This post is the full text of my forthcoming book on the three tithes of Scripture. I wanted a free version accessible for those who are cash strapped or unable to get kindle books due to their country’s laws.
If you like ebooks, feel free to snag a copy when it launches.
All unmarked scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
All other Scripture references marked with WPNT are from Wilbur Pickering’s New Testament Translation.
Written for a reason
When we think about where society has gone wrong, we’re quick to blame laws, political parties, liberalism, feminism, or a plethora of other -isms. But I would argue that most of our problems today begin with the issue of welfare.
Welfare, in the second definition offered by Noah Webster’s 1828 edition, is:
Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applied to states.
As Christians, we know that shelter from evil and suffering is found in God. His Law defines a just social order that mediates His sheltering from the effects of sin. Our failure to follow this plan has led to the problems plaguing us today.
God provided a blueprint for welfare—three tithes outlined in Scripture: the levitical or social tithe, the rejoicing tithe, and the poor tithe.
The state of the tithes
The tithe has gotten some mistreatment from God’s people. Most who see it as binding on the New Covenant relegate it to a formality of liturgy, resulting in binding the tithe to the activity to local churches on Sunday.
The other side of the spectrum considers the tithe an abrogated ceremonial law. It gets tossed to the side, possibly politely, although the idea of a binding tithe often is met with scorn. Whatever one concludes on the relation of the tithe to the Church today, scornful estimation of God’s Law is wicked. It pits yourself as a moral authority over God and attacks His character.
A neglected study
Here are some questions to ask other Christians in order to grasp the current level of understanding and scholarship in the Church at large regarding the tithes.
- Is there more than one tithe in Scripture?
- How many are there?
- How often were they given?
- Who were the recipients?
- What theological reasons are there for the tithes?
- What were the practical uses for the tithes?
- Do they apply today? Why?
These questions test the water of scholarship in our churches—and their leaders who are commanded to teach all of Scripture, for all of Scripture is God-breathed and edifying (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The gravity of the tithes for our time
Widespread poverty and homelessness, as well as bureaucratic welfare systems—funded by coercive taxation—punish productivity and often dehumanize recipients. The prevalence of bloated and hostile educational institutions that reject the teachings of Christ, and often attack alternative means of education. Copious amounts of magistrates see their positions as platforms for themselves. Judicial courts that rule cases contrary to God’s Law. Tyrannical healthcare systems.
What do they all have in common? Statism? Sure. Tyranny? But of course. Cultural decay? Yep. My answer is robbing God—the neglect of the tithes found in God’s Law. Misunderstanding, misapplication, and ignorance of the tithes are three of the major forces that landed us in our current predicaments.
The presuppositions of the tithes
Like all of God’s commandments, they assume theological truths about God’s character, the whole system of commandments, the reality of the world He made, and how it operates. What moral and theological truths do the tithes have to teach?
Tithes, since the time of Cain and Abel (see appendix A), were perverted outside of God’s covenant-keeping people, and so pagan kings became the recipients of tithes. No wonder Samuel’s warning of a ruler-focused tithe comes with a like-the-other-nations kind of king (1 Samuel 8:15-17).
The tithe is a royal tax. To deny the tithe is not only stealing from God, it is also treason against His kingdom. This is signified in the tithes by a tithe of the Levitical tithe going to priests at the Temple—which was symbolically God’s palace. Even the act of redemption—sacrificing at the altar—was a means to the end of approaching God and His Law (sprinkling the Ark of the Covenant where a copy of the Ten Commandments rested).
The tithes, from first to last, were for the maintenance of the commonwealth. The chief outcome of keeping the tithes.
Scripture presents God’s ownership through various pictures. His ownership of everything is rooted in his sovereignty over thunder and hail (Exodus 9:29). The spiritual and physical realms belong to Him (Deuteronomy 10:14). Not only does the world belong to God, but all its fullness too (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26). The tithe acknowledges that everything we have ultimately belongs to God.
God’s ownership is also the foundation for our lesser-ownership of property and capital. He set man over creation to cultivate it. He made it good, but we were commanded to make it better. God furnishes us with everything we own, so our ownership is delegated, which implies a moral responsibility for stewarding what He has put in our care.
The tithe embodies the scriptural presupposition of steward-owner. We are given every advantage (capital), in multiple forms (time, strength, property, tools), to be fruitful (increase). Our tithe acknowledges fruitfulness is due to His abundant kindness and that He is also the owner of all.
Our firsts, fullness, and obedience to the last
The principle of firstfruits, which is related but distinct to the tithe, is present throughout the Scripture. Firsts matter to God. ‘The first’ can represent the totality or governing principle of something. For example, Adam brought about death, whereas the second Adam—Jesus Christ, the first man for new creation, brought life (Romans 5:15). The frequent picture of leaven captures both the idea of totality and governing principle (Romans 11:16; 1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9).
The firstfruits and tithe assume the ‘firstness’ of God. R.J. Rushdoony writes,
God is not an object of our charity, to be cared for when all our needs are provided for, but He is the Lord, our creator, King, absolute owner, and our judge and redeemer. If we forsake the principle of the firstfruits, we forsake the Lord.
- R.J. Rushdoony & Edward A. Powell, Tithing & Dominion, p 15.
Our tithes are an acknowledgment of all things pointed out above. Denying the tithe is an attack on his authority and preeminence. Edward A. Powell highlights the graciousness of God when he writes,
“Moreover, the payment of this tax re-enforced upon the heart and mind of man the understanding that all his life and all his blessings were free gifts of God…Since God is Lord, He is the Creator-Owner of man, and thus, is man’s sole source of the free gifts of life and its multitude of blessings”
- Tithing & Dominion, p 71-72
Our tithes are practical confessions that, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
Establishing God’s ‘firstness’ and his rightful ownership and demanding of our first shouldn’t cause us to think His authority and our stewardship ends there. God is the Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and end (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12; Revelation 1:8,17-18; 21:6-7; 22:13). Understanding the immanence and authority of God goes from A to Z, it is no surprise that His ownership and demands on our stewardship cover the fruits of our labor from first to last.
The gleaning laws show us that the last of our income, or increase, is stewarded to the discretion of God (Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:19-21). The greatest asset, capital, or resource we have is time. God commanded the giving of our time that goes well beyond a tenth of our time when you consider all of the Sabbaths, festivals and holidays, Sabbath Years, and the Jubilee Years.
Keeping the Sabbath—that is a seventh of all our time dedicated to rest from labor, trusting God for future provision, and learning from His Word commanded by God—reinforces God’s gracious ownership in all-of-life around the clock.
Graciousness of God
The law of tithe reveals God’s graciousness. First, considering His authority and ownership, he could ask for all of our increase. His graciousness isn’t only seen in the self-restrained tenth, it is evident in His collecting of it. Leviticus 27:32 says,
And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord.
Usually, the tithe was given in its original form (animals or crops). Animals and crops would be counted, and the tenth one would be given for the tithe. We already mentioned God’s graciousness of restraining each tithe to a tenth, but second of all, even the counting method is gracious. If a herdsman had 11-19 cattle, he only tithed 1 of his herd. If a man had 97 calves added to his livestock, he only tithed nine calves. God’s graciousness shines through both the amount due and the accounting method.
