Did you know that practice of tithing, as it is taught today in many churches, is only about 300 years old? It did not exist in the days of Jesus. It was not taught or practiced in the churches planted by Paul. Even where we do read in Scripture about tithing (a few places in the Old Testament, and fewer still in the New), the practice then was not at all what we are encouraged to practice today: giving 10% of your income to the church.
Later this week we will look at some of the Scripture passages used to defend the practice of tithing, but first I want to discuss the history of tithing.
We begin with looking at how things worked for most of the first millennium.
Two Ways of Getting Money
Roughly the first 1000 years of the church operated under the Client-Patron system. Under this system, wealthy patrons would offer to protect, sponsor, and provide for the needs of scholars, philosophers, doctors, in exchange for their full-time service. Patrons also would provide for peasants and farmers in similar ways, but with different sets of requirements.
So if one wanted to be a philosopher, doctor, or religious teacher, you had two choices. You either had to pay your own way by having a job, or you had to find a Patron who would take you on as a client, and pay your way for you.
Examples from Scripture
We see examples of both in Scripture. Jesus was trained as a carpenter, but He did not support His ministry through carpentry. Instead, it appears that He had a small network of patrons who supported His work and ministry. Luke 8:3 indicates that Jesus had several followers who provided for Jesus out of their wealth. In others words, Jesus was their client. They believed in what He was doing, and so they supported Him so He could do it full time.
It appears that others in the New Testament were similarly supported. It is likely that Luke, as a physician and historian, was the client of Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1). John encourages some of his readers to support the work of certain men, because in so doing, they would have a share in their work (3 John 7-8).
But this was not the only way of doing ministry. Paul is the best-known example of the other way. He supported himself by making tents. He had a trade which could travel with him, and it appears that whenever he ran out of money, he would go work for a local tentmaker to join in their work, and so receive payment (Acts 18:3). He did not ask for money, but supported himself by working (Acts 20:33-34; 2 Cor 11:9; 2 Thess 3:8-10).
Just curious – Do you know anyone in “ministry” today who is supported by a patron? Would the term “patron” include working spouses, parents, foundations and endowments?
Should those who have other employment (“tentmakers”) have fewer job requirements and be expected to work fewer hours in “ministry”?
Jeremy Myers says
I don’t know anybody, but I think the closest thing would be missionaries, especially if they have 2-3 primary backers.
I think some smaller churches have patrons also, those where one person gives 90% of the funds.
Generally those who are tentmakers do have less responsibilities.
Greg Dill says
As a missionary who relies on the financial and prayer support of others, I have to come to terms with the fact that I have to ask people for their money during our support raising process. It was at first a difficult time I went through. After having worked my whole life I had a hard time asking people for their money. Perhaps there was some pride issues in the way. I also had a hard time reconciling this with Scripture, since I only knew of Paul’s missionary journeys and I knew he was a tentmaker. But, it was only when a buddy of mine shared with me two passages from the New Testament that I began to understand the need to rely on others for my support in order to do full time ministry. Thankfully, I am blessed to be the client of about 100 patrons and churches who cover my family’s cost to do ministry here in Albania.
Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:3)
Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:15-18)
Jeremy Myers says
Yes, I think that missionaries operate under a Client-Patron system of sorts. I actually think that if we could emphasize this system more, rather than the current “tithe” system, it would help missionaries raise funds for their work.
Jeannette Altes says
Your wading into dangerous waters, Jeremy. 🙂
I waded into these waters a couple of weeks ago with some of the people in the fellowship I’ve been part of – and stirred up a hornets nest.
Good luck & I’ll be interested in seeing where you go with this….
Jeremy Myers says
I have seen my readership plummet by over 20% in the last four days…. so is that a sign of something?
Mike Gantt says
When you talk about money that’s the first time a lot of people decide to get serious about what you’re saying.
Mark McIntyre says
One of the advantages of “tent making” is that no-one can suspect that money is the motivation for ministry. I have a job which limits the time available for church activities, but (perhaps I’m a little naive here)it doesn’t limit my ability to minister since I see ministry as participating in life with those being ministered to.
Also, I’ve known of a church where big donors acted as if they were patrons and threatened the pastor that they would leave the church if he did not agree to their demands.
I agree with Jeanette that your heading into dangerous waters, but I’ll stay tuned.
Jeremy Myers says
Yes, some big donors do act as Patrons. This can be dangerous as you stated. I once pastored a church of this sort, and eventually had to leave when the “patron” decided he didn’t like the way I was pastoring.
Clive Clifton says
Crumbs from the masters table comes to mind, and as Mark said the trouble with patrons is they think the Church belongs to them which smacks of the tail wagging the dog.
One of the many books I read told the story of when the writer started out writing Christian books, he lived a hand to mouth existence and did not think he should tithe to the Church he attended as he could not afford it. The man he shared a flat with was not a Christian and when they had a conversation about this matter he said, if you believe that your God has called you to do this work, surely part of the deal is to obey what he says in his book and if tithing is a command then you have to do it and if your hearing him correctly, will he not provide for your basic needs?.
The Christian was challenged and decided he would give a tithe (10%) so when he received money from his friends or through his agent he put 10% in a glass jar. If he received a £1 he put in 10 pence. When it was full he took it to the Church. Strangely when he started doing this he started to receive bigger cheques and his work became more popular and now he makes a living out of his work and still tithes.
