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 get their paycheck from 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 almost 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.


A Biblical Perspective on the Bible

A number of folks I hang around with that are asking hard questions about the Bible and its place in the life of the child of God.

These conversations have been among friends, believers, individuals who are passionately committed to the Bible as the foundation for life, and who confidently acknowledge its profitability for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. I have heard many honest people asking honest questions and expressing both conventional and unconventional points of view. Some of those perspectives are kind of weird. Some are troubling. Some make a lot of sense. A few qualify as “all of the above.”

Such is the way of mere mortals as we learn new truths. We poke and prod and ask questions; we wobble around and stumble; we get up and give it another try. I’m thankful for honest friends who are willing to help me in that stumbling. They’re not, WE are not questioning the foundation of the Bible, not in any way, shape, or form, but we are questioning the traditional ways God’s people have related to God’s word.

I’ve come to the realization that while the Bible is the First Word, while it is the Standard by which everything else is measured, it is not the Last Word. Sacred Scripture has nothing to say about flush toilets, social networking, pornography, pro sports, abortion, personal computers, masturbation, public schools, motorized transportation and ten thousand other topics (though it may speak to topics tangential to these). If we limit our thinking to only what the Word says, we’ll never be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us.”
 I believe God is calling his Bride [hear me carefully here] to stop treating the Bible as a limitation, and to employ it more as a launch pad.

The Bible itself is filled with directives (eg John 3:8-10, 14:26, 21:25, even 1 Corinthians11:14), instructing us to extend our learning beyond the foundation of this magnificent, foundational Book. The Bible is our foundation, our starting point. But a foundation is useless unless one builds on it.

Several New Testament writers bemoan an unwillingness of Christians to grow up. Hebrews 6 clearly describes the “milk” the new believers’ curriculum of the first century: “…not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” These are the baby steps (“milk”) of the apostle’s teaching. After we learn these, then we must move on to the “solid food” of the ways of God. Unfortunately, the apostle could not write about the meat that was on his heart, because those to whom that book was originally written were unready for real meat.

Someone wise has said, “It’s hard to expect the results of the first century church when we rely more on a book they didn’t have than the Spirit that they did have.” And we clearly do not have the results of the first century church. When measured by the 1st century standard, our 21st century church, which is well-grounded on the Book, has been an utter failure at changing the world around us. When was the last time you saw a spontaneous, accidental revival meeting in the streets of your hometown, with thousands coming to faith in Christ? When was the last time that your church saw someone so convicted of sin that they fell down dead? How many people have you raised from the dead? We are (mostly) well-grounded in the Word, but we are mostly powerless.

If sola scriptura (“doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.”) were enough, we’d be walking in way more power, way more holiness, way more intimacy than we are.

Someone else has said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” If you are content with what you and your church are experiencing in God, then well and good. Keep up the good work!

Many believers, however, are not able to say, “Wow, my church is amazing! I can’t imagine things any better!” We want to find that “better.” My church, after twenty centuries of “growing,” should not lag so ridiculously far behind the beginners, the absolute rookies of Jerusalem and Antioch, who are the subjects of the Book of Acts: we’ve had two whole millennia of the Holy Spirit in our midst, but not one church in a thousand lives up to the first century, our “beginner’s standard.” If your church is that one, then hallelujah! Mine is not, I’m afraid. And I WILL NOT SETTLE FOR THIS WIMPY, POWERLESS CHRISTIANITY.

I will give everything I have to see the church in my region grow up into that which Jesus died for. I have already spent my fortune. I will risk my respectability, my reputation, my understanding, my sanity in order to attain to the high calling that is still un-touched before us. I will guard vigilantly against error, but because I am going where nobody that I know has ever gone, I expect I will make mistakes, I expect I will fall. But I will fall towards the goal, the high calling in Christ Jesus. I will NOT settle back in my pew, put another check in the plate, and pretend that we’re living up to the “greater works” that Jesus promised.

I haven’t raised a single person from the dead yet, but I’ve tried several times. I’ve not transported from here to there like Elijah and Philip and maybe even Jesus did, but it’s not for lack of trying. I have visited Heaven, as Jesus did. I’ve never walked on water like he did, but I’ve gotten soaked trying. I have changed the weather. I have sat with the King of Heaven as He fell in love with me and sang me love songs. I have plundered hell and brought back spoil for my King and my co-laborers. I have embarrassed myself more times than I can count, pressing forward to apprehend what has been promised to me.

Someone will say, “But you could get it wrong! You could make a mistake! I must warn you! I must protect you from the possibility of making a mistake!”

To which I answer: Of COURSE we’ll get it wrong! Of course we’ll make mistakes! We’ve never gone this way before. We’re rookies, for pity sake! We are NOT experts at this! But we’re not afraid of mistakes; we embrace them because they show progress. I’ve made a bundle of mistakes already, and I’ll bet you I’m not done yet. (Wonderfully educational things: mistakes.)

I will further answer that I will absolutely listen to the warnings and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit. That’s where we’re headed: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [emphasis added] He’s talking about us! We as a people are called to being blown by the Spirit anywhere He wishes. That is not the church that I’ve grown up in, not the church that I see today. I am not content with where I am.

I will also listen to warnings from my friends and companions who are running this race with me. If you feel the need to warn me, come run with me for a while; I’m sorry: I won’t pay much attention to people throwing stones, to people calling me names, to people trying to kill me or my reputation. And I won’t listen to Pharisees. If you want to be heard, this won’t work. I will not stop to have conversation with those trying to stop me from running the race that He has set before me.

I’m comforted knowing that Jesus faced people who were content to judge him, and he didn’t listen to them either. They were so content with their system that they opposed, and then they killed, the King of Glory. They murdered a whole bunch of His followers, too. Those are not the people whose counsel I will be seeking in this race.

We often talk about how every movement of God is opposed by the participants of the previous move of God: it’s true. There are likely to be Christians – our own brothers and sisters – who oppose our march toward “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven!” It’s sad, but it is a reality.

I invite you to join us. I invite you to leave your traditions, your respectability, your doctrines and join in this mad passionate pursuit of Heaven! If you are satisfied, if you don’t understand, or if the price is too high for you, that’s OK: we offer no condemnation: stand aside, and watch us march, run, wander, fall, get up and run again toward the finish line.

If you choose to be one of the naysayers, please don’t be offended if we don’t stop and take notes on why you think that the things we’re doing are impossible. Please don’t feel hurt if we don’t defer to your contentment or your fear, or if we don’t abandon our passion for Jesus in favor of your restraint and hesitation. I’ll try not to hurt you as I march past. But I will not stop to listen to your fears.

I’m pressing forward. Lead, follow, or get out of my way.