to this subject. See Romans 15:26-27.) In Matthew 6 Matthew offers us the Masterís teaching and it simply takes it for granted that his followers will give, though he offers guidelines about motivation (see also 1 Corinthians 13:3). Then thereís Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 4:32-37 with its peculiar situation. The latter text is hardly a pattern for a universal and stable environment but the spirit of the OT is there. As in the OT we have the constant refrain, "Do this because I am the Lord your God that brought you out of the land of Egypt" so in the NT we have this "even as Christ" chorus of texts. 2 Corinthians 8:8-9 lays the groundwork for our planned and special giving. So while I know of no text that expressly binds us to a percentage weíre surely painfully aware of a whole drift of scripture that teaches us, "freely you have received, freely give."