Are ministers required to tithe?

Question
Are ministers required to tithe?
Answer
First, in general, I should say that tithing is a complicated concept because Scripture is not entirely clear on a number of matters, for example:
  1. The number of tithes that were to be collected: Were "firstfruits" separate from the tithe or was that just another name for the tithe (cf. Exod. 23:19 and 34:26 with Deut. 14:21-29; also Num. 18:21-24 with Deut. 18:4-5)? Was there an additional tithe for the poor, strangers and Levites (Deut. 14:27-29; 26:12), or was this an alternate use for the normal tithe? Do we count the "tithe" that the people were allowed to consume themselves (Deut. 12:17; 14:23)? See "Old Testament Tithe" below.
  2. How to calculate the total amount from which the tithe was taken: Was the tithe taken on what the people possessed at the moment? Or were the people to keep track of all their produce and tithe on the total amount?
For the sake of answering the question about pastors, let's stipulate that we're talking about a single calculation of a flat tenth of the total. That may not be accurate (see "New Testament Tithe" below), but it doesn't really impact the applicability of the principle to pastors.

Second, it's not clear in Scripture how the principle of the tithe extends to income and property other than crops and livestock. All the laws about tithing and firstfruits apply only to crops and livestock; there are no laws about sales or profits made by merchants or tradesmen, even though both merchants and tradesmen were known occupations (e.g., Gen. 34:10, 21; 42:34; Deut. 14:24-25). Even when Jesus affirmed tithing in the New Testament, he did so in the context of tiny crops (Matt. 23:23).

The first mentions of tithing, before the encoded principles in the Law, come from narrative accounts. Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek is often pointed to as the first tithe (cf. Heb. 7:4-10). In that case, the tithe was a tenth of the plunder of war rendered as tribute to God because he had given Abraham victory in battle (Gen. 14:18-24). Moreover, this narrative does not appear to be a clear case of mandatory tithing since Melchizedek initially refused the gift, and since Abraham objected that the tithe was the consequence of a vow he had taken. Vows and freewill offerings are not "tithes" per se and are governed by different scriptural laws, even if they amount to a tenth.

Joseph's tithe in Genesis 47:23-24 is also instructive as a basis for the tithe that was later encoded in the Law. Joseph followed a similar general principle to that followed by Abraham: The tithe is taken from the things God has given us. This principle probably explains why the Law requires tithes to be paid on livestock and crops and things where God causes the increase and not on the products of tradesmen and merchants.

On this basis, I would suggest that most gifts to churches these days are not properly "tithes" but freewill offerings, with a few vows here and there. That being said, part of the purpose of all these different types of gifts, including the tithe, was to ensure that the Levites had an inheritance. That is, the Levites deserved to be supported by their fellow Israelites in payment for the work they did in the tabernacle, temple, and various towns in which they lived (Deut. 12:19; 14:27). And because the command to support the Levites is generally given in the context of the tithe, it seems to me to be a corollary command. I think that should incline us to believe that the Levites deserve to be supported by the rest of the people regardless of how the rest of the people earn their livings. A tenth may not be required to support them, but sufficient money should be given to pay them adequately.

As a final preliminary point, let's assume for the sake of this discussion that we can agree that modern churches and pastors are the rough equivalent of Old Testament Levites. Christ is now our great high priest. His priesthood has replaced the Levitical priesthood, and the authorities he has established in his church now serve the same function that the Old Testament priests served. So, I think it's reasonable to apply the principles of the laws on tithing to the officers and workers of the modern church.

Now to the question: Do modern pastors and church leaders have to tithe (or rather give)? I think the biblical answer is "yes," but it requires some explanation.

First, let's look at the general principle of tithing as it compares Levites to church officers and workers. All Levites received tithes and support, but not all Levites were priests. Similarly, the modern church has officers and workers. I don't think we should focus only on pastors and priests, since the matter of the tithe applied to the whole tribe of Levi. Instead, the laws of tithing and support would seem to apply fairly equally to all church officers and workers.

Second, the Law clearly states that the Levites were to tithe (Num. 18:26-32). This is in keeping with the principle established in the narrative accounts that tithing is based on the increase the Lord gives you rather than on the increase you create yourself.

Third, the general tithes were collected by the Levites as a corporate entity, that is, as a whole. So, the tithes they were supposed to pay must have been, generally speaking, corporate obligations. In other words, the tithes were to be paid by the tribe rather than by individuals within the tribe. This would imply that the modern tithes owed by church officers and leaders should actually be paid by the church as part of its overhead, prior to any allotment of the remainder to the individual officers and workers. I would suggest that, ideally, the tithe should be paid out of the general budget rather than individually rendered from the remuneration of the various officers and workers.

Fourth, it's important to consider what is done with the tithe itself. The tithe paid by the Levites was initially given to Aaron (Num. 18:28). This might be the Old Testament background for the "double honor" Paul mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:17, which is typically understood to be double remuneration. If so, that might indicate that half of the salaries of those so honored should come from the Levites' tithe. In Nehemiah's day, the Levites' tithe was added to the temple storehouses (Neh. 10:38). Perhaps this implies that modern Levitical tithes should also go into funds reserved for the care of the Levites, strangers, widows, orphans, the poor, etc.

Fifth, not all funds and materials collected by the church are tithes. It seems to me that only funds paid on increases caused by God should be considered tithes, and therefore only these funds should be subject to an obligatory levitical tithe. Other funds, such as freewill offerings (probably the bulk of church collections) or the fulfillment of vows, are not subject to the levitical tithe. Nevertheless, just as the general principle of tithing is accompanied by the exhortation not to neglect the Levites in Scripture, the Levitical tithe also implies a Levitical obligation to care for strangers, the poor, etc. regardless of whether the funds that provide for those needs originate as tithes. The obligation should be fulfilled according to generosity and cheerfulness (Deut. 15:10; Ps. 37:21; Rom. 12:8; 2 Cor. 9:5-7).

Related References:

The Old Testament Tithe?
The New Testament Tithe?
Giving as a Part of Worship?
Canceled the written code - Colossians 2:14

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.