The Church and Money: A Sourcebook

Originally drafted August 17, 2022 and last tended May 16, 2023 by Matt McElwee.
(See Revision History).

The role of money and the Church is relatively uncomplicated. Since the earliest days of the Church, the community cared for the needs of their minister (likely first an elder (a role which evolved into the bishop) and then within a generation the priest) and for the needs of the poor and needy, first within their community and then without.

The Church was born out of the generosity of the Father in his giving his only Son. It is unsurprising that this vision of generosity flowed into the operation of the Church as early as 10 days following the ascension of Jesus (cf Acts 2:42-47).

What is complicated is the role of tithing in the Church. This sourcebook will therefore be divided into two sections. The first will address the question of tithing both in its biblical and its historical context. The second will address the biblical vision of generosity in general. The witness of Scripture is sufficient – in my opinion, to cover the latter case on its own and the voices of scholars and Church fathers from the first section ought to aid in offering context to the second. I will however include a BibleProject video.

Tithing in the Church

The Tithe

We see tithing (both the concept and the Hebrew word for it) first appear in Genesis 14. Abram had just done battle with the kings of Canaan in order to save his nephew Lot. Following his victory, he encounters a priest of God Most High (El Elyon) named Melchizedek who blesses him. Following that blessing, Abram opts to give a tenth (ma'aser) of the spoils of war to the priest.

Of course what we are more familiar with is the practice of the priestly tithe practiced under the covenant at Sinai, documented in Numbers 18. What often goes under-looked is the two additional tithes.

Some quick context setting, the Torah especially (and then a good bit of the Nevi'im) was written to a community of subsistence farmers. While a few other trades may have been at play (see Bezalel in Exodus 31).

  1. The Levitical tithe, Numbers 18 – This tithe was set aside as a portion for the Levites who were not given farm land. We are not told explicitly, but we tend to read into this that the reason was so that the Levites could be the teachers of יהוה's torah as well as their priests serve in a full-time cultic capacity. Farming was a full-time job that was very labor-intensive. So יהוה provided for the physical needs of the Levites, but gave them no land. יהוה was their portion. (Note: the tithe was not the only expression of provision for the Levites (see below)).
  2. The festival tithe, Deuteronomy 14 – This tithe was sort of like a Christmas fund. יהוה had instituted three festivals for which the people would pilgrim to Jerusalem: the Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). The festival tithe then was designed to provide the materials the people needed to enjoy the festival. Note that this tithe is not an optional savings account. It is a commanded, yearly tithe.
  3. The poor tithe, Deuteronomy 14 – Every third year, the people of Israel were instructed to take a tithe of their increase (just like the Levitical and festival tithe) and offer it to the Levite, the poor, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows may "come and eat and be satisfied." There is some debate on how much this tithe actually constituted. It is unclear from the wording if it was designed to be a tithe yearly, constituting three years worth of tithe; or if it was a tithe of three years worth (so that each year you would set aside 3.33%); or if every third year, 10% from a single year was required.

All together, there are three possible guesses for the the total amount of tithe an Israelite family would've been commanded to give yearly:

  1. 23.3% - Taking the Levitical and festival together and then assuming that the poor tithe is 10% across the three years.
  2. 20% for two years and 30% on the third year. This takes the Levitical and festival together on years 1 and 2, and then adds a full ten percent on the poor tithe years.
  3. 30% - This assumes that the poor tithe was a full yearly tithe which would accumulate over the three years.

It is worth adding that the deuterocanonical book of Tobit and Josephus affirm the three tithe system as being the understanding throughout the Second Temple period up until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Offerings

It is commonly spoken in Evangelical circles that the Scriptures commanded tithes and that offerings were anything above and beyond the tithe. This is reductive.

While many offerings were voluntary and tended to be associated with thankfulness or devotion to God, they were nonetheless instructed in the sense that amount, quality, and type were strictly defined. Furthermore, all of these offerings were associated with the Levitical cult, which means that while they were voluntary, they were associated with the rituals defined by יהוה for the Tabernacle, altars, and eventually Temple.

Crucially, the offerings were shared among the Levites. The proper rites were performed, and then the Levites were given allotted portions. Once again, the care of the Levites is at play amidst the general instruction for יהוה worship.

