Ask a number of Christian leaders and theologians if Christians are still required to tithe, and you’ll get varied responses. Some will tell you that Christians need to give God a tenth of their first fruits right off the top; others will tell you that Jesus released us from the law’s obligation to tithe and we should give freely.
This isn’t a new debate by any means. The Church has been struggling with the question of tithing on generosity for a long time.
The Church Began with a Clear Culture of Giving
Whether out of necessity or conviction, the first-century church viewed their possessions differently:
“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Tithing Has Always Been a Tension Point in the Church
As the church grew, the discussion of tithes and offerings became a big issue again. Were these new Christians obligated to give ten percent like their Israelite forebears? Were they expected to have all things in common like the early church? How exactly should church leaders communicate the responsibility of Christ followers to be generous and giving?
I have put together some quotes from the first couple centuries of the church’s existence on generosity:
6 Quotes on Tithing from the Early Church
Irenaeus (c. 130-202 AD)
“The Jews were constrained to a regular payment of Tithes; Christians who have liberty assign all their possessions to the Lord bestowing freely not the lesser portions of their property since they have the hope of greater things.”
In Irenaeus’ economy, the tithe was actually a constraint or a lid placed on the giving of the Israelites. In the Christian economy, we’re free to give above and beyond the tithe because all that we have is the Lord’s.
“And for this reason did the Lord, instead of that [commandment], `You shall not commit adultery,’ forbid even concupiscence; and instead of that which runs thus, `You shall not kill,’ He prohibited anger; and instead of the law enjoining the giving of tithes, to share all our possessions with the poor; and not to love our neighbors only, but even our enemies; and not merely to be liberal givers and bestowers, but even that we should present a gratuitous gift to those who take away our goods.”
In keeping with the previous quote, Irenaeus provides examples of Christ’s law superseding Moses by cutting directly to our heart’s motives. Instead of a law that simply dictates a percentage of our possessions, we willingly and liberally share our belongings with those in need—and with our enemies.
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 AD)
“We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with everyone in need.”
Martin Luther talked about a Christian needing a conversion of the wallet. In this one sentence, Justin gives us a picture of that very thing. Where people once valued the hoarding of money and things, their new Christ-centered posture makes them see their possessions differently.
Tertullian (c. 155-240 AD)
“We would ask God for material goods if we considered them to be of use; without a doubt, He to whom the whole belongs would be able to concede us a portion. But we prefer to hold possessions in contempt than to hoard them: it is rather innocence that is our aspiration, it is rather patience that is our entreaty; our preference is goodness, not extravagance.”
For Tertullian, possessions are infinitely precious for building up of the kingdom, but can worm their way into our hearts and defraud us of our innocence. From Tertullian’s perspective, giving was more than duty, it was an act of preservation.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215 AD)
“The tithes of the fruits and of the flocks taught both piety towards the Deity and not to covetously grasp everything. Instead, one should share gifts of kindness with one’s neighbors. For it was from these, I reckon, and from the firstfruits that the priests were maintained.”
What’s interesting here is how Clement addresses the tithe as an Old Testament principle being taught in retrospect, and not as an ongoing practice he’s advocating. Ultimately, the tithe was a tool to instruct the Israelites in kindness and altruism—traits that Clement believes Christians should exemplify.
Cyprian (c. 210–258 AD)
“Each one was intent on adding to his inheritance. Forgetting what the faithful used to do under the Apostles and what they should always be doing, each one with insatiable greed was absorbed in adding to his wealth. Gone was the devotion of bishops to the service of God, gone was the clergy’s faithful integrity, gone the generous compassion for the needy, gone all discipline in our behavior.
“Too many bishops, instead of giving encouragement and example to others, made no account of the ministration which God had entrusted to them, and took up the administration of secular business: they left their sees, abandoned their people, and toured the markets in other territories on the look-out for profitable deals.”
Paul warned us about those profiting off Christ’s message (2 Cor. 2:17). By the third century, there was an outbreak of financial misappropriation in the church. Running the church like administrators of secular businesses, ministers were using the gospel for private gain. Cyprian’s frustration included the horrible example it gave to those who were looking for leadership.
John Chrysostom (c. 349–407 AD)
“Woe to him, it is said, who doeth not alms; and if this was the case under the Old Covenant, much more is it under the New. If, where the getting of wealth was allowed and the enjoyment of it, and the care of it, there was such provision made for the succoring of the poor, how much more in that Dispensation, where we are commanded to surrender all we have? For what did not they of old do?
“They gave tithes, and tithes again upon tithes for orphans, widows, and strangers, whereas someone was saying to me in astonishment at another, ‘Why, such an one givest tithes.’ What a load of disgrace does this expression imply, since what was not a matter of wonder with the Jews has come to be so in the case of the Christians? If there was danger then in omitting tithes, think how great it must be now.”
If the Jews had to tithe to take care of the poor, Chrysostom argues, how much more are Christians expected to give? The fact that Christians would marvel the tithe of the Israelites was a sign to the archbishop that Christ’s followers didn’t fully grasp how their faith should inform their views about possessions.
Where Do We Stand?
It’s somewhat encouraging to see that the early church had many of the same issues regarding materialism and offerings that we do. It’s also challenging to see how seriously they took it. Maybe it’s time we all prayerfully reconsidered our relationship to stuff.
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