Exploring Dependence – Tithing
Exploring Dependence – Tithing
By the time I had been out of Bible College 5 years, I had begun to suspect that my beliefs about giving to God were unsustainable.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, those beliefs could be summarized with the following statement:
“You ‘pay’ your tithe. You don’t ‘give’ it. You can’t give what you owe. And you ‘owe’ God your tithe. So, ‘giving’ must be above the ten percent you ‘owe’ Him. And this giving (above ten percent) is an expression of your faith. So, if your faith is going to grow each year, the percentage of your income that you give each year must grow as well.”
So, each year, we tried to “increase our faith” by increasing the percentage that we “gave” above our tithe. By this time, our over-and-above amount was twelve percent, in addition to the ten percent of the tithe. If we continued our practice, next year, it would be thirteen percent.
And I was only 27 years old. You don’t have to be great at math to see where this is headed. If I lived another 50 years, I would have to figure out how to live on about twenty-five percent, and that would be before taxes.
Looking back, I realize that those beliefs were not the product of a careful examination of the Scriptures, but my accumulated conclusions from the many sermons I had heard. And while those sermons always contained Scripture, the passages were merely diving boards the preacher would run down and bounce off of to splash around in the pool of popular reasoning.
For example, a common issue was whether your tithe was based on your pre-tax income, or on your take-home pay. Were you supposed to tithe off the gross or the net? Often, the answer was, “Do you want God to bless you off the gross or the net?” Behind this answer was the notion that you gave to get. The more you gave, the more you could expect God to give you back. Proportional blessing.
At this point, it might be helpful to identify the logical steps of this line of thinking. They unfolded this way in my mind:
- The Bible says God promises to bless you based on your generosity.
- The usage of the term bless suggests that you will end up with more than you started with. How much more depends on your own generosity. If you only give sparingly, you will only end up with a little more. But if you give generously, you will end up with a lot more.
- Your income is viewed as having two components – the percentage you give to God and the percentage you keep. The more you are “blessed,” the more money there is in the percentage you get to keep.
- Ergo, the more I give to God, the more I get to keep for myself.
Is this Biblical?
Well, it was based on a Scripture – 1 Corinthians 9:6. But as we have already seen, the point of the blessing mentioned there was never about having more for yourself.
So, if such thinking is merely the product of popular reasoning, what will a careful examination of Scripture reveal, particularly in regard to tithing?
Going back to the beginning, we find Abraham paying a tithe to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20), and Jacob vowing a tenth to God at Bethel (Genesis 28:22). Sometimes, based on these passages, the argument is made that tithing predates the Law, and therefore is still in effect today.
But that argument breaks down on two points.
- Tithing was only one of the types of offerings made to God before the Law. For example, Abel (Genesis 4:4), Noah (Genesis 8:20), and Abraham (Genesis 22:13) all made burnt offerings offerings to the Lord. Yet I am unaware of any argument among Christians for blood sacrifices today. Arguing for tithing simply because we find instances of it before the Law is inconsistent.
- The tithes in Genesis 14:20 and 28:22 were not required by God. The both appear to be voluntary.
On this last point, I want to be clear. I am not arguing against a voluntary desire to give a tenth, or any amount to God. I am saying that the idea that we must give a tithe does not flow out of a careful examination of Scripture.
As we move beyond Genesis, we come to the regulations given to Israel regarding tithing in connection with the Law. Four main passages give the following details:
- Leviticus 27:30-33
- One-tenth of all the seed and fruit produced by the land belonged to the Lord.
- One-tenth of the herd, and one-tenth of the flock belonged to the Lord.
- Numbers 18:21-32
- God gave the tithe in Israel to the Levites in return for their service in the Tabernacle/Temple. This was their inheritance, in place of a portion of the land, which all the other tribes received.
- The Levites were to give one-tenth of the tenth-part that they received (a tithe of the tithe) to the son’s of Aaron (the high-priestly family).
- The Levites tithe was to be the best part of what they received.
- Deuteronomy 12:5-19
- The tithes were one of several offerings that Israel was to present at the place God designated.
- These offerings, including the tithe, involved a celebratory feast in the presence of God, enjoyed by all the members of each household (servants included), as well as the Levites, since they had no other inheritance.
- These tithes could only be eaten in the place that God designated (i.e., where the Tabernacle/Temple was). Eating it anywhere else was expressly forbidