Over the past couple of years four readers have submitted Spiritual Conundrums to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life about tithing. First, a reader named Lisa:
Lee: I belonged to a Christian church for thirty years which was fundamentalist. My husband paid to the church the tithe of our income and he also contributed with other expenses. My husband wanted a new life and we went to live to another country. Now we are very happy. I found Swedenborg by accident on Internet and we are reading his books. We don’t go to any congregation, but we practice our faith in family. The minister of my old congregation sent us mails asking for the tithe, according to him we are heavily in debt. For several years we have saved the tithe for sharing with the neighbor. My question is, what does the Bible say in the New Testament about the tithe? Is it true that it belongs to the minister? Is there any chance that Swedenborg answered this question in his letters? Thanks for your opinion.
Then a reader named Ada:
Do u have to pay tithes?
Then a reader named Allison Scott:
What does Jesus really teach about tithing and/or giving?
And most recently a reader named Bamboo:
Hi Lee. I have been wondering a lot about tithing and church offerings. Does Malachi 3:10 suggest that the people who do not tithe will not be blessed? And do tithes and offerings have to be in monetary terms? Thanks.
Here’s the short version:
A “tithe” means a tenth. In Bible times, this meant a tenth of the harvest and of people’s flocks and herds—or of the firstborn animals of their flocks and herds.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to bring tithes and offerings to the priests at the temple each year. Tithing was mandatory, not optional.
The New Testament mentions tithing only in passing. There is no clear commandment in the New Testament saying that Christians must tithe. And 2 Corinthians 9:5–7 suggests that for Christians, giving is not mandatory, but voluntary:
So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
In other words, Christians are not required to tithe, but are encouraged to give generously as their heart moves them to give.
And Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) doesn’t say anything at all about literal, in-kind or monetary tithing. But he does explain the spiritual meaning of tithing.
Let’s take a closer look.
Tithing in the Bible
The commandment to tithe is not from the New Testament, but from the Old Testament. However, the New Testament does mention tithes several times.
In case you want to read them for yourself, here are all the passages in the Protestant Bible that speak of tithing, or giving one-tenth:
- Genesis 14:17–20
- Genesis 28:18–22
- Leviticus 27:30–33
- Numbers 18:21–32
- Deuteronomy 12:1–19
- Deuteronomy 14:22–29
- Deuteronomy 26:1–15
- 2 Chronicles 31
- Nehemiah 10:35–39
- Nehemiah 12:44
- Amos 4:1–5
- Malachi 3:8–12
There are several more mentions of tithing in the additional books of the Old Testament that are in the Catholic Bible (sometimes known as the “Deuterocanonical books” or “The Apocrypha”), in Tobit 1:6; Judith 11:13; Sirach 35:10–13; 1 Maccabees 3:49; 1 Maccabees 10:31; and 1 Maccabees 11:35. Sirach 35:10–13 is especially interesting since Paul probably had it in mind when he wrote the words quoted above in 2 Corinthians 9:5–7.
Tithing in the Old Testament
As you can see, there are far more references to tithing in the Old Testament than there are in the New Testament. That’s because tithing was a commandment given to the ancient Israelites as part of their ritual and worship practices.
In particular, tithing was one of the primary ways the ancient Jewish priests, and the rest of the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came, were supported.
Unlike the other eleven tribes, the Levites had no tribal inheritance of land—although there were six cities throughout the land set aside for them to live in. For a culture that originally subsisted largely on agriculture, having no land meant having no income. The Levites, whose job was to take care of the Temple, worship, and ritual, were compensated for this lack of land-based income by being the beneficiaries of tithes, as well as of required and voluntary sacrifices of animals and crops, some of which they and their families could eat.
Some of the tithes also went to help and support people who were less fortunate:
Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake. (Deuteronomy 14:28–29, italics added)
In the other years, tithes were to be brought to the priests at the temple in Jerusalem.
Some of the tithes were eaten at the temple by the people who brought them, along with their families, as a celebration of the Lord. See Deuteronomy 14:22-27.
And the Levites themselves were required to give a tenth of the tithes they received to the Lord:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: You shall speak to the Levites, saying: When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them for your portion, you shall set apart an offering from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. (Numbers 18:25–26)
For the ancient Jews, tithing was not optional. It was a commandment and a requirement of their religion.
Tithing in the New Testament
There is no such commandment to tithe in the New Testament. Here are the three places where tithing is mentioned in the Gospels:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23–24)
And the parallel passage in Luke:
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42)
Here Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders of the day, telling them that as important as it is to follow the more incidental laws of their religion such as tithing, it is far more important for them to practice justice, mercy, faith, and the love of God, which are at the heart of religion.
