Tithing, Part 1: What Is Tithing and When Was It Instituted?

One of the differences in doctrine between the various COG groups and commentators centers upon tithing.  It is pretty amazing, actually, that there are so many different and conflicting opinions amongst various groups that have a common ancestry (spiritually speaking).

Most would not argue that tithing wasn’t required under the Old Covenant.  Sacrifice, offering and tithe rules are sprinkled throughout the Law.  However, that seems to be about the only point of agreement.

When it comes to money, fewer subjects can divide.  Most divorces are over money troubles.  A significant portion of crimes are committed in order to gain more money.

Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject.  Even His parables about the Kingdom of God often used money as an illustration.  It all certainly points to what Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Lk 12:34).

I suppose that it should not be surprising, then, that tithing is such a big issue.  So, what is a “tithe”?  When was it instituted?  Is it, as some claim, for agricultural products only?  Is it still in force today?

What Is a “Tithe”?

In simplest terms, “tithe” or “tythe” is an old English word for “tenth”.  The word is of Germanic origin from “tehuntha”.  Different dialects dropped either the “n” or the “th” sounds, so we today have both “tithe” and “ten” as artifacts of the same word.1  It’s connotation with giving of a tenth of something for religious purposes is more of a matter of etymology than anything else.  "Tenth" could just as easily be substituted in the English texts, and it is in some modern translations.

In Hebrew, the word is “ma’aser”, which also means “tenth”.

When Was Tithing Instituted?

Again, very few would dispute that the Law of Moses contained commandments for tithing.  Leviticus 27:30-34 shows that tithing was indeed spelled out as part of the Law given on Mt Sinai.  In this case, it specifically talks about a “tithe [ma’aser] of the land”.

However, this is not the first time “ma’aser” is used in Scripture.  In Genesis 14, we see the war of The Four Kings Against the Five Kings.  In it, Sodom is captured, and amongst its inhabitants was Lot, nephew of Abram the Hebrew (vv 12-13).  Abram took trained men of his own household and some allied fighting men from the Amorites, and he pursued and defeated the alliance of Four Kings.  He then met with the king of Sodom (v 17).  When he arrives there, something strange takes place.

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.

And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth:

And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.

~ Ge 14:18-20

When you compare this passage against Ps 110:4 and Heb 5:1-7, it is difficult to not come to the conclusion that this “King of Righteousness” and “King of Peace” was none other than the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ.  We will come back to this, but for now, please note that this was before Mt Sinai.  It is even before a man, let alone a nation, named Israel existed.

Just as the Sabbath law was not expounded upon in great detail prior to Mt Sinai, many other laws were not as well.  Sacrifices were not expounded upon either, but Abel, Noah and Abram all made sacrifices.  “Thou shalt not kill” was not codified until Mt Sinai, but it is evident from the discussion between God and Cain, and Cain’s subsequent punishment, that it was “sin” (Ge 4:7).  You cannot have “sin” without a law to violate (S. 1Jn 3:4; Ro 4:15).

We know that Abram kept God’s commandments, statutes and laws (Ge 26:5), so we can see that God’s Law has been in effect from the very beginning.

Abram is not the only example of this in Genesis, either!

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,

So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God:

And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

~ Ge 28:20-22

Most recognize that up until now, Jacob was not converted, and what we read here is of the very beginning of his conversion.  In essence, he is here “bargaining” with God.  How many of us have tried the same approach.  “God, if you do this for me, then I will obey you?”  I daresay, most if not all of us have at some point in our lives.

However, the fact that he is trying to bargain with God does not take away from what he knew he should be doing – tithing.  Where did he get this idea from?  Obviously, from his father and grandfather’s example.

What does need to be pointed out, though, is that the word used here is not “ma’aser”.  “Ma’aser” is a noun.  Rather, the word here is “’asar” which means “to tithe”, a verb.  It is just the verb form of giving a tenth!

In other words, there is no indication that tithing, just like offering sacrifices and the keeping the Sabbath, was not in force prior to Mt Sinai.  In fact, we see evidence of just the opposite.

Should You Tithe on Money?

