The History of Tithing in Evangelicalism

The History of Tithing in Evangelicalism

So guys, even though the PDF has been free for a while, I just officially published The Trojan Horse of Tithing. The ebook is free on multiple platforms and 99 cents on Amazon. If you prefer the paperback version or want to give it to someone as a gift, it is also available now.

Click here for the ebook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple books and more.

Click here for the paperback.

For now, here’s an excerpt from the book with a little of the history of tithing since the protestant reformation.

The Protestant Reformation and Opposition to Tithes

Martin Luther said of the tithe:

“But the other commandments of Moses, which are not by nature, the Gentiles do not hold. Nor do these pertain to the Gentiles, such as the tithe and others equally fine which I wish we had too.”[21]

 Luther liked the idea of a tithe as a civil tax, since it would be a much lighter burden than the taxes of his day. However, he said that the tithe did not pertain to the Gentiles and was not a part of natural law. Zwingli entered the Reformation over the issue of tithing, but later seemed to backpedal a bit.[22] The Anabaptists reacted radically against tithing and called for its abolition.[23],[24] Calvin’s position was unclear and confusing.[25] John Smyth, often credited as being the first Baptist, said that Christ abolished tithes.[26] John Robinson, the pastor of the “Pilgrim Fathers” [27] before they left on the Mayflower, wrote that tithing was abolished[28] and ministers should be maintained with voluntary contributions.[29]

The English Baptists and Quakers also opposed tithing, with particularly fierce resistance coming from the Quakers. Quakers said they were not bound to obey the civil authorities when they gave commands in contradiction to scripture.[30] Quakers were imprisoned, beaten, heavily fined, and had their goods seized for refusing to tithe.[31],[32] Any Quaker who did tithe was threatened with expulsion from the group.[33]

Many English Baptist groups continued paying the tithe as obedience to a civil law, but not because they believed scripture mandated it. One said that tithing “over throws the priesthood of Christ.” They concluded that a minister who accepted tithes should be dealt with according to Matthew 18:15-17, be put on church discipline, and excommunicated if they didn’t repent.[34]

John Bunyan was the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, known as the best-selling Christian book in history next to the Bible. He was imprisoned for his faith. He said that the tithe was ceremonial, passing away with the ending of the Levitical priesthood.[35]

Again, quoting Dr. David Croteau:

“Contrary to the conclusions of most, the Reformation period closed with no (major) reformer explicitly advocating tithing. Their hesitancy to support tithing was based largely on scriptural arguments, not as a reaction to Catholic abuses of the tithe system.[36]


Up to the Present Time

I’ve already left out quite a lot of names and quotes from historical Christian figures who did not believe in tithing. As we continue in history, the number of famous Christians and Bible commentators who taught that tithing ended with the old covenant becomes overwhelming. I recommend reading the works of Dr. David Croteau and Dr. Russ Kelly if you’d like to go into more detail.

Charles Noble wrote an open letter to C.H. Spurgeon’s church in July, 1918. He complained about certain changes in the church since the death of Spurgeon:

“Many other offensive changes were allowed—amongst them Tithes. Tithes were demanded and money grabbed in every way.”… “Then later Tithes were introduced, and the Law was hooked on to the Gospel. ‘But we are not under the law, but under grace,’ which you so soon forgot. It was Paul speaking by the Holy Ghost, who said that ‘Christ had abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments’; and James, speaking to the Church at Jerusalem, of the Gentiles, said, ‘we will lay on them no other burden than that they abstain from fornication and from things offered to idols and from blood.’ Tithes were not named, nor called for in the early Church for hundreds of years. Only when she became corrupt were they called for, and then by a greedy, extravagant, pocket-picking priesthood. Tithes caused trouble enough in this country, and yet you allowed Dr. Dixon to preach sermon after sermon on our duty to pay tithes.”[37]

 Campbell Morgan, a famous preacher and pastor of Westminster Chapel, said the following in a sermon called “The Grace of Giving.”:

“I hear a great deal about the tithing of incomes. I have no sympathy with the movement at all. A tenth in the case of one man is meanness, and in the case of another man is dishonesty. I know men today who are Christian men in city churches and village chapels, who have no business to give a tenth of their income to the work of God. They cannot afford it. I know other men who are giving one-tenth, and the nine-tenths they keep is doing harm to their souls.”[38]

Tithing was not the norm among churches for several hundred years in the United States, where many persecuted groups such as the Quakers fled. Various other methods of support were practiced, including voluntary contributions, renting or selling pews, and at times taxes. The Baptists continued to oppose tithing for hundreds of years. Then major change seems to have begun in 1876. Quoting Dr. Russ Kelly and then Dr. David Croteau:

