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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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It is admitted universally that the payment of tithes, or the tenths of possessions, for sacred purposes did not find a place within the Christian Church during the age covered by the apostles and their immediate successors. In the Hebrew religious community tithes possessed a two-fold character. They were either a charitable and regularly recurring contribution placed at the disposal of the humbler Levites and other poor or a yearly impost designed for the upkeep of the central house of worship and of the ministering priests (see W. Robertson Smith, OTJC [Note: TJC Old Testament in the Jewish Church (W. R. Smith).] 2, London, 1892, pp. 383 n. [Note: . note.] , 446 f.; see also RS [Note: S Religion of the Semites (W. Robertson Smith).] 2, Edinburgh, 1894, pp. 246-253).

Those who maintain that tithes are due de jure divino to the Church give as the reason for their non-existence in the Apostolic Age that the conditions of the infant Church in the initial stages of its growth raised insuperable difficulties against the practice of such systematic payments during that period (see Bingham, Antiquities, V. v. 1 ff. [Works, Oxford, 1855, vol. ii. p. 176 ff.]). As soon as the condition of the Church permitted, it is contended, the payment of tithes began as a duty obligatory on all individual Christians. Not only, however, is there no evidence of the truth of this contention, but such testimony as we possess from the pages of the NT goes to disprove it. Not that the duty of Christian giving was not recognized as binding, or that the discharge of that duty was considered outside of, or an unspiritual encroachment upon, the region of Christian ethics. On the contrary, as we shall see, it occupied an extremely important part in apostolic instruction and ideals. Its reason and purpose are raised to a loftier plane than they had ever occupied, and translated into language of the profoundest moral and spiritual content. ‘The perfect law, the law of liberty’ (James 1:25), reigns here as it does elsewhere (Galatians 5:1; Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 2:16, John 8:32, etc.), and the Christian’s joyous liberality, like his other graces, may be characterized from the teaching of the NT as the expression of the individual’s consciousness of his love of, and moral obligation to, his brethren.

The social and economic conditions of the early Church in Jerusalem demanded extraordinary efforts on the part of its wealthier members. Whatever be the source of the narrative embodying the history of the attempt to establish the life of that body on a communistic basis, there can be no doubt that it is in harmony with what we understand from other sources (see article Collection) to be the state of extreme poverty in which the humbler Christians of Jerusalem were sunk. The attempt to relieve this prevailing distress was essentially voluntary, as the questions said to have been addressed by St. Peter to Ananias testify: ‘Whiles it remained, did it not remain thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power?’ (Acts 5:4). Nor is it otherwise with the Antiochian Church, which organized a relief fund for the Jewish Christians some years later; ‘every man according to his ability’ (Acts 11:29) contributed, and we have no reason to believe that their giving was not free and spontaneous (ὥρισαν). In reminding the Ephesian elders, gathered at Miletus, of his own example, St. Paul emphasizes (note the words κοπιῶντας δεῖ) the duty of the follower of ‘the Lord Jesus’ by the quotation, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). His exhortation ‘to help the weak’ (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:14) includes in its scope that charitable disposition of our wealth, whether it be ‘silver, or gold, or apparel’ (Acts 20:33), which will meet the needs of poverty or misfortune. In formulating his scheme for the collection of funds for the poor ‘saints’ of Jerusalem, he laid down the rule for the guidance of the Corinthian Christians: ‘upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper’ (1 Corinthians 16:2); and his enthusiastic praise of the Macedonian Churches for their earnest and liberal response to his appeal he justifies by the circumstances in which their single-minded generosity (τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς ἁπλότητος αὐτῶν, 2 Corinthians 8:2) displayed itself. These attached supporters of the Apostle gave joyously (ἡ περισσεία τῆς χαρᾶς αὐτῶν) in a time of sore trial (ἐν πολλῇ δοκιμῇ θλίψεως; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:14), and from their own deep poverty (ἡ κατὰ βάθους πτωχεία αὐτῶν). We are reminded of Jesus’ words in praise of the widow’s giving ‘all the living that she had’ (πάντα τὸν βίον, Luke 21:4; cf. παρὰ δύναμιν, 2 Corinthians 8:3).

Not only did the Christians of Macedonia give of their own accord (αὐθαίρετοι), but they were even clamorous to be permitted to share in the work which lay so near to the Apostle’s heart. His profound joy is intensified by the fact that he is able to recognize in their generosity the outcome of their previous complete self-surrender to the cause and Person of the Lord (note the emphatic phrase, ἑαυτοὺς ἔδωκαν πρῶτον τῷ κυρίῳ of 2 Corinthians 8:5). Even in writing to the church in Rome, which he had not at the time visited, he is careful to remind his readers that the duty of giving to their poorer brethren is fundamental to the outward expression of a true Christian faith (Romans 12:13; Romans 15:27); and, if we accept the Epistle to the Ephesians as St. Paul’s, he makes this duty a grace to be anxiously sought and laboured for (note the ἵνα. in Ephesians 4:28). This teaching was, indeed, not peculiar to the Apostle of the Gentiles. Liberality to the needy is the infallible test of the genuineness of Christian love (1 John 3:17) and of a living faith (James 2:15 f.). It is a sacrifice evoking a Divine response to him who offers it (Hebrews 13:16) and constitutes the foundation stone upon which to build that perfect character which alone can appropriate for itself (ἐπιλάβωνται; cf. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, London, 1889, p. 54 f.) ‘the life which is life indeed’ (1 Timothy 6:19).