God’s grace is evident in what He considers tithable. We are commanded to tithe on our increase or income. This is important because of what is not factored in the tithe — existing capital. The tithe is on the fruit of the trees and newborn animals, not the trees or pre-existing herd. God’s tithe allows for and encourages capital growth.
When Israel was told that their like-the-other-nations king was to be like a tyrant God, exacting tithes for himself, his whims, and subjugating the totality of the people as his servants, they were being warned of the oppressive nature of a tithe-requiring State (1 Samuel 8:15-17). Although the people did not realize that they were sacrificing the ordained governmental structure of a constitutional republic and just how oppressive their future would be, we recognize it now.
He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
- 1 Samuel 8:15-17
From this text, a few people have wrongly concluded that the three tithes commanded in Scripture are now justifiably given to the State. However, there is no indication of this anywhere in Scripture, nor hinted at in this context. Extra tithes, not instituted or permissible in God’s Law, are forewarned. Henry Lansdell, in his phenomenal but little known work on the tithing, wrote,
Hence, certain writers have imagined that some of the kings took for themselves the Levites tithes. But the scripture does not say so. Solomon indeed raised a levy out of all Israel of two hundred and sixteen thousand men who were strangers and not of the children of Israel, and if for the support of these two hundred and sixteen thousand workmen an extra tenth were imposed, in addition to the Mosaic tenths that would undoubtedly be claimed by the two hundred thousand Levitical persons, we can understand the people coming to Solomon’s son and saying, “Thy father made our yoke grievous.”
But we never read that the payment of Mosaic tithes and offerings was an undue burden. On the contrary, and speaking generally, we may say that the more closely God’s law was kept the more prosperous were the people.
- Henry Lansdell, The Tithe in Scripture (1908), p 61-62.
This jives with what we read of Solomon’s activity in Deuteronomy 1 Kings 10:26-29:
And Solomon gathered together chariots and horsemen. He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem. And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah. And Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue, and the king’s traders received them from Kue at a price. A chariot could be imported from Egypt for 600 shekels of silver and a horse for 150, and so through the king’s traders they were exported to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Syria.
A king was not to gather horses to himself, especially from Egypt (Deuteronomy 17:16a), and that is what Solomon did (1 Kings 10:28-29). God equated this to a return to their previous master (Deuteronomy 17:16b). Solomon gathered many wives (1 Kings 11:1-8; Deuteronomy 17:17a) and multiplied money unto himself (1 Kings 10:14-22; Deuteronomy 17:17b). Add to this the hiring of foreigners to serve him, many of whom would have had authority over the citizens (Deuteronomy 17:15c), whom he paid with the excessive taxes he placed upon the people. It truly is no wonder that Solomon’s yoke was burdensome. This also lends to how easily Israel rebelled against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, when he said his rule would be even harsher.
Scripture hasn’t shied away from speaking about oppressive taxes and the people’s response to such matters. Still, there is something we never see—the people calling God’s tithes (twenty to thirty percent depending on the year) oppressive. Why? As with all of God’s Law, when God’s covenant people faithfully kept the tithe, the better and more prosperous their social order.
In giving the tithe, Israel was blessed. When Israel faithfully delivered the Levitical tithe to those Levites who executed their office faithfully, the blessings were manifold—faithful teaching of Torah, welfare services, and godly adjudication amongst other things. When the celebration tithe was followed God’s people were blessed with rest, enjoyment of food and wine, and community. The poor tithe allowed for a welfare system that both encouraged the transformation of poverty into productivity, made the tither and recipient both accountable, and allowed for the generational removal of poverty in local communities.
As we can see, not only does the denial of the tithe rob God and others, but it is robbing us of the gifts God gives through His tithes.
The Levitical Tithe, which I may also refer to as the First Tithe or Social Tithe, is found in Leviticus and Numbers. We’ll look at both of these texts, and see exactly what was entailed in the giving of the tithe.
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. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.
- Leviticus 27:30-33
The basics of this tithe are laid clear in its legislation. A tenth of a harvest, fruits or seeds, is God’s. The tither was not excused from this aspect of the tithe, but he could exchange the seeds or fruit by giving instead the tithes monetary value plus an additional one-fifth. A tenth of the tither’s increase of livestock, calves, and lambs in this instance, was God’s. The tithable animals could not be exchanged, or “redeemed.” The attempt to do this illegitimate exchange, if uncovered, would result in the original animal, and whatever it was exchanged for, would all be set apart for God.
To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall do 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 people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. So you shall also present a contribution to the Lord from all your tithes, which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the Lord’s contribution to Aaron the priest. Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the Lord; from each its best part is to be dedicated.’
- Numbers 18:21-29
There is no exception for this tithe, whether it be produce, flock, or herd. The use of the tithe wasn’t up to the tither, but the Levite. The Levitical tithe is also called a heave offering (תְּרוּמָה: “contribution”) in v.29, but unlike other heave offerings, this one is not shared with the offerer. As with all tithes, they are not voluntary as alms are but required. Failure to give the Levitical Tithe is robbery. Even the Levites tithed on the tithe and gave a tenth to the Aaronic priests.
The levitical or social tithe was a requirement placed on every income earner and was given to the Levites. Like all other tithes, this tithe was a tenth of one’s increase. The instructions given include the possibility of giving money instead of the crops traditionally offered. It also stipulates what things are not eligible to redeem, namely, animals.
Since our current focus is the social tithe’s administration, function, and outcome for Christians, we’ll now consider the Levites’ role.
Who were the Levites?
To best understand the function of the Levites, we should seek to understand two aspects of their priesthood. We will look at their service area (where they served), and then we’ll follow up with the nature of their service.
First, a common perception is that the priesthood’s primary area of service was the Tabernacle and later the Temple. However, this is a drastic reduction in the actual domain of the Levites’ service.
The Levites were located in every town and populated area (Deuteronomy 14:27-29). Thus the Levitical priesthood—unlike the Aaronic priesthood—was decentralized. We might consider these priests the backbone of God’s ordained, privately-funded social service.
To further understand the Levites, it’s essential to know that they offered both centralized and decentralized services. Their centralized service took place in the Tabernacle/Temple, assisting the Aaronic priesthood.
But the vast majority of Levitical services consisted of decentralized work. The Levites focused on their local communities throughout Israel. Their priesthood was anything but bureaucratic, having no top-down dictates for ministerial activities. Their various services to God and neighbor were:
- Education, teaching, preaching (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 17:18; 31:9-13; 33:10; II Chronicles 17:7-9; Nehemiah 8:9).
- Musical composition and performance (I Chronicles 15:16-24; 25:1-7).
- Civil administration while serving as officers and judges (I Chronicles 23:4; 26:29-32; II Chronicles 19:8-11).
Rev. William Thorn realized the vast array of the services the Levites provided,
They were also, as Michaelis remarks, “the judges, scribes, mathematicians, keepers of the genealogical tables, physicians; in fact, the literati and civil officers of the Hebrew nation.” It does not appear that their office was to teach the people morality or religion, but rather to perform those political duties for which monarchs have ever been in the habit of choosing or appointing a police or magistracy in a kingdom. (Deut. xvii. 8—11.)…
That the priests and Levites were “civil officers” of the Hebrew commonwealth, as originally constructed by Jehovah, is established by the fact that Moses appointed no national maintenance for any other public body of men. The persons who were designated rulers, elders, princes, or judges, if distinct from the tribe of Levi, received no pay for their labour: even the soldier went to war on his own charges. And though in subsequent ages, when kings ruled the people, other impositions were enacted, they were distinct from the settled institutions of the land; and were, in fact, punishments brought on themselves for demanding a monarchical government in the room of the original theocracy.