And then there is Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
Once again, Jesus mentions tithing in connection with the Pharisees, who prided themselves on scrupulously obeying the ritual laws of the Jewish religion. And Jesus said that the hated tax collector who simply asked for mercy received more benefit for his prayer than the Pharisee did from all of his boasting and all of his scrupulous observing of the ritual law.
There really isn’t much here to suggest that Jesus believed that his own followers must tithe.
Based on many statements in the New Testament, Christianity as a whole, from its earliest times right up to the present, has rejected the idea that Christians must observe all of the ritual and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. And since tithing is part of that ancient ritual and ceremonial law, neither are Christians required to tithe.
The only other mention of tithing in the New Testament is in Hebrews 7:1-10, where an incident in which Abraham gave a tenth of everything he owned to a priest who was from a different culture than Abraham’s is used as an example leading ultimately, in the following verses and chapters, to the conclusion that the entire ancient Jewish priesthood, along with the all of its ritual practices and even the Temple itself, has now been replaced by Jesus Christ.
Yes, some Christian churches have argued that tithing is still required of Christians. But as you can see, the biblical basis for their claim is very slim. The Old Testament does indeed command Jews to tithe. But Jesus gives no such commandment for Christians, nor is there any such commandment in the rest of the New Testament. Instead, giving is something to be done voluntarily from the heart. Once again:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:6–7)
So in answer to Lisa, Ada, and Allison, neither Jesus nor the New Testament as a whole teach that Christians must tithe.
Should Christians tithe?
So should Christians tithe?
Of course, if you belong to a church that requires tithing, you have two basic choices:
- Give a tenth of your income to your church, according to its rules, or:
- Leave that church and join another one that doesn’t require tithes.
If you’re going to be a member of a church, you have to abide by its rules. Once you leave that church, you are no longer subject to its rules.
So in answer to Lisa, since you and your husband no longer consider yourselves to be members of your old congregation, you are no longer required to tithe to it. A simple email or letter to your old pastor withdrawing your membership from his church should do the trick.
Having said that, the New Testament does tell us that we should give generously as our heart moves us to give. And for those who belong to a Christian congregation, one way to practice this generosity is to voluntarily give a certain percentage of your income to the church. It doesn’t have to be a literal tenth. But churches depend on regular giving from their members. Giving a certain percentage of your income, or a certain set amount each week or month, will help to provide your church with the steady financial support it needs to do its job.
In the spirit of the ancient Israelite tithes that also helped the resident aliens, orphans, and widows in their towns (Deuteronomy 14:29), another thing Christians can do, whether or not they belong to a congregation, is to give a certain percentage of their income, or a certain set amount each month or year, to various charities of their own choosing.
Of course, the giving doesn’t have to be monetary. Some Christians choose to volunteer their time and skills to local charitable and community-minded organizations for the benefit of the people in their communities. Time and talent can be just as valuable as money.
The main point is that for Christians, giving money or volunteer time is not an obligation, but something to be done from the heart.
Ancient Judaism was a religion heavily defined by laws, and the necessity of obeying those laws. Yes, the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) also instructs its faithful to be generous and loving to their neighbor. It’s not that voluntary, heartfelt generosity was absent from ancient Jewish religion. But that religion also required certain giving by law.
Christianity, by contrast, is a religion defined less by the need to obey laws whether we like it or not, and more by a faithfulness and love that prompts us to act from our own inner motivations, which the Lord puts into our hearts and minds. It’s not that Christians aren’t required to obey any laws. It’s that Christians willingly, from their own inner understanding and motivation, do what the law of love requires, as summarized by Jesus in the two Great Commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 2:37–40)
For Christians, then, tithing is not required. But those who truly feel the love of Christ in their hearts will want to contribute to their church, if they belong to one, to their community, and to those in need around the world. Giving a percentage of your income to the church or to charity is one organized way to go about doing this.
For Christians, giving to their church and to people in need, whether in money, donations of food and household items, or volunteer work, is a way to share the joy. And those who do so from a willing and cheerful heart will feel great joy in the act of giving.
Will those who tithe be blessed with wealth?
Now to take up Bamboo’s question.
Malachi 3:8–12 says:
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
And here is the rest of the quote from 2 Corinthians:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written:
He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:6–15)
It certainly does sound as if those who are stingy and do not give will be cursed with poverty and want, while those who give generously will be blessed with wealth.
It’s a nice theory.
The Prosperity Gospel churches that have become so popular in many poor areas and third world countries love to preach about how blessed (and wealthy) their members will be if they give, give, give to the church! And how cursed (and poor) they will be if they don’t.
But reality just doesn’t seem to work that way.