In all the cases referred to, the essential freedom of Christian action is implied. There is no legal code formulated for the guidance of those whose love of the brethren is thus tested (οὐ κατʼ ἐπιταγὴν λέγω, 2 Corinthians 8:8). On the contrary, each one has the choice and determination as to his attitude (ἕκαστος καθὼς προῄρηται τῇ καρδίᾳ, 2 Corinthians 9:7). There is no external compulsion (ἐξ ἀνάγκης) to detract from the joy, or to set a mechanical boundary to the inclination, of the Christian’s giving to the poor. We thus recognize the truth of Irenaeus’ words: ‘Whilst they [the Jews] used to hold the tithes of their property as consecrated, they, on the other hand, who have grasped freedom, dedicate to the use of the Lord all things which they possess, giving joyfully and freely in greater abundance, because they have a greater hope’ (Haer. iv. 34).

The other purpose for which tithes were paid was the maintenance of the Temple services and of the attendant priests and Levites. Now there can be no doubt that the apostles and those who spent themselves in the propagation of the gospel from the first considered it their due to be supported by the gifts and contributions of their followers and converts. The aphorisms, ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire’ (cf. Matthew 10:10), ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the or when he treadeth out the corn’ (1 Corinthians 9:9, 1 Timothy 5:18), are quoted as applicable to the Christian missionary and his work. The fact that St. Paul so emphatically refused to accept any monetary aid from the Corinthian church (see Acts 18:3 [cf. Acts 20:33], 2 Corinthians 11:7-10, 1 Corinthians 9:18) makes all the stronger the words in which he asserts and presses the just rights of all the Christian teachers ‘to live out of the gospel’ (ἐκ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου ζῇν, 1 Corinthians 9:14). The Apostle is insistent that he is forgoing with purpose his most elementary right in maintaining his financial independence. The scathing irony of his question, ‘did I commit a sin in debasing myself [by working for his daily bread] in order you might be raised up?’ is followed by the startling emphasis of his expressions (note the collocation δωρεὰν τὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εὐαγγέλιον, and his use of the military terms ἐσύλησα, ὀψώνιον, 2 Corinthians 11:7 f.; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:7). He had accepted his ‘wages’ from others in order that they might have his labours free of charge (δωρεάν). The force of his claim as a teacher is strengthened by his determination to act as he thought best, and refuse what he had a perfectly well recognized right to and what his detractors were in the habit of receiving. If the Corinthians chose to make his refusal a handle to accuse him of conscious charlatanry, he vehemently avers that what he did he did out of pure love for them (see the questions διὰ τί; ὅτι οὐκ ἀγαπῶ ὑμᾶς; and the solemn assertion ὁ θεὸς οἶδεν, 2 Corinthians 11:11) and for their benefit (ἐν παντὶ ἀβαρῆ ἐμαυτὸν ὑμῖν ἐτήρησα, 2 Corinthians 11:9). Whatever may have been the original reason for this line of conduct on the part of the Apostle, we know that he solemnly reminded other churches of his own foundation that the recognition of this obligation to their spiritual teachers was an essential feature of true discipleship (μὴ πλανᾶσθε, θεὸς οὐ μυκτηρίζεται, Galatians 6:7), and his touching gratitude to the Philippians for their loyal and repeated support when he was in want (Philippians 4:14 ff.) is sufficient proof that he was willing to accept what was due to him (πλὴν καλῶς ἐποιήσατε) not only for his own sake but still more for theirs (ἐπιζητῶ τὸν καρπὸν τὸν πλεονάζοντα εἰς λόγον ὑμῶν, Philippians 4:17). Not only is the general principle of maintaining the clergy a decided feature of the early Apostolic Church, but towards the close of the period we have evidence that there were gradations in the payment given, proportionate to the value of the work accomplished (οὶ καλῶς προεστῶτες πρεσβύτεροι διπλῆς τιμῆς ἀξιούσθωσαν, 1 Timothy 5:17)-a not unexpected development of the old law, ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’ (Luke 10:7).

In all this there is no evidence of a giving which is not free and spontaneous and which has not a moral and spiritual basis. No allusion is made to the necessity for the continuance of the Mosaic law of tithes. This is all the more remarkable as we have in St. Paul’s case a distinct reference to the parallel between the Levitical priesthood and the Christian ministry in this respect (1 Corinthians 9:13)-a parallel which is involved, consciously or otherwise, in the ordinance of Jesus (ὁ κύριος) that His missionaries were to be supported by the objects of their labours.

The relation between tithes and Christian giving may be apprehended as that between the law and the gospel as incentives and forces in life. It is the relation between a legal enactment which enforces by objective sanctions and a spiritual ideal which draws out all that is best and highest from those who recognize the significance of the blessedness of self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

Literature.-A. Plummer, International Critical Commentary , ‘2 Corinthians,’ Edinburgh, 1915; A. Robertson and A. Plummer, ib., ‘1 Corinthians,’ do., 1911; Foulke Robartes, The Revenue of the Gospel is Tythes, Cambridge, 1613; G. Carleton, Tithes Examined and Proved to bee Due to the Clergie by a Divine Right2, London, 1611: J. Selden, History of Tythes, do., 1618.

J. R. Willis.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Tithes'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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