- William Thorn, The History of Tithes, Patriarchal, Levitical, Catholic and Protestant: With Reflections on the Extent and Evils of the English Tithe System (1831), p 3.
Thorn rightly makes some observations we should not miss. First, the Levites were not limited or even primarily devoted to the Temple. Second, they operated in roles that most ancient (and modern) civil governments assigned to themselves.
Who received the tithe?
The Levitical tithe went to faithful Levites and non-Levites who fulfilled levitical functions. We find an example of non-Levites performing levitical functions in 2 Kings 4:42-44.
A man came from Baal Shalishah, and he brought the man of God food from the first fruits—twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain—in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.”
But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?”
He said, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They will eat and have some left.'” So he set it before them, they ate, and some was left over, according to the word of the Lord.
- 2 Kings 4:42
In the example above, Elisha was given the firstfruits—an offering intended to be given to priests and Levites, according to the Law. However, in the narrative, God does not disapprove of a non-Levite receiving it and even approves of Elisha’s administration of the firstfruits to feed the prophets in hiding. The Lord’s blessing is evident in His promise to feed everyone and to do it with what the servant considered insufficient while also promising that there would be leftovers.
We learn four things from this passage. First, in obedience to God, the faithful must give the tithe. Second, the tithe must go to faithful people extending God’s Kingdom through levitical functions. Third, the location where the recipient is serving isn’t constrained to the area where the tither lives. Fourth, God blesses faithful tithing.
Do we still tithe?
Progressive revelation and the case against the priest’s of Aaron
The next question is, does the Levitical tithe apply today? The answer is yes, for several reasons. First, it’s helpful to look at what the author of Hebrews 7-8 is critiquing. The critique targets the priesthood—specifically, the Aaronic priesthood. They were the priests who shed blood, who entered into the Holy of Holies for propitiation, but who could never satisfy God’s wrath for all eternity.
The New Covenant arrives with Jesus Christ. And Hebrews 8 tells us exactly what the New Covenant puts an end to—the Aaronic priesthood. Chapters 7 and 8 critique the Aaronic priesthood in many ways. The author finds “…fault with them” [Aaronic priests] and then quotes the Old Covenant’s promise of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The Aaronic priesthood ends with the death of Christ and the ripping of the veil.
The bottleneck of God’s covenantal blessing was the Aaronic priesthood—those who had to sacrifice continually because their administration of atonement was imperfect and impermanent. Not the Levites.
While the Levitical priesthood was not dependent on the Aaronic priesthood, the Aaronic priesthood was dependent on the Levitical. The line of Aaron is a branch from the tribe of Levi. Presuming that the Levites were “tossed out” when the Aaronic order was dismantled is an exegetical assumption.
The thought goes something like, “The “higher position” is done away with, fulfilled by a better position and Person—Jesus after the order of Melchizedek, the “lower” one is also done away. However, the Levites are the foundation, so even with the roof taken off (Aaronic priesthood), the foundation still stands. We shouldn’t fall for assumptions when dealing with such an important topic as covenantal administration.
The Bible teaches that the Levites served with a high priest before Aaron—Melchizedek.
See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
- Hebrews 7:4-10
Jesus Christ is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and just as the Levites served Melchizedek before they served Aaron, so Levites serve Christ now. This change in administration from Aaronic priests to the one eternal Melchizedekian priest—Jesus Christ—means we no longer need sacrifices. As Hebrews 7:12 explains, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.
- Isaiah 66:20-21
There are Old Testament prophecies of Levitical officers in the New Covenant (Isaiah 66:21; Jeremiah 33:18, 21, 22; Ezekiel 45:5; 48:11, 12, 13, 22). Not only would they fulfill levitical functions, apart from the duties dependent on the physical temple. More amazingly, Scripture prophecies that Gentiles would fill the ranks and receive tithes and offerings (Isaiah 66:20-21).
Scribes, experts, elders, and synagogues
Jesus refers to the officers of the New Covenant as Old Testament scribes, or experts in the Law (Matthew 13:52; 23:34). Also, the New Testament refers to officers in the synagogue (Luke 7:3; 9:22; 20:1; 22:52, 66; Acts 4:5,8,23; 5:21; 6:12; 22:5; 23:14; 24:1; 25:15) and church (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,22,23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18) as “elders.” This makes sense, as churches in the New Testament followed the synagogue model.
We could look at more connections between the Levites and the New Covenant. But instead, we will move on to look at one particular levitical officer of the New Testament, the deacon.
The Levitical Deacon
Treasuries on earth as it is in heaven
Deacons and Levites had similar roles in Scripture. They used the tithes and offerings to provide for widows. They also gathered tithes from churches in different areas to support Paul and gathered tithes and free-will offerings to send to the struggling Jerusalem church.
Deacons are the connections between the “storehouses” of the Old Covenant (Malachi 3:8) and the “storehouses” of the New Covenant (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). “Storehouses” were the treasuries where the various tithes would be stored for future use. Both Levites and Deacons administer the “storehouses” for the welfare of God’s kingdom.
For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
- Luke 12:23-25
God ordained storehouses for the provision of His people. How do we know that God cares more for us than birds? The birds receive their food from God without storehouses. How much more does God care for us? The abundance of tithes and alms stored within the storehouses of Israel, managed by local Levites.
The Levites, and the storehouses across Israel, were a concrete expression of God the Father’s heavenly care for His people. Deacons, as a new Levite, fulfill the same function.
We see this holistic service of the diaconate, similar to that of the Levites, in the Genevan model of Calvin’s time. I briefly covered this in my short book, The Hand That Will Restore Humanity:
Calvin had set up in the Genevan churches two categories of Deacons, developed from his exegesis of Scripture. First, there were the Deacons who collected and allocated the alms for worthy recipients. Second, there were the hospitallers who were in charge of taking care of the poor and sick with the money allocated by the other Deacons (Calvin encouraged women for the role of hospitallers). Both were ordained offices. Bullinger saw a similar structure in Scripture; however, he [wrongly] thought the position could be filled by the government.
Calvin and Bullinger both wrote about the two-fold diaconate. Bullinger in 1536, and Calvin in his commentary on Romans in 1540. Calvin developed it exegetically, theologically, and practically much further than Bullinger had before him. Calvin not only viewed this two-fold diaconate as a biblical option. He held it as a requirement for biblical ecclesiology.
The two categories of deacons highlight the practical life of the Church and the role of the institutional church in furthering and fostering practical Christianity. If your diaconate only deals with life within the institution, then it isn’t Calvinistic.
