Friday, June 8, 2012
To tithe or not to tithe, that is the question
In today’s church, money talks, and churches talk about money. If you spend much time around a church you are likely to hear about business meetings and cash flow. And if you attend an evangelical church, most likely you are going to hear a sermon or sermons with a very interesting title like ‘stewardship’ or ‘following the Lord’. In these sermons, what you hear at very many churches is the necessity for every church member to tithe—that is, to give 10% of your income (some preach to tithe off the gross, some off the net), to be in accordance with Scriptures. This money is used to support the ministries of the church.
But as I shall argue below, the modern teaching of Christian tithing is taught only through serious distortion of Scripture. First, “Christian tithing” applies a Mosaic Covenant commandment to a people who are explicitly freed from this Law. Second, even when God’s followers were required to tithe it was not anything at all like what is taught today. And finally, this type of preaching ignores or badly distorts the teaching of the New Testament and the early church.
Let us take each of my claims individually, and then I will make my recommendations for what true Christian giving looks like.
I. TITHING UNDER THE MOSAIC COVENANT
Before the Covenant
The concept of tithing—which literally means “a tenth”—was a common practice in the Ancient Near East, and by no means simply a Jewish theological practice. In ancient cultures, it was common for a powerful kingdom or lord (called the suzerain) to provide protection for lesser kingdoms or lords (called vassals) as part of a covenant. Generally speaking, the covenant required the lesser kingdom to undergo some form of action (loyalty, taxes, etc.), in return for the greater power providing for the vassal’s defense and governmental provisions.
Quite frequently, the tax required was a tithe—one tenth of the work produced by the person went to the suzerain. (Compare this with our modern tax code, where industrialized nations see their individuals paying between 30-70% of their income as taxes!)
Archaeologists have found ledgers of ancient Babylonians who were paying their taxes to the king as a tithe. One garment maker, for example, made 112 garments during the period of time, and thus 11 of them were given to the sovereign to do with as they saw fit (keep, sell, etc.). This was the garment-maker’s part of the covenant, in return for the protection of the sovereign.
We see a great example of this is Genesis 14. During the battle of the Valley of Siddim, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah were defeated, and Lot—being a noteworthy lord—was captured and taken prisoner, and all of his goods confiscated (Gen 14:8-12). Abraham, being an ally of the defeated armies and a kinsman of Lot, was informed of the defeat. He gathered over 300 elite warriors and went on a Special Forces-esqe rescue mission. Dividing into smaller teams and striking by nightfall, Abraham caught the enemy unaware. They were driven out of the land, all of the hostages were freed, and the possessions were gained. (Gen 14:13-16).
So now, as their victor and champion, Abraham was due a tithe of 10% for his actions as the suzerain and liberator of the people. But the people were even more generous, offering him all of the enemy’s spoils of war (Gen 14:21). Instead, Abraham did something interesting. He let the liberated people keep the 90% of the spoils that normally belonged to him. And instead of keeping the 10% tithe for himself, he gave all of his tithe over to the priest Melchizedek (14:20).
Some who falsely teach Christian tithing try to use this passage to defend their theory, saying that this is an example of tithing pre-dating the Mosaic Covenant. It couldn’t be further from the truth! Melchizedek did not require anything of Abraham, nor did anyone else give anything, nor did Melchizedek run a temple or tabernacle. Indeed, the tithe in this passage is not due to Melchizedek, but to Abraham, as he is the suzerain and liberator of the people. Abraham gave all of the tithe of his people to Melchizedek, and none of his personal wealth. So this is in no way an example of Abraham “tithing” in the sense that Christian pastors use it: Abraham gave none of his own possessions, but rather all of the political (not spiritual!) tithe due to him as the liberator of the land and donated that to the priest. It is a freewill offering, not a tithe; and it is not 10% of his possessions or his income, but rather 100% of the spoils of war that he was due as the recipient of taxes. Abraham is so moved by God’s generosity that he decides to give everything he “deserves” from the war to a priest instead of adding it to his possessions.
