In The First Century Church
The Tithe In The Church?
To even raise the question of whether it is scriptural or not to teach that tithing is God’s method of funding his Kingdom, is a shock to many I am sure. We have accepted the concept that tithing is the Biblical method of giving and supporting the ministry of the Church and its officers, that we do not give it any further thought. It is accepted as one of those core truths that everyone believes or at least should believe.
However, if we want to be Biblical in our beliefs and practices, then we should take a closer look at this idea, AS IT RELATES TO THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH. Let me first say, that this issue will not be dealt with in depth. There are other writings out there that do, so if you wish to study this topic in much greater detail than is given here, I would suggest that you do.
The Tithe in the New Testament.
Let’s first look at all the verses in the New Testament that teaches, or even suggests that tithing is the method of support for the New Testament Church. This list will be exhaustive.
There they are. All the verses that teach or command New Testament believers to tithe. As you probably noticed, the list is empty. That is because there is none. No, not one.
This should be no great surprise for anyone who has studied the pages of the New Testament in any depth. Hastings Dictionary of the Apostolic Church states,
It is admitted universally that the payment of tithes or the tenths of possessions, for sacred purposes did not find a place within the Christian Church during the age covered by the apostles and their immediate successors.
We have three references to tithing in the gospels of the New Testament. Jesus mentions it when rebuking the pharisees [Matt. 23:23;Luke 11:42]
But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. [Luke 11:42]
And once as a boast of the pharisee [Luke 18:12].
All of these reference the tithe given in support of the temple. This brings us to one inescapable truth. The tithe was tied to the temple as a means of support for the temple priesthood. This has always been the purpose of the tithe - support of the Temple priests. The tithe that was brought was food items, not money.
He says that they tithe “mint, rue and all manner of herbs,” but no money? His main point is that this should be done. They should be tithing, because the Temple was still standing and the priests still had to be supported. But they left off the practice of justice and love. The last place we have the tithe mentioned is in Hebrews.
And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham: [Hebrews 7:5]
Notice something interesting about this verse. It says that the sons of Levi, who received the office of the Priesthood, had a commandment to take tithes of the people. Now according to this, unless you are of the sons of Levi, and you are a priest, then you have no commandment to take tithes of the people. If you do not fit this description, then you have no commandment to take tithes of the people of God.
The tithe is mentioned three more times in Hebrews chapter seven. Here it relates to Abraham giving a tenth of the spoils from his defeat of the kings who had kidnapped Lot. The tenth or tithe was given to Melchizedek, the priest of Salem.
However, this tithe was not according to the Law of Moses which hadn’t been given yet. According to ancient custom, Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils he had gained from his conquest of the kings that had kidnapped his nephew, Lot, to the local priest. In this situation, the local priest was Melchizedek, the King of Salem and Priest of the LORD. So here again, we see it is given in support of the priests.
To make a very long story short, the tithe was designed to support the Levitical priesthood while they served and ministered unto the Lord, first in the tabernacle and later in the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, the priests no longer had a job, and therefore no longer depended upon the tithe for their livelihood.
The tithe as a ministry of giving in support of the priests and the temple, was strictly related to the Old Covenant. Fee and Stuart, in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, gives us this important statement.
The Old Testament is not our testament. The Old Testament represents an Old Covenant, which is one we are no longer obligated to keep. Therefore we can hardly begin by assuming that the Old Covenant should automatically be binding upon us. We have to assume, in fact, that none of its stipulations (laws) are binding upon us unless they are renewed in the New Covenant. That is, unless an Old Testament law is somehow restated or reinforced in the New Testament, it is no longer directly binding on God’s people (cf. Rom. 6:14-15).
Dr. Roger Sapp in The Children are Free, finishes this thought in this way,
Not a single passage in itself teaches what the Church practices today. Spiritualization of the Law is used to teach tithing. Reasoning that is not found in the Bible is used to justify Christian embracing a legalistic practice from the Old Testament. [p.88]
The early New Testament Church had no system of tithing for support of its ministries or ministers. Remember that for the first three hundred years of the Church’s Life, it was primarily a home church movement. Its ministers were largely self-supporting, having trades or working jobs. They believed and followed the admonition of Paul, “If a man doesn’t work, then let him not eat.”
