The early church did not keep the tithe law but Christians of today are trying to keep it. Did the Lord Jesus command us to keep the tithe law? If he did, why did the early church not practice it? What was the tithe law?
The Law on Tithes
The law on tithes was one of the many laws that God gave the Israelites. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus record the various laws that were given to the Israelites. In these books we can find the law on tithes as it was given them by God through Moses.
“Every year, you must take a tithe of what your fields produce from what you have sown and, in the presence of Yahweh your God, in the place where he chooses to give his name a home, you must eat the tithe of your wheat, of your new wine and of your oil, and the first-born of your herd and flock: and by so doing, you will learn always to fear Yahweh your God.
If the road is too long for you, if you cannot bring your tithe because the place in which Yahweh chooses to make a home for his name is too far away, when Yahweh your God has blessed you, you must convert into money, and with the money clasped in your hand, you must go to the place chosen by Yahweh your God, there you may spend the money on whatever you like, oxen, sheep, wine, fermented liquor, anything you please. There you must eat in the presence of Yahweh your God and rejoice, you and your household. Do not neglect the Levite living in your community, since he has no share of his own among you” (Deut. 14.22-27)
`In the third year, the tithing year, when you have finished taking the tithe of your whole income and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the orphan and the widow so that, in your towns, they may eat to their heart’s content, in the presence of Yahweh your God, you must say: I have cleared my house of what was consecrated… (Deut. 26:12).
In the tithe law, the Lord God instructed his people to tithe in two ways: yearly and every third year.
Every year, they were to present themselves before God with a tithe of their wheat, new wine, oil, & flock. In His presence, they were to eat their tithe produce together with the Levites. If the Lord’s temple is far away, making it difficult to transport the goods, they should convert the goods into money, and then come to the presence of Yahweh and spend the money on whatever their heart desires.
Every third year, the tither is not allowed to eat his tithe. The tither will give his tithe to the Levite, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. The receivers of the tithe will present themselves before Yahweh and eat the tithe produce in His presence. The tither will then present himself before the Lord God and say that he has cleared his house of what was consecrated.
The Purpose of the Tithe Law
The tithe law was given to the Israelites in the desert, so that they learn to fear the name of Yahweh. They settled in the promised land of Canaan. Some years after they had settled in Canaan, they forsook the laws of God and were taken captive by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. After 70 years of captivity, they returned from the Babylonian exile and rebuilt the destroyed temple but most of them had lost the significance of their customs and laws. Ezra and Nehemiah re-educated the people on God’s laws. The people resumed worship in the temple of God but they still neglected some of the temple practices. One of these temple practices which they neglected was the practice of bringing their tithe before God. God spoke through his prophet Malachi calling on them to bring in their tithes as they did before because the orphans, the strangers, the Levites were suffering from the neglect.
“When I came to you to do justice I shall demand the immediate punishment of the sorcerers and the adulterers, of those who swear false oaths, who oppress the wage-earner, the widow and the orphan, who do not respect the rights of the foreigner. They do all this and have no fear of me, says Yahweh. No, I Yahweh do not change; and you have not ceased to be children of Jacob. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have evaded my statutes and not observed them. Return to me and I will return to you, says Yahweh Sabaoth. You ask, “How do we cheat you?” Over tithes and contributions. A curse lies on you because you, this whole nation, try to cheat me. Bring the tithes in full to the treasury, so that there is food in my house; put me to the test now like this, says Yahweh Sabaoth, and see if I do not open the floodgates of Heaven for you and pour out an abundant blessing for you” (Malachi 3:5-12)
The poor, the stranger, the widow and the Levites were God’s own possession. God identified Himself with them. They are the ones on whom the third year tithes was spent on. If they were cheated, it means God was cheated. The tithe law was meant for the benefit of these unfortunate ones so that the people of Israel will learn to fear the name of Yahweh.
The letter of the Holy Spirit and the apostles sent to the gentiles as regards keeping the Laws Of Moses:
In the days of Apostle Paul, some of the Hebrew Christians were forcing the gentile Christians to practice circumcision. When Peter and the other Apostles heard of this, they held a meeting to decide the status of the gentile Christians as regards the Law of Moses. In response, the apostles and the Holy Spirit wrote a letter to the gentile believers.
Some persons who had come from Judea to Antioch were teaching the brothers in this way, “Unless you are circumcised according to the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Because of this there was trouble, and Paul and Barnabas had fierce arguments with them. For Paul told the people to remain as they were when they became believers. Finally those who had come from Jerusalem suggested that Paul and Barnabas and some others go up to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders.
They were sent on their way by the Church. As they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria they reported how the non-Jews had turned to God, and there was great joy among all the brothers and sisters.
On their arrival in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the Church, the apostles and the elders, to whom they told all that God had done through them.
Some believers, however, who belonged to the party of the Pharisees, stood up and said that non-Jewish men must be circumcised and instructed to keep the law of Moses.
So the apostles and elders met together to consider this matter.
As the discussions became heated, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know what God did among us in the early days, so that non-Jews could hear the Good News from me and believe.
God, who can read hearts, put himself on their side by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he did to us.
He made no distinction between us and them and cleansed their hearts through faith.
So why do you want to put God to the test? Why do you lay on the disciples a burden that neither our ancestors nor we ourselves were able to carry?
We believe, indeed, that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are.”
The whole assembly kept silent as they listened to Paul and Barnabas tell of all the miraculous signs and wonders that God had done through them among the non-Jews.
After they had finished, James spoke up, “Listen to me, brothers.
Symeon has just explained how God first showed his care by taking a people for himself from non-Jewish nations.
And the words of the prophets agree with this, for Scripture says,
After this I will return and rebuild the booth of David which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins and set it up again.
Then the rest of humanity will look for the Lord, and all the nations will be consecrated to my Name. So says the Lord, who does today what he decided from the beginning.
Because of this, I think that we should not make difficulties for those non-Jews who are turning to God.
Let us just tell them not to eat food that is unclean from having been offered to idols; to keep themselves from prohibited marriages; and not to eat the flesh of animals that have been strangled, or any blood.
For from the earliest times Moses has been taught in every place, and every sabbath his laws are recalled.”
Then the apostles and elders together with the whole Church decided to choose representatives from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. These were Judas, known as Barsabbas, and Silas, both leading men among the brothers.
They took with them the following letter:
Greetings from the apostles and elders, your brothers, to the believers of non-Jewish birth in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. We have heard that some persons from among us have worried you with their discussions and troubled your peace of mind. They were not appointed by us. But now, it has seemed right to us in an assembly, to choose representatives and to send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the service of our Lord Jesus Christ. We send you then Judas and Silas who themselves will give you these instructions by word of mouth.
WE, WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT, have decided not to put any other burden on you except what is necessary:
You are to abstain from blood from the meat of strangled animals and from prohibited marriages. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
After saying good-bye, the messengers went to Antioch, where they assembled the community and handed them the letter. When they read the news, all were delighted with the encouragement it gave them (Acts 15 New Jerusalem Bible)
The controversial issue on keeping some of the old laws of Moses, whether be it circumcision or tithes or any other did not arise just today. This issue was neatly addressed by the Holy Spirit and the apostles. Gentile Christians are not supposed to obey the Law of Moses except for two: to abstain from blood from the meat of strangled animals and from prohibited marriages (as stipulated in Lev 18). The Holy Spirit wrote a letter to us many years ago, addressing this matter.
Are Christians Obligated to Tithe?
If anyone is to follow the law even today, then it is to be followed completely in adherence to the way it was written. Modifying the law for whatever reason defeats the purpose of the law.
God no longer dwells in temples made by hands. He now dwells in believers. More so, the tithes were not used to maintain the tabernacle of God rather the tithe was eaten by the tither and the less privileged in the clan. If we are to tithe today, then it should be out of love and generosity (in obedience to the law of Christ), and not because we want to obtain the blessing of keeping the old covenant. If we choose to tithe today out of love, then the poor Christians in the house should be the receiver. The pastors and general overseers are not Levites. Under the new covenant, all Christians are called to serve as priests unto God, with Christ Jesus as the High Priest (1 Peter 2.9).
Christians are not under the old covenant law. The old covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8.13). Christians are under the new covenant law. Under the new covenant, the letter does not apply, rather the spirit. The tithe law was not the only law that was given to the Israelites. Other laws were given: burnt offering, the cereal offering, the communion sacrifice, the sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice of reparation, voluntary sacrifices, offerings for the purification from contagious skin diseases, the feast of shelters, the feast of weeks, the Sabbath, the feast of the Passover, the first sheaf, the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee, the circumcision etc. The old covenant also had many rules: the washing of hands before eating, bathing after a sexual activity, menstruation, etc. If we are to follow the tithe law, then we must follow the rest of the laws to be found righteous. If we choose to follow all the OT laws but fail in one, we are guilty of breaking all (James 2.10). If you follow the old law, then you have fallen from the grace of the new covenant. Those who operate under the old covenant law are under a curse.
On the other hand, all those who depend on the works of the law are under a curse, since scriptures says: Accursed be he who does not make what is written in the book of the law effective, by putting it into practice.’ Now it is obvious that nobody is reckoned as upright in God’s sight by the law, since the upright will live through faith, and the law is based not on faith, but on the principle; `whoever complies with it will find life in it.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by being cursed for our sake since the scriptures says; Anyone hanged is accursed, so that the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles in Christ Jesus and that we might receive the promised spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10-14).
The law brings people under slavery (Galatians 4). The burden of tithing is not of Christ. The burden of circumcision in the days of Apostle Paul was not of Christ (Galatians 5.1-6). Christ freed us from the slavery of the old law (Galatians 5.1). We are freed to belong to another master. The Lord Jesus has given us an easy yoke. It is the debt of love that we owe one another (Romans 13.8). By loving one another, we fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6.2).
Christians ask many unnecessary questions about tithe: “how to tithe correctly”, “what should tithe money be used for”, “who does tithe money belong to”, etc. These questions are baseless. The right question should be: Are Christians obligated to tithe?
How God provides for His Children
When Christ fulfilled the righteous demands of the old law on the cross, He gave us a new law (Matthew 5.17). A new law was given to replace the old ones. It is obeying this new law that guarantees us provision for our earthly needs (Mathew 6.33-34) and inheriting the kingdom of God. A Christian does not receive God’s supply of provision by keeping the tithe law. He receives God’s supply when he enters God’s kingdom and obeys his words and righteous commandment in Christ. His new commandment is this:
And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment (1 John 3.23).
When God’s kingdom and rules is the sole purpose of our hearts, all the other needs will be provided for. Many Christians are still to empty their hearts for God. You must love God and serve him only. Your career, your spouse, your children, your dreams, your plans, your purposes, your possessions must not overtake your hearts. You must obey and fear God always. Serving and obeying only God is what guarantees heaven’s provision. Tithing does not give you any security in the new covenant.
The early church did not practice tithing, rather they practiced total renunciation. God does not want 10%. God wants your all (Luke 14. 26-33). The early church sold their possessions and distributed among themselves as each other needed.
The whole community of believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but rather they shared all things in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, for all of them were living in an exceptional time of grace. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned land or houses, sold them and brought the proceeds of the sale. And they laid it at the feet of the apostles who distributed it according to each one’s need (Acts 4.32-35).
The disciples sold their properties to meet the need of the poor. The sales proceeds were never used to build any synagogue. The only way to eradicate poverty is for the rich to give to the poor (Deuteronomy 15.4). The receiver is blessed by receiving and the giver is blessed by God.
When you pay tithe or give to the poor or to your fellow Christian just because you want to receive back, are you not selfish? If you give all your property away without love you give in vain (1 Corinthians 13.3). All must be done in the spirit of love. Your obedience to Christ is more valuable than any sacrificial offering (1 Samuel 15.22-23).