Many people who give little or nothing to charity are fabulously wealthy. (And yes, many other wealthy people do give generously to charity.) Meanwhile many people who give generously of their time, talent, and money live on a very modest income.
There doesn’t seem to be any real correlation between people’s generosity and their wealth.
And the poor members of those Prosperity Gospel churches usually don’t get any richer—although their pastors certainly do.
It is true that having an attitude and practice of generosity does bring blessings of various kinds upon us. Besides, it is good to be generous for its own sake!
People who make a practice of cheerfully donating a portion of their earnings to their church or to charity commonly don’t even notice the difference in their finances. No matter what our income is, whether high or low by our particular society’s standards, we tend to find ways to spend it. If we “spend” some of it on donations, it just becomes one slice of a pie that’s going to get divided up one way or another.
But if you’re motivated to tithe or to give generously so that God will give you material abundance, prosperity, and wealth, you’re probably in for a big disappointment.
Is the Bible lying to us, then, when it says that we’ll be cursed if we’re stingy, and blessed if we’re generous?
I don’t think so. It’s just a matter of looking a little deeper. In the quote from 2 Corinthians 9, did you notice this line?
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Corinthians 9:10, italics added)
You see, when the Bible talks about wealth and blessings, what it’s really talking about is spiritual wealth and blessings.
The spiritual meaning of tithing
That’s where Emanuel Swedenborg comes in.
As I said at the beginning of this article, Swedenborg doesn’t say anything at all about literal, in-kind or monetary tithing. So if you read Swedenborg’s writings hoping to find out whether you should tithe to your church or to charity, you’ll be disappointed.
But Swedenborg does explain the spiritual meaning of tithing. His explanations can get a bit technical at times, but basically it all hinges on the meaning of “ten” and “one-tenth” in a good sense:
- “Ten” means what is full and complete.
- “One-tenth” means the holiest part that remains when everything else is taken away.
Here are a few of the examples Swedenborg offers (in Apocalypse Explained #675) of “ten” in the Bible meaning what is full and complete, or all of a thing:
- The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17), which distills the whole law of God into a simple, straightforward set of laws.
- Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins, five wise, and five foolish (Matthew 25:1–13), which represents how all Christians accept—or not—Jesus Christ.
- Jesus’ parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11–27), in which the ten servants stand for all people, and especially all followers of Jesus Christ (meaning Christians), and the ten minas (a unit of money) stand for all of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel. The parable is about how well or badly various Christians put the good news of the Gospels to work by sharing it with others in word and deed.
Because of this meaning of “ten,” “one-tenth” also gains the meaning of “everything.” In ancient Jewish practice, when people gave one-tenth of their crops and herds it was seen as symbolically offering all of it to the Lord.
But “one-tenth” has another meaning as well: the holy remnant.
Throughout the Bible narrative, there are many times when the people were decimated, and only a few were left. And the Bible story often emphasizes that these few who were left were those who had not violated their covenant with God by being wicked and sinful, but who had remained devoted to God and had faithfully obeyed God’s commandments despite the rampant wickedness and sin going on all around them.
Because of this, “the remnant” in the Bible takes on the meaning of the sacred and holy part that is left over when everything that is less holy, or that is actively evil, is swept away.
This is another reason “one-tenth,” or “the tithe,” was considered holy to the Lord:
All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord. If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed. (Leviticus 27:30-33, italics added)
So the deeper meaning of tithing is the spiritual blessings of righteousness and holiness that we receive from the Lord, and give back to the Lord as an offering.
And as Swedenborg explains in Secrets of Heaven #3740 and elsewhere, these blessings mean especially the goodness and truth, or spiritual love and understanding, that the Lord stores away in our souls as a continually flowing source and fountain of spiritual life. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said:
As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38)
The blessings of spiritual tithing
As I said, Swedenborg’s explanations can get a bit technical at times. But here’s what it all means in plain language:
If we engage in the Christian equivalent of tithing, which is giving generously to our fellow human beings in our own way from a generous heart, we may or may not be blessed with wealth and prosperity. Most likely we will not.
But we will be blessed spiritually.
This blessing will not come in the form of material wealth, but in the form of the spiritual wealth of a mind overflowing with spiritual insight and understanding, a heart overflowing with goodness and love, and hands that take joy in giving help, joy, and blessings to others.
In our spiritual life, then, tithing represents giving the best of who we are to God and to our fellow human beings.
When we continually give our best day after day, learning the good news of Jesus Christ so that we can share it with others, and working with our head, heart, and hands for the good of others in our community and in our world—in other words, when we devote ourselves to building up God’s kingdom—God will richly bless us with more spiritual wealth than we could ever have imagined.
This article is a response to four spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.
For further reading: