A Pepper Grinder Post

Pillars of Churchianity: Tithe to Your Local Church – Part 1

Disclaimer: What follows is purely fictional, made up out of my head.  I don’t know if anything precisely like this has ever occurred.  After the story I’ll tell you the thin veneer of facts upon which I have built it.

llamaMike Moula, the church treasurer, compiled the annual budget.  He reported the bad news to the finance committee, who then paid Sherman Shepherd, the pastor, a visit.  Giving was not keeping pace with inflation, they told him.  Sherman knew what to do.  He whipped out his concordance and started looking for passages on tithing.  He found 3 New Testament passages, but none of them served his purpose.  Two told about Jesus blasting the Pharisees for tithing in a very careful way, but ignoring the MORE IMPORTANT matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Even though Jesus said that the Pharisees should keep tithing along with these more important matters, it didn’t have the kind of punch Sherman wanted for a sermon whose main focus was to be on tithing.  The third was even worse.  In it, tithing was part of a list of things which a self-righteous person bragged about to God. 

What to do?  Sherman thought about the Old Testament.  He only had one semester of Hebrew in seminary, and he had forgotten almost all of it, but he had lots of different translations on his shelves.  He started with passages in the Law about tithing, but they didn’t really fit the bill.  Some of the tithing practices that he read about in the first five books of the Bible seemed a little odd.  He read that every third year, the tithe went to foreigners, widows, and fatherless children as well as the local Levites.   On the years the tithe was taken to the temple, it was presented as food, some of which got eaten up by the givers in a big feast.  What’s more, the laws were very much geared to an agricultural society, and Sherman certainly didn’t want his parishioners to start bringing livestock and heaps of produce into the sanctuary.

As Sherman got to Nehemiah, he started feeling a little desperate.  It was clear that the Jews returning from exile were tithing, but where was a good, powerful verse, that would apply to modern Christians, telling them they must tithe to their local church?  When he got to the second-to-last verse in the Old Testament which mentions tithing, Sherman was almost in despair.  Amos 4:4 was in the midst of a passage where God expressed his loathing for the Israelites keeping the external commands of the Law without truly turning to him.  God specifically mentioned tithing as one of those empty external acts.  With a feeling of resignation, Sherman turned to the last verse in the Old Testament which mentioned tithing.  Here is what he read in Malachi 3:7-12 (my translation)

“From the time of your ancestors, you have turned away from my laws, and have not kept them.  Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of hosts.
But you ask, “How have we turned away?”
“Does a man rob God?  Yet you are robbing me.”
And you say, “How have we robbed you?”
“In tithes and offerings.  You are under a curse because you are robbing me; all the people are.  Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be food in my house.  Test me in this,” says the Lord of hosts.  “See if I don’t open the windows of heaven for you, and pour down blessings until you can’t hold them.  I will keep insects from eating your crops, and no vine in your field will be bare,” says the Lord of hosts.  “All the nations will call you blessed because you will have a delightful land,” says the Lord of hosts.

happy onionSherman’s eyes lit up.  This was it!  He started scribbling down sermon notes on his pad.  He called the church secretary in and asked her to start work on next Sunday’s bulletin.  She asked for the sermon title, and Sherman, with a glint in his eyes, responded, “Are You Robbing God?”

Here is my factual basis for the above: I have heard at least one sermon based on the above passage in Malachai that was designed to encourage Christians to tithe to their local church.  I have also heard of at least one occasion when a church board asked a pastor to preach a sermon on tithing because giving was down.

Let me say one thing before we start considering how tithing applies to Christians.  There is absolutely no doubt that God wanted the Israelites to tithe.  Even in the passage from Amos referenced above, God is not angry with the Israelites because they are tithing, but because they think that by pushing the right religious buttons, they can do as they please.  The passage quoted from Malachi IS a scathing indictment of people who were withholding part or all of their tithe because they did not fully trust God.
My real question is how the principle of tithing applies to Christians.  I think that in many evangelical churches there are a number of assumptions made about tithing.

  1. Christians should give away 10% of their income.
  2. This tithe should be given to the believer’s local church.
  3. If you want to give money to help support any other ministries or people, that is fine, but this should be money that is given over and above the 10% given to your church.
  4. The other 90% of your income is yours to spend with thanksgiving (though you would be prudent to save 10%).

Since, as Pastor Shepherd found out, there is very little New Testament teaching on tithing (and the little there is was directed to Jews before Christ’s sacrifice had been made), we have to start by asking how the Old Testament applies to Christians.

