As a Pastor I am regularly asked if Christians should tithe—or put more explicitly, whether Christians should adopt the ancient Israelite practice set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures of giving to God the first tenth of our increase. My simplest answer is, “Yes.” And if I am asked why, my answer is this: “Because that’s what my Dad taught me…and he was wiser than either of us.” Let me explain.
Christians are not required to tithe.
Tithing is no more a Christian “law” than daily prayer. In the Christian faith, our only law is to love God with all of our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christian faith is not a religion of law, but rather the practice of Christ-like love. Within the Christian faith, we find practices designed to form us as a Christ-like people. These spiritual disciplines include commitment to prayer, Scripture, worship, sacrament, and the practice of the tithe. In its collective wisdom, the church adopted many of the spiritual practices of Israel, including the tithe.
A Treasured Tradition
Yet this doesn’t mean the New Testament tells us to tithe in a juridical sense. In my interpretation, it doesn’t, but, to me, that doesn’t matter. My dad told me to tithe. When I was in first grade, I received a weekly allowance of two dollars. With that allowance, I was to pay for my school lunch (25 cents a day) and I was instructed to place 25 cents in the offering plate in church every Sunday—which was a little bit more than a tithe. This left me with 50 cents a week to spend at my discretion—more than enough to fund my candy habit. The truth is, I don’t remember what I did with each week’s 50 cents. What I do remember is placing that quarter in the offering plate every Sunday and feeling how I belonged to the First Baptist Church of Savannah, MO, because I gave to it. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” At six years old I was being formed in the Christian practice of loving Jesus and his church through a disciplined generosity.
Later, when I was earning income by mowing lawns in the summer, I distinctly remember my dad walking into my bedroom with a calendar and a box of giving envelopes. He told me to write down what I earned each day on the calendar, and on Saturday night to put ten percent of my earnings in one of the giving envelopes and place it in the offering plate on Sunday. Because I learned these practices as a child, this was easy to do—it was no different than acquiring the habits of saying please and thank you. I was learning that God should be honored with the first tenth of all my income. In my teen years, I experienced my own dramatic encounter with Jesus and began to follow him in earnest, but I already knew how to tithe. I have practiced the tithe all of my life and I can’t imagine doing otherwise.
Where Practicing the Tithe Begins
I learned this practice from my dad. He learned it from his dad, who learned it from his aunt, who learned it from someone in the church, who learned it from…well, eventually we work our way past Moses and the Prophets and all the way back to Father Abraham. In Genesis 14:18-20 we are told this:
King Melchizedek of Salem brought Abram bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.
This is where practicing the tithe begins. Not as a law in the Torah, but as Abraham’s faith response to the Christ figure King Melchizedek. Centuries later, Moses incorporated this practice into the Law, and the prophets uniformly endorsed it. In the New Testament, it appears that Jesus as a Jew assumes the practice of the tithe (Mat. 23:23). If you want to make a Biblical case for Christians practicing the tithe, I suppose you can, but the bottom line for me is that I received this practice from the wisdom of my father, who ultimately received it from Father Abraham. This is a practice of wisdom that I taught my three sons and that I am sure will be taught to my grandchildren. It is a privilege to pass on wisdom traditions from generation to generation.
So, should Christians tithe?
Yes. Not because it is a legal requirement (it’s not), but because it has been part of the wisdom tradition of Jews and Christians for millennia. Who am I to disparage the wisdom of this? I have learned to trust these time-vetted traditions that teach us how to live by faith, how to pray, how to read Scripture, how to worship God, and how to honor God with our possessions. The rejection of all tradition is not freedom, it’s foolishness. In the Zahnd family, the wisdom tradition of the tithe pioneered by Abraham continues to be practiced. I am grateful for this. And if you didn’t have the benefit of learning this practice from your parents, then you have the honor of being the Abraham in your family—the patriarch who pioneers this particular way of living by faith.
“So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
–The Apostle Paul (Gal. 3:9)