The English word 'tithe', like its counterparts in the ancient languages, simply means 'the tenth' (from Old English teogotha, 'tenth'). It was applied to 'the tenth part' of one's income which was set aside as belonging to the worshipper's God.
Tithing in one form or another was practised among various peoples of antiquity for both secular and religious purposes, including the worshippers of God in the Bible.
In the Bible, the practice of tithing was one tangible way in which human beings gratefully expressed their recognition and acknowledgement of God's creatorship and ownership of everything. Tithing was seen as a regular reminder to the human race that its dominant position on planet earth was that of a manager or steward; a way of looking at life that also influences the way in which one spends the remaining nine tenths.
The principle of tithing was early understood and practised by those who worshipped God. This is demonstrated by the fact that Abraham, who lived in the 19th century BC, is described as paying tithe to Melchizedek as a priest of the most high God (Genesis 14:18-20). In a similar vein his grandson Jacob promised to devote 'the tenth' to God (Genesis 28:22).
Tithing was part of the religious covenant entered into by the children of Israel following their Exodus from Egypt. Under this system God arranged that their tithes were to be devoted to the support of the Levites (Numbers 18:24). This payment was in lieu of the fact that the tribe of Levi received no allocation of land following the settlement of the Israelites in Palestine. Instead they were to work full-time as religious teachers and as priests officiating at the Temple services.
In early times the payment of tithes was often in kind - vegetables, cereals, fruits or livestock and their associated products etc. Later, those who lived some distance from the Temple and who encountered difficulty in paying their tithes in kind could change them into money.
Old Testament history shows that from time to time people were slack in their payment of tithe. This led to calls by the secular ruler and the prophets encouraging individuals not to neglect their duty in this area.
The command to pay tithe is not explicitly restated in the New Testament. However, Jesus made one reference to this custom which is of interest. In his day tithe paying was scrupulously practised by the religious leaders. However, it had become a matter of duty rather than an expression of gratitude; something that was performed to acquire merit and prestige among men rather than an expression of devotion to God. Jesus condemned their meticulous attempts to tithe even the tiny herb seeds while at the same time neglecting to show justice and mercy to the oppressed (Matthew 23:23-24). In his condemnation of their hypocrisy, Jesus did not suggest that they should stop paying their tithe. His response was, 'You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.'
As a result, members of the early Christian church were encouraged to follow this Old Testament practice, supported by implication, by the New Testament. (Matthew 10:10, Luke 10:7, 1 Corinthians 9:3ff) of setting aside a tenth of their income, as God's simple yet wise plan for the support of the church and its mission.
The first church council to mention 'tithes' is that of Tours in 567 AD which encouraged their payment. Unfortunately the emerging union of church and state caused the church to lose its way in a number of areas including the payment of tithes. At the second Council of Macon in 585 AD the church made the mistake of attempting to force the payment of tithes under pain of excommunication. In 765 AD the Carolingian king Pepin lll (the Short) sent a letter to all bishops making the payment of tithe by each individual to his parish church a legal obligation. In this way obligatory tithing spread with the church over all of Europe, but not without vigorous resistance in some newly Christianized areas. This unfortunate situation remained in force until the end of the eighteenth century and its associated abuses greatly tarnished the principle of tithing in the minds of the general public.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that H J Heinz of '57 Varieties', J L Kraft of Kraft Cheese, F W Woolworth of the well known high street chain, W Wrigley Jr. of chewing gum, and W Colgate of toothpaste fame all put God first in their finances and returned a tithe on their income.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church accepts the biblical basis of the tithing principle and encourages members to respond positively to God's invitation to return a tenth of their income. In line with the Bible's counsel, the tithe is used solely to support the evangelistic mission of the church and to pay its ministers. However, the church believes that 'God loves a cheerful giver'. It does not believe that enforced giving has any merit. In fact it believes that such giving is contrary to the spirit of Christianity.
General Conference Stewardship Department - much more information here