Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On tithing

Today I saw a tweet advertising a blog post from a church consultant. The post provided a top 10 list of why churches were going broke. Number one on the list was, "People aren't tithing." . . . And I thought churches were going broke because church consultants were skimming the profits!

Many Christians have no concept regarding the history and practice of tithing. Tithing is something their church tells them to do, and so they either obey or not depending on their personal dispositions. They might have some verse in Leviticus taken out of context and tattooed in their memory, but they don't understand the history or the full instructions regarding the tithe. In all my time in churches and around Christians, I don't ever recall anyone teaching the history and practice of tithing in Scripture. I have heard preachers make promises regarding tithing, but none have outlined where it started and how it was practiced. I have had discussions with Christians before where I asked them read Scripture regarding tithing. A memorable response went something like, "I've read that before, but it never registered."

Tithing, such as it is taught in Scripture, is part of the Old Testament Mosaic Law, you know, the same law which Jesus Christ abolished in his flesh "with its commandments and regulations." (Read Ephesians 2:14-16) This is the same Law of which Paul said, "For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, 'CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM.'" Galatians 3:10 (NASB) Preachers who establish tithing by touting Old Testament Law are putting their congregations under a curse. In many cases, preachers are very clear on this point. They say in effect, give me your money, or else something bad or nothing good will happen. That's a curse. "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law . . ." but preachers sell out their congregations for 10% of the gross.

With this in mind, let's look at the Biblical history of the tithe. In Genesis 14, Abraham gave 10% of the spoils of battle to Melchizedek Observe a couple things from this passage: Firstly, Abraham kept nothing for himself. Melchizedek received 10%, the men who fought with Abraham received a share, but Abraham returned all that was left to the king of Sodom. Remember Sodom? The king of Sodom took the biggest share of all – how does that relate to today? Secondly, Abraham's tithe was a one-time gift. This was not a recurring practice. It is logically impossible to base tithing to a church upon Abraham's gift to Melchizedek – first we would have to go fight a war in the Middle East.

The tithe taught in the Old Testament Law originated with Jacob. Jacob might have remembered Abraham's tithe, but if so he doesn't mention it. More likely, Jacob, the wheeler-dealer, interacted with God the same way he did his father in law, Laban (Read Genesis 24-31). Jacob promised,

If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.

Genesis 28:20-22 (NASB)

The tithe was initiated by Jacob and not by God. Jacob, of course, was renamed Israel. When Israel came out of Egypt as a nation, God reminded him of his promise. The nation of Israel was bound to keep Jacob's promise to God. Jacob originated the promise, but his offspring were obligated to fulfill it. Western civilization has a distorted view of familial relationships, so this might be hard for some to understand.

New Testament theology views Abraham as the father of all believers. He is not our father by blood, but rather by faith. "Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all." Romans 4:16 (NASB) Abraham was never under the Law because he lived and died long before Moses. So, while we have Abraham as our father Christians are not obligated to fulfill the vows of Jacob.

Some might argue that tithing is not an obligation of Law, but rather a pattern of practice. If so, then what pattern should we follow? Abraham's one-time gift? Or the pattern of practice Moses commands in the Law? If you don't already see a logic trap, watch out! I have never heard a preacher endorsing a Biblical practice of tithing. Deuteronomy 14 explains tithing this way:

You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.

At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.

Deuteronomy 14:21-29 (NASB)

There are two aspects of the tithe in Deuteronomy 14. There was the annual tithe and a tithe that occurred once every three years. Deuteronomy 26 calls this "the year of tithing." Amos 4:4 talks about Israel bringing their tithes every three years (some translations say "third day", but the word's most likely meaning is interval hence year since that is what is prescribed in the Law).

The annual tithe was intended to be a celebration unto the Lord. The giver consumed his own tithe in the place where the Lord had chosen for his name – that is either at the Tabernacle or at the temple in Jerusalem. If a man's tithe was too much to carry, he was instructed to exchange it for money and then with the money he was to buy whatever his heart desired including wine and strong drink. How many churches encourage their congregations to have a drink and celebrate God? (Read Psalm 104) Nevertheless, this was God's Law for Israel!

A man's generosity was supposed to reach out to the Levite and the foreigners, too. A rich person might need a little help from his community to consume his tithe (Read Deuteronomy 26).

In Israel, each year 1/10th of the GDP was consumed in one place. For a few weeks each year people bought and sold sheep, oxen, wine, and strong drink, and whatever else they could think of. This was a divine economic stimulus package! You might compare Old Testament tithing to a good old-fashioned Christmas with lots of food and lots of presents. What would happen to the US economy if we suddenly stopped celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ? Imagine what tithing did for Israel in the Old Testament.

Every three years, the tithe was collected in the local towns and the Levites, orphans, widows, and aliens lived off of this. In other words, the year of the tithe funded the social welfare programs for Israel. Again, the tithe was a type of economic stimulus. In all likelihood, the year of the tithe was not the same for every person. Every year, some were celebrating in Jerusalem while others were contributing to the local storehouse.

In the year of the tithe, one tenth of the collective tithe went to the temple treasury. So the temple funding from tithing amounted to 1/3 of 1% or 0.33% of the GDP. That's less than we pay in sales tax.

What passes for tithing in Christendom is nothing like the tithing of the Old Testament. Passages of Scripture referring to the Old Testament tithe, therefore, cannot be used to justify the collection of tithes in New Testament churches. Tithing as taught by churches follows neither the obligation of the Law nor the patterns of practice established by the Law. Tithing as often preached is an extra-biblical doctrine – meaning it has no basis in Scripture.

The Old Testament tithe benefited the entire nation. Jacob promised God 10%, and God told Israel how he wanted them to give it. Not surprisingly, God just wanted people to remember Him and to celebrate His blessings. By celebrating God's blessing in the way he commanded, the tithe exploded into an economic windfall for the nation.

Is there a New Testament justification for tithing? There is a New Testament justification for giving generously but not by obligation to any particular entity. Giving in the New Testament addresses the needs of real people while generating exuberant thankfulness to God (Read 2 Corinthians 8). I suggest that in our Christmas celebrations this year, we follow that example.

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