Stewardship, Tithing, and the Old Testament

16 May

Last week in “An Introduction to Stewardship”, we discussed the idea that good stewardship isn’t about how much you have, but about how you handle what you have. This week, we’ll be taking a look at this concept on a more practical level – beginning with the tithe, a 10% contribution of all that we make.

It isn’t a surprise that Scripture has a lot to say about the importance of this type of giving. Each time we offer a portion of our goods or finances to God, we acknowledge the truth that all we have comes from Him. He is the Master and we are the stewards of His wealth.

Originally, in Israel’s agrarian society (one sustained largely by subsistence farming) the tithe was to be given in the form of produce. It was, after all, grain and olives, fruit and spices which were the reward for a man’s labor. Leviticus 27:30 declares, “All the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’S; it is holy to the LORD.” (NASB) And in Deuteronomy 14:22, the Israelites were commanded, “You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year.”

Since produce isn’t always readily transportable, Deuteronomy 14:24 gave an alternate method of tithing: cash. “If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.”

As the society evolved, other opportunities for employment began to open up. The reward for labor began to include coins as well as produce and the use of cash for the tithe became increasingly more common. In fact, the presence of money changers in the temple may be an indicator that cash was a primary, rather than secondary form of giving during the time of Christ.

That said, it is interesting to note that when the Scripture speaks of the tithe, only produce and money are mentioned as forms of giving. Both are forms of increase (Deuteronomy 26:12), an addition to the wealth that a man already possess. This is important to recognize, because it is not uncommon to hear ministers speak today of the importance of giving a tithe of our time or skills.

While giving of our hours and skilled labor is important (though I rarely find church members who truly give 10% of their time or 16.8 hours a week in service to the Body of Christ), this form of giving is not included in God’s original command concerning the tithe. Why not? Quite simply because it failed to accomplish one of the key purposes for that specific gift: the physical support of those who performed God’s work to the exclusion of other employment.

Numbers 18:23-24 explains the purpose of the tithe: “Only the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the sons of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, ‘They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel.’ ” (NASB)

While the word “tithe” isn’t mentioned in the New Testament (leading many Christians to argue that such giving is no longer necessary), the Apostle Paul does take care to point out that the Church has a responsibility to ensure that those who do God’s work receive a living in return for their labor. We’ll take a closer look at the New Testament perspective on tithing next week, meanwhile, feel free to share your own thoughts and comments in the box below.

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