Churches often feel pressed for money. Sometimes it is because the membership either cannot or will not adequately support the church's budget. It seems most often true, however, that the need for building a sanctuary or enlarging present facilities produces the monetary shortfall. It is then that the leadership and congregation search frantically for ways to finance that major project. They consider using such means as church dinners, rummage sales, raffles, or even weekly bingo sessions in their facilities! Most, though, find they must look beyond such sources to raise large sums of money. It is then that they consider borrowing the needed funds. They may approach an individual, a bank, a savings and loan association, or an insurance company.
When these circumstances arise in the life of a local church, what guidance does the Bible offer to the Lord's people?
I recall being at a ministerial alliance meeting and hearing an interesting comment on the subject from one of the ministers who had recently taken a pastorate in the area. He related that soon after he had arrived at his new church, members had repeatedly asked, "Pastor, when are we going to have our annual pie supper to raise the money needed to finance the budget for next year?" He finally gave one of them the following answer: "In the church we worshipfully give to finance the work of the Lord." Jeff Berg and Jim Burgess also declare, "God's plan has always been to meet ministry needs through the sacrificial giving of His people."
This article proposes that God's basic plan for financing His work is through the tithes and offerings of His people. That such is the case appears in the way monies came in to erect both the Tabernacle and the Temple in Old Testament times; in the actions of Abraham in paying tithes to Melchizedek; in the vow of Jacob as he began life on his own; in the fact that the Lord specifically prescribed it in the Law of Moses; and in Jehovah's contentions with His people about tithing, through the prophet Malachi.
Early in the history of Israel, the people of the Lord began to present offerings to God as an act of their own free will. They did so in supplying the material needed to erect the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Jehovah instructed Moses to give them an opportunity to do that. Scripture reports, "The LORD said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from each man whose heart prompts him to give'" (Exodus 25:1-2). Then follows a detailed list of all the things needed to construct the worship tent. Moses later repeated the invitation for these gifts (Exod. 35:44-). An account of the people's response appears in Exodus 35:20-29.
In response to the appeal, the people gave so much that they had to be restrained from giving any more.
The workmen reported to Moses saying, "The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the LORD commanded to be done. Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: ‘No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.' And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work" (Exodus 36:5-7). This seems most amazing since, as Berg and Burgess explain, "The cost of the tabernacle has been estimated (in modern dollars) at more than $5 million." The writers suggest the people gained the riches for their contributions from the "spoils" of Egypt, which Jehovah arranged as they were departing that country (Exodus 12:35-36).
When David was preparing for Solomon to build the Temple, there was a similar response. First, the king himself gave most generously to the project. He declared, "With all my resources I have provided for the temple of my God--gold for the gold work, silver for the silver, bronze for the bronze, iron for the iron and wood for the wood, as well as onyx for the settings, turquoise, stones of various colors, and all kinds of fine stone and marble--all of these in large quantities" (1 Chronicles 29:2).
David followed this statement with a long list of specific things he had contributed to the project. His example stirred the leaders in his administration to give generously to the building fund also. The sacred scribe reported, "Then the leaders of families, the officers of the tribes of Israel, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of the king's work gave willingly" (1 Chronicles 29:6). The spirit of giving then worked down to the citizens of the nation. The account concludes, "The people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders, for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the LORD. David the king also rejoiced greatly" (v. 9). Berg and Burgess say, "Such a massive and expensive project would require extraordinary funding (some have estimated the cost of the temple at more than $3 billion)."
This attitude in freely contributing to the work of the Lord reflects itself in the expression of the ancient wise man when he counseled, "Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine" (Proverbs 3:9-10). The one who has a heart to put God first in finances will always be blessed, according to this promise. So many Israelites gave freewill offerings under the Mosaic Covenant that the Lord provided some rules to guide them in it. For example, their offerings of animals had to include only those without defect in order for them to be acceptable (Leviticus 22:21-23). During the time of Ezra they presented both tithes and offerings (Ezra 3:5). The practice of worshiping the Lord in presenting Him with the combination of tithes and offerings was so ingrained in the life of the people that He chides them for faltering in both, as indicated below (Malachai 3:8).
It seems clear that tithing was in the heart of some people long before it was prescribed by the Law of Moses.
Even the pagans possessed the concept. George W. Harrison writes that as early as 3000 B. C., "The Egyptians paid tithes to their war gods." Manfred Holck reports that, "According to Herodotus, the earliest Greek historian, it was Cyrus, the king of Persia in 559 B. C., who convinced his soldiers it would be a fine gesture of gratitude to offer one-tenth of their spoils of war to their supreme beings." One is not surprised, then, to see the practice as an act of heartfelt worship appearing in the lives of the servants of Jehovah at an early date.
In the first place, then, the actions of Abraham in paying tithes to Melchizedek indicate that God's basic plan for financing His work is through the tithes and offerings of His people (Genesis 14:18-24). Melchizedek is an interesting character. He appears abruptly on the scene in Scripture. The Bible tells nothing of his genealogy. This is what the writer of the Book of Hebrews means in declaring him to be, "Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever" (Hebrews 7:3).
