Saturday, January 20, 2007

Tithe? Why?

Tithing is a hard thing for churches to bring up. First, because people generally abhor discussing their personal finances and because the church has not always been able to keep its hands clean while handling money. As Winkey Pratney puts it "Most churches fail the test when it comes to being impressed with money". Pratney proposes that since God is not impressed by money, his children should not be either.

I believe tithing is an unbiblical topic that churches try to slide into our ethos because it is convenient. I don't say beneficial, because that would imply that there is a nefarious motive and, except for televangelists, I don't think that is usually the case.

So what is a tithe and where do we get the idea? Simply put, it is the notion that 10% of one's income should be given to God in some way. Some churches teach that it is a general number to be given charitably overall, while others teach it should be given directly to the church (anything you give outside of the church should be a gift above your tithe).

In the old testament, tithing was the way given for supporting the priesthood, the holy places, and the poor. At the time, there was no king so the priesthood served many of the functions of a government. Most notably, it was their responsibility to care for the poor (Churches have mostly abdicated this responsibility to the government... yet they still want a full tithe). In addition, tithe usually didn't refer to income... it was crops (to feed the priests and the poor). A person didn't sell his crops and then tithe the money, he just gave a portion of his crops. So is a person contributing his talents still tithing?

How does tithing apply to the New Testament? I would submit that it does not.

First, if God wanted tithing to be established in our churches, the apostles would have taught it. However, for all of their instruction, Paul never brings it up, Peter never brings it up, James never brings it up, John never brings it up.

Second, tithing was to maintain the priesthood. Who is the priesthood now? Peter says that all believers are now priests before God with One mediator. The veil has been torn in two and the temple now resides within the believer. There is no longer a specific priesthood to maintain.

So what is the pattern for giving for the church? There are principals given, but I think the apostles were intentional when they gave no number.

The ideal was set in the beginning of Acts where no believer considered anything his own and gave to everyone as he had need.

Whew! Anybody ready to rev up to that one?

However, you do not find Paul repeating that ideal as he established churches. What he did indicate was that:
  • There should be financial equity between the churches. If one church had plenty, they were to share with any churches in want.
  • People who preached the Gospel had a right to earn a living from the Gospel. Paul at times chose not to use this right, and supplemented his living by working. However, people who received a spiritual blessing had a duty to provide a material blessing to the giver.
  • Generosity had spiritual benefits. Sparing sowers would reap sparingly, generous sowers would reap generously.
  • Every believer would choose their own amount of giving.
It is that last point that I believe tithing runs contrary to. Paul said, "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver". How can a person decide in their heart to give a certain amount if their church has already proclaimed that amount? If tithing were to be for the church, then Paul is contradicting this. In addition, proclaiming that people are obligated to give 10% is defacto compulsion. You cannot dictate an Old Testament tithe without running contrary to this scripture.

So why do churches encourage their members to tithe?
  • 10 percent is easy to remember
  • 10 percent is easy to calculate
  • 10 percent is a great number to push folks toward... it would make for a fairly large church budget. (In fact, few churches contribute anywhere near 10 percent. Most move along at 1 to 3)
  • If you don't put a big goal out there, church giving will shrink.
So what is the alternative? If churches want to ask for 10 percent because that is truly what they feel they need, fine... just don't try to bring God in as muscle. Remember "decide in your heart...not under compulsion".
Second, I have always wondered why churches don't spend a Sunday as a body looking at the budget. What if the finance guy got up and said, "Here is what we spend on this, this, and this. Here is what it takes to presently run our church. If we want to add this or this, we would need to increase our budget. So, based on that, we would need everyone making roughly this much to contribute this amount to maintain and this amount to grow." Give everyone an idea of how much they would need to contribute "in keeping with his income" to maintain and/or to grow.

Paul said to contribute "in keeping with [your] income". He wanted people behaving responsibly. Should a single person living alone making 50 thousand and a family of 6 making 50 thousand be held to the same standard of monetary giving? Where does Paul state that any church is given authority to hold anyone to a financial standard?

In conclusion, I believe even a cursory study of scripture works against the modern church view of a tithe. I know tithing is mentioned in scipture, but I feel modern churches pull it out of its context. There are dozens of Old Testament vows, behaviors, and callings that would be out of place to put on a Christian. Why do we grab tithing while stepping over so many others? Our overall unquestioning acceptance points to a bigger issue in our churches... scriptural illiteracy.


Brook said...

I have to say right off the bat that, similar to the polygamy thing, I don't know that tithing has particularly been a subject I have any strong opinions on or sufficient biblical knowledge of to discuss in any kind of depth. I'll throw some thoughts & questions your way though and you can do with them what you will...

