Editor’s Note: This article is specifically addressed to the most common section of Scripture used to justify teaching the tithe in Christian churches. This article builds naturally from the third and fourth articles.
In the previous two articles, we have seen that the post-Pentecost church does not need to regard tithing as a continuing mandate. However, we have not discussed the biggest section of verses used to argue for the tithe: Malachi 3:6-12. In this article, we will fully address this section of Scripture and the themes commonly associated with it.
First, it is important to remember that Malachi is a part of the Old Testament (or Old Covenant). As such, Malachi 3:6-12 is not directly applicable to the Christian believer. The sacrificial system has been done away with in Christ, and Malachi is all about the Old Covenant sacrificial system. Let’s take a look at a few verses that emphasize this:
Malachi 1:6-8 (ESV)
“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’
By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised.
When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.
This language is clearly referring to the Old Covenant sacrificial system.
Second, scholars are divided as to how Malachi should be interpreted. Many scholars believe that the entire book is written to priests. As we saw in Malachi 1:6, the priests are addressed specifically. Let’s look at another verse later in Malachi:
Malachi 2:1 (ESV)
And now, O priests, this command is for you.
As you read throughout the book of Malachi, it is hard to see when the context changes from addressing the priests and Levites to addressing the population as a whole. Throughout Malachi chapter 2, the pronoun “you” refers to the priests and the pronoun “they” refers to the people. Throughout the book, the priests are condemned for not completing the tasks that God wants them to complete. Are we really to believe that Malachi 3 is God is telling the people of Israel to take care of the priests by bringing them tithes? Or is it asking the Levites and priests to follow God’s commands about the tithe more faithfully?
With those considerations in hand, let’s turn to the section in question:
Malachi 3:6-12 (ESV)
“For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.
From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’
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.
I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts.
Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts.
First, notice the use of the word “storehouse.” The “storehouse” was the place that the Levites brought the tithes for the priests, according to Nehemiah 10:38. The people that tithed brought the food to the Levites, who brought the food to the storehouse for the care of the priests. It is possible that these were the chambers mentioned in II Chronicles 31 during the time the people responded to Hezekiah.
So, there is a lot of evidence that this section is addressed to the priests. However, language such as “children of Jacob” and “your fathers” appear to be addressed to the whole nation of Israel. However, we have already seen that the entire context of Malachi is addressed to the priests and Levites. Priests were also the “children of Jacob.” Additionally, look at the exact phrasing of verse 9 in the ESV: “you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.” The language here could be understood as the whole nation of priests, not the whole nation.
Still, even if this section is addressed to the nation of Israel, should we teach this section literally for Christians today? More than tithes are mentioned here—verse 8 says that Israel (or some part of Israel) had robbed God by not offering tithes or contributions. This word translated “contributions” here in Malachi is translated “offerings” elsewhere, and it applies to a variety of offerings. For those who use this section to teach the tithe, what should Christians do about the other offerings?
However, let’s assume that, by Malachi 3, God is addressing the whole nation of Israel. Even if Malachi 3 is addressing the entire nation, that does not lead us to conclude that this section is applicable to Christians. Look again at the language of Malachi 3:9. The usage of the word “curse” indicates that this is clearly an Old Covenant issue—the curses of the Law have been done away with in Christ (Galatians 3:10ff). It is clear from the language of the section, and from the context, that this is within the legal framework of the Mosaic Law. As we have mentioned elsewhere, Jesus Christ replaced that Old Covenant with the New Covenant. Additionally, notice the language of “food” and “my house.” This shows the historically and Biblically accurate definition of the tithe: it was a food item offered to support the Temple and the Levites/priests, among other things. This section corroborates what we have seen throughout this study—the tithe was a limited offering and only certain items and certain people were associated with it.
As a result of the comments above, it is impossible to use this section of Scripture to teach tithing to Christians. This would be akin to someone using Genesis 17 to teach circumcision as a requirement for salvation (which, ironically, happened in the first century church—see Acts 15 and the whole book of Galatians). This section simply cannot be applied literally to Christians. For a much more detailed treatment of Malachi 3, see Should the Church Teach Tithing? by Russell Kelly (available for free at his website: http://www.tithing-russkelly.com).
Before we close this article, I would like to address two arguments used by certain churches to teach tithing. First, are Christians in debt to God? Some churches teach, along with tithing, that Christians have a debt to God. How can we expect God to bless us, they argue, if we haven’t paid our 10% debt to God first? Many who claim this use Malachi 3:8 and claim that those who do not tithe are “robbing God.” People who teach this say: “If you don’t tithe, you are robbing God. This means that we must give our tithes—it is a debt to God.” As we have seen, the tithe has been done away with and Malachi 3 is not directly applicable for Christians. So are Christians in debt to God? It is true that our lives are not our own (I Corinthians 6:19-20). The mature Christian identifies that everything that he “owns” is really God’s. The loving response to this is a life of Christian service to God and to others. However, nowhere in the New Testament does the Bible use the language of debt to communicate this concept. In fact, II Corinthians 9:7 warns about giving under compulsion. The language of debt indicates compulsion. The language of love asserts what Christians should do given what God has done, and this is the true framework for teaching about giving in the Church.
Second, does God require tithing for the protection of Christians? Some churches have gone so far as to suggest that God will not bless or protect those who do not tithe to the church. The reasoning goes something like this: “The minimum that God required in the Old Testament was tithing. Thus, those of us who are born again must expect to do better than that because God has done more for us. God says in Malachi 3 that we should offer tithes and therefore not rob God. How can God bless us if we do not meet the minimum requirements of the Old Testament law?” There are a couple of comments to make at this point. The Christian believer is under grace, not the Law. Under grace, God has a mechanism (holy spirit) for communicating what He wants people to give and how. Our job as Christians is to follow His voice and heed His instructions. He instructed the people in the Old Testament to do certain things because the majority did not have a spiritual connection with God directly. Additionally, since Christians are under grace, there is no need to live under the Law (and tithing is certainly part of the Mosaic Law).
Using the language of protection is a fear-motivation tactic used by churches, and it is completely inappropriate. God does want His people to have abundance, and abundance, in part, comes from a person’s attitude in giving (more in future articles on this), but God’s grace and provision is beyond our understanding. This does not give us license to sin, which in this category would be to ignore what God tells us in the Bible that we should be doing. However, God never commands us to give 10% of our income to our local church. That is an entirely extra-biblical dogma. As we have seen, God does not require giving 10% to our local church—He does, however, suggest that we must support our local ministers, support and engage in mission work, and support those less fortunate than us (especially Christians).
We have seen that Malachi 3 does not apply directly to Christians, because the tithe does not apply directly to Christians. However, there are some things in Malachi 3 to notice. This section is awesome in how it emphasizes what God can do for us and we are unable to do for ourselves—“open the windows of heaven” and “rebuke the devourer” for us. How amazing is that! God can certainly do wonderful things for us! Additionally, this section of Scripture shows how important giving is to God. Beyond that, this section associates blessings with giving, which is a common theme throughout the Bible. Our God is a God of blessing, and Christians have the opportunity to partner with God in ways that were simply not available to believers under the Old Covenant. So while we can learn some great things from this passage, it simply is not directly applicable to Christians. As Christians, let’s focus on the many ways that we can give to the Body of Christ as God leads us. When we do that, God’s purposes are furthered, others are blessed through our giving, and God takes care of us, the givers.