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Early Church History Newsletter: Should Christians Tithe
September 05, 2009

Should Christians Tithe?
Tithes, and Giving for Christians

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It was a warm day, and the breeze coming off the Sea of Galilee was doing nothing to make it better.

The crowds, standing at first, began to sit down as the unusual but charismatic backwoods preacher, Jesus, called for them to let God and everyone else matter before themselves. Some murmured, some nodded, but all agreed that no one could challenge a soul like this Galilean.

He was preaching from a boat, forced onto it as the crowds pressed in, leaving him nowhere on the shore to stand. He was an excellent speaker. They were enthralled.

Then he paused and raised his hands.

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"Listen, all of you here," he thundered so all the crowd could hear him. "We are going to pause here!"

The crowd silenced, awaiting his announcement. "Simon the zealot will now come to the boat to sing you a song. While he is doing so, the rest of my apostles will be coming to you with baskets. If you would like to see this powerful Word continue to be preached, I ask you to help support this ministry. Ask God what he would have you to give. Remember, I myself have said, 'Give, and it will be given unto you.'"

It's a little out of place when we put that plea for help in Jesus' mouth, isn't it?

Giving the New Testament Way

Giving is not inappropriate, of course. Paul took collections for poor brothers in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:1-9:12). Others took collections for Paul (Php. 4:10-19), though it seems clear that he didn't ask for money for himself (Acts 20:34; 1 Cor. 9:14-17).

How collections were made to support and Paul and other teachers we don't know. We do know that when Paul asked for a one-time gift from Corinth to the poor in Jerusalem, he suggested they set money aside each week (1 Cor. 16:2). We also know that the Corinthians were told they would not have to give if they themselves were in need. Instead:

A Double Tithe?

Leviticus 27:30-32 mentions a tithe that seems different from Deuteronomy 12 and 14. I have heard it said several times that the Jews were required to give a double or triple tithe. [The triple would include the every three year tithe in Deut. 14, but that is clearly the same as the Deut. 12 tithe the other two years].

That might be true. I do not know. There's nothing later that suggests a double tithe. The Leviticus and Deuteronomy tithes could easily have been the same. There's nothing in Leviticus that makes it impossible that those tithes, holy to the Lord, were to be eaten in Jerusalem by the offerers. Even sacrifices, except the whole burnt offerings, were eaten, though it was the priest who ate them. Only the inedible parts were burned.

Either way, what we do know is that the Israelites were not very consistent in following either of those two tithe descriptions carefully .

Now, at this time, your abundance is a supply for their need, so that their abundance may also be a supply for your need, so that there may be an equality. (2 Cor. 8:14)

Shortly thereafter Paul adds, "Let every man give as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7).

Think about this a moment: not grudgingly or of necessity; give this time so you can take the next time.

Doesn't sound much like tithing, does it?

Giving the Old Testament Way

For those of you that do not know, to tithe means to give one-tenth of something. In Abraham's case he gave one-tenth of his spoils of war to a Canaanite high priest named Melchizedek, a priest of El Elyon that Abraham identified as being the same as Yahweh, Abraham's God (Gen. 14:17-20). In the case of the Israelites, they were to give one-tenth of their year's increase of grain, lambs, cattle, etc. (Deut. 12:17).

You've probably never been told what I'm about to tell you. No matter how many times you've read the Bible, you've probably never noticed this. So, pay attention. Here goes:

The Israelites didn't give away their tithe. They ate it.

Look it up. It's in Deut. 12:17 and 14:23.

Just Bring the Animals!

The tithing page I mention later points out that no tithe commands mention money. Money was clearly in use throughout Genesis, but it is not mentioned in reference to the tithe. In fact, the tithe of Leviticus 27 could be redeemed with money if you added 20% to it (v. 31).

Also the Deuteronomy tithe could be sold if you lived too far from Jerusalem. You could then carry your money to Jerusalem and buy food (and wine and strong drink), as long as you shared your feast with the poor.

It is true that every third year the Israelites were required to give their tithe away. Even then, however, it supported not only the Levites--who didn't have their own land to farm--but also foreigners, widows, and orphans (Deut. 14:28,29).

Is Tithing a New Testament Principle?

First of all, have you ever seen a church collect the tithe once a year so that it could hold a giant, week-long feast for all its members which included "wine, strong drink, or whatever your soul wants"?

Probably not, huh?

There is simply no mention of tithing in the New Testament except in the Gospels where it's spoken of in reference to Jews. It is astounding to me that anyone would suggest that tithing is a New Testament principle.

Tithing in Early Christianity

Do you want to be completely overwhelmed with information about tithing? Try Should the Church Teach Tithing?

I also found an article in Christianity Today that I'm not going to link to. It was so dishonest that it made me mad. It said that Irenaeus said that Christians should surpass tithing with their giving. You can see in my quotes in the text that is exactly what he did not say!

