A Theology of Tithes, Offerings, and Alms for LPC
A Theology of Offerings, Tithes, and Alms for LPC
How should the church think about money, especially when it comes to acts of giving in worship and honoring God with our resources? These are two inter-related questions: How should the church collect money? and What is God’s expectation for giving? What follows is a sketch of the biblical summary on these topics along with historical considerations. It concludes with principles for LPC’s practice.
Tithes and Offerings in the Old Testament
In the Mosaic law there were broadly three categories of tithes: the tithes to support the Levitical priesthood (Numbers 18:21, Deuteronomy 14:22-29, 2 Chronicles 31:3-5); the tithes for the celebrations at Israel’s festivals (Deuteronomy 12:6ff, 16:13-17; and tithes for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 26:12-13). Each of these kinds of tithes had a variation in the frequency in their collection. Notably the tithe to the Levites was explicitly premised on Israel living in the promised land (Deuteronomy 12:19, 26:1-4).
A common misconception is that tithing equated to 10% of an Israelite’s income. However, “Some [scholars] think the Israelites gave 14 tithes over seven years; others believe they gave 12. Regardless, when we add the required tithes together, the amount certainly exceeded 10 percent. In fact, the number was probably somewhere around 20 percent per year.” The term “tithe” originally meant “tenth”, but in the biblical text it came to encompass all that Israel was commanded by God to give. Even tithes for the festivals (Deuteronomy 12:6) are assessed at “every man shall give as he is able” (Deuteronomy 16:17) rather than a specific percentage of income or wealth.
Not every Israelite was expected to tithe. Deuteronomy 14:22-29 highlights who is expected to pay: those who control the means of production. The farmers, not the farmhands, are expected to tithe. It is the tithes of the fields, groves, vineyards, herds, and flocks that need to be paid (v.23. cf. Leviticus 27:30-32, 2 Chronicles 31:4-5). The owners of such resources are the ones who pay the tithes, because it is their resource. The poor and the immigrant were allotted the freedom to glean from the fields (Leviticus 23:22) to support themselves, which is a crucial aspect of the book of Ruth. The wealthy pay, the poor receive: the very same tithes that that are used to support the Levites goes to support the poor and disenfranchised (Deuteronomy 14:29). The only time those who received tithes were themselves expected to tithe were the Levites to support the chief priest (Numbers 18:25-28). Tithing was not a requirement for the believer, but for the wealthy.
Malachi 3:8-10 is often cited in teaching on tithing and stewardship for the church. It reads,
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.
Why is this robbing God? Because it is withholding from God what he is rightfully owed by the terms of his covenant with Israel. The terms of the covenant require obeying the law given to Moses (Deuteronomy 5:1), and Israel was not keeping their end of the bargain. God is inviting Israel to see that obedience will result in blessings, per the terms of the covenant. Obedience to the covenant results in blessing (opening the windows of heaven), disobedience results in cursing (“You are cursed with a curse”). Malachi 3:8-10 is not about giving gifts to God, but about being faithful to what God has commanded. And the specific command here is tied to the Mosaic covenant which has now been fulfilled and abrogated in Christ.
John Calvin comments, “But we know that other sacrifices are now prescribed to us; and after prayer and praises, he bids us to relieve the poor and needy. God then, no doubt, is deprived by us of his right, when we are unkind to the poor, and refuse them aid in their necessity.” How do we rob God in the new covenant? By neglecting prayer, praise, and care for the poor.
Tithes were not paid as part of the liturgy of Israel’s worship. Tithes, as they were typically perishable foods, were kept in storehouses so that they could be distributed in the town centers of Israel (Deuteronomy 14:28). During the temple repairs under Jehoash an offering box was placed at the entrance of the temple for people to drop off their contributions (2 Kings 12:9). This practice continued into the temple worship of the Jews during the time of the New Testament (Mark 12:41, Luke 21:1). There is no warrant from the worship of the Old Testament to teach the collection of tithes and offerings is an element of Christian worship. Rather, there is basis in both biblical principle and pattern for the Reformation practice of collecting offerings outside of worship.
In the old covenant tithing was required for the people of God to have access to him through the Levitical priesthood. Now, all who are hungry and thirsty come to the Christ of the everlasting covenant without money and without price (Isaiah 55:1-3). Jesus has paid the cost for us to come to God so that we don’t have to pay ourselves.
