I’ve been doing a little work on the ‘tithe’ or ‘tenth’ mentioned in the laws of Lev 27:30–33, Num 18:21–25 and Deut 14:22–29. The first passage talks about setting aside a tenth as holy to YHWH; the second, about every tithe being used to support the Levites. The Deuteronomy text talks about setting aside a tenth to be eaten with rejoicing in the presence of YHWH (Deut 14:22–27) and, every third year, all the tithes being used to support the Levities, foreigners, fatherless and widows (Deut 14:28–29). As you might imagine, there’s no small debate about how to reconcile these texts. The answer is probably not to add them all together, but to recognise just one ‘tenth’ to be put aside by God’s people — though perhaps for different things in different years. Putting aside even a simple ‘tenth’, however, proved difficult for Israel (see especially Mal 3:6–12).
Christians are vaguely aware that they are not obliged to tithe in quite the same way, but may well have been taught that a tenth is a useful minimum baseline for giving in an age when the generosity of God in Jesus Christ should often lead us to give much more. Yet we too find giving at the rate of a tenth proves difficult in practice. When I was living in Australia, I heard of a church that calculated that if everyone in the congregation lost their jobs, and yet faithfully tithed their unemployment benefit, then the overall giving to the church would double.
The question I’ve been puzzling over is ‘Why a tenth?’ What’s so special about this particular fraction? Is there something especially spiritual or holy about 10% as a rate of giving? Now it may simply be that a tenth is enough to show you really care about something or someone, without being so much that it incapacitates the giver. Hence Abram giving a tenth to the King of Salem in Gen 14:19 (in line, apparently, with what kings could generally expect from their subjects in the ancient world). But there may be a more practical reason. Israel had twelve tribes, one of which (the tribe of Levi) was set aside, without any land, to serve as priests. It was then left to those who did have access to land to support them. Fixing giving at a tenth was a practical way to achieve this. The Levites were relatively small in number compared to the other tribes (Num 3:39), so setting aside a tenth was more than enough to cover them and others without access to land (the foreigners, fatherless and widows), with some to spare for some occasional communal feasting.
So it may be that the biblical answer to ‘What proportion of my income or produce should I give?’ is heavily dependent on circumstance and the presenting needs at the time. The circumstances of the New Testament churches were varied and complex, hence the absence of any talk of a flat rate of giving.
As a corollary, it may well be that attempts to motivate Christian giving by focussing on the giver — his or her sense of obligation, duty, or guilt — are less likely to be effective than focussing on needs: ministry needs, missionary vision, or a call for compassion on the material needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Which, when you come to think of it, is the emphasis we find from Paul in 2 Corinthians 8–9. And Paul’s approach resulted in the Macedonians giving generously in the midst of ‘extreme poverty’ (2 Cor 8:2) — which suggests to me a rate of giving rather higher than a tenth.
Ben Cooper is the Minister for Training of Christ Church, Fulwood and a member of the Latimer Trust's Council.