In Genesis 28:10-22, we see another great example of a tithe that pre-dates the Law, but which helps prove that tithing was not in fact a normal requirement. God gives Jacob a dream in which He offers to give Jacob a great blessing of wealth and land (v.13-15). Jacob is awed at God’s generosity, for this generosity is not based upon any work of Jacob’s. God does not command him to do anything; He places no obligation upon Jacob. But Jacob, moved by God’s generosity, makes an oath to God—if God would really do the things he promised, Jacob would give God a tithe of the wealth he gains. So again, this is an example of a freewill offering in which someone is moved to offer—without obligation—to give newfound wealth to God.
In neither situation are they required to do so, and Abraham does not actually give anything of his own, only possessions which belong to others but which he had a right to claim for himself.
The Mosaic Covenant
Eventually, though, God made a special covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel, called the Mosaic Covenant. Under this Covenant, God would lay down a series of laws that would make the Jews worthy of having a relationship with Him; in return, He would protect them and make them a mighty nation.
One aspect of this law, as described in Deuteronomy 14, 18, and 26, is that they were to tithe, giving ten percent of their harvests to the priests. This would support the priests as income (freeing them up to serve God’s temple and people), and also would be used for other things as the priests saw fit (feeding the hungry, providing for widows, etc.). The Old Testament always describes this as people bringing produce to the house of God—grain, wine, animals, etc.
There is no doubt, of course, that under the Mosaic Covenant Jews were indeed required to pay their tithes. And if they failed to pay their tithes properly, God was under no obligation to uphold His end of the covenant and protect them. This is what happens in Malachi 3, the most shamelessly abused passage of Old Testament to encourage tithing. In Malachi, the Jews had abandoned their requirement under the Mosaic Covenant to tithe, and God says that bad things will happen. This is used as a scare-tactic by pastors today to get people to give money to the church. But this is blatantly misrepresenting God’s holy word, for several reasons:
(1) Malachi is talking to a society of Jews under obligation of the Mosaic Law;
(2) The Jews were in open rebellion to all of the Law’s commands (including tithing), and thus worthy of receiving God’s condemnation;
(3) The tithe in question was not a monetary tithe (as modern pastors ask for—more to come on this later), but a tithe of produce and livestock;
(4) Acts 15 makes it clear that we Christians are no longer under the Law (and we Gentiles were never under the Law in the first place!);
(5) Romans 8:1 says that there is no condemnation of the Law’s requirements on those who believe in Christ (not “no condemnation except for the part about tithing”).
But make no mistake, this passage is used frequently as a scare-tactic against Christians. In Robertson’s widely used God’s Financial Plan, he says about this chapter of Malachi, “Every Christian who isn’t honoring the Lord with the tithe is guilty of robbing God and is living under a curse”.
The Mosaic Covenant was binding – to Jews before Christ’s death. So both the Old Testament Jews and the Jews of the Gospels (predating Jesus’ death) are still obligated to tithe. But no Gentiles are ever bound by this requirement (it is valid only to the Jews who wish God’s protection on Israel) and no one—Jewish or Gentile—are bound to the Mosaic Law after accepting Christ as their Savior. It was kind of the whole reason He came and lived and died…to free us from the Law.
II. THE NATURE OF THE TITHE
As we have clearly shown, the tithe of the Old Testament is a Mosaic Covenant requirement only, not a general commandment—and, like circumcision or kosher laws, we are explicitly free from such requirements as New Covenant Christians.
What is most interesting to me, though, is that even if we were still required to tithe, it isn’t the “10% of the gross paycheck” or “10% of the net paycheck” that so many Christian tithing sermons require.
Ever notice that the Old Testament tithing was always livestock or produce or grain? They even called it the “first fruits” of the harvest. Now modern preachers might tell you that our paycheck is the equivalent of the ancient harvests—and many believe it. Our understanding of history is so poor that we still see the Jews at this time as a bartering society without money.
But of course, a quick look through the Torah should change your opinion on that! Just look at how often the first five books of the Bible—including much of the Mosaic Covenant itself—talk about shekels, money, silver, and gold coins. The monetary system had been in place for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before the Mosaic Covenant.