Tithes and Offerings in the New Testament
An important passage about tithing is Hebrews 7:1-10. The author of Hebrews makes the case that the priestly order of Melchizedek is superior to the priestly order of Levi. In the ancient world inferiors paid tithes to their superiors and superiors blessed their inferiors (v.7). Abraham as the ancestor of Levi represented him and his priestly order when he paid tithes to Melchizedek (v.1-2, 9-10, cf. Genesis 14:17-21). Hebrews is arguing this to make the case that Jesus’ priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood because Jesus is the head of the priestly order of Melchizedek. The tithes for the Levitical priesthood are intertwined with that priesthood (v.5), and with the change in priesthood from Levi to Jesus comes a change in the law (v.11-12). Since the priesthood changed, the law for the people of God has changed.
John Owen summarized this well in his comments on Hebrews 7:1-2, “I shall take leave to say, that it is no safe plea for many to insist on, that tithes are due and divine, as they speak,–that is, by a binding law of God,–now under the gospel.…The precise law of tithing is not confirmed in the gospel.…it is impossible any one certain rule should be prescribed unto all persons.” Tithes are not a moral obligation upon the Christian in the new covenant.
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 Paul holds out the church of Macedonia as an example of generosity and urges the church in Corinth to imitate them in this “act of grace” (8:7). Paul quickly adds that this is not a command, but a way of showing that the Corinthians love their neighbors (8:8). This assistance is good, but it should be an expression of love, not a moral duty. Love is the obligation, generosity is the outworking. Give from what you have, not from what you don’t (8:12). A specific kind of giving (e.g. tithing) is not commanded as a moral obligation, but rather love exercising wisdom in generosity.
Paul urges them to continue on generously, but says “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (9:7). Here is the clearest statement about what percentage of your wealth you must donate to the church: whatever you decide, but do it cheerfully. This meshes with Paul’s earlier instructions in 1 Corinthians 16:2 for “each of you to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper.” Give as you can.
Paul forbids giving reluctantly or under compulsion. People should give because they want to give. Cheerfulness and generosity as a posture of the heart ought to be cultivated. This is the exact exhortation Paul gives when he tells the Corinthians to excel in the grace of generosity (8:7). The Christian should be joyful to give for the sake of the poor and for the sake of the ministry of the gospel. Compelling people by telling them that are morally obligated to give a specific cut of money to the church does not demonstrate “love that is genuine” (8:8) or alleviate cheerless reluctance. In fact, it can have the opposite effect and instead produce resentment of the church. This is why Paul also forbids giving under compulsion. He does not mean literal robbery, but spiritual bullying. Using the ministry of the church to tell Christians that they owe the church money and if they don’t give 10% they are sinning is the kind of inappropriate compulsion Paul has in mind. That is why he makes it clear that his instructions to seek the grace of generosity are not a command (8:8). The giving of the church is to be a willing gift (9:5).
The widow giving her last mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4) is an embodied demonstration of Paul’s point. Jesus’ comment that she gave more than the rich because she gave all that she had to live on is not celebratory. Her giving more than all those donating out of their wealth is a bad thing. The offering box, as it collected tithes and gifts, should have been an instrument of poverty alleviation. Instead, the scribes devoured widows’ houses (Mark 12:40) to ostensibly fund God’s house. This widow was making herself a burden, exactly what Paul warned against in 2 Corinthians 8:12, and was not obligated to tithe under the law (Deuteronomy 14:29).
How did this happen? Compulsion. Spiritual manipulation, through the teaching that God would be honored through giving up all she had and that God commanded this giving. Rather than being a source of provision for this woman, the offering box became a vacuum for her money. This account is a warning to the church of what happens when we pressure people to give, when they feel compelled to give (maybe even cheerfully!) by the church. This is not to blame the widow or the poor, nor to strip them of their agency. People wisely and generously giving out of their poverty is a good thing (2 Corinthians 8:2). The call of the rich and of the church is to refuse to pressure (i.e. compulsion or manipulation) the poor into giving up what little they do have
Paul does not want the Corinthians to be stingy, and tells them the return on their investment will be significant. Thanksgiving to God will be produced through the ministry they financially support (2 Corinthians 9:11). Ministry bears fruit! The gospel will go forth in power; God who supplies for his people will continue to supply for them. Paul encourages giving in anticipation of God’s provision through the work of the gospel (9:8-15). The return on financial investment is growth in grace through the ministry of the gospel.
Christians have a loving duty to support the ministry of the church through their financial gifts, and that giving should be done freely, cheerfully, generously, not under spiritual coercion, as each person decides for themselves based upon the circumstances of the needs of the church and their own lives.
