Does God require New Testament believers to tithe? To answer this question, we must look at the Old Testament Law and how it applies to New Testament believers.
The OT Law and the NT Believer
Everything God required of His people in the Old Testament applies to us today either directly or in principle, unless He has stated or implied that it does not. You’ve probably heard the exact opposite: “Nothing in the Old Testament applies to us today unless it is repeated in the New Testament.” I believe this idea is unbiblical for two main reasons.
First, neither Jesus nor any of the New Testament writers hint that they viewed the Old Testament in this way. In fact, the New Testament writers freely quote the Old Testament and Mosaic Law as being directly applicable to us (e.g., 1 Pet 1:15–16; Eph 6:1–3). Perhaps the most abused text on this subject is the Jerusalem Council decision in Acts 15. The question before the apostles was “Is it necessary to be circumcised and to keep the law to be saved?” (Acts 15:1, 5). The “yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” was the yoke of salvation through law-keeping (Acts 15:10). Peter forthrightly affirms that we are saved “through the grace of our Lord Jesus” and thus not through law-keeping (Acts 15:11). James, the head of the council, confirms Peter’s declaration that salvation is through seeking the Lord (Jesus) and concludes that it was his “judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles.” The “trouble” (Acts 15:19) or “burden” (Acts 15:28) that the apostles refused to lay on the Gentiles was salvation by law-keeping. Once this principle was settled, the law could play the role God had always intended it to play: revealing how to walk with God (Exod. 16:5; Deut. 5:33).
Most people fail to observe the reason the apostles limited their injunction to only four commands, three of which had to do with food. The apostles did not say that the only things from the Law that the Gentiles have to keep is that they don’t eat food offered to idols, abstain from sexual immorality, and don’t eat anything strangled or eat blood. They mention these four items only because “Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). In other words, the Council did not need to spell out all that God required of the Gentiles. The Gentiles had plenty of access to the synagogue and could learn what God required of them from the Old Testament, especially from the Mosaic Law. The Jerusalem Council gave the four specific commands they did for two reasons: (1) to highlight the issues most likely to cause problems between Jews and Gentiles—eating blood, things strangled, or food offered to idols, and (2) to warn against the Gentiles’ most frequent temptation: sexual immorality.
Second, since God does not change in His character, what pleased Him in the past will still please Him in the present. What displeased Him then will displease Him now. Therefore, anything that God desired and required His people to do in the past applies to us today either directly or in principle, unless He has told us differently.
When it comes to tithing, Scripture implies that, long before Moses, God had revealed that it was appropriate to tithe—that is, give a tenth of one’s increase to God. Abraham reflects this in his tithing to Melchizedek (Gen 14:20), as does Jacob in his manipulative vow in Genesis 28:20–22. When God gave the gracious gift of His law to Israel at Mt. Sinai, He included this already revealed principle of tithing there as well.
The Purpose of Tithing
The first reason God requires His people to tithe is to remind us that everything we have actually belongs to Him. We easily forget that we are only managers and stewards; He is the owner. He owns everything because He created it all (Gen 1:1; Ps 24:1). Everything we have comes from Him (1 Cor 4:7). In fact, He even owns us (Isa 43:1; 1 Cor 6:19–20). Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek for this very reason. He recognized that it was God who had delivered his enemies into his hands, and it was God who had enriched Him (Gen 14:20; cf. Gen 24:35). God reminded Israel of His total ownership of everything at Mt. Sinai—“all the earth is mine” (Exodus 19:5), and again prior to entering the Promised Land—“The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me” (Lev 25:23).
Since all that we have comes from God, we should gladly and joyfully express our gratitude for His goodness through giving to His work a tenth of our increase.
The second reason we should tithe is gratitude. Since all that we have comes from God (James 1:17), we should gladly and joyfully express our gratitude for His goodness through giving to His work a tenth of our increase. This principle of gratitude and gladness in giving runs through the entirety of God’s word. In Deuteronomy God commands His people repeatedly to bring their tithes with joy for all the blessings they have received: “bring…your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings…and you and your households shall eat before the Lord your God, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deut 12:6–12; Deut 14:22–26). Paul reflects this OT principle when he writes, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).
Tithing in the Old Testament
Perhaps a quick overview of OT tithing regulations will further clarify why God wants us to tithe. God set up a seven-year agricultural system in Israel. On years one, two, four, and five, the non-Levites were to tithe the increase of their harvest and livestock to the central sanctuary, i.e., the Tabernacle/Temple (Lev 27:32; Deut 12:5–7, 17–19; 14:23; 26:12). Upon arriving at the central sanctuary, they were to use their tithe to hold a meal for their family, their servants, and the Levites living near them (Deut 12:17–18; 14:23–27). This meal was to celebrate God’s blessings upon them (Deut. 12:18; 14:26). The remainder of the tithe, which would have been most of it, was then given to the Levites for their support since they worked at the central sanctuary (Num 18:21–24). If a person lived so far from the central sanctuary that he could not transport his tithes there, he was to sell his tithe, take the tithe money, journey to the central sanctuary, provide a feast as previously described, and then give the remainder of the money to the Levites (Deut 14:24–27).
On years three and six, the Israelites were to bring their tithes into their local towns to provide for the local Levites, resident aliens, orphans, and widows (Deut 14:28–29; 26:12). On the seventh year they would tithe only their livestock since they were not to plant or harvest anything that year (Lev 25:4–7). The Levites, on the other hand, were to give a tenth of the tithe they received to the Aaronic priests every year (Num 18:28–29). This was how the priests received their support.
In addition to providing for the support of the Levites and priests, the tithe provided an opportunity for God’s people to eat and rejoice in how He had blessed them (Deut 12:7, 18). It also provided for the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, i.e., those who could not provide for themselves. The reason the Lord required His people to tithe was “so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” (Deut 14:23), and “that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do” (Deut 14:29).
Unfortunately, God’s people often failed to pay their tithes, and the results were disastrous. Since the Levites did not receive the support they needed, they were forced to work and could not properly care for the Temple (Neh 13:10–12). As a result, the spiritual well-being of the nation suffered. Further, God considered Himself robbed and permitted “the devourer” to destroy the people’s crops (Mal 3:8–9, 11). Yet God graciously called His people to renew their love for Him and test His bountiful goodness by tithing. He promised to open the windows of heaven and pour out an overflowing blessing upon them (Mal 3:10).
Tithing in the New Testament
Many Christians have completely lost sight of the biblical purposes for tithing. Foremost is God’s desire to remind us that He is the center and focus of our lives, including our finances. Tithing promotes the fear of the Lord by reminding God’s people that He owns everything, that He is the source of all blessings, and that He is worthy of our joyous thank offerings of tithe. Further, tithes (and offerings) are God’s method of providing for spiritual leaders whom He has chosen to serve Him and His people. How many churches are suffering spiritually because they fail to provide even a tithe of their increase to support their spiritual leader? And let’s not forget that God designated the tithes of the third and sixth years to provide for the poor and needy!
Tithing promotes the fear of the Lord by reminding God’s people that He owns everything.
You ask, “But what about the New Testament?” On two separate occasions, Jesus pronounced a woe on the Pharisees’ hypocrisy regarding tithing. Jesus said, “You pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). The Pharisees were tithing “down to the penny,” but missing the main things: justice and love for God. We must make sure that we are not guilty of this kind of myopic attention to detail that loses sight of loving God and others. At the same time, we must not overlook what Jesus said in the second half of the verse: “These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” In other words, it is not tithing versus loving God. It is both. We should tithe (a small concern) and not fail to love our neighbor and God (the biggest concern). Here then is our Lord Jesus Himself affirming the necessity of tithing (cf. Matt 23:23).
Because I find nothing in the apostle Paul’s writings or other NT writings that states the OT requirements for tithing were fulfilled in Christ or annulled by Him, I assume the principles they represent are still valid. When we study the NT, we find that it teaches that giving should be proportionate, reciprocal, systematic, and generous (1 Cor 16:2; 2 Cor 8:14–15; 9:6). Our giving should encompass the poor (Matt. 6:2-3; Romans 15:16) needy saints (Romans 12:13; 2 Cor 9:12), the sick and aged (Acts 20:35), ruling and teaching elders (1 Tim 5:17), Bible teachers (Gal 6:6–10), widows (1 Tim 5:8–16), strangers (Heb 13:2), and missionaries (3 John 5–7).
Yes, God requires us to tithe. No, I see no essential differences between the NT and OT principles for giving. No, a tithe is not all God expects from us. And, yes, we should be giving more than the tithe, as we are able (1 Cor 16:2). Let’s remember what Paul said, “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor 9:6).