Do you give 10% of your income to the work of God? Do you think by doing so you are fulfilling the Mosaic command to tithe? Think again. Israelites were commanded to pay upwards of ~23% in tithes, not a mere 10%.
The Mosaic Law required the children of Israel to pay three different tithes: levitical tithe (Lev 27:30-32; Num 18:21,24), annual festival tithe (Dt 14:22-27), and tri-annual poor tithe (Dt 14:28-29). The levitical tithe was the standard tithe. It required all Israelites to give 10% of their increase (crops, fruit, livestock) to the Levites. This tithe was probably offered sporadically throughout the year.
The festival tithe was to be “paid” annually when the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for one of the national festivals. The worshipper was instructed to take 10% of his annual increase to Jerusalem and consume it together with his family and the Levites, at the festival. They feast would consist of grains, meat, and drink.
The poor tithe was paid every three years. Like the festival tithe, this tithe was intended to feed others, including Levites. Unlike the festival tithe, however, this meal was intended to feed foreigners, orphans, and widows—not at Jerusalem, but within one’s own city. Rather than tithing on the past three years, the worshipper only had to tithe on his increase for the year in which the poor tithe was required.
The big question is whether these tithes were concurrent, or whether one replaced the other(s). Given the fact that the Levites needed financial support throughout the year rather than a single annual meal, it stands to reason that the festival tithe was an additional tithe on top of the standard levitical tithe. The same is true of the poor tithe. There is no hint in Scripture that the poor tithe replaced the festival tithe every third year, and thus it stands to reason that the poor tithe was to be paid on top of the festival tithe and levitical tithe every third year.
How much do all these tithes add up to over a three year period? It depends on how it was calculated. If the festival and poor tithes were based on what remained after paying the levitical and festival tithes, then for the first and second year every Israelite would pay 19% in tithes, and for the third year they would pay 27.1%, for an average of 21.7% per year. If the festival and poor tithes were based on one’s gross increase, then for the first and second year every Israelite would pay 20% in tithes, and for the third year they would pay 30%, for an average of 23.3% per year.
This presents a problem for those who appeal to the Mosaic Law to teach that tithing is obligatory for the church. If the Mosaic laws regarding tithing are binding on the church, then so is the percentage and mode of giving. There is no principled basis on which to uphold one tithe (the levitical tithe) as obligatory while abrogating the other two. As Andreas Kostenberger and David Croteau write, “To call for the cessation of two of the three tithes, while leaving one intact, would seem to require some major theological nuancing.”
The church needs to make a choice. We either need to stop appealing to the Mosaic Law to support the doctrine of tithing, or we need to start teaching the people of God to give 23% of their income to God’s work. For those who might be tempted to do the latter, good luck. If only 5% of Christians comply when they are only required to give 10% of their income, even fewer will comply if they are required to pay 23%. Furthermore, if we are going to appeal to the Mosaic covenant to inform our practice of giving, then we must tithe in the same manner as the Israelites tithed. Only 10% of our income will go to support the ministry. The other 13% must be used to host elaborate and expensive annual dinners for one’s family, those in the ministry, and the poor. I think the choice is clear: We need to stop appealing to the Mosaic law in support of tithing. The reasons are not practical, but theological: The Mosaic Law has been replaced by the New Covenant, and thus its laws regarding tithing do not apply to the church.
None of this is to say that one cannot teach tithing as a good principle of giving. While we should not be appealing to the Mosaic Covenant, we could appeal to the practice of Abraham, for instance. Personally, given the examples of giving depicted in the New Testament, I think Christians should give at least 10% of their income to the work of God. There is no upper limit. We should give according to need, and according to our ability (Acts 11:29; 2 Corinthians 8:3; 9:7). As Paul said, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6, ESV).
Andreas Kostenberger and David Croteau, “Reconstructing a Biblical Model for Giving: A Discussion of Relevant Systematic Issues and New Testament Principles”; available from http://biblicalfoundations.org/pdf/pdfarticles/bbrtithing2.pdf; Internet; accessed 26 June 2006.