A Pepper Grinder Post

Pillars of Churchianity: Tithe to Your Local Church – Part 2

, we saw that the Old Testament laws on tithing don’t neatly fit into a modern church setting.  Looking at Paul’s writing, we found that although he doesn’t ever mention tithing, his teachings about other Old Testament regulations clearly paint a picture of a believer following his or her own conscience, rather than rigidly following regulations.  We also saw that although Jesus warned sternly against dumping the Old Testament laws, his interpretation of these laws tended to focus on the spirit behind the laws, rather than a rigid obedience to the letter of them.

So where does this leave us with tithing?  The first question I want to ask is whether tithing falls under the heading of “disputable matters” that Paul mentions.  Nowhere in the New Testament are believers commanded to tithe, in spite of the fact that giving IS explicitly discussed.  Take, for example, the following two passages:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.  In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.     (1 Timothy 6:17-19,  NIV)

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.  Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.   (2 Corinthians 9:6-7,  NIV)

Are Christians (especially Christians who are well off by world standards, as almost ALL of us in the U.S. are) supposed to give generously and cheerfully?  There is no doubt that we should.  But are we commanded to give a literal tenth of our income?

leisure suitLet me ask you this.  Do you believe that Christians are called to obey all of the Old Testament Law?  If not, why is it that tithing applies to us but something like a prohibition against wearing blended fabric does not (Deuteronomy 22:11)?  If tithing was intended to be one of the pieces of Old Testament Law that should be observed by Gentiles who have been saved by God’s grace, why is it that neither in the instructions to Gentile believers from the Apostles (Acts 15:23-29) nor in ANY of the New Testament letters is tithing or any concrete percentage of giving even mentioned?

What if you are a person who feels convinced that you yourself should tithe, even if you agree that it is a disputable matter?  Does it follow that all of the tithe must go to your local congregation?  I don’t see how we can make this point.  It isn’t taught in the New Testament, and, as Sherman Shepherd discovered in , the Old Testament rules don’t neatly adapt themselves to our modern situation.  Let’s review some of the facts about Old Testament tithing regulations.

  • In Israel, there was ONE centralized religious body that had ONE central place of worship—the Temple (or, before the Temple was built, the Tabernacle)
  • Two out of three years, the Israelites were supposed to bring their offering to the Temple, as food (animals, flour, grain, etc.).  If they lived too far away to bring food, they were supposed to bring money, but then use the money to buy food, which they would then offer—they were not supposed to give cash. 
  • When they gave the offering, a feast was held, which those making the offering shared in. 
  • What was left after the feast went to the Levites at the Temple, who, in turn, gave a tenth to the priests.
  • The third year, the tithe was given to Levites in the person’s own area and to the poor, such as widows and orphans.

sheepEven if we think we are supposed to tithe, how could we carry out this regimen?  The closest we could come in our religious environment would be to give the tithe to our denominational headquarters (in lieu of the Temple), or to some ministry that strives to serve the entire church.  As far as the form of the tithe, I think most denominational headquarters are not set up to have families show up with a tenth of a year’s worth of groceries, slaughter some animals, and cook and eat a big meal.  And how can we possibly say that a believer’s entire tithe MUST go to his or her local congregation, when it is clear that the local Levites only got a part of the tithe every third year, with the rest going directly to those in need?  I do not think that most pastors who teach that their congregations should tithe would be very happy with this arrangement!

In light of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, what is the true desire of God behind the commandment to tithe?  I believe it is that we regard ALL of our money and possessions as belonging to God.   Here is what David prayed in 1 Chronicles 29:14 (NIV):

"But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

This doesn’t mean we need to give away all our possessions, though Jesus did ask this of some people.  It means we should never think our money is ours to use as we please.

Ironically, the teaching about tithing that is common in the Christian church today, completely undercuts this.  We are told that we MUST give 10% to God, but are then patted on the head and told that we can use the other 90% however we like, as long as it isn’t for something bad.

Jesus calls us to move beyond the dry approximation of God’s desire into a true relationship with him, where we are intent on delighting him.  However, the teaching we are so often given just gives us a rule to follow, and tells us that if we follow it, we will be good.

So how did we get into this mess?  We started with an Old Testament teaching.  This teaching is only mentioned three times in the New Testament, and only when Jesus is speaking to observant Jews who don’t believe in him.  It is never mentioned in Acts or the Epistles, where instruction for Christians (Jewish or Gentile) is laid out.  Yet we have taken this teaching, modified it significantly to fit our modern situation, and made this into a rule that serious Christians must follow.  How did tithing become a pillar of churchianity?

