Angel Manuel Rodriguez, TH.D., Director, Biblical Research Institute, GC Headquarters, Silver Spring, MD
Summary:We will argue that tithing is fundamentally theologically motivated, and that it is based on a proper biblical understanding of God and of ourselves. The writer shares aspects of a biblical theology of tithing.
Tithing is a religious practice found throughout the Bible, in pre-Israelite narratives (Gen 14:20; 28:22), legal materials (Lev 27:30-33; Num 18:25-32), historical records (Neh 10:38-39; 12:44; 13:5, 12; 2 Chr 31:4-6, 12), prophetic literature (Amos 4:4; Mal 3:8-10), and the NT (Matt 22:23; Luke 11:42; Heb 7:2). This witnessing points to the high view and importance of the practice in biblical religion and in the eyes of the Lord. In this paper we will explore some of the religious and theological meanings of tithing in the Scripture, that is to say we will examine what it reveals about God and our relationship with Him, and how its practice enriches our religious experience. Tithing is not about financial security or about the proper distribution of financial resources, important as those elements are in the experience of the church. True tithing is determined by the motivations that control our giving. We will argue that tithing is fundamentally theologically motivated, and that it is based on a proper biblical understanding of God and of ourselves.
Tithing: Grounded in Creation
The very first time tithing is mentioned in the biblical historical record it is associated with God as the Creator of heaven and earth. Melchizedek blessed Abraham in the name of “God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19), and Abraham gave him the tithe (14:20). The concept is so important that it is mentioned once more in the narrative (14:22). The association of these two concepts, God as Creator and tithing, is not accidental but of essential importance in the proper understanding of tithing. Tithing presupposes a particular worldview, a distinctive understanding of the world we see and experience that is helpful to us in our comprehension of our role within it. This worldview surfaces at the moment the biblical text identifies God as the “Creator of heaven and earth.” Such designation expresses, in the context of tithing, three important and interrelated ideas.
The first one is the all encompassing nature of God’s creative activity: He brought into existence everything there is in the universe. The phrase, “heaven and earth” indicates totality and is in a sense the Hebrew way of expressing what the Greeks communicated through the term cosmos, the totality of the ordered universe. The very first thing the Bible establishes about God is that He is the Creator of heaven and earth (Gen1:1), and this forms the foundation for everything else the Bible says about Him, about who we are, and about how we should relate to Him.
Second, God as Creator of heaven and earth also means that the totality of the cosmos belongs to Him. In fact, one could say that at the very core of cosmic harmony is the universal acknowledgement that, since God is the only and exclusive Creator, He is at the same time the rightful and exclusive owner. Within this worldview all creatures are expected to perceive themselves as belonging to God, the Creator. It was a cosmic anomaly when intelligent creatures claimed ownership, thus disrupting through sin and evil God's established order. But for God’s servants the fact that He is the cosmic owner means that everything we have reaches us in the form of a gift, even when it may appear to be the result of our labors and of our efforts. We can only benefit from that which is already His when He lovingly shares with us. The implication is that the ultimate source of our blessings is not another creature, but the Creator (Gen 14:23) and that whatever we give Him is already His.
Third, God as the only Creator and owner of the universe has the exclusive right to receive honor and glory from all of His creatures. He provides meaning, orientation, and guidance to their existence and they should respond to Him with loving gratitude for their own existence and for His blessings that constantly enrich their lives. This response of love usually takes the form of worship as an act and as a way of life. We are blessed by the fact that, in contradistinction to polytheistic societies, we only worship one God. Our loyalties are not divided in an attempt to please the wishes of many spiritual powers. We honor and give glory to the exclusive Creator of heaven and earth.
It is in the context of these ideas that Abraham returns the tithe to the Lord. He recognizes that God is the Creator of everything there is in the universe, that consequently everything belongs to Him, that He is the only One to whom he has to give honor and glory. Tithing presupposes that particular understanding of God, the world, and of the role of human beings. The act of tithing is motivated, embraces, and at the same time expresses those ideas.
Tithing: Grounded in God's Redemptive Love
As Creator, God is constantly sustaining His creation because it is by nature finite, and left to itself it would perish. He is not the absent Creator, but the One who through His power sustains it (Neh 9:6). With the entrance of sin into the world God decided to do more than to continue to sustain His creation. Now there was an enemy that had to be overcome. In this conflict against evil powers, God never surrendered His ownership of the universe, but on the contrary He has constantly opposed them. This can be illustrated in the experience of Abraham, who was forced to confront his enemy in war. After he victoriously returned from the military incursion, Melchizedek informed the patriarch that his life was preserved by the Lord, “who delivered your enemies into your hands (Gen 14:20). Abraham recognized it and acknowledged that the victory over the enemy was God’s gift to him. Then he gave his tithe to Melchizedek.
God’s constant saving presence among His people as their only source of blessing is obviously associated with tithing. It is through the blessing of His presence that God's providential concern for His creation expresses itself. Tithing is preceded by a revelation of God's loving grace toward us. It presupposes that we have been blessed through the saving grace of God. It was the preserving and redemptive presence of God that moved Jacob to tithe (Gen 28:20-22). Only those who experienced that redemptive presence are willing to return their tithe to the Lord. Therefore tithing is not an attempt to earn a blessing, but a response to the blessings received.
The blessing of God’s presence with us in the midst of a world of sin and death reached its most sublime expression in the life and work of Jesus Christ. In Him God came and dwelt among us, assuring eternal redemption to those who believe in Him (John 1:14; 3:16-17). In Him, and through Him, God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3). Within this theological context, tithing could be interpreted as an act of worship through which we acknowledge God as our Redeemer and willingly surrender our lives and all we have to the One through whom all blessings reach us, Jesus Christ. This particular theological aspect of tithing removes it from the potential perception of a meritorious work of salvation on our part. We do not give in order to receive, but we give because we previously received a blessing from the Lord.