NT Principles of Financing and Collection
The New Testament itself gives very little indication about how the work of the church is to be funded. Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-6 tells us that the church did not allow any of its members to go needy, and this was accomplished through people providing money to the church by laying it at the apostles’ feet. This was not a liturgical act of worship, but the setting in which collection and distribution was managed. 1 Timothy 5:3-16 provides guidelines for caring for widows, one of the groups that would need to receive support from the church through its deacons, but with no procedural details. Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 instructs the Corinthian church to collect financial support for the suffering church in Jerusalem, which he later thanks the church for doing and encourages them to continue (2 Corinthians 8:1-15, 9:1-15). John Calvin in his commentary on 1 Corinthians makes the case that this is not a feature of worship in Corinth, nor did Paul intend for it to be one (“so that there will be no collecting when I come”). Rather, this was something that the individual Christians in the church were to do on their own in order to meet a specific need. This interpretation has been the dominant view in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition.
Paul in 1 Corinthians teaches that ministers should make their living from preaching the gospel, “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Paul’s overall argument in 1 Corinthians 9:6-15 is that ministers of the church should receive their livelihood from the church, much in the same way that the Old Testament priests received their livelihood from their work in the temple (v.13). Quoting Deuteronomy 25:4, Paul applies the principle that even the oxen in the Old Testament made their livelihood (eating from the grain they helped cultivate) to the ministry of the church. He makes a similar point when he again quotes that passage in 1 Timothy 6:17-18 and says that elders who rule well, especially those devoted to preaching and teaching, are laborers who deserve their wages. Paul provides an example of this when he recalls the church in Macedonia supporting him (2 Corinthians 11:7-9).
Churches are to support the ministry of the gospel through providing money for its ministers to make a living. The New Testament does not describe or prescribe the way in which that is to happen. What scripture does make clear is that the primary purpose of financial giving to the church is to ensure the operational and missional success of the church’s work of gospel ministry.
The church throughout its history has received funding through a variety of means. For instance, the Fourth Council of Carthage instructed clergy to support themselves through additional labor, which was still followed by many into the 5th and 6th centuries. Under Charlemagne in 779 AD, financial support for churches through congregational contributions was made legally obligatory upon all the nation’s citizens, though the tax was scaled to grow with parishioner’s wealth rather than being a flat tithe. The manner of collection varied throughout the centuries. Sometimes giving was done in the worship itself as an offertory, with congregants coming forward toward the chancel and placing their contributions into a box, sometimes giving was dropped off in an offering box in the church building during the week, sometimes given as indirect support such as through pew rentals (dominant in colonial America) or gifts of food (collected in literal tithe barns), or sometimes from the government-levied taxes later dispersed to the church.
By the mid-19th century in America pew rentals were falling out of favor and government support for churches was ending. Instead, the practice of passing the collection or offering plate became common. Revivalists associated with the Second Great Awakening were proponents of using techniques, such as the altar call or the anxious bench, that elicited an emotional reaction designed to drive attendees to a crisis of spiritual epiphany. These were “New Measures”, and thought necessary to both get the attention of the world and to invigorate revivals due to the character of the cultural age. It is in this context that passing the offering plate was introduced into American worship, alongside the introduction of the idea that people were obligated to individually tithe. This became the undisputed method of collecting contributions in the American church by 1900.
At the outset of the Reformation, Protestant churches began eliminating offertories altogether. For example, under the leadership of Martin Bucer, by 1526 there was no offertory in the churches of Strasburg. Instead a box was put in the back of the sanctuary where congregants could place their contributions.
The great liturgies of the Reformation did not include collection of financial contributions as part of the church’s worship. Collection of contributions or tithes is absent from Luther’s German Mass (1526), Calvin’s Form for Ecclesiastical Prayers (editions 1545, 1552, 1566), The Heidelberg liturgy (1563), John Knox’s Book of Genevan/Common Order (1564), the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (editions 1549, 1552, 1559, and the now standard 1662), the Church Order of Dort (1619), and most importantly, the Westminster Directory of Public Worship (1645).
The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 21.1 summarizes our approach to God’s worship like this, “[T]he acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men…or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”
In short, we may only worship God as he has instructed in his word. This has been called the “rule of worship” or the “regulative principle of worship.” God’s word is the rule, the regulation, for how he is to be worshiped. This is sola scriptura applied to worship.Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) 107-109 and WCF 21 identify the biblically prescribed elements of worship. WLC 108 in particular is helpful,
Q. What are the duties required in the second commandment?
A. The duties required in the second commandment are,
- the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word;
- particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ;
- the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word;
- the administration and receiving of the sacraments;
- church government and discipline
- the ministry and maintenance thereof;
- religious fasting;
- swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him:
- as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship;
- and, according to each one's place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.