The work of “table-care”
Phillip Schaff highlights the deacon’s focus on welfare:
The office of these deacons, according to the narrative in Acts, was to minister at the table in the daily love-feasts and to attend to the wants of the poor and the sick. The primitive churches were charitable societies, taking care of the widows and orphans, dispensing hospitality to strangers, and relieving the needs of the poor. The presbyters were the custodians, the deacons the collectors and distributors, of the charitable funds. To this work a kind of pastoral care of souls very naturally attached itself, since poverty and sickness afford the best occasions and the most urgent demand for edifying instruction and consolation. Hence, living faith and exemplary conduct were necessary qualifications for the office of deacon.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, pp 499.
Deacons also fulfilled a teacher role as the Levites often did—something we see exemplified in Stephen and Phillip (Acts 6:5-7:53; 8:5-13, 26-40). Deacons have biblical and historical precedence educating God’s people. They are vital to teaching all nations what Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:18-19).
Furthermore, we see that deacons are the covenantal successors of the Levites based on their ethical responsibilities. This point helps us understand Acts 6:7.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
- Acts 6:1-7
The duty of the first elected deacons was to “serve tables.”
The dilemma was that the distribution of charity was flawed and the Greek-speaking members were being overlooked. This distribution was for the general welfare, not for communion or for the agape feast. We can conclude this because the distribution was intended for widows, those who had limited resources.
This was no little matter. First, the complaint, or murmuring, was not an official complaint but a general criticism, much akin to the murmuring of God’s people in the wilderness. This murmuring could be insidious for the Church in this early stage. Second, the Greek-speaking believers would have seen the treatment of their widows, a vulnerable group, as symbolic of their general standing in the Church. These two points created a potential time bomb.
The answer to this impending disaster was the establishment of deacons. Their function was to take care of the physical distribution of tithes, alms, and offerings given and use them for the physical needs of the believers. Unity of the brethren is a blessing of godly welfare, and this will become more evident in the chapters on the Levitical and Poor Tithe.
And so, the priests in Acts 6:7—a great many of whom “became obedient to the faith”—were not converts to some new religious sect. Instead, they saw their Old Testament faith realized and witnessed God’s law faithfully applied in the diaconate. Christianity was not a covenantal break but a continuation.
Why did the deacons end up leaving the holistic duties of their office to become insulated within the institutional church later in its history? In answering this question, Schaff is again helpful.
In post-apostolic times, when the bishop was raised above the presbyter and the presbyter became priest, the deacon was regarded as Levite, and his primary function of care of the poor was lost in the function of assisting the priest in the subordinate parts of public worship and the administration of the sacraments. The diaconate became the first of the three orders of the ministry and a stepping-stone of the priesthood. At the same time the deacon, by his intimacy with the bishop as his agent and messenger, acquired an advantage over the priest.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, 500.
In short, the deacon became lackeys to the presbyter-priest and then played water-cooler politics to get ahead of the presbyter-priest. It was at this time that deacons were referred to as Levites. But, as we have seen above, the deacon was already a Levite in his nature and function. The shift away from the synagogue model to the institutional church as “temple” led to insulation, abandonment of duties, and ritual abuse.
Social tithe in the New Testament
We would be remiss if we didn’t take the time to look at the social tithe in the New Testament.
Since we planted spiritual things in you, is it a big deal if we reap material things from you? If others have a share in this right from you, do not we even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but we put up with everything so as not to cause any hindrance to the Gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who minister the sacred things eat from the temple, and those who serve at the altar have a share in the altar? So also the Lord has instructed those who proclaim the Gospel to live from the Gospel.
- 1 Corinthians 9:11-14 (WPNT)
Here Paul says he has a right to the levitical or social tithe of the local churches in Corinth because of his service rendered to them—chiefly, the preaching of the Gospel. Paul makes the Levitical tie to this scenario clear when he says, ‘Those who minister the sacred things eat from the temple.’
Interestingly, there is a link between Paul receiving the social tithe, the Levites receiving the tithe for their service, and the feeding of oxen while they are working (threshing; vv.8-10; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). Paul is highlighting the continuing moral force of two Old Testament laws (social tithe and animal husbandry).
The moral impetus of this section of Scripture is not that Paul could command the Corinthians to give him the tithe. Instead, the point is that the Corinthians were not willing to support Paul’s labor through the social tithe. The Corinthians went further in their sinfulness and seemed to be spreading, or accepting, slander that accused Paul of being greedy or “in it for the money” (vv.3-7).
Focusing on the Corinthians’ hard hearts towards those who serve them in the Kingdom, Paul equates their being served on the tab of someone else’s social tithe with “robbery” (2 Corinthians 11:7-12). The point is not that it’s wrong to give the social tithe to someone who is serving in a different location from you. The point in this scenario is that those receiving such a service were themselves unwilling to support that ministry with their tithes.
Those who serve us with the Gospel of the Kingdom are the first priority when it comes to giving our social tithe. This is required lest we rob God. Banking on others to pay for ministry to you is a robber’s mindset. As those who serve in levitical function, we cannot demand that tithe funds be paid to us, but we should teach the principles of the tithe and the moral responsibility to fulfill it.
The Social Tithe Today
Just as there was mandated tithing in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 14:22; Malachi 3:8), so there were offerings or tithes that were the “duty” of the Church in the New Testament (Romans 15:27). In I Corinthians 16:1-2, Paul refers to these “collections” as something that Christians “must do.”
We must give a tenth of our increase to those fulfilling levitical functions (mentioned earlier) for the furtherance of the kingdom of God. This would include those who are:
- teachers within the local church,
- educators in broader contexts,
- artists and creators,
- involved in medical care,
- involved in poverty relief.
The recipients could be officers in a local church or people who are fulfilling levitical functions outside the local church. Recipients could even be people who are not within your area (as seen from the example of Elisha). Churches do not own the tithe.
Instead, the tithe is owed to God. We ought to give the levitical to those whose services are a blessing to us and others and to those who keep and advance God’s Law. Not only does the denial of the tithe rob God and others, but it also robs us of the gifts God gives through His tithes.
The groundwork laid in describing the first tithe should help us see how the tithes of the Old Testament are the tithes of the New Testament. With this foundational understanding, we can focus on the celebration or festival tithe and its application for us (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:33-43; Deuteronomy 12:5-25; 14:22-27; 16:13-15).
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
- Deuteronomy 14:22-27
This tithe funded the things required for rejoicing during Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, and Weeks (Pentecost). It was used for food and drink, music, and other entertainment. Edward Powell, who co-authored Tithing & Dominion with R.J. Rushdoony, points out that the closest we have in today’s culture is the family vacation.
This tithe, and all that it could purchase, was meant to create conscientious rejoicing in the goodness of God for all of His provision, both practical and spiritual. This celebration wasn’t intended to be back-to-back worship services but rather joyous consumption funded by ordained means. God commands us to vacation for our joyful remembrance of Him.
Let’s consider some of the other facets of this tithe.
First, the celebration tithe is primarily for the individual taxpayer and family’s pleasure. I say taxpayer because God’s tithes are His taxes for the social funding of His Kingdom.
Second, even though used directly by the tithe-payer, this tithe is not “taxable.” It is a gift from God. Edward A Powell writes,
The reason is that if, in principle, a man had to tithe on this tithe, then he should also have to pay the Tithe on the Tithe of the Tithe. Then, of course, he should pay the Tithe on this Tithe which was the Tithe of the first Tithe, and so on…God, unlike man, does not tax His taxes in order to squeeze dry the productive members of society.