Moses identifies him as "priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). Again, Scripture provides no information on how he came to know Jehovah or what projected him into his priesthood. The mystery surrounding his origins is as great as that concerning how Abraham learned of the Lord while living in the pagan culture of Ur of the Chaldeans. The writer of the Book of Hebrews uses that mystery, however, to declare that Melchizedek's was a unique priesthood and to indicate that he was a type, or pattern, of Jesus Christ. Jesus' priesthood was not that of the tribe of Levi, for He was a member of the tribe of Judah, but He officiates "according to the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 7:11). The Book of Hebrews declares him to be the king of righteousness, since that is what his name means, and king of Salem, which means "peace" (Hebrews 7:2).
It is also amazing that Abraham immediately accepted him as a priest of the God Most High. The patriarch presented Melchizedek an offering amounting to one tenth of the spoils of victory after a battle to rescue his family from an invading king. Moses says simply, "Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything" (Genesis 14:20). Here, then, is an example of one paying tithes to the Lord through His priest long before the Law of Moses ever required such a thing. His act must have been one of simple, heartfelt worship since the Lord had not yet given an actual command to tithe.
A second example, Jacob's vow as he began life on his own, also suggests that God's basic plan for financing His work is through the tithes and offerings of His people. The vow came as Jacob fled from his brother Esau, who had threatened to kill him (Genesis 28:10-22). In addition to that fear, he must have been apprehensive about leaving his parents and everything dear to him in life in his hasty retreat from trouble.
The Lord met him, however, on the first night of his journey. God chose the occasion to reveal Himself to Jacob in a personal way for the first time in the young man's life. It was here that Jehovah dealt with Jacob as the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant. E. F. Kevan says, "The sweet prize of the birthright blessing might already have been turning bitter in his mouth as the memory of the way he had forced the issue kept haunting him. But now, despite all his own sin and unworthiness, Jacob hears the gracious voice of Jehovah speaking the promise of the covenant into his own heart." Jehovah promised to be with him and keep him in his journey, to return him to the Promised Land, and to fulfill His purpose in Jacob's life.
Jacob responded to his meeting with the Lord with an expression of surprise, saying, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it" (Genesis 28:16). Early the next morning he took a stone and poured oil on it in dedication of the sacred spot of his first meeting with God. With this, Jacob named the place Bethel, meaning "house of God." Adam Clarke explains, "There is a foolish tradition that the stone set up by Jacob was afterwards brought to Jerusalem, from which, after a long lapse of time, it was brought to Spain, from Spain to Ireland, from Ireland to Scotland, and on it the kings of Scotland sat to be crowned. . . . Edward I had it brought to Westminster; and there this stone, called Jacob's pillar, and Jacob's pillow, is now placed under the chair on which the king sits when crowned!"
When Jacob had dedicated the place as a memorial to God's visit with him, he made his solemn vow to the Lord. In essence he declared, "Since Jehovah has promised to be with me, to keep me in my journey, to provide food and clothing for me, and to bring me back home in peace, then He will be my God." (Genesis 28:20-21). Here Jacob proclaimed, by personal choice and personal experience, that the Lord would be his God. It was not enough that He was the God of Jacob's grandfather Abraham or his father Isaac. He was not the personal God of Jacob until that point. It happened in that moment when he declared, "and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth" (Genesis 28:22).
Jacob engaged in no bargaining with the Lord here. It was in response to the promise of blessings from God that he vowed to pay tithes in a worshipful act of gratitude. Presenting the tithe to the Lord appears here a second time as a voluntary act, centuries before the Law was established requiring it. It is a demonstration that this experience with Jehovah had changed Jacob. When devotion to God touches one's pocketbook, others may conclude that he is indeed a changed man!
Following these instances of individual tithing, the Lord established it as a universal part of His basic plan for financing His work on earth.
James Hamil says, "The Holy Scriptures further establish the fact that tithing is the basis of our giving, that one tenth of our income belongs to God." The Law of Moses required that His people pay tithes. The people of God were to tithe on all of their increase. Jehovah directed, "A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD. It is holy to the LORD" (Leviticus 27:30).
Members of the population of Israel presented their tithes to the Levites, assistants to the Priests at the Tabernacle and, later, at the Temple. The Lord explained to them, "I give to the Levites as their inheritance the tithes that the Israelites present as an offering to the LORD. That is why I said concerning them: ‘They will have no inheritance among the Israelites'" (Numbers 18:24). Since they received no inheritance in the Land of Promise, the tithe was to provide a means of support for them and their families.
