How Should I Tithe?
Q: Dear Pastor, I am a Christian who tithes his income. I have two questions. First, should I tithe on the sum of money I receive from the sale of my home? Second, should I tithe on the sum of money I receive from the sale of my business?
A: Dear friend, before addressing the specifics, let’s look at what tithing is and whether you should tithe under any circumstances. Mosaic Law included several tithes commanded by God. In general, they are covered by Leviticus 27:30-33. If one wanted to keep extra of his harvest or his herd, God required a 20 percent premium be paid on top of the “fair market value” (see verse 31).
Numbers 18:21-31 goes into detail as to how the tithe benefitted the Levites. The priestly tribe wasn’t given large expanses of land for an inheritance. Instead, their brother tribes supported them. The tithe belonged to the Lord, but the Lord gave it over to Levi (18:24). Levi, in turn, gave a tithe of this tithe to the Lord, dedicating it as holy and not to be used by themselves. This tithe, in part, was for the support of the Levites serving as priests.
Even though the entire tithe belonged to the Lord, the Levites were not judged guilty for using the remaining nine-tenths. God specifically gave it to them as long as they gave the best of the best to Him: “When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be counted to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the winepress. And you may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. And you shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have contributed the best of it. . . . (Numbers 18:30-32)”
The Levites themselves were considered a form of tithe — actually a “firstfruits offering” — for the Lord took and dedicated the entire tribe of Levi as holy to Himself instead of demanding the firstborn of each family in all of Judah. Besides being a lasting offering commanded for Himself, the Lord also used the Levites as a reminder of the death and the salvation of the firstborn during the final plague in Egypt (Numbers 3:12-13).
There was also an annual tithe of the “seed that comes from the field” that the tithers were then to use as a banquet, celebrating with their entire households (which would include servants and sojourners) and with any Levites in their towns (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). God said, “You shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. (v. 23)”
If they had to travel far to the divinely appointed place, the tithe was to be converted to money and when they arrived, God said they were to, “spend the money for whatever you desire — oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. (v. 26)” This taught Israel to “fear the Lord” always because they would constantly be tempted to hold back in case of poor crops, drought, or other disaster. By annually “partying away” a goodly portion of their annual income in praise of the Lord, they demonstrated trust in Him to carry them through any bad times yet to come.
Also, every three years, Israel collected local tithes to benefit the Levites living in the area and to aid “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” living within their towns (Deuteronomy 14:29). As these were fed, the Lord promised continued blessing for all the work of Israel’s hands.
Additionally, the Levites were more than priests and temple workers. God also established them as part of Israel’s judicial system. Along with the divinely appointed judges, the Levitical priests decided both the points of law and the verdict in many trial situations (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). In modern parlance, they were civil as well as ecclesiastical ministers. This being so, the tithe was also a form of taxation for the preservation of stable government.
This certainly isn’t the case now. In almost any part of the “civilized” world, much more than a tithe is taken by the state even before we have a chance to set aside anything for the Lord. If we wanted to keep score, we could come to God and tell Him, “We’ve already given more than a tithe that Your rule might be exercised through good government.” However, we know that the Lord established a different understanding of sacred giving while living under secular rule. As Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Luke 20:25)”
Thus, we see that times have changed since the Lord handed down the Law on Sinai. More importantly, the audience for these words concerning tithes has changed. Throughout Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the tithe is commanded of Israel. It is never, in Old Testament or New, demanded from the Gentiles. It appears that even for Israel, the force of the command passed away in the death and resurrection of Christ. Thus, we are now free under the Gospel to give as we’ve been blessed, not according to command or formula, but according to God’s grace active in us.
Giving is both commanded and commended in the New Testament, yet neither Christ nor His apostles set a fixed amount. Voluntary, joyful giving is emphasized (1 Corinthians 9:7; 2 Corinthians 8:8-9), as is adequately compensating pastors and teachers (1 Corinthians 9:7-14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; et al.), supporting fellow believers in times of trouble, (Galatians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 16:1), and having an orderly plan of setting aside and giving (16:2).
So should you tithe such income?
God demands not the smallest fraction but still requires everything from you. If you really want to live under the Law or keep score with your giving, then give it all away. Instead of “should,” a better question is, “May (and how may) I give of the income realized from my work and from the sale of my house and business?”
To this, God’s Word replies, “You may give as you desire and as the Lord leads you.” If so moved, you may even give above the tithe, as Gods blesses you and as you respond to His grace and providence.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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