To answer this question, I want to look at a passage in Romans that does not even mention tithing.  Here is my translation of Romans 14:1-8:

You should accept the one who is weak in faith, not passing judgment on questionable matters.  One man has the faith to eat everything, but another, with weak faith, eats only vegetables.  The one who eats shouldn’t have contempt for the one who doesn’t, and the one who doesn’t eat shouldn’t pass judgment on the one who does, for God has accepted him. 
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To his own master he stands or falls, and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 
One person treats one day differently than the other; another thinks all days are the same.  Each one should be sure in his own mind.  The one who observes the day, does it for the Lord.  The one who eats meat, eats for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and the one who doesn’t eat, does that for the Lord,  giving thanks to God. 
For none of us lives for himself, and none of us dies for himself.  If we live, we live for the Lord.  If we die, we die for the Lord.  Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

At first glance, we might wonder why someone would get concerned about someone else being a vegetarian, or whether or not they celebrated holidays.  However, these are issues that touch the core of Judaism and its relationship with the outside world. 

meat marketThe people Paul mentions as eating only vegetables were not people who wanted a healthier diet, or who believed it was unkind to raise animals for slaughter.  They were people who were concerned about two things: meat sacrificed to idols, and meat that had not been slaughtered according to Jewish law.  In a mostly pagan city like Rome, much of the meat sold in the meat market would have come from offerings to false gods.  A Jew or a Christian could certainly think of eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol as participating in the worship of that idol.  Just as important, from a Jewish perspective, the meat would not have been slaughtered according to Jewish regulations.  This was not the kind of kosher regulation that got tacked onto Jewish law by zealous rabbis over the centuries, like not serving meat and dairy products at the same meal (which came from the Old Testament prohibition against boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk).  This command came from a clear instruction about not eating meat that has blood still in it (for example, see Leviticus 19:26, Deuteronomy 12:23-27, 1 Samuel 14:33-34).  To this day, if meat is to be considered kosher, the animal must have its throat slit by a rabbi while it is still alive (so the still-beating heart will pump the blood out of the body).  Only when all the blood has drained from the body can the meat be used.  It would not be expected that pagan butchers or priests would exhibit the same kind of care to drain all the blood from the animal before selling the meat.  Thus, by the one act of eating meat sold in a pagan meat market, a Jew might be violating two important Old Testament commands: the command not to worship idols, and the command not to eat meat with blood in it.

What about the man who “treats one day differently than the others?”  Even if this were only referring to Jewish festivals, the Jews were clearly commanded to keep these feasts, even to the point of God giving the command to “cut off from his people” anyone who could have celebrated the Passover, and failed to do so (Numbers 9:13).  Perhaps even more important to the Jews would be the keeping of the Sabbath.  This is one of the Ten Commandments!  How could someone who treated every day the same be keeping the Sabbath?  The core of the command is to treat the day DIFFERENTLY.

And yet, Paul gives these two issues as examples of “questionable matters” that we should not pass judgment on.  Does someone’s conscience feel better if he avoids the meat market and keeps the Sabbath?  That’s fine—other people shouldn’t pass judgment on him for that.  Does someone else who is sincerely serving God feel just fine about eating meat bought at Joe Pagan’s butcher shop, and not observing the Sabbath?  More power to her.  She should not be judged either.

Paul was not afraid to call on the carpet anyone who was doing or teaching something wrong, but he explicitly commands Christians NOT to pass judgment on others with regard to disputable matters like these.

You might be saying, “Now, wait just a minute!  Didn’t Jesus say that the smallest part of the Law wouldn’t pass away until heaven and earth pass away?  Didn’t he say that anyone who breaks one of the smallest of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, would be in big trouble?”  Yes, he did, right in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-18).  However, we must look at how Jesus interpreted the Law himself.  Right in the same sermon, he is interpreting the Law in a way that would have seemed very odd to the legalistic Jews of his day. 

In some cases, Jesus’s commandment goes way beyond the Old Testament commandment.  For example, the Law of Moses said not to sleep with someone else’s wife, but Jesus says that looking lustfully at a woman other than your wife is mental adultery.  In other cases, Jesus’s interpretation of the Law, at first glance, seems to go against it.  For example, in Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:3-9, Jesus acts as though divorce is not legitimate (though most interpret these passages as allowing it in cases of marital infidelity), while the Law of Moses explicitly allowed it, requiring only that the woman be given a certificate of divorce.  In fact, in the second of these passages, Jesus even explicitly says that Moses only allowed divorce because the people’s hearts were hard!

flower out of dead leavesWhat is Jesus doing?  I believe he is going beyond the letter of the Law to the spirit of the Law. 
Take hatred, for example.  You can’t pass a law saying that no one can hate anyone else.  How could you ever prove that someone was harboring hatred?  What was enforceable was a prohibition against the most flagrant expression of hatred: murder.  The Law of Moses didn’t try to make people’s hearts pure; it tried to limit the extent to which they could follow their evil impulses.

In the case of divorce, it’s clear from Matthew 19 that God’s deepest desire was for two people to become one, and never be parted, except by death.  But God knew that a people with unredeemed hearts would fail at this, so the Law of Moses set it up so that a man couldn’t just send a woman away on a whim, without her even having legal proof that she was no longer married.

Thus, we see that some of the Old Testament laws which were taken very seriously are considered “disputable points” in the New Testament.  In other cases, the New Testament goes beyond the letter of the Old Testament Law to the spirit which lies behind it.  we will consider specifically how tithing is to be seen in New Testament times, and what we are or are not commanded to do.


*Photo Credits: llama by Andreas Krappweis, meat market by Adrian van Leen. The happy onion was carved by my 14-year-old daughter.