- Edward A. Powell and Rousas John Rushdoony, Tithing & Dominion, pp 95-96.
Third, the celebration tithe was decentralized, in that a central authority or institution didn’t collect and distribute it. The tithing individuals or families retained possession of the tithe and used it at their own discretion. This makes sense since God commanded this tithe for funding “joy,” and tithers will naturally have varying tastes. We see God’s graciousness in that He commands us to rest and rejoice with allowances for our preferences.
Fourth, the tithe accommodated the context of the tithe payers. If a tither couldn’t transport all of his tithable goods, he could convert those goods to money and bring that to Jerusalem instead.
Honoring God’s servants
Fifth, the local Levite(s) had to be remembered with this tithe. This means, in the context of this tithe, they would come with the tithe payers of a certain locale to Jerusalem. There is quite a bit of reasoning behind sharing the celebration tithe with the Levite.
The Levites didn’t share in God’s distribution of the land to the tribes of Israel, so they did not share in the geographic inheritance (Deuteronomy 14:27). However, the Levitical inheritance was Yahweh himself, their service to Him, and the Law. The Levites were also an inheritance for the other tribes in this sense.
Remembering the Levite with the rejoicing tithe acknowledged God’s sovereignty and recognized that His Law was necessary for joy. All of life is under the authority of God. The denial of the tithe, or forgetting the Levites, was tantamount to denying God’s good gifts.
Although the Levite needed remembering, this remembrance was primarily a symbolic gesture. The Levites tithed on their increase when they gave a tenth of the Levitical tithe they received to the Aaronic priesthood (Numbers 18:20-32). We can gather that the Levites also paid the celebration tithe. If a Levite was poor enough to be unable to pay the celebration tithe himself, then either he was not fulfilling his duties and thus was not receiving the tithe, or the people were failing in their responsibility to tithe.
Seventh, the rejoicing tithe impressed the fear of God—a fear that was both good and required (Deuteronomy 8:6; Proverbs 1:7; 14:26-27; 15:16). One of the celebrations funded by the rejoicing tithe was Passover—when Israel remembered God’s mighty act of deliverance from Egypt.
Gracious, but not welfare
Eighth, because it was an evangelistic tool the celebration tithe was shared with the unbeliever, or “sojourner” (Deuteronomy 14:28), it wash it, the sojourner saw the joy of God’s people, the provision of God, and the truth of Yahweh’s salvation.
Ninth, the rejoicing funded by the celebration tithe was also intended to include those in poverty. God’s redemption was comprehensively extended to all his people, so including the poor in festive rejoicing before the Lord was commanded. Thus, welcoming the poor in the joyous consumption of food, beverage, and entertainment was the duty of God’s more economically sound families.
Tenth, the main point of this tithe wasn’t the support of the poor. If supporting the poor would take away from the tithe-paying individual or family’s ability to celebrate, then to do so would be disobedient to the principle of this tithe. God knows when selfish hearts deny commanded charity, so one needed to consider whether they couldn’t include the poor honestly.
Eleventh, it’s important to note that the tax as described above was inclusive and that “footing the bill” for the poor was not meant to create a general tax on everyone across the board. Those who had greater means—larger tithes due to God’s blessing on their work—would naturally bear the brunt of “remembering the poor.” Quoting Edward Powell again,
Therefore, those persons, families, associations, and business who had more than sufficient funds for their own rejoicing for this one week would be encouraged to share their largess with the strangers and the poor of society. Thus, the responsibility for aiding the stranger and the poor would tend to fall on the wealthier segments of the Theocracy. This is what actually occurred in the Middle Ages. The lords would tend to share their bounty with the local church and community since they felt this was their responsibility as leaders of society. The now-defunct business picnic was an off-shoot of the same principle.
- Edward A. Powell and Rousas John Rushdoony, Tithing & Dominion, pg 114.
The grace of shame
We should keep in mind that the grace of shame can produce godly obedience. Take, for instance, a wealthy tithe-paying individual or family who fails to remember the poor in their rejoicing tithe. They use the excuse that sharing the celebration tithe would “steal their joy.” It would be understood that they were both denying God’s command to “remember the poor”—exemplifying through action that God’s redemption and call to rejoice were exclusive of the poor. Furthermore, the “remembering of the poor” by those with far less would be an indictment against the wealthy brothers.
There was no need or allowance for a civil punishment of the selfish-rich. The shameful public declaration of their sin would have been a punishment in and of itself. Fewer people would have yoked themselves in contracts with those rebellious business owners, the faithful would have provided less patronage, and God would have been Witness and Judge against them for denying a fundamental principle of this tithe.
On the other hand, obedience in the application of the celebration tithe would have created unity among various classes of society, creating a godly social order and reinforcing the principle that greater blessing requires greater responsibility.
The Celebration Tithe Today
The Church (meaning the people of God—not to be confused with the institutional church) is the temple of God. Our High Priest and King is seated at the Father’s right hand with authority over heaven and earth. He is making all His enemies a footstool. He is redeeming the whole world. We are no longer limited to rejoicing in Jerusalem in light of Christ. Instead, the whole world is the appropriate place to practice the celebration tithe. How to use the rejoicing tithe is at the discretion of the tithe-payer. The same is true of the content, time, and place of rejoicing.
Joy is an ethical-judicial requirement that God has for us. John Frame writes,
Some readers may be surprised to learn that a lack of cheerfulness violates the sixth commandment! … The Larger Catechism has recognized a logic in the biblical teaching that justifies these [expansive applications], that even makes the commandment a perspective on all sin and righteousness. The Puritans saw, among other things, that “a joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22). As modern medicine is discovering anew, cheerfulness has physical consequences. It promotes life. So the sixth commandment calls us, among many other things, to be cheerful.
The celebration tithe funds, instructs, and celebrates obedience to the sixth commandment.
Here are some examples of what the celebration tithe might be used for:
- Family vacations
- Love feasts (how the early church practiced communion per 1 Corinthians 10-11 and Jude 12)
- Neighborhood BBQs
The “remembering others” aspect of the tithe might look like paying for someone to join you in any of the festivities above.
The final tithe is critical. If we do not practice it, I assert we will not see the end of the welfare state. Nor will we see God’s promise that “there will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5), which comes directly after His commandments regarding the tithes.
At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
- Deuteronomy 14:28-29
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled, then you shall say before the Lord your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
- Deuteronomy 26:12-15
An intermittent tithe
First, this tithe is shared with local Levites, strangers, the fatherless, and widows. It is given every third year (3rd and 6th year in a seven-year rotation). This is one of the many ways God’s people are called to care for the poor (other ways include gleaning, offering poor loans, and giving alms).
Second, the poor tithe was a one-time giving of capital, not gradual poverty relief dispensed over the period between poor tithe years. Instead, that sort of poverty relief was provided by gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10) and poor loans (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
The poor tithe—substantial one-time assistance at distant intervals—restrains God’s people from developing a welfare state—something tempting to both givers and receivers. On the one hand, there is the temptation for tithe payers to escape responsibility. And on the other hand, there’s the temptation for tithe recipients to escape accountability.
However, this restraint is only a result of the tithe and not its intent. The tithe is constructive for stewardship, fellowship, rejoicing in God’s redemption, practical engagement with local problems, and a host of other things.