It was standard operating procedure (SOP) among the rabbis of that era, that they have a trade, to be self-supporting. Rabbi Judah said: "He that teacheth not his son a trade, doth the same as if he taught him to be a thief." Paul followed this pattern as we know, being a tentmaker. As stated earlier, Paul supported himself and those of his ministry team, while on his missionary travels. Paul stated that he purposely worked to not be a burden to the Churches and so as not to hinder the Gospel of Christ.
The Church, while under sporadic persecution for the first three hundred years, grew and prospered in this home church, self-supporting system. Then along came a man named Constantine. When he came on the scene, everything changed for the Church. It was no longer hunted and persecuted. It became the official religion of the empire. It no longer had to meet in homes, caves or catacombs. Constantine erected buildings, known as basilicas to meet in.
Yes, it was the Roman Emperor Constantine that gave the Church what it takes for granted today, a building we adoringly now call “the Church.” Constantine is responsible for giving us many of the things which we now hold to be Christian. He is responsible for giving us the ‘Church building’, he gave us Easter, and it was under his rule that the doctrine of the trinity began to be formulated.
With Constantine’s help, the Church moved into a new era of acceptance, power and prestige. A move that proved to be disastrous to Biblical Christianity. With these new buildings to worship in, eventually began the practice of full-time ministers. This initiated a practice that had not been known in Christianity before, the idea of a class of full-time ministers known as the clergy. This began the division of the Body of Christ into two classes of people, the clergy and the laity. Until this point in Church history, this distinction had not been known.
The support of the clergy class was maintained by freewill offerings. It wasn’t until The Council of Macon in AD 585, that an effort to impose a tithe upon the people was even attempted. According to the Catholic informational website,
The earliest positive legislation on the subject (of tithing) seems to be contained in the letter of the bishops assembled at Tours in 567 and the cannons of the Council of Macon in 585.
The canons of Macon were so heavy-handed that it basically required its members to tithe or risk being excommunicated. It is not much different today, where some churches are so greedy and manipulative that they require their members to sign a contract (they call it a ‘covenant’, to give it religious tone) that they will tithe and give offerings over and above the tithe.
According to this same Catholic website,
In the course of time, however, as the Church expanded and various institutions arose, it became necessary to make laws which would insure the proper and permanent support of the clergy. The payment of tithes was adopted from the Old Law, and early writers speak of it as a divine ordinance and an obligation of conscience.
This is the crux of the matter. “As the Church expanded and various institutions arose,” means that as the Church grew in its influence and power, it needed more money to maintain its machinery of programs, buildings and the payroll its hierarchical clergy system.
The freewill offerings of the people proved to be insufficient to support the girth and weight of the monstrous structure they were building. The people were forced to pay for the upkeep of the behemoth that had become ‘The Church’. As it was then, even more so now. In today’s Church, a pastor is considered not worth his salt if he doesn’t lead his congregation through a building program and put the people in deep debt, so that they are forced to keep giving to maintain this monster that we’ve created.
Here’s a thought . . .
What would happen to the Church, if the pastor became self-supporting, by working a job like regular people do, so that the Body of Christ would not be burdened with maintaining his lifestyle?
Allow me to share the outcome of such a scenario. If the ministers of the Church were to be self-supporting, i.e., earning their own living, they obviously would not have time to give to all the visitation, hand-holding of the sick, counseling and everything else that has become his duty. What this would mean is that the Body of Christ would have to step-up and BE THE BODY OF CHRIST.
They would out of necessity learn to minister to each other, pray for each other, instead of depending on the paid service of the minister. How would this affect our assemblies? I believe it would cause the true Body of Jesus to rise to the top, and function as they were intended to function.
However, many in today’s Church would rather write a check to pay someone to perform these services than to do it themselves. My own personal experience in this matter has given me insight into how this works. I have done both. I have been paid a salary (that’s what they called it) by a church, and I have been self-supporting while pastoring. I much prefer working to support myself and my family, than to look to a church for my maintenance. Because I was able to be self-supportive, it freed the church and myself, to be what God desired us to be, a body of ministers.