I am inclined to disagree with the idea that tithing doesn't apply to a New Testament way of life. Especially in America, these days, in this culture, tithing may be an essential componant to one's spiritual life. I haven't really tithed in years, but instead of having the attitude that it is "all at God's disposal" (my words, not yours), I find I slip into the "more for me" mindset. Forgive me for quoting a televangelist (and forgive me further for admitting that I actually like a good deal of what this guy says - until he starts asking for my money), but Mike Murdock (allowing space here for you to roll your eyes and maybe take a rolaids) says that the tithe isn't a repayment of a debt to God but rather an acknowledgement of that debt, that we owe God everything. I think there's something to that, the "acknowledgement of our debt to God". The sacrifice it requires of us to not just mentally (and vaguely) say that everything we have is from God / for God, and then go about life as if everything we have is ours to do with as we will, but to physically and actually give back a portion of that, to sacrifice our desire to keep and spend it all. There is something focusing about the act of tithing for most Christians that I would suggest is otherwise lacking in our spiritual lives. I think, bottom line, I find I simply don't think of my indebtedness to God in any real sense otherwise. I think there is a solid reason why it was required as specifically as it was in the Old Testament at least. I don't think anything in the N.T. particularly abolished the concept (if anything, it seems to have been expanded greatly - as you point out, where no believer considered anything his own, etc. - a characteristic that we just don't see much of in Christianity today, save for pockets of community living - JPUSA, etc. - here and there. So, given that we're not living in that way anymore, do you still consider the tithe to be a mute practice?). I also don't know that tithing, in the Old Testament, was always and primarily just for the support of the priesthood etc. It was, certainly, but wouldn't you consider the offerings God demanded of Cain and Able to be the foundation of the tithe? I think self-sacrifice is probably the key here, giving to God a part of that which you have earned, whether it is a tenth or something more. (and regarding giving a tenth of our talents, It seems too obvious to state that if, as you say, the tithe was originally crops and livestock, then it would follow that it took a tenth of ones talent as well as time and energy and everything else that goes into the work to raise that tenth of livestock or crop. Money is, after all, only a representation of our work and all that went into that work on our part, so to give a tenth of one's money is to give a tenth of one's time and talent. You can't get the end product without all the rest that goes into it.). God may do with the tithe as he sees fit. Sometimes that will mean paying his priesthood, or caring for the poor, etc… but sometimes God just chooses to build a bonfire with it (as in Cain and Able's offerings) (somewhere in there is a great essay in defense of smoking, proposing that God Himself is a smoker, as evidenced by all the burnt offerings He required, which He often described as a "pleasing aroma"… but I digress)

Does Paul's idea of "each man giving what he has decided to give" aply if a man decides to give nothing? is this an acceptable possibility? I personally am inclined to say it is not, and so that somehow brings us right back (for some people) to legalism ("well then how little can I get away with?"). Perhaps you believe that it is acceptable to give nothing (cheerfully!), but then if so, the word "giver" in that verse seems to lose its meaning. Also, is Paul talking about a tithe here? We the readers could use some chapter-and-verse referrence when you say the bible says thus-and-such, for context purposes. Not all of us have half the New Testament memorized!

I also think a lot of churches would take issue with the (nearly all-encompasing) assertion that churches have abdicated the taking care of the poor to the government. Maybe you protestants have this problem, but us catholics hold it as a pretty essential practice! ;-)

I think when you offer answers as to why churches push for a 10% tithe, you don't offer the most obvious reason, that this was the number given in the Old Testament, and there doesn't seem to be anything in the New Testament that would negate this number (other than possibly raising that number to 100% as Acts could be argued to do). Just because the apostles didn't teach something in such specifics doesn't mean that they didn't believe in it. In that case, they would have to clarify by restating the entire (applicable) law (which their listeners were well acqainted with and took as a given). I've never been too clear on why certain laws are no longer considered valid, and why some continue to hold weight under New Testament ecclesiology, so you may be completely right on the outdatedness of the tithe.

If there is no longer a "priesthood to maintain", then why do we even "go to church" (in the modern sense of the phrase)? Has not the "priesthood" in a way simply changed hands and been redefined? And does this fact therefore negate any "business expenses" accrued by whatever form of church and church leadership you now accept as genuine? As the republicans are always reminding the democrats, "the money's gotta come from somewhere". Whether you call this giving of money to the church a tithe or a donation seems like semantics to me. I have no arguments with the last section of your blog regarding looking at the budget as a church together (thought it was an excellent proposal actually). I guess you have to ask whether you consider your church to be engaged in the work of God, at His leading, calling, direction, etc., or simply a good idea on the part of your fellow man - an organization or club that is "by the people, for the people, and of the people". I suspect your whole church "project" might come unglued if you considered it simply a man-made effort. Do people who give a portion of their money to the church have any grounds (in your opinion) to believe that they are giving it to The Lord for His use and purposes, and not simply to men who are running an inspirational club? Is it even possible to "give" anything "to the Lord" and not just to humans? And what is the qualitative difference if it is possible? You don't want church leadership to bring God's name into the asking for money, yet I was under the impression that, ulitmately, that was the whole point of the giving of this money to this place we are, for whatever reason, calling "church"…

DaNutz said...

I think this is an important topic and your treatment of the issue is very good. The OT idea of a tithe is difficult to translate to a modern western democratic state that has a healthy separation of church and state. That was not the case in the OT. The church was the state in the OT. 10% was more of a tax than a gift. You could argue that in America today we give more than 10% through our taxes.

I'm pro-church and respect their ability to raise money, but I'm not sure it is healthy to use the "tithe argument" to raise money.

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