But God does not appear to want people to sell the fruit of their labors for “fair market value” and then give Him a tenth of the proceeds—He wants a tenth of the actual product itself. You weren’t to go sell your grain and then bring a tenth of the earnings to God, you were to give Him a tenth of the grain. Bakers gave ten percent of their baked dough; candle-makers gave ten percent of their candles; garment-makers (as we saw earlier, in a non-Jewish setting) gave ten percent of the garments that they produced. Coin-changers (whose product was coin) would indeed pay in coin. Farmers gave ten percent of their crops. The point was that you gave God the thing that you were making to sell—not the proceeds from selling it. Notice that in Nehemiah 13:10, when the tithes are not being paid, the Levites don’t go off to raise money, do they? To replace the missing tithes they go to their own fields and cut down the amount that they should have received. The tithe was always the product, not the money you gained by selling the product.
This continues all the way throughout the Old Testament and remained the practice in Jesus’ day. In Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42, for example, we see that those who raised herbs paid their tithes with a tenth of their herbs—not a tenth of the money that they received after selling the herbs. The tithe is of the thing you produce, not of the money you earn from it.
Indeed, you were forbidden to do so! Leviticus 27:30-33 says that it is against the Law to sell your tithe for money and then donate the money; if you do this (called “redeeming” the tithe), you had to pay 20%, not 10%.
The only example of required monetary giving in ancient Judaism was the temple tax of Jesus’ day. In addition to the required Mosaic tithe of Jesus’ day, Rome laid on all their subjects a temple tax, that usually went to support the Roman cult of the emperor. In the case of the Jews, the Romans allowed the temple tax to be paid to their own temple instead of the Emperor’s (much to the anger of many other vassals). This was a monetary tax—but was a Roman requirement, not a Jewish one.
So what would this look like today if we really required ancient Near East tithing in our churches? Well obviously if you produce a physical product you would give a tenth of it to the church. So if you build computers, one of every ten you would donate to the church. If you grow a vegetable garden in your backyard, you would give a tenth of what it produces to the church. If you make duck calls for a living, you would give one of every ten to the church. But what if—as with most of us—your earnings come due to a service you provide? In that case, I would argue that if we required tithing today, you should give a tenth of that talent. So if you are a doctor for 50 hours per week, then you should spent 5 hours per week giving free medical care to church members. If you are a dentist who works 40 hours a week, then 4 hours per week you should clean the teeth of the staff. If you are a teacher, then for every nine hours you work in a secular classroom you should teach children’s or youth ministry for one hour. If you are a musician, then for every ten gigs you play, you should play in the worship band. If you are an accountant, maybe you spend 3-4 hours per week doing the church’s bookkeeping.
But selling your product/talent/labor and giving a tenth of the money to God was not what the tithe was about. And, as demonstrated above in Lev 27, if you choose to sell your tithe and then give the money to God later, you had to “redeem” this gift at a price of 20% of your earnings, not 10%.
This continued into the New Testament era. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents, served as a sort of “church how-to manual” for the second century. In the Didache, it says that whatever work you are producing should be given to the church. The examples given are that if you produce wine, give wine to the church; if grain, give grain; if you bake, then give bread; if you raise oxen, then give oxen.
So, does your church really teach tithing? If so, they should be teaching for you to give 10% of whatever product you produce, and if you don’t but wish to redeem your gift, then you should give 20% of the money you made off of selling it. I wonder how many churches really are willing to give up their financial income in return for baked bread, fresh vegetables, and the like? Or in my case—I make 50-yard long, 10-ton windmill blades for a living—I wonder how useful they would fine it if once every other week I delivered a blade to the front door?
III. NEW TESTAMENT GIVING
We have clearly established that the Mosaic Covenant no longer applies and that the tithe was a part of the Mosaic Covenant. We have further established that people who teach tithing today are not even teaching tithing—because tithing is not a financial transaction, but a “produce” or “product” transaction.
But more importantly, what does the New Testament teach about tithing, either directly or indirectly? Surely if this is the one exception to the whole “free from the Law” thing, they will say it, right?
Not at all, in fact.