Below is a table of the offerings that were made.

Name Scripture Elements Status Purpose
Burnt Offering Lev. 1; 6:8-13 Bull, ram, male goat, male dove, or young pigeon without blemish (your economic status dictated the species) Voluntary Propitiation for sin; Devotion to יהוה
Grain Offering Lev. 2; 6:14-23 Flour, bread (unleavened), or grain mixed with olive oil or incense Voluntary Thanksgiving
Sin Offering Lev. 4-5:13; 6:24-30; 12:6-8 Varied based on social position and economic status, from a bull down to a bit of flour Mandatory Unintentional "sin" or uncleanness1
Guilt Offering Lev 5:14–6:7; 7:1–6; 14:12–18 Unblemished ram or lamb Mandatory Explicit violation of the rights of others and unjust dealings; Also employed occasionally for desecration
Peace Offering Lev 3; 7:11–36 Any animal without blemish Voluntary Thanksgiving and fellowship with God

Tithing in Malachi

Tithing makes scant reappearance in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. As with much of the Levitical cult, much of it goes ignored until the Deuteronomic Reform under Josiah. But most famously, tithing reappears in the famed Malachi 3:8-12 text. I offer it in full for discussion:

“Would anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the entire nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and put Me to the test now in this,” says the Lord of armies, “if I do not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruit of your ground; nor will the vine in the field prove fruitless to you,” says the Lord of armies. “All the nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,” says the Lord of armies.

At issue here is Israel being unwilling to tithe the full, obligated amount in order to care for the Levites and priests. The whole message of Malachi is a socially complex one. The Israelite people have only just returned from exile and the Temple has just been restored. They've lived in a Babylonian and then Persian milieu, with different beliefs and practices. Now they're back. The question is can they obey God and still sustain their own needs. The challenge of subsitence farming is that you tend to only produce what you will eat. In most subsistence communities, they moved in a cycle of famines. Animals provided insurance against hard times.2

To give up their insurance and even their yields for tithes and offerings was to risk starvation in a time of social and economic instability.

The passage mentions offerings. It is easy for us to import a modern vision of "additional dollars outside my tithe" here. But again, in this context, we are likely looking at food stuffs associated with the Levitical cult (as in the table above). Croteau suggests that this understanding requires us to understand that these were part of the so-called "Biblical minimum," not separate.3

Because these offerings were more strictly defined in terms of what type of element was being sacrificed, we are at odds to port them to modern notions of giving (in financial terms). What is the equivalence between a goat for a king and a tenth of an ephah of flour for the poor?

Fundamentally, this vision of Malachi should not attempt to separate the Biblical instruction of the Levitical tithe nor the instruction for offerings from one another. They are both woven together in this text and specifically speak to the care of a community of people (the Levites) who do not own land nor produce food.

Our challenge will be determining if this vision, oft used to affirm a Biblical mandate on tithing for Christians, is still applicable.

The Gospels

In Greek, the word for paying tithe is apodekatoo (ἀποδεκατόω). As a verb, it appears 4 times, one of those in Hebrews 7. The noun form is dekatoó (δεκατόω) appears only twice, both in Hebrews 7.

Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42

Here Jesus castigates the scribes and Pharisees for their fine-grained focus on the Torah instructions, down to their window box spice plants, but forgetting entirely the broader theme of tsedekah. When coupled with Matthew 23:1-3 we would be hard-pressed to assume that Jesus is entirely abrogating the practice of tithing, and certainly for Jews, it would be wrong to assume so. Nevertheless, this is not an open affirmation nor a clear carry-forward into the so-called new covenant.

Luke 18:12

In the parable of the Pharisee and Publican, the Pharisee highlights among his righteous deeds that he gives a tithe of all that he has. We are never left with the impression that it is this action that is improper. Rather it is the boastful, proud heart that which leaves him unjustified (cf Lk 18:15).

It's worth noting too, in all three Gospels' uses of "tithing" we are never given the sense that these are the "storehouse" tithe of Malachi 3 (and therefore the Levitical tithe). Therefore, we should assume that as in Tobit, the witness here is to the three-fold tithe.