Then, there are groups that claim that the giving of money is not required.  Even outside of the COG, there are individuals who have claimed that only things that “grow”, either from the land or from the herds, are for tithing.  Really?  Is that Biblical?  Is that even rational?

We are probably quite familiar with the arguments for Dt 14:24-25, which is the usual prooftext for the giving of money.  Instead, I would like to revisit the examples we’ve already cited above, as these were the examples before Mt Sinai.

First, notice that Abram “tithes of all”.  Abram did not plant seed and patiently wait to grow crops for the tithe.  Abram did not raise the sheep and cattle himself and only give of the sheep and cattle.  No, not only did he not grow any of these items, he gave “tithes of all”.  Obviously, he would have captured gold, silver, fine clothes, jewelry and all other sorts of booty.  “All” means “all”, does it not?

Then, when we look at the example of Jacob, we again see “of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth”.  Now, to be fair, most of what he obtained, other than his wives, children and servants, would have been agricultural.  However, he couldn’t have known that beforehand.  He had to have obtained other items as well in order to live in and transport the items when he left (cf. Ge 31:43).  Furthermore, we see indications he had money (Ge 33:19).  All would have included money or items other than agriculture.

Thirdly, we are told over and over to tithe on our “increase”.  Does increase really just mean agricultural products?  Look up the word “increase”, and you can see the word being applied to agriculture as well as many other things.  Even the human population is “increased”.  Does it even make sense that artisans and craftsmen would be exempt?  Would God institute a system that unfairly taxes only farmers?

Seven days shalt thou keep a solemn feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose: because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands, therefore thou shalt surely rejoice.

~ Dt 16:15

A natural question might be why all of the emphasis upon agricultural products, then.  The answer is that it was a mostly agricultural society.  In fact, most societies at the time were.  It was only the very rich and powerful that ruled over the lower classes that did not work the land.

Moreover he [King Hezekiah] commanded the people that dwelt in Jerusalem to give the portion of the priests and the Levites, that they might be encouraged in the law of the LORD.

And as soon as the commandment came abroad, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of corn, wine, and oil, and honey, and of all the increase of the field; and the tithe of all things brought they in abundantly.

And concerning the children of Israel and Judah, that dwelt in the cities of Judah, they also brought in the tithe of oxen and sheep, and the tithe of holy things which were consecrated unto the LORD their God, and laid them by heaps.

~ 2Ch 31:4-6

Would “all things” be only agricultural products?  Are all “holy things” wheat, barley and agricultural products, or are there holy things that can be dedicated other than that which grows in a field or a barn?

Is Tithing Still in Force Today?

Here is where we come into the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  Some would say that tithing is not required of Christians for various reasons.

Some use the same arguments that are used to try to do away with the Sabbath and Holy Days.  “We are under grace,” they say.  “That was only for the Old Covenant.”  Or, “That was only for the nation of Israel.”

Yet, there is no reference that does away with the Sabbath, the Holy Days or tithing in the New Testament.  In fact, Jesus Himself upheld the concept of tithing.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

~ Mt 23:23

Rather than doing away with tithing, Jesus affirms that it was correct to tithe.  His criticism was directed at the legalistic approach of counting herb leaves while disregarding more important matters.  The Pharisees were majoring in the minors.

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

~ v 24

Both gnats and camels are unclean and not fit to eat.  His point is obvious.  They couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  Tithing is important.  However, counting herb leaves is not as important as helping the poor, forgiving one another and repenting of one’s sins.

Tithing supports the work of the temple.  Tithing to the Church supports the work of the spiritual temple.

Mine answer to them that do examine me is this,

Have we not power to eat and to drink?

Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?

Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working?

Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?

Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also?

For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?

Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.

If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?

~ 1Co 9:3-11

…for the labourer is worthy of his hire….

~ Lk 10:7b

Way of Give or Way of Get?

Mr Armstrong used to outline the ways of the 2 trees: The Way of Get vs the Way of Get.  Those who oppose tithing should really consider whether their motives are based in the correct tree or not.  God has given the Church a mission, and His way outlines how it can be accomplished.  Everyone has a part to play in that mission.

In Part 2, we will consider how many tithes there are and their purpose.  In Part 3, we will examine who the tithes go to.


  1. tithe. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved August 12, 2009, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tithe

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