Blessed by giving
Second, in every endeavor, God promises to bless His people for their faithfulness to His tithes, including this one (Deuteronomy 14:29). Not only is Yahweh’s blessing promised, but we are also commanded to confidently ask for His blessing upon fulfilling the poor tithe (Deuteronomy 26:12-15).
Tax not offering
Third, the poor tithe is God’s tax, not a free-will gift. Thus, it is not an optional tithe.
Fourth, the poor tithe is given in the context of a community feast. The publicity of the poor tithe fosters community fellowship—a fellowship that is ordered around the Gospel of the Kingdom and its Law. We might even point to this tithe as a way of keeping Christ’s command to be a city on a hill, a city that lights up the world (Matthew 5:14).
God’s authority affirmed
Fifth, similar to symbolically remembering the Levites with the celebration tithe, so it is with the poor tithe. This remembrance is a declaration of the authority of God’s Law-Word over all of life. It is also a reminder of the requirement of poverty relief and the ethical-judicial nature of such relief.
Sixth, just as the stranger or the unconverted foreigner residing in the land partook of the celebration tithe, he was also “remembered” in the poor tithe. These strangers would not have included those openly hostile to God’s covenant when the tithe was instituted. Thus, the setup would have been a tour de force for evangelism. Now, as then, God and His people care for the impoverished, even those outside of His covenant. There is no Rock like ours.
Another practical benefit of including strangers in the poor tithe is that it helps prevent the making of enemies. A religion that has rendered aid to those in dire straits does not tend to make enemies of those helped. Often, those who have received aid yet remain unconverted will be ardent defenders of the faith against hostility.
To the least of these
Seventh, widows and orphans are the most vulnerable of “remembered” in the poor tithe. Both lack a federal head—a husband for the former and a father for the latter. The husband was required by law to provide food, clothing, and fruitful sex as a part of his familial office (Exodus 21:10). If a husband or father was the sole source of income for a family unit, his death or departure made precarious their position. Thus widows and orphans epitomize most clearly the principle of the tithe—the godly provision of capital for the destitute or chronic poor. This destructive form of poverty would destroy the family unit and, in extreme cases, result in death unless the poor received assistance. Coming in three-year intervals as prescribed, the poor tithe would do much to eliminate chronic poverty within a godly social order.
The chronic poor is represented by the two categories of people listed in Deuteronomy 14:29—the fatherless and the widow. Oppressive poverty, which destroys indiscriminately, is what the poor tithe addresses.
Eighth, the tithe payer was responsible for knowing his local conditions. The tithe is God’s property, so to steward it wrongly by giving it to God-haters or the non-destitute poor would be disobedience. The tither must be connected to their community, a responsibility that pushes God’s people to be aware of the needy and makes them, in turn, more likely to help outside of the tithe. God does not want disengaged people.
Help from afar
Ninth, a trusted person could deliver the poor tithe to a different location on behalf of the tithe payer, as seen in Paul collecting the poor tithe for poverty relief in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). However, as mentioned in the last point, responsibility for proper stewardship is not dispensed with. The person who received the poor tithe, another person given the responsibility of delivering the poor tithe, and the person who paid the tithe (by proxy) are all responsible for the proper execution of the poor tithe.
Tenth, since this tithe is normally given at a local feast, it destroys anonymous welfare. The tithe payer and the recipient are both accountable to God. And both God and the community are witnesses to the stewardship inherent in tithe-giving and tithe-receiving. If the tithe was given to an undeserving poor person, the community would see the giver as a poor judge of character, who was unaware of the social situation in the community and lackadaisical with God’s money. This type of tither might be viewed as someone who was robbing God through illegitimate tithe paying, or worse, as someone who was failing to give the tithe at all (Malachi 3:8-10).
Just as the tithe-giver would be held accountable, the recipient would be held publicly responsible for their usage of the poor tithe received.
In contrast, anonymity releases the wealthy from showing genuine concern and taking real action inside their community. It also allows large amounts of lazy poor people to live off the proceeds of godly labor as they seek to escape responsibility. Open and transparent giving encourages tithe recipients to use the money well, avoid being in such a lowly position again, and even contribute to other people in similar situations.
Jerusalem in Jesus’ day centralized the poor tithe by commanding it to be given to the temple authorities. This was an enshrining of irresponsible, anonymous, and ungodly welfare. To quote Powell,
The anonymous giving of funds to the “poor,” either via state welfare checks in the mail or by “friendly pastoral visits” to the homes of those receiving church aid, is a violation of the Law of God. Neither the taxpayer nor the poor are to remain anonymous.
- Edward A. Powell and Rousas John Rushdoony, Tithing & Dominion, pg 122.
A tithe recipient who squanders it will not likely get it again.
God makes a free people
Eleventh, the poor tithe is antithetical to enslavement. Frequent, unearned handouts develop a short-term mindset in recipients. Their view shifts from building into the future and getting out of bad situations to simply surviving until the next handout. The future is ignored, potentiality is denied, and hope for victory is brushed under the rug, all for the supposed safety of regular provision. A present-oriented mindset like this is one of the common reasons for the death of living and active faith.
Besides enslaving the poor to the present, handout poverty relief enslaves the poor to the giver. The poor see the giver as their source of income rather than help in difficult times. In that sense, a poor person’s budget, plans, and goals become founded on the handouts of the giver. The giver becomes the provider of daily bread, the one petitioned for survival and sustenance. Thus you have the beginning of humanistic welfare.
Twelfth, building off the previous point, the poor tithe is future-oriented. Rather than fostering perpetual dependency, it calls for stewardship that manages received funds in such a way that they last into the future, potentially allowing the recipient to escape destitute poverty. Instead of relying on perpetual handouts, the one who gets the tithes becomes self-reliant in their stewardship of the capital gained. The tithe necessitates a shift from month-to-month consumption thinking to a budgeting mindset that spans the time gap between the present and the subsequent poor tithe. The poor tithe is a practical crash course in financial management.
In a godly social order, the poor tithe puts destitute poverty to death. It is a powerful tool for evangelizing unbelievers through godly works. The tithe offers accountable, responsible welfare on the part of both the payer and the recipient. And ultimately, the poor tithe destroys the slavery of present-oriented consumption and funds future-oriented financial management.
“No more poor among you”
There is a promise given directly after the law of the tithes (the last tithe listed being the poor tithe), which is of vital importance for a social order’s welfare.
However, there will be no poor among you, for the Lord will greatly bless you in the land which the Lord your God has given you for an inheritance to possess, if only you carefully obey the voice of the Lord your God, by carefully observing all these commandments which I command you today.
- Deuteronomy 15:4-5
Many expositors would see this verse as a proverb, a maxim, or just general wisdom—not as the promise it was intended to be. And, as expositors commonly do when addressing this text, they would then move to Jesus’ statement to Judas Iscariot. Bowyer thoroughly explains this mishandling of the text.
Judas plays the game well, using religious manipulation to get control of the money, something the temple elite mastered and for which Jesus condemned them (see the section of the “Widows Mite”). But Jesus plays a higher game, unmasking the whole thing in a powerful way. The command about the poor tithe (and its local administration) is at the very end of Deuteronomy 14. Immediately after that we get the commands about debt forgiveness for the poor. As you will see in the chapter on Jesus’s debt warnings, “the poor you will always have with you” is not some maxim that Jesus pulled out of the air. He pulled it out of the Bible. Right after God told Israel to set the tithe apart one-third of the time to give to the poor in their own villages, God told them to forgive debts every seven years. Further, God told them if they obeyed His commands (poor tithe, debt remittance, and so on), there would be no poor in the land. But God goes on to tell them that because they would not obey: For the poor will never cease to be in the land;… —Deuteronomy 15:11 So Jesus is taking the conversation back to the Torah and reminding Judas the class he is a member of, or aspires to join, already stands condemned because if they had been obeying Torah, there would be no poor; certainly not enough as to stand as a highly visible image to use to goad people into giving in to a temple system that would not actually care for the poor. Jesus’s statement about the poor always being with “you”—meaning Israel’s leaders, Judas’s friends, not all humanity—unmasks the whole crooked system of monetary redistribution upward, accompanied by rhetoric about redistributing it downward.
- Jerry Bowyer, The Makers Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics, loc. 1417 [Kindle Edition].
Jesus condemned Judas when he told him the “poor will be with you.” Judas’ was in charge of the funds set aside for the poor. And it was because of his disobedience in their distribution that God’s promise would not be fulfilled, but rather the opposite – the poor would always be with him. Jesus’ condemnation also highlights Judas’ hypocrisy. While decrying the lack of consideration for the poor, Judas was the one stealing the funds set aside for them. Even more damning is the fact that money collection in this scenario was set aside for the poor and very likely could have been a poor tithe itself.
Christ’s words also condemned the people Judas represented—the lawless Judean elite who wielded the power of the Sanhedrin for filthy lucre. The Sanhedrin centralized, or “nationalized,” the poor tithe by requiring all of it to be given to the Temple. They kept the “money bag” and double dipped. The Sanhedrin wanted money and preservation. So they set out to kill Jesus since He was preaching against them when speaking derogatorily about the rich and riches. When his pocketbook was attacked by “wasting” capital (the anointing of Jesus with perfume), Judas also plotted with a den of murderous thieves.
Considering both Judas himself and Judea in general (which he narratively symbolized), we can see why poverty abounds throughout the time of the New Testaments. This magnitude of poverty was not always the reality in Israel. During the Maccabean era, we see that the Temple had 400 talents of silver and 200 talents of gold set aside from the poor tithe (2 Maccabees 3:10-11). There were no poor to give it to, and it was stored for when the need arose (Numbers 5:8).
Unless we obey God and render unto Him the poor tithe by giving it to its designated recipients, we can’t expect poverty to be eradicated, let alone decreased. If we, as God’s vice-regents, cannot obey His Law in caring for the poor, then the state will abuse the poor with its enslaving welfare. May we not be a sign for future generations as Israel is for us today.
As we will see, their escalating corruption and plunder and oppression of the poor would lead to the destruction of this elite. All Jerusalem would become a field of blood, which they would be buried in, strangers to the covenant.
- Ibid. loc. 1447 [Kindle Edition].
The Poor Tithe Today
To begin our consideration of applying this tithe today, we should start with the main instance of the poor tithe in the New Testament.
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.
- Romans 15:25-27
Here we see that a portion of the poor tithe from the Church in one area can be sent to the Church in another area. We can assume that this transfer occurred after first providing for the poor in the givers’ own locale. The basic principles must be upheld, whether the poor tithe is being kept by individuals, families, or a body of Christians. Furthermore, implementing the poor tithe by an entire body of believers will significantly impact the community due to the greater capital.
What are these basic principles of the poor tithe?
- There should be a feast—context of the celebration tithe. The poor tithe should not be used for the feast itself. Instead, it should make up the small amount given to those who fulfill Levitical functions, and it should provide the funds allocated to the destitute poor.
- The feast could be a BBQ, neighborhood block party, or a camping trip. The paying of the tithe and the receiving of the tithe should not be hidden. At the same time, it isn’t required that the actual transaction be performed on a stage. The process should be natural and filled with love and rejoicing, but not hidden.
- The recipient of the poor tithe isn’t required to fulfill any requests or demands from the tithe payer related to how the money is used. The poor are accountable to God for how they steward it, and the tither is responsible before God for correct or incorrect moral judgment concerning who they give the tithe to at the feast.
Our experience of the three tithes
In 2017, I became aware of the existence, validity, applicability, requirement, and blessings attached to these three tithes in Scripture. At that time, we were living in a foreign country, had just taken in two preemie twin girls who were stateless orphans, and were making approximately $9,600 per year. Our food budget was $50 a week, including the baby formula for our daughters (which happened to be one of the more expensive brands because of their dietary needs). It felt like our understanding of the tithes couldn’t have come at a worse time. However, my wife and I were convicted that it was a matter of obedience, and we committed ourselves to keep the tithes starting that year (the Levitical and celebration tithe).
Some theonomists hold that you can spread the poor tithe across the three years (a monthly 3.33% tithe), which might be permissible since the 7-year cycle is no longer set in stone, as noted above. We decided that we would keep to the 3rd-year poor tithe. We trusted that God would bless us the first two years and that, as a result, our income and poor tithe would be much larger than if we split it up monthly over the three years.
With our Levitical tithe, we were able to pay for our girls’ education, pay Christian educators to teach refugee children, support pastors who were preaching and training others to build God’s kingdom, and fund the publication of Christian books.
With our Celebration tithe, we could have two vacations a year and pay for other people to join us and share drinks, food, and entertainment.
Our third year fell in 2020. If we had known what 2020 would look like, we probably would have faltered in our conviction to keep a 3rd-year poor tithe. However, being who He is, God gave us an amazing object lesson in obedience. In 2020, we made more than we ever have since being married. Our poor tithe ended up being $3,000.
We used it to support Christian business owners (mostly food stalls and very small operations) in Vietnam that lost all of their revenue during governmental lockdowns. We were also able to help stateless refugees in Malaysia (who had no visas because they fled genocide in their country and arrived illegally). They had lost most if not all of their work, had spouses die, and were trying to support multiple children. Because God blessed us with such a large tithe, we helped single-parent families ($100/month is enough to feed and house a refugee family).
Now, consider your own fellowship or local church. How much would a 10% Levitical tithe impact your area? How much joyous feasting throughout the year, even during hard times, would a 10% Celebration tithe produce? How much would the poor in your community benefit from a 10% Poor tithe that trains them in financial management, future orientation, and accountability before God and man?
We rightfully talk about the wickedness of statist and tyrannical welfare. However, we don’t need to wait for those things to end for us to have a godly social order. Instead, we can begin building a Godly social order now, funding it with the works of our hands, using God’s ordained means—with His blessing. As George Grant and many others have pointed out over the years, dominion comes by service. As long as the state outserves us in welfare, even if it is bastardized in function and goal, they will have authority over social services, holidays, and welfare.
Work now, sacrifice now, obey now, for God’s tomorrow.
Appendix A: Cain and Abel
[The following is a chapter from Henry Lansdell’s The Tithe in Scripture.]
The picture-writings of Egypt, the cunei form tablets of Babylonia, and early writers of Greece and Rome inform us that before the Bible was written, and apart therefrom, it was an almost universal practice among civilised nations for people to pay tithes to their gods; but none tell us when, or where, the practice began, or who issued the law for its observance.
Our object therefore in this volume is to investigate what may be learned concerning tithe paying from Holy Scripture, and from Jewish writings of the period between the Old and New Testaments.
If we begin by inquiring concerning tithe-paying from the book of Genesis, we naturally turn first to such passages as tell of the offering of material things to Jehovah. We find at least six persons who made such offerings—namely, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abram, Isaac, and Jacob; and we proceed to ask what we learn from them as to patriarchal or what is called pre-Mosaic tithe-paying.
The rejection of Cain’s offering was by very early Christian writers connected with tithing. Tertullian (Adversus Judaezos, n.2.), for instance, in the third century wrote that God rejected the sacrifice of Cain, because what he offered he did not rightly divide; following herein a Latin version of Genesis 4:7, made from the Septuagint!1 Some perhaps would call this reading a meaning into the text, rather than drawing one out of it: but before we thus judge let us see what can be said in its favour.
Concerning Cain and Abel, our present Hebrew text (Genesis 4:3-7) reads (as literally as I can translate it) thus:
And it came to pass at the end of days Cain brought of the fruit of the ground a present to Jehovah. And Abel he also brought of the firstlings of his sheep and of their fat. And Jehovah looked favourably upon Abel and upon his present; but upon Cain and up on his present He did not look favourably. And it vexed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell. And Jehovah said to Cain, Wherefore did it vex thee, and wherefore did thy countenance fall? If thou wilt do well, shall not thy face be lifted up? but if thou wilt not do well, sin is couching at the door.2
But passing now to the Septuagint, or Greek, translation of Genesis, this sixth verse runs as follows:
And the Lord God said to Cain, Wherefore didst thou become vexed, and wherefore did thy countenance fall? If thou didst rightly offer, but didst not rightly divide, didst thou not sin? Hold thy peace.
This Greek version, be it remembered, was made about three hundred years before the Christian era, from a Hebrew copy that must have been more than a thousand years older than the oldest Hebrew manuscript we possess now. This translation, moreover, was perfectly familiar to the writers of the New Testament. And if we may reverently picture the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews glancing over his Greek Bible before penning his chapter of Old Testament worthies, we should remember that he had before him these very words concerning Cain’s not dividing rightly, when he wrote, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more abundant sacrifice than Cain.” (Hebrews 11:4)
Various suggestions, of course, are offered to show in what consisted the sin of Cain;3 but, be that as it may, Abel is said to have offered “by faith.” Now faith has reference to obedience, which implies that a previous command had been made known. Where no law has been given there can be no transgression; and unless directions had been communicated to these two worshippers as to the amount or proportion of their property to bring, and if either was at liberty to offer as much or as little as he pleased, then it is not easy to see why Cain should by implication be blamed for bringing less; the occasion being, I take it, a farmer and a grazier each bringing the firstfruits of his increase, not so much as a propitiatory sacrifice (for we are not told they had sinned), but rather as a present or thankoffering to God in token of His lordship over them—just as we may read (Sacred Tenth, p. 2.) was done from the earliest times in Egypt, and which illustrates an almost universally accepted belief in the ancient world, whether pagan or otherwise, namely that it was not lawful to eat of the new fruit until God’s portion had been divided off from the rest.4
Thus far, it will be observed, no altar has been mentioned, nor is it said that Abel’s firstlings were burnt. It is not until long afterwards that we find a sacrificial distinction mentioned between clean beasts and unclean (Genesis 7:2); and then it is we have on record the building of an altar on which clean animals and clean birds were consumed by fire.
In the case of Noah’s sacrifice, with which we learn Jehovah was pleased, we have another instance of the presentation of a material offering to God, with the added accompaniments mentioned of an altar, fire, and a distinction between clean and unclean animals.
About three hundred years later we read that Abram twice built an altar(Genesis 12:7-8), and he called on the name of Jehovah, who appeared to him. At Mamre Abram did the same (Genesis 13:18), and later, when inquiring of Jehovah, he was expressly commanded to sacrifice a heifer, a she-goat, and a ram, each of them three years old, as well as a turtledove and a young pigeon (Genesis 15:9). We have yet another instance of Abraham building an altar when about to sacrifice his son, for whom, however, he ultimately substituted a ram.
We read, likewise, of the patriarch Isaac, that he built an altar at Beersheba (Genesis 26:25); and the same may be said of Jacob, at Shalem (Genesis 33:20); whilst at Bethel we are told that Jacob at first set up a pillar, and poured oil thereon (Genesis 33:18), which act in after years he repeated, adding to the oil a drink offering (Genesis 35:1, 6, 14).
If now we review the data thus far selected, we see the first recorded act of the first two of Eve’s sons manifesting a sense of dependence on, or obligation to, the deity, by presenting to Jehovah the firstfruits of their increase; and we see men of succeeding generations offering to God of the choicest of clean beasts, of clean birds, and fruits of the ground, as well as a drink offering and oil; thus fully establishing, in connection with abundant information from pagan literature, that in all ages in the ancient world, men have thought it their duty to offer a portion of their substance to the divine Being.
- Clement of Rome also (Ep. ad Corinth. N. 4), who l ived in the first century, and Irenzeus, who wrote in the century following (Adv. Haeres. bk. iv. Ch. 34), both quote the seventh verse according to the Septuagint reading. In the fourth century Hilary, Bishop Of Poictiers, explaining Psalm cxviii., maintained that the receiving of tithes was a natural commandment from the beginning. So, again, in the twelfth century did Hugo, Abbot of St. Victor’s, and Peter Comestor; whilst, five centuries later, Grotius wrote up on this text that the sense, according to the Septuagint, was, that Cain either did not offer the best, or else that he gave a less proportion than the tenth, “which,” he continues, “from the most ancient ages was the proportion due to God.”
- Professor Cheyne (Encyclopedia Biblica, I. 620, Article, “Cain”) translates the sixth verse thus “Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? Surely, if thou doest well, thou canst lift up thy head, and if thou doest not well , thy sin must cause it to fall; from irritating words abstain, and thou take heed to thyself.”
- A favourite one is that he brought no blood. But neither, in after years, did an Israelite farmer bring blood, when he presented his firstfruits to Jehovah, as commanded in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The H e bre w word commonly used for a sacrifi ce with blood (Zebach), does not occur in the passage under consideration for both Cain’s fruits and Abel’s firstlings are called by the same word, (Minchah), a present.
4. In illustration of this I may observe that when on the Lower Amur, in Eastern Siberia, I found among the Gilyaks—a people quite untouched by Western ideas—the practice of taking some of the blood of the first salmon caught during the season, and applying it to the mouth of a rudely carved god, seated up on a fish’s back, a specimen of which, with fresh blood there on, I was able to secure.—(Lansdell’s Through Siberia, 3rd edition, p. 606, 1882). Also at Jerusalem, in 1890, I met the Rev. Charles T. Wilson, for many years resident in Palestine, who tells me that the Arabs wandering far east of the Jordan and out of reach of mission stations, fully recognize and habitually practise the duty of giving firstfruits of their increase.
Matt is a husband, father, and an avid reader. He holds a bachelor’s degree from New Geneva Christian Leadership Academy in Applied Christian Studies.