Hebrews 7

We do not find the word, nor references to tithing again in the New Testament until Hebrews 7. It is important that we pair this one with Genesis 14 and Psalm 110. The connection that the author of Hebrews is making is not about the practice of tithing. Rather it is highlighting Jesus' priesthood as being greater than Levitical priesthood. It uses the tithe made to Melchizedek as a means of contrasting his priesthood with the Levites and the kohanim.

Beyond the New Testament

The practice of tithing is not emphasized in the early church community. In the section below on the Biblical vision of generosity I will highlight the many texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that speak to giving, care of the clergy, and generosity, but for now, I will demonstrate that the issue of tithing was not a central theme in the early church.

One of our earliest books outside of the New Testament canon is the Didache. This book contains the teachings of the Twelve Apostles and was attested as reliable by many of the early Church fathers. Unlike the epistles of the New Testament, this is a far more practical guide to operating a local church. It contains instructions on prayer, liturgy, and church governance.

In chapter 4, we are given a note on generosity:

Be not one that stretches out his hands for receiving, but draws them in for giving. If thou hast anything, thou shalt give with thy hands a ransom for thy sins. Thou shalt not hesitate to give, nor in giving shalt thou murmur, for thou shalt know who is the good recompenser of the reward.

Thou shalt not turn away him that needeth, but shalt share all things with thy brother, and shalt not say that they are thine own; for if you are fellow-sharers in that which is imperishable, how much more in perishable things?

But importantly, though the Apostles are explicit on many things, they never draw on Malachi 3 nor on the Torah witness on tithing. Similarly, Paul, when writing both about the financial care due clergy (1 Cor. 9:9-14, 1 Tim. 5:17-18) and about the gift meant for the Jerusalem church in famine (2 Cor. 9) never draws on the Torah witness on tithing nor on Malachi 3. Rather, he draws on the words of Jesus regarding generosity (Acts 20:35) and on a peculiar text from the Torah (Deut. 25:4).

Similarly, St. Basil of Caesarea and St. John Chrysostom, both ante-Nicene fathers who wrote prolificly on matters of wealth and generosity, never draw on the Torah witness on tithing, neither the Levitical (storehouse) tithe nor the broader three tithe system. Rather, they draw most heavily on Paul's calls to generosity and Jesus' warnings to the wealthy.

Fundamentally, we see in Jesus and in his followers up until Nicaea a very different disposition toward generosity. It flowed from a fidelity and zeal toward the Triune God, especially as revealed in Jesus, and was quite radical. There was little use of tithe commands, whether Torah or prophetic.

The Biblical Vision of Generosity

BibleProject has covered this vision of generosity quite well in the their study notes for their generosity video (noted below). Rather than regurgitating their notes here, I offer a link to the PDF as the best possible source for this data.

BibleProject. (2019, October 17). Generosity [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62CliEkRCso.

Ultimately, the witness of Scripture is one of radical generosity which first see's God as generous host and then Jesus as the ultimate gift. Our giving ought to be a loving, faithful response to the goodness of God and the gift of Jesus.

My personal conviction is that a combined factor of teaching from the wrong lens (e.g. Malachi 3) and the continued decline in institutional trust in the United States is leading to an overall decline in giving with the so-called 10% baseline never being reached. Barna is always a useful resource for tracking the nationwide trend in giving.

Other Resources

Croteau, D. A. (2010). You Mean I Don't Have to Tithe?: A Deconstruction of Tithing and a Reconstruction of Post-Tithe Giving. Pickwick Publications.

St. Basil the Great. (2009). On Social Justice (Schroeder, C. P., Trans.). St Vladimirs Seminary Pr.

St. John Chrysostom. (2020). On Wealth and Poverty (2nd edition) (Hanegraaff, H., Trans.). St Vladimirs Seminary Pr. (Originally published c. 381 - 407 CE)

Wright, N. T. (2020). Paul: A Biography. HarperOne.

Footnotes

  1. It is far out of scope here to nuance the word "sin" here. It is enough to say that we are better off thinking in terms of cultic purity than in terms of moral uprightness. ↩

  2. Scarlata, M. W. (2021). A Journey Through the World of Leviticus: Holiness, Sacrifice, and the Rock Badger. Cascade Books. ↩

  3. Croteau, p 122. ↩