Later, he refers to tithing as a minimum level of giving in the early Church.

For some bizarre reason, he also says that the Council of Trent added penalties for not tithing a century after the Council of Macon [mentioned in last section of this newsletter], when in fact the Council of Trent didn't meet for almost a millennium afterward.

Don't trust what you hear just because a "historian" says it. Some of them are not honest.

Tithing is not just absent from the New Testament. It's absent from church history for almost 700 years afterward!

Between the New Testament and A.D. 185, a span of about 100 years, tithing is simply not mentioned in any Christian writing. Then, finally, Irenaeus of Lyons addresses it in his great work Against Heresies:

Instead of the law enjoining the giving of tithes, he told us to share all our possessions with the poor. (IV:13:3)

He mentions it again five chapters later:

And for this reason they [the Jews] did consecrate the tithes of their goods to him, but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lordís purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things.

Clement of Alexandria mentions it in his Miscellanies something less than a decade later:

The tithes of the fruits and of the flocks taught both piety towards the Deity and not to covetously grasp everything. Instead, one should share gifts of kindness with oneís neighbors. For it was from these, I reckon, and from the firstfruits that the priests were maintained.

Notice how he comments on the past and speaks very unsurely about the purpose of the tithe. This is because Christians didn't tithe in his day. It was simply an artifact of history, something the Jews did. Clement was a prodigious writer. Depending on the version of The Ante-Nicene Fathers you have, his writings take up at least 400 pages of small print, yet he mentions tithing but this one time!

Remember, too, that Clement was the teacher of new Christians in Alexandria, one of the largest churches in the empire. Can you imagine a new persons class in a modern church that didn't include tithing?

Giving in Early Christianity

But don't let yourself off the hook! Did you notice what Irenaeus contrasted tithing with?

We're to share all our possessions with the poor [most likely a reference to the Christian poor; see what follows]. We set aside all our possessions for the Lord's purposes, and we joyfully and freely bestow even the more valuable portions of our property.

Neat, huh?

It really is neat if the church has become family. It's supposed to be God's household. We are supposed to be family, and families share. That's just what they do!

How much more so the family of God?

You shall share everything with your neighbor. You shall not call anything your own. For if you are partakers together of things which are incorruptible, how much more things which are corruptible?

That statement is found in a tract called The Way of Light and of Darkness, which is included in both The Didache (c. A.D. 100) and The Letter of Barnabas (A.D. 120 - 130). It's a command, and we have at least two witnesses that Christians obeyed that command for 200 years after Christ:

We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with everyone in need. (Justin, First Apology 14, A.D. 155)

The family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you [Romans], create fraternal bonds among us. One in heart and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian, Apology 39, A.D. 200)

Oddly enough, despite what you just read, both of them describe this sharing as being purely voluntary:

They who are well-to-do and willing give what each thinks fit. What is collected is deposited with the president [apparently a term for whoever is leading a Christian meeting], who helps the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in need. [He also helps] those who are imprisoned and the strangers sojourning among us. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need. (ibid. 67)

Tertullian says something very similar, saying that the collection was taken on a monthly day (whereas Justin's church collected weekly).

The statement that they shared everything and the statement that they took a collection from the wealthy and willing don't seem to go together. They seem different. Yet this is exactly the apostolic way. Acts 2:44 and 4:32 say that the church in Jerusalem had everything in common, yet Ananias did not sell his possessions until some time afterward. Even then Peter said it was optional.

This is the pattern we have for New Testament giving.

The Tithe and the New Testament: A Review

Here's what we've seen:

  • Tithing is not mentioned in the New Testament, and it is not a concept taught by the Church.
  • Instead, Christians shared all their possessions with one another, the purpose being that there would be an equality. Those with much help those with little.
  • This sharing was always optional, though it was commanded in a tract and was considered the proper Christian thing to do.

I must add that the Scriptures say that those who do not work ought not to eat. From experience I can tell you that it is absolutely essential to apply that in a church that shares the way we are talking about. You will have lazy bums and mooches, seemingly good people, who need to learn that working is not optional and that it cannot be avoided just because you don't enjoy it.

So How Did the Church Start Tithing?

Tithing has always provided a convenient percentage. 10% was not only the amount required for a tithe in the Law, but the kings of Israel imposed 10% as a tax on the Israelites to support the army and other government services.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says the earliest mention of tithing was in a letter by some bishops assembled at Tours in 567. The Council of Macon then included tithing in their canons [rules] in 585. It was not enforced, however, until much later. Charlemagne was the first to mandate it by secular law. One source I read gave 777 as the date for that, though others gave no date.

A history book I read a couple decades ago said that Pepin the Short, who preceded Charlemagne, mandate tithing to support the monks in France. I haven't found any sources to verify that.

Either way, they are obviously all agreed that tithing for the Church belongs to a date centuries after the apostles.

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