In Acts 20 and 2 Corinthians 11, we learn that Paul was a tentmaker who had a “day job” to provide for his evangelistic mission work. He is contributing to his own funding. And never do we see a legalistic obligation for Christians to give. Not one – it simply doesn’t exist.
But certainly the New Testament does encourage giving. It encourages giving to be sacrificial (it has to hurt), even though it does not teach a certain percentage. The New Testament replacement for the legalistic concept of tithing is, “Freewill giving”. You give what you feel God calling you to give, in your hearts (cf 2 Cor 8). And that giving should be for the work of the Lord: in 1 Cor 9 and Gal 6 it says that it is good and proper for us to provide financial support for those who dedicate their lives to ministering to us; and in 1 Cor 16 it talks about taking up collections for another church in Jerusalem that couldn’t make ends meet. Sometimes people probably did give 10%; even though the Didache says to give “as it may seem good to you”, the fact that they seem to think people will give objects instead of money implies that this community at least was still tithing. But they did so not under obligation or condemnation, but under freedom. Some chose to give much more than 10%--in Acts 2, for example, people sold everything they had and held it in common together!
USING THE PRINCIPLES TODAY
Frankly, the Bible is rather clear on this subject. It’s actually not controversial. Tithing was a giving of grain, wine, and other fruits of labor to the temple Levites under the Mosaic Covenant and we are explicitly freed from the requirement today. We are to give generously, sacrificially—until it hurts!—to help support the church, the poor, the widows, and those who invest spiritual things into our lives. But we are under no obligation to maintain a certain percentage, nor do the curses nor blessings of Malachi 3 or any other Mosaic Law passage applicable to the modern Christian.
So why do so many churches teach tithing?
Well, frankly, many are ignorant and just teach what they have been taught. It is a sad truth today that many pastors and leaders couldn’t find their way through a Bible if you gave them a map, a compass, and a Sherpa.
Even worse are the many educated pastors who know better, but feel that frankly they have to teach tithing from a practical standpoint. The average church member today expects their church ministers to provide great sermons every week, a nice building, a professional website, handouts and logos, a tour-worthy worship team, a top-notch Sunday School program with fresh materials and talented teachers, and activities throughout the week. The easiest way to do those things consistently is to hire people to do them, and hiring takes money. So in this case the blame is twofold—it is wrong of we Christians to expect these extravagant shows at no cost, and it is wrong for the pastors who know better to twist the Word of God into a fundraising campaign.
So what are we to do?
What if we actually did all decide to follow the method of the New Testament, the Didache and other early Christians? What if instead of some of us monetarily tithing and others just giving some smaller amount…what if we actually gave a spiritual tithe, or a talent tithe? What if we actually gave the things that we can do and dedicated a tenth of that to serving God?
What if instead of the church paying for their pastors to have health insurance (which is quite expensive usually) the doctors, dentists, and surgeons in the church provided the pastors and their families with all of their medical needs, becoming their personal doctors? What if, instead of hiring handymen to keep the church building up, all of the construction workers in the church gave no money in the basket…but instead gave 4 hours per week of cleaning and replacing light bulbs and fixing broken things and landscaping, all at their expense? What if the leaders and communicators and teachers in the church taught the children and youth groups and Sunday morning as a tithe of their time, each giving 4 hours a week to prepare curriculum and teach? What if people in the church, after going grocery shopping, stopped by the church and gave a tenth of everything to fill up the fridge, for the pastors to feed their families with? What if the accountants in the church each gave whatever time they had each week to pay the bills and do the bookkeeping? What if the musicians each gave a tenth of their equipment and time to the church?
How much money would it actually cost to run our churches if we all actually used the time and talents that God gave us in ministry support? If we actually, like a family, took the time to invest in each other and use the gifts we were given to make our church ministries happen?
What if we got really radical? What if we (like the New Testament churches) all pitched in together to “make church work”? We filled many of the roles that church staff members and contractors are usually hired to fill, freeing up our pastors to actually be our spiritual guides and shepherds? And then, on top of this, we gave a bit of money as we felt led (for some, 10%; for others, 2%; for others, 20%) as a salary to those who are our ministers and to pay for the building we use?