Notably, the practice of having an offering in the worship of the church is absent. Giving financial gifts to the church is not among the elements of God’s prescribed worship.
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship was crafted by the same assembly that wrote our Confession and Catechisms, though the Directory was never formally adopted by American Presbyterians. Notably, the Directory does include three occasions in which alms were to be collected: days when the Lord’s Supper was administered, days of public humiliation (when the church called for fasting and lamentation), and days of public thanksgiving. The Directory instructed that the manner should be such that “The collection for the poor is so to be ordered, that no part of the publick [sic] worship be thereby hindered.”
The collection of alms, the only Reformation practice liturgically similar to the modern offertory, was to be conducted so as not to disrupt the acts of worship. This is highly instructive. There was no room for the act of giving to be seen in itself as a part of worship. Rather, the act of worship, particularly Holy Communion, should prompt Christian charity. That charity, though righteously motivated, was to be practiced in such a way that it could not be interpreted as a part of worship (and therefore distract through delay or displacement of the actual parts of worship) or disrupt the other parts of worship.
The teachings of Jesus also have direct bearing on almsgiving. In Jesus’ teaching on anger in Matthew 5:21-26, he says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The principle is that the worship of God, including giving to God at the altar in the temple, can be thwarted in spirit if sin that disrupts fellowship is left unaddressed. Now, the church no longer has an altar where we present gifts, but a table from which we receive communion. Yet the principle remains the same and stronger: fellowship broken between brothers disrupts fellowship with God. This is why the Reformers connected almsgiving to the Lord’s Supper – fellowship in the church is disrupted when those who have fail to care for those who have not. The church fails its fellowship when it neglects the financial care of the poor.
The collection of tithes, offerings, and financial gifts to the church is not a biblically warranted element of worship. One of the great dangers of introducing liturgical actions, such as passing an offering plate down a row of pews for people to place their gifts, is that it inevitably takes on a position of liturgical prominence. Because it is something being done in worship, with time and attention devoted to it in the service, it becomes understood by the church as a part of worship rather than a “background circumstance” of worship.
The risk is motivated theological-circular reasoning: We do this in worship, we are only to do in worship what is commanded and is pleasing to God, so this must be commanded and pleasing to God, and therefore must be something we do in worship. Wisdom teaches that it is impossible to include something as liturgically significant as setting aside time and focus in worship to collect offerings without this being the result. Christians want their worship to honor God, and it is much easier to convince themselves that their worship already does instead reforming their practice.
This in turn leads to endowing the collection with invented spiritual importance. If it is understood as part of the worship of God, then it must have a spiritual significance. And if it has spiritual significance, then we are dutybound to not only practice it, but to seek in it a means of spiritual comfort. No person, pastor, or church has the authority to add to God’s worship what God has not commanded. The church has the duty to ensure its worship is according to God’s authority alone.
In practice, the effect at LPC is that the collection of financial support for the church will not include passing an offering plate. Rather, we are encouraging online giving, mail-in checks, or dropping off gifts in the offering plates/boxes in the sanctuary. When the subjects of money and supporting LPC are addressed to the church from its leadership, there will not be a message that people are duty-bound to give a certain percentage of their income or wealth to the church. Rather, there will be an emphasis on free, cheerful, generous, and prudent giving to maintain the ministry of the gospel and care for the poor.
 “7 Reasons Christians Are Not Required to Tithe” by Thomas Schreiner (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/7-reasons-christians-not-required-to-tithe/).
 Exodus-Deuteronomy are full of examples of this, but Deuteronomy 28 is the most extensive and clear example of the covenantally conditioned and promised blessings and curses.
 Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 15, page 586 on Malachi 3:8.
 Owen, John, The Works of John Owen, vol. 21, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, pages 324-325.
 Calvin's Commentaries, Vol 20. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1979, page 68-69.
 See Lecture XIV, “Measures to Promote Revivals”, especially pages 203-206, in Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1868): https://www.ccel.org/ccel/f/finney/revivals/cache/revivals.pdf.
 Old, Hughes Oliphant. Worship, Revised and Expanded Edition: Reformed According to Scripture. United States: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2002, pages 155-156.
 A perusal of the liturgies in Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, 2018), shows that the collection of tithes or offerings is totally absent from the liturgies of the Protestant Reformation, though the collection of alms does appear in several.