Over the years I have encountered people who wanted to argue that tithing was a matter of legalism and thus inappropriate for a person now under grace. But this argument is flawed from the beginning since the first two instances of tithing (Gen. 14; 28) occur before the giving of the law.
Further, one would be hard pressed to find support for the idea that someone who has experienced the amazing grace of our Lord, made available through the cross, would desire to do less than someone under the law. Such a position would be a disgrace to grace!
Others retreat to the argument of silence. They surmise that since tithing is mentioned infrequently by Jesus, it can’t be that important. But how many times must something be taught in God’s Word before it becomes important to the committed follower of Christ? It is likely that tithing was seldom mentioned by Jesus because he anticipated that these basic matters were clearly understood by all!
But let’s look at what the New Testament does say about tithing.
The Bare Minimum
The Pharisees were the largest and most influential religious-political party during New Testament times. They were the legalists of the New Testament era, fancying themselves as the guardian of the law. As the leaders of the synagogue, they had great influence and exercised significant control over the general population, firmly believing that the way to God was through obedience to the law. They had developed an oral tradition to protect the written law, and they often opposed Jesus because he refused to accept the oral law.
The context of Matthew 23:23 is a denunciation of the scribes (experts in the Law) and of the Pharisees. There are seven specific charges, each of them beginning with the phrase, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Following this introduction, there is a brief cameo illustrating their failure to live up to their claim to be the guardians of the law.
The fourth woe in particular relates to their practice of tithing as taught in Old Testament law. As you would expect, these legalists had been so meticulous in their observance of the law that they had tithed everything, even down to their garden herbs. Can you see one of the Pharisees down on his knees counting out his mint, dill, and cumin? Yet Jesus claimed they had neglected weightier issues, such as justice, mercy, and faith. This trio of character qualities recalls the summary of true religion given by the prophet Micah (6:8). Jesus echoed the concern of the Old Testament prophets that inner righteousness is what gives meaning to outward ritual.
Notice, however, that Jesus was not condemning their act of tithing. He made this clear with his statement, “These things should have been done without neglecting the others” (v. 23).
We can’t miss the obvious implication. Jesus assumed that they would understand and practice tithing. This they should do! Yet they should have also understood that to practice the detail of the law while ignoring its spiritual value made them like a blind guide who stooped to drink, pushing aside a tiny gnat and carelessly swallowing a camel.
Thus, for someone to use this passage to argue against the principle of tithing puts that person in the same category with the blind guides of Jesus’ day. Camels aren’t easy to swallow!
In Luke 18:9–14 we find another instance of tithing in Jesus’ teaching, the parable of two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was a tax collector who was so overwhelmed by his sin that he couldn’t even look up to heaven. The other was a Pharisee, who in his pride thanked God that he was not like other people—not greedy, not unrighteous, not an adulterer—and especially not like this tax collector!
He then cited this proof for his boast: “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get” (v. 12). All we can conclude from this text is that tithing was still being practiced in Jesus’ day as normative religion.
Hemphill, Ken. 2006. Making Change: A Transformational Guide to Christian Money Management. Nashville, TN: B&H Books.
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