Tithing: Encountering the Holy
In the Bible tithe is a unique type of offering (Num 18:24). This uniqueness is grounded in the very nature of that particular portion of our income as defined by God. He clearly stated, “It [the tithe] is holy to the Lord [qodeš laYHWH]” (Lev 27:30). In the Bible the holy is that which is removed from the sphere of the common in order to put it at the exclusive service of the Lord. It designates that which is unique, different, and that cannot be handled in the same way the common is handled. The singularity of the holy is rooted in the fact that it participates in the holiness of the Lord. He is the Holy One of Israel. This theological understanding of the nature of tithe contains within it some important implications.
First, by declaring tithe holy, God was appropriating it to Himself, placing it out of our control and of common use. It is not ours. Since the Lord had already declared it holy, we do not need to make it holy through an act of consecration. We are only expected to recognize its holiness, that is to say that it belongs to the Lord. In a sense tithe is like the Sabbath. God declared the Sabbath to be “holy to the Lord [qodeš laYHWH]" (Exod 16:23), making it unnecessary for the Israelites to consecrate it to the Lord. Those sacred hours belong to Him and not to us. We are called to keep it holy through proper observance. In the case of tithe, we keep it holy by returning it to the Lord, who is its exclusive owner.
Second, by placing the holy tithe in our hands God allows all of us to deal with or handle the holy. In the OT the holy was primarily placed in the hands of the priests, appointed by God to administer it for Him. Through the tithe and the Sabbath God democratized a priestly function granting to every member of the covenant community the priestly privilege of administering the holy for Him. One of the main purposes of this democratization is that it challenges us to be holy. Only those who are holy can touch the holy without desecrating it. Through the tithing system, and through many other ways, God is attempting to recreate in us His image. By giving to Him the holy we imitate Him, the Greatest Giver. The same applies to the Sabbath. He rested on that day and when we rest on the Sabbath we are imitating Him; we become His image. The exemplary nature of the divine action is beautifully encapsulated in Lev 20:26: “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy.” The ultimate standard is not a law but the divine character. Tithing assists us in reaching that goal.
Third, the fact that tithe is holy transforms it into a test of loyalty for every person. It provides object evidence for us to evaluate the richness of our faith-commitment to the Lord. It is a test because it reaches us in what appears to be a common way, through our work. It appears to be part of our income and yet the Lord says, “It is holy to the Lord!” The test forces us to answer the question: Are we willing to acknowledge the holiness of the tithe and to act accordingly? It is a test because it sets limits to our freedom by calling our attention to our dependence on God. Keeping it to ourselves to use it as we see fit, even if the motivation is good, is a violation of the holiness of tithe. God expects us to do one and only one thing with tithe: Return it to Him. Our God has placed some limits to our lordship over the natural world.
Fourth, the holiness of tithe makes its return to the Lord an act of worship through which we re-surrender our lives to Him. Tithe is income and at the same time it is holy. The fact that it reaches us in the form of income means that it is a fragment of our existence. The fact that it is holy means that we cannot retain it, that we have to return it to God. The confluence of these two ideas produces worship, through which we surrender to the Lord the totality of our life in a selfless act of love. It is not that by giving the tithe we are at the same time simply consecrating to the Lord the rest of our income. By viewing tithe as a fragment of our life we are giving to the Lord the totality of it on the basis of the biblical view that a part can represent the whole. Through that act of worship we acknowledge in a very unique way that life belongs to the Lord. Through tithing we act out in worship this theological conviction and existential concern.
Fifth, the holiness of tithe implies that, because it belongs to the Lord, He is the only one who can determine how it should be used. In the OT, He decided to give it to the Levites for their service in the Tabernacle (Num 18:21). By giving it back to Him, allowing Him to use it according to His will, tithe is permanently removed from our sphere of control and it becomes irretrievable. In His freedom God uses tithe as a means to further His salvific intention for the human race. Through it He provides for those chosen by Him to be ministers of the gospel commission (cf. 1 Cor 9:13). He could have provided for them in many different ways; and in many cases He has done that. But tithing appears to be one of the most effective ways to accomplish His goal in a world of sin and rebellion in which human selfishness rules. Tithing keeps fresh in the consciousness of believers the convictions that the gospel ministry is in the hands of the Lord, and that He has placed in our hands what He needs to accomplish the mission assigned to His church.
Worship, Tithing and Mission
We have a role to play in the implementation of God’s redemptive plan for the human race and this participation is particularly visible in the act of tithing. However, we should clearly understand that, from the theological perspective, when we tithe we are not giving the tithe to the gospel worker; we are simply returning it to God. Neither are we the ones who decide that tithe should go to the gospel worker; God decided to give it to them. This is theologically important in the sense that our responsibility to tithe is not dependent on the quality of the work done by the gospel worker, but on the fact that tithe belongs to God and that He expects us to return it to Him. Tithing is also theologically important in that it points to our privilege of having direct and personal access to God without a human intermediary. When in worship we return the tithe to God, recognizing that He is responsible for its usage, we are having personal fellowship with Him.
In the Bible tithing is associated with a number of important theological ideas that transforms it into a very enriching religious experience. It presupposes a biblical worldview according to which God is the creator, the redeemer, and our only object of worship. When we tithe we are showing our commitment to the biblical worldview and to our role as servants of the Lord. If keeping the Sabbath holy reminds us that God is our Creator and Redeemer, tithing reminds us that everything belongs to Him as Creator and Redeemer. In a world cursed by sin, God’s saving presence is manifested through His saving blessings. Tithing acknowledges that we have received from God His saving blessing through Christ.