One reason, I think, is that rules make things easier.  It is very hard to maintain a constant attitude that all your money belongs to God, and to try to be constantly open to God’s leading in how you spend that money.  It is much easier just to sit down when you get a paycheck and write out a check to your local church for 10% of that amount.  What’s more, you can have a good feeling that you’ve done exactly what you were supposed to do.

I have a lot of sympathy for this reasoning, because I am a dutiful, rule-following type of person myself.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to set aside 10% of the money that comes to you to give to God (though I would not feel comfortable telling people that they should do that, since I believe it is a disputable matter).  The real problem comes, I think, when we decide that the other 90% is OURS.

However, I don’t think that a desire for rules explains it all.  Having sex with a woman when she is having her period is something that the Old Testament definitely teaches against.  For example, Ezekiel  18:6 puts this in the same category as idolatry and adultery.  And yet, while there are Christians who teach against this, it is not nearly so common as the teaching that all Christians should tithe.

Crystal CathedralI am afraid tithing has become a pillar of churchianity because it serves the purpose of local congregations so well.  Churches take out mortgages to build church buildings.  They hire staff.  They start programs.  As more people come, they expand their buildings (since studies show that people won’t come to church if they have to sit too close to the people next to them).  They hire more staff.  They start more programs.  On and on it goes.  And what is the engine that pulls this ever-lengthening train?  Money.  Churches need a dependable cash flow so they can pay salaries and pay the church mortgage.  If they can convince at least some of their congregation that they need to tithe and that the tithe needs to come to the local church, they have hit pay dirt. 

I know this sounds ugly and cynical, but I cannot think of another way of explaining how a teaching which is never even mentioned after Christ’s death, and which has been so drastically modified from its original form, could have become so widespread.

If we aren’t going to tithe in a legalistic way, what SHOULD we do?

  • Be fully convinced in your own mind.  Do you feel great about praying over each paycheck and deciding how much you should give away and to whom?  Go for it!  Or does the loosey-goosey approach make you nervous and you feel better about budgeting 10% of your income for God, with the knowledge that you will always be open to giving more away, and that it is all God’s money?  That’s fine too!  If you take the first approach, you need to watch out that greed doesn’t slip in there.  If you find that you are consistently being “led” to give away a pittance while spending money on things like giant screen plasma TVs (so you can host the youth group movie nights, of course), then you should check your motives.  If you take the second approach, be careful not to fall into the legalistic way of thinking which says 10% belongs to God and the rest is all yours.
  • Take care of your immediate and extended family.  Here is what Paul says about this, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8 NIV)  Those are pretty strong words.  This doesn’t mean that you have to send your kids to elite private schools or that you should buy your sister-in-law a new SUV because her old clunker broke down again.  I believe it does mean that if you see a genuine need in your family, you should try to fill it, if you’re able.  We have gotten used to thinking that providing a safety net is the government’s job, but the New Testament model presents family members as the first line of defense, with the church stepping in only when there is no family to help.
  • Be open to God’s leading about where to give.  I’m not trying to tell anyone NOT to give money to their local congregation.  If you think your local church is spending its money well, don’t hesitate to help support it.  However, I think we also need to be constantly on the lookout for other things God might want us to do with our money as well.  Look for organizations whose focus is on meeting needs more than on raising funds.  A good measure of this is how much of the organization’s contributions go to overhead and how much to meeting needs (10% overhead or less is quite good; 40% overhead or more is not good).  Also, look for organizations who are meeting needs in a prayerful, thoughtful way, rather than just throwing money at a situation and generating photo ops.  Finally, be open to giving directly to individuals rather than just to organizations.  Don’t discard a giving opportunity just because you can’t deduct it on your taxes.  Look for needs no one but you sees.  Give secretly, if you can.
  • azaleasBe generous!  One of the problems I see with legalistic tithing is that it can kill generosity.  You give what you “have to” and no more.  Remember that we serve the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and who created an earth overflowing with life and beauty.  I would rather stand before God and hear that I was too generous, than hear I was greedy and tight-fisted.
  • Most of all, view all of your money as God’s.  I do not believe this means we will never be able to spend money on anything that brings enjoyment.  God is not a pure utilitarian who cares for nothing aside from saving as many souls as possible, as quickly as possible.  He is the God who creates myriads of beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers that no person will ever see.  He is the God who created more wine at a wedding banquet when the bar was empty, and who created, not just any old wine, but excellent wine.

God is a God of abundance and generosity.  We can be people who give God 10% and hold tightly to the other 90%.  Or we can be people who become part of God’s generosity.  We can allow his provisions to flow through us to others and find delight in the process.

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*Photo Credits: leisure suit from trends4ever.com, Crystal Cathedral from Wikipedia article on the Crystal Cathedral, sheep photo by Michal Zacharzewski