In other words, what if your church’s only actual expenses were the building and the “spending money” of the pastors…because everything else was provided for by the church family giving a spiritual tithe, taking care of the needs of the church with their time and talent?
That is what New Testament churches looked like. And yes, there were some consequences for that. Their worship services were simpler than ours. If we did things this way, many churches might have to drop the laser-light show from their worship songs. Their children’s worship area may not have had a really cool playground. Some churches may not have the talent inside to have a children’s program at all, so maybe they meet with corporate worship. Some churches might not have a website. Yes, there would be consequences. Church would lose some of its amazing flashiness, I agree.
But church would also get more real, radically real. People would really start caring about each other and the church because now, for the first time, they would feel like an owner of the church instead of a customer. Church is no longer dropping some bills in a collection plate and then receiving all of these great gifts of music and sermons and children’s activities. Church would stop being about what you could receive, and rather be about what you could give. You know, like what the word “worship” really means.
But of course, pastors, this works both ways. If your church members do their part you have to do yours. What most churches do if they start getting good volunteerism is to simply expand and add new ministries. They have no real vision of what their church should look like, so they shift in the wind and offer the most ministries that they can offer given the donations of time and talent they receive. This is not leadership. If you are truly your church’s shepherd, then you need to figure out what the church is supposed to look like, share that vision with your flock, and get them to fill in the gaps. And if your church rousingly volunteers and all of a sudden, 80% of what you used to do is done by them…awesome. Don’t invent new ministries! Instead, spend your now-free time doing what pastors are supposed to do and generally are unable to do…be a shepherd. Love your flock. Guide them and lead them. Visit them when they are sick. Help them when they are hurting. For most pastors, that is impossible, because they have too many ministries they must run. Too many programs to fulfill.
I have a sneaking suspicion that if we actually did this, we would be shocked by how things would turn out. Church would get less flashy but more real; less about receiving something and more about a mission. People would be spending more time together and growing deeper bonds and relationships--having “all things in common”. People would care more about their local church rather than just being church-shoppers like today. Pastors might or might not have enough income to make due, and some would need to get a job (though that is not the ideal, as the Bible makes clear!); but even in those cases they would be leading a vibrant and sincere and passionate community of believers, and truly investing in their lives as a shepherd. For any pastor worth his salt, that is the ideal goal.
Now, some may accuse me of letting people off easy with this post, by removing the tithing requirement; they will say I am hurting the ability of churches to do ministry. To which I say two things. First, it isn’t me doing this, but Christ: if you follow the Scriptures then you are not likely to be much wrong. And second, I say clearly that the right thing to every church member is to support your ministers so that they can truly be a full-time shepherd to their flock. The right thing to do for all of us is to give very, very sacrificially—you cannot serve both God and money, as Jesus very clearly says. You should be sacrificial givers; it should hurt. It is hard for my wife and I to watch other people who make less money than I do live a much nicer lifestyle; but that is okay. We have chosen to make sacrifices, and that is part of the sacrifice. And we also (try, at least) to not be judgmental. Because my goal is not to say you should not give: it is to say you are under no legal obligation to give. But you should give, however God calls you. And if I had to bet, most of us are not giving as much as the Lord calls us to give. So though I am boldly telling you to shrug off the chains of a required tithe, I am not saying that what you should be doing is going to be easier.
I honestly believe that if we taught a system of truly sacrificial giving we would be shocked at what we saw. If churches downsized their staff to only the bare minimum, told everyone “Our salary expenses are X, our building is Y—you guys are responsible for any ministry beyond that”, and then forced everyone to ‘own’ their local church, we would see something phenomenal happen in our communities.
But of course, that kind of significant shift in our attitudes can’t happen until preachers start teaching what the Scripture actually says about giving, and start abandoning the tithing-guilt-centric approach to stewardship teaching. I thank God that I am at a church where the pastors challenge us to give in all areas (not just financially), and to give sacrificially. But I am even more thankful that they give us these challenges without twisting the Bible to lay a Mosaic obligation on a New Covenant people. Such honesty probably leaves this church with less money than we otherwise could have. But what a shame that so many churches are more concerned with their bank account than an honest teaching of God’s scripture.