Thursday

I Have Misunderstood the Tithe


Tithing is a difficult topic to examine objectively for many reasons. One of the most hidden and un-talked-about reasons is the issue of benefit:

If those teaching me a principle are primary beneficiaries of my believing what they teach, then their teaching cannot be objective. It might be factually correct, but they are not the right person to help me understand the truth of the subject.

In my history, the people who taught tithing were nearly always the people whose paycheck came from my tithe. I have never heard anyone whose paycheck came from people’s tithes ever question the need for people to tithe to their church. I cannot help but question their objectivity. Worse, I have known pastors who will not allow anyone in their church to even ask questions about tithing. And we’ve heard stories of religious groups who make membership conditional on tithing. They’re called cults.

Tithing is a topic where truth is best revealed by personal study, by prayer and counsel of the Holy Spirit, and by consulting with knowledgeable, faithful friends whose objectivity is not so desperately compromised by the topic.

God taught it to me this way: Never ask the car salesman if you need to replace your car. Never ask a real estate agent if this is a good time to buy a house. Never ask a pastor whether you need to tithe. It’s not fair to put them into that position.

Note that there are at least three ways to compromise objectivity on the subject:

a) If you believe what I tell you, you'll be morally obligated to give me lots of your money.
b) If you believe what I tell you, then I won't be alone in believing it, and my position will be easier for ME to hold.
c) If I choose not to give 10% of my money to you, then I’ll have more money to spend on me.

It is not only those whose paycheck comes from the tithe that are compromised on the topic.

I’ve made a list of some of the difficulties that I have with the tithe as it is preached in American churches in this generation:

1)       All of the Biblical teaching about tithing is in the Old Covenant. Remember, please, that the New Covenant began with the Cross. Jesus mentions tithing, but does not teach it, but he is speaking to Old Covenant Pharisees during the time of (the end of) the Old covenant. The only mention of tithing after the Cross is in Hebrews 7, where it is used as an argument that Jesus’ New Covenant has more authority than the Levitical priesthood.

The conclusion of the Hebrews passage on tithing is verse 11: “Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron?

By contrast, the New Covenant addresses the Old Covenant Law this way: “By means of his flesh he abolished the enmity, the Law of commandments consisting in decrees, that he might create the two peoples in union with himself into one new man and make peace.” (Ephesians 2:15)

2)       It is manipulative. While not all teaching on the subject of tithing is manipulative, a great deal of it is based on taking Old Covenant scriptures out of context and laying that burden on New Covenant people. The most blatant case is Malachi 3, where we hear the oft-quoted, “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, That there may be food in My house,” but we never hear the introduction to that section: “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you.

This was speaking to the priests, not the people. It’s manipulative to tell the people that this passage is commanding them to give their money to the pastor/priest.

3)       It misses the point. The purpose of the Old Testament Tithe was a party.
And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. Deuteronomy 14:23

Even the Malachi 3 section, which we now understand is commanding the priests, “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, That there may be food in My house.” This is about helping others celebrate God, even if they were too poor to chip in for the food: being broke is no excuse. This is consistent with Deuteronomy 14.

4)       It supports the wrong goals. The goals for tithes were never to build buildings, pay for clergy or create programs. The Tabernacle was funded with offerings, the Temple was funded from David’s private wealth, essentially a sugar-daddy. The Levites made their own living like anyone else, though the priests did eat of sacrifices (not tithes) brought to the temple: their priestly work paid for the priests who did the work.

The typical tithe-funded church budget (and I know whereof I write) spends between 60% and 90% of those tithes on salaries and building expenses. Therefore even if the Old Covenant law of tithing applied in the New Covenant, it does not apply in the way that we’re applying it.

5)       It violates the principles of fatherhood. The model from both Scripture and culture is that fathers provide for their children; it is not the children’s responsibility to provide for their parents.

Note: there is, of course, an exception, but that only applies when the parents are old and cannot provide for themselves.

6)       It creates an artificial separation: Clergy vs. Laity. Jesus was pretty adamant about removing the differentiation between clergy and laity: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 

The idea that some people (“clergy”) are supposed to do the work of the gospel: visit the sick, teach the Word, and so on, while other people (“laity”) are supposed to pay them to do that work is not found in the pages of Scripture.

7)       It’s too cheap. In the Old Testament, we “owed” one tenth of our increase in the tithe (“tithe” means “a tenth,” or “ten percent”). But if we eliminate the Old Testament law about tithing, then we’re left with Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell therein.

The truth is that I don’t owe God a tenth of my increase; I owe him all of me: everything I own, all that I am.

Having pointed out problems with the contemporary system of tithes, let me put some limits on this:

1)       Generosity is healthy and Biblical. While it’s difficult to support a New Covenant tithe from the Bible, the idea of giving generously is well grounded in the New Testament.

2)       There is power in numbers. Several thousand people giving money to a single cause can accomplish more than all but the richest of individuals. Even billionaires Bill Gates & Warren Buffett, two of the richest of individuals in the world, recognize that the contributions of many accomplish more than the contributions of a few.  

3)       “Not tithing” does not equal “Not giving.” It only means “Not giving a specified amount because of a law.” The alternative to tithing is not “I keep it all and spend it all on me!”

4)       Tithing is an effective reminder. Those who give “to God” are using a very powerful tool (their money) to remind them of the reality that God is their provider. It is not the only powerful tool (a love relationship also works), but it is a solid way of remembering.

By way of a conclusion, I offer this exhortation: This is a good time to question what you have been taught about tithing. This is a good time to study the subject on your own; I’ve added a great number of hot-links to relevant passages specifically for that purpose. This is a good time to get in God’s face, and ask Him to teach you about how He wants you to handle your giving. And this is a great time to participate in conversations with godly people on the topic: don’t preach; ask questions. Listen to answers and opinions.

This is a lousy time to respond in greed: to stop giving in order to spend money on yourself. The principle of Sowing and Reaping is still true. And selfishness just stinks.

Be generous. Be free in your generosity. Reflect God in your finances.

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