“Except for state-run churches such as the Anglican Church of England, the Lutheran Church of Germany and the Catholic Church of Spain and Germany, tithing did not appear in other churches in the U. S. A. until the late 1890s. It was not even introduced until the 1870s.[39]-Dr. Russel Earl Kelly

The fact that a tithing advocate (i.e. Salstrand) mentions a ‘rediscovery’ of tithing indicates that tithing must not have been very widespread or popular in America in the nineteenth century. Regardless, Kane wrote a pamphlet in 1876 and sent it out to 75 percent of the evangelical pastors in the United States free of charge. For years he distributed his pamphlets free of charge.”[40]-Dr. David Croteau

Even the writing of Kane himself, a strong proponent of tithing, establishes that the tithe was almost nonexistent in the first few hundred years of American church history. :

“The twin laws that the seventh of our time and the tenth of our income shall be devoted in a special sense to God’s service have never been repealed or abrogated, although until recent years the law of the tithe was almost universally disobeyed; indeed, comparatively few had any distinct knowledge of its existence.”[41] 


What Does the History of Tithing Tell Us?

I have only given a very brief history on tithing. Of course, history doesn’t establish doctrine. However, history shows us that the debate about tithing isn’t new. The lack of tithing in the first generations of the church is also cause for serious question. In general, the tithe became established along with other changes that most evangelicals don’t view positively. Dr. Russ Kelly’s observation hits the nail on the head:

“The introduction of tithing emerged in direct proportion to the disintegration of the doctrine of the priesthood of believers and the emergence of the power of the bishop-priests.[42]

 In fact, Chapter 17 of an early document advocating tithing, The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, uses the following points as its argument that a bishop should receive tithes and other old-testament offerings that went to the priests and Levites:

“The bishop, he is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit. He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate; he is, next after God, your earthly God, who has a right to be honored by you.[43]

 Most evangelical Christians consider such doctrine to be extremely dangerous and even blasphemous, yet it’s the ecclesiology that went hand-in-hand with the rise of tithing in church history. With the Protestant reformation came increased emphasis on the authority of scripture and the priesthood of all believers. People began to read the scriptures for themselves. Along with these changes came a flood of resistance towards the tithe. Here is Dr. Stuart Murray’s conclusion:

“Those who advocated reform of the tithing system or who resisted the tithe itself and proposed alternatives often did so on the basis that tithing—at least as it was currently practiced—was contrary to the gospel or not supported by scripture.[44]

“Rather than tithing being viewed as a marker of spiritual renewal, the groups that resisted tithing were groups who advocated spiritual renewal and radical discipleship.”[45]

My personal observation has been that the more regularly Christians begin living out the priesthood of all believers, the more they become open to reconsidering tithing. In the last decade, the street-healing movement has paved the way for many people to reconsider what they’d been taught about tithes.

A look at tithing in history should provide some serious food for thought to anybody who assumes that opposition to tithing is rooted in stinginess, half-hearted faith, or lack of Christian commitment; even more so to anybody who accepts teachings saying that non-tithers will go to hell. Many who did not practice or even opposed tithing gave their lives for their faith or were imprisoned, even imprisoned specifically for resisting tithing as a matter of conscience.

The Quakers excommunicating anyone who tithed, and the English Baptists subjecting pastors to church discipline if they received tithes, shows that they considered the doctrine a serious affront to the gospel. They lost far more for refusing to tithe than it would have cost them to tithe, because they took the matter as seriously as the circumcision issue which Paul addressed in Galatians.

A great number of others who disagreed with Christian mandatory tithing were famous preachers and theologians, of whom I’ve named only a very few. It is very difficult to accuse such preachers, like G. Campbell Morgan, of having any motive to disagree with the tithe other than love for the truth.

The United States was a refuge for those seeking religious freedom, including the Quakers and Anabaptists who radically opposed tithing, and other groups which did not practice it. Therefore, there is little history of tithing in the United States until the late 1800s, and Mormonism has a much stronger history of tithing than American Evangelicalism does. In church history, it was often those who persecuted others in Christ’s name who mandated tithing, and those who were persecuted who opposed it.

Even today, many major Bible reference works, large seminaries (such as Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary), and influential teachers and theologians, conclude that the tithe ceased with the Old Covenant. Both Dr. Russ Kelley and Dr. David Croteau have compiled lists with some of these. It seems absurd to me that tithing would so often be treated as if it were a fundamental of the Christian faith.

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