I’m sorry I cant remember his name, but does that not prove the point that tithing is the way to support the Church we attend. My income is fairly low as I am on a small private pension and retirement pension from the state giving me an income of approximately £1200.00 per month I give £125.00 each month to the Church and if I receive an increase I up my giving.
I don’t tell the Church what to do with my money. If there was a real problem about it’s use then I would and have said I have a problem,especially when I see waste. Being on the PCC Parochial Church Council I have a say and a vote on all issues as I and 20 others make sure that the congregations money and concerns are represented. Patrons are not the way God meant it to be as they were effected by how they felt about the Vicar and that could sway them to reduce or stop their giving, that puts too much power into and individuals hands.
Do I believe in tithing, even if it only has been going for 300 years, yes, do I think it’s scriptural, Yes. God introduced tithing so that everyone is a contributor as even the poor widow with her mite was gladly received. The rich man gave from his surplus, she gave more than the 10%. When the Church gave up tithing and was happy to use patronage it was wrong and it effected how the Church operated. Look at it’s history of abusing the poor in many ways, one of which was to put the fear of God in them if they did not give generously to the Church. They used to charge families who had lost a loved one, for saying prayers each year for the souls of the dear departed who were in the place they called purgatory to make sure they would get out and while they were in there they would be comforted. The Church ruled the countries with their lies and putting people in fear of eternal damnation. How wicked. I could go on about how the Church Of England, who was the largest landlord of delapidated tenements, who had no compunction in throwing out a tenant who was in arrears.
Thats why God made everyone responsible for the upkeep of his house so the world would see how we loved his Church and how he loved us in response. We are in to building his Church not pulling it down, are we not?
Jeremy Myers says
Do you know if the Church of England receives funds from the English monarchy? I mean, it’s the state church, right? Does this mean that they are part of the government budget?
I found this, but am not fully sure what it all means:
Funding the Church of England
I have some personal thoughts on your comments: “Thats why God made everyone responsible for the upkeep of his house so the world would see how we loved his Church and how he loved us in response. We are in to building his Church not pulling it down, are we not?”
First, I’m not sure if by “his house” you mean the spiritual body of Christ (the people; His disciples); and by Him making us “responsible for the upkeep” of IT, are you referring to the role of elders to lead and shepherd the brethren by laying down their lives for them?
Or, by “his Church” are you thinking more of the large organization of like-minded adherents, who gather together for regular corporate prayer, singing, listening and money-changing (I mean GIVING… bad Mark, bad!)?
Regardless, I have grown to not feel as responsible for the corporate contentment of a certain group of people. I do feel commissioned by our Lord to make disciples (of Him mind you, rather than a follower of a certain man or denomination).
Finally, I have found the joy, confidence and rest in our Lord’s assurance that He is the One building His church… in His way and in His time. I am sometimes priviledged to be used by Him (available to His ability) in some small ways in His building up of His body… hopefully seeing disciples of all shapes and sizes joining us in this sojourn. Selah.
Your brother, in Christ.
Mike Gantt says
This was an intriguing post. Do you have more support for the following statements:
“Did you know that practice of tithing, as it is taught today in many churches, is only about 300 years old?”
“Roughly the first 1000 years of the church operated under the Client-Patron system.”
I’m also interested in the 700 years between these two periods.
Please don’t think I am challenging your assertions. They sound plausible to me. I’m just looking for verification and more precision.
Jeremy Myers says
Yes. I found these numbers in various church history books. Here are two of them:
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
Story of Christianity
When I get this book done, it will include exact page numbers and bibliographic data.
Michael Fleming says
What I like about that system is that it is relational. The way it happens now with institutions in between, people are supporting an it instead of a person. In that system, not just any Christian would be supported. You had to prove yourself worthy of being supported by the life you lived. You couldn’t just pass a few tests and write a few papers.
Jeremy Myers says
Yes, the relational way is so important. The current paperwork way leaves no real hope for change or helping the root of the problem.
Have you read the section about tithing in Frank Viola/George Barna’s Pagan Christianity?
Jeremy Myers says
yes, years and years ago. What do they say again?
Rodney Stark has some very interesting thoughts on this (http://www.amazon.com/Triumph-Christianity-Movement-Largest-Religion/dp/0062007696/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1420825454&sr=8-1&keywords=the+triumph+of+christianity).
1) Rabbis often were supposed to have a fallback occupation
2) “Carpenter” can apparently also mean “contractor” in modern vernacular. It’s possible that Jesus’ family wasn’t all that poor. He doesn’t make the case that Jesus was rich, just that we shouldn’t be quick to say that he was a poor carpenter.
3) I cannot recommend that book enough. I don’t agree with everything he says but it is a seriously good read.
Aidan McLaughlin says
Such an emotive subject Jeremy. And I love you for talking about it. Tithing as far as I am aware is based upon the promise by Jacob in the old testament. When he said to God “look after me and mine for the rest of my days and I, ll give ya a third of all my income”. This is a good ideal to follow to be honest. BUT!! Each individual,s view of getting looked after is a fairly broad spectrum. Lol. It,s not an easy ideal to follow. I,ve tried it over a fair few years. Do not practice it now though. I can see and have seen many of the difficulty talked about in the tweets on here. Yes I wish I still had the strength of character to continue tithing. But I just plain haven, t. And with regard to getting looked after by God. I always will be, tithing or not. Amen. The level of getting looked after is always his call though. Not mine!