Jehovah then went on to direct that the Levites pay tithes on their income to the Priests. He told Moses, "Speak to the Levites and say to them: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the LORD's offering'" (Numbers 18:26). The Priests also received portions of meat from the carcasses of animals sacrificed on the Altar of Burnt Offerings as a part of their pay. Jehovah instructed, "The son of Aaron who offers the blood and the fat of the fellowship offering shall have the right thigh as his share. From the fellowship offerings of the Israelites, I have taken the breast that is waved and the thigh that is presented and have given them to Aaron the priest and his sons as their regular share from the Israelites. This is the portion of the offerings made to the LORD by fire that were allotted to Aaron and his sons on the day they were presented to serve the LORD as priests" (Leviticus 7:33-35).
In this way the full-time ministers in the service of the Lord in Old Testament times were well paid for their labor. Though Joshua allotted no sections of land to the Levites and Priests when he divided conquered Canaan among the tribes, they did receive towns in which to build houses. For the Levites these included the Cities of Refuge. Some acreage surrounding these cities was also assigned to them as pastureland for their livestock.
The tithes were also intended to support the needy in the nation of Israel. The Lord declared, "When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied" (Deuteronomy 26:12).
Centuries and generations passed, and the people of God experienced painful defeats at the hands of their enemies. The holy city of Jerusalem was reduced to rubble. The Temple was destroyed. Israel went into a seventy-year period of captivity in Babylon because of their sins. A forgiving and gracious Jehovah, however, returned them to their homeland. Eventually, the Jewish people completed the rebuilding of the Temple. They renewed worship at its altars under the priest Ezra. Nehemiah returned and restored the broken down walls of the holy city. Then he went back to Persia, and once again things waned spiritually.
At this low point, the prophet Malachi came on the scene. He addressed the spiritual problems and shortcomings of the Jews. These included neglect in paying tithes and presenting offerings in support of the work of the Lord. Tithing as a method of financing the work of God became perhaps Malachi's best-known message.
Matters were so serious that God, through the prophet, accused them of robbing Him.
As an instrument to communicate the voice of the Lord, Malachi wrote, "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?' In tithes and offerings" (Malachai 3:8). Consequently, they had been living under a curse. Rains had ceased. Raising cattle was no longer profitable. Their fields produced only scant harvests. Jehovah said, "You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me" (v. 9). Those events raise an interesting question; are people today wrong to go on considering all droughts, every insect invasion, and other catastrophic events as simply part of nature's unpredictable behavior?
After the Lord had delivered His indictment of their conduct, He offered the people a challenge. He declared, "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,' says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,' says the LORD Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,' says the LORD Almighty" (vv. 10-11).
The Temple in those days had literal storehouses in the form of rooms around three of its sides for the storage of tithes and offerings. Even in the days of Nehemiah, these had been empty (Nehemiah 13:4-12). In that connection, Kenneth Barney observes, "An individual's attitude toward money is a fundamental test of his spiritual commitment."
Yet some say that tithing is not for the Church today but was a provision only for the days when people lived under the Law of Moses. Today's believers no longer live under Law, according to this line of reasoning. Instead, they now live under grace. Since every example above in this article is from the Old Testament, and since it does not appear in the teachings of the New Testament, today's believers may disregard tithing.
This hermeneutical approach, however, is not a sound one. In effect it demands of God that He repeat in the New Testament every command that He made in the Old Testament, or people may feel free to disregard it. Must the revelation of His will, indeed of Himself, in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible be repeated in the last twenty-seven for them to be valid? Nothing in Scripture suggests that Jehovah changed between Malachi and Matthew. This flawed hermeneutical principle almost implies that there are two Gods, One of the Old Testament and the Other of the New!
Some use the same principle to challenge the use of instrumental music in church worship today. They recognize, of course, that the Lord was well pleased with that in the Old Testament, but since he does not specifically indicate that liking in the New Testament, His appreciation of instrumental music must have changed. Ironically, many who reject that argument against instrumental music in church use the very same reasoning to oppose the practice of tithing today. Rather than taking that approach, it seems reasonable and logical that everyone should recognize that tithing is still valid and the most equitable way to follow God's plan for the church to support its ministers. This follows Jehovah's declaration: "Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you" (Deuteronomy 16:17). He was wise, indeed, to devise the practice of tithing.
With these truths appearing so clearly in Scripture, it seems that the only sound biblical conclusion is that God's basic plan for financing His work is through the tithes and offerings of His people. That such is the case appears in the way monies came in to erect both the Tabernacle and the Temple in Old Testament times; in the actions of Abraham in paying tithes to Melchizedek; in the vow of Jacob as he began life on his own; in the fact that the Lord specifically prescribed it in the Law of Moses; and in Jehovah's contentions with His people about tithing through the prophet Malachi.
Barney, Kenneth. Adult Teacher. (Fall 1991).
Berg, Jeff and Jim Burgess. The Debt-Free Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1996.
Clarke, Adam. Clarke's Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, n. d.
Harrison, George W. Church Fund Raising. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Holck, Manfred, Jr. Money and Your Church. New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing, 1960.
Kevan, E. F. "Genesis." In The New Bible Commentary, ed. F. Davidson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953.
About the Author
Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.
In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.
Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.