Are we still supposed to tithe?
The wording of this question suggests that the questioner recognizes that in the past tithing was expected (“still”) and that there is a difference between what was expected in the past and now. He is “on target” in both cases. Yet, many still recommend tithing today. So, we need to examine the conditions under which the tithe was received in the past and whether clear guidance is given to us as Christians.
Multiple tithes (literally “the tenth part”) were given in the Law as a requirement for all Israelites to support the Levites (Lev. 18:21–24, Heb. 7:5), the sacrificial system for the tabernacle/temple and feasts (Lev. 27:30), and for the Levites and poor and strangers in the land every third year (Deut. 14:28–29). The Levites were even to give a tithe of the tithe given to them as an offering to the Lord for the Priests (Lev. 18:25–28). When totaled, the tithes for an average Israelite were much more than ten percent. Those who did not tithe under the Law were cursed. (Mal. 3:8–10)
The first thing to insist on is that there is in fact a significant difference between the relation between Old Testament saints and the Lord and New Testament saints and the Lord. The letters to the Romans and the Galatians contain a considerable discussion of the difference. The apostle Paul says plainly “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:15) But, am I quoting this out of context? The issue here is whether sin has dominion over us. What does that have to do with tithing? But, when we consider chapters 6 and 7 together (actually 5:12–8:4), we see that the argument is that we are “dead to sin” and the law and thus sin has no longer power over us. Furthermore, Paul writes to Timothy “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…” (1 Tim. 1:9, etc.) I think we can paraphrase the difference by saying, “In the Old Testament, God’s people (Israel) were told “do this and live.” (Luke 10:26–28) While in the New Testament God’s people (Christians, i.e., true believers) are told, “you are alive (i.e., born from above; Jn 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16), now walk with me.” (Col. 2:6)
But, Abraham was not “under law.” The law had not even been given when he met Melchizedek and gave him a tenth of all his goods. (Gen. 14:20b) He is a picture of the man of faith so why should he not be my model for giving?
Well, not so fast. This hasty reasoning is a good example of how we can take an incident that seems reasonable to guide us, but forget the larger context which would explain why the incident is recorded for us. It is true that Abraham is a man of faith and in that way is a picture for us (Rom. 4:2–5; Gal. 3:6). However, tithing is not the only thing going on here. Hebrews 7:1–10 explains how Melchizedek is a type or picture of Christ in His Royal Priesthood. Tithing is used in this passage to enforce the principle that Christ’s priesthood has actually replaced the Aaronic priesthood. The Old Testament system of worship is emphatically set aside and a new priesthood has been established (1 Pet. 2:5,9) with Christ as the High Priest.
So, what do we make of this in reference to tithing? The mention of Abraham tithing is not connected with his being the man of faith but to be used in this picture of Christ to enforce the truth of the change of priesthood. That is, the necessity of the mention of tithing in Hebrews is why tithing was mentioned in reference to Abraham and Melchizedek.
Scripture is all of one piece. This is an important principle to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament. An historical record in the Old Testament may appear spurious, out of place, or even wrong unless the typological significance is seen. In the case we are considering here, it can be misused to teach what was not intended at all. Scripture is given for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16) not just to satisfy our curiosity about the past. I don’t mean that the Old Testament does not have moral and spiritual lessons. Rather we must use care and in this case, we have other Scripture to guide us.
Aside from the typological significance it needs to be noticed that Abraham is only mentioned tithing as a one-time event. Jacob is another example before the law. He promised ten percent of all God gave him (Gen. 25:22). But both are examples of voluntary, not compulsory (under law) giving.
What about guidance for the Christian? The Church was begun at Pentecost. So, the first example of Christian giving is found in Acts 4:32–35. This is as simple as can be. Those who had resources shared with those who had need. There was no regulation. This lack of “law” often confuses people but this reflects the general nature of the Church.
Finally, we have guidance from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:1–15. In this chapter Paul seems to be echoing the principle found in the Lord’s words “Freely you received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:8b, NASB) The apostle prescribes no upper and no lower limit. Any upper limit might be too low for some and any lower limit might be too much for others. All is to be governed by ability and the sense of God’s grace to us (2 Cor. 9:7–8). So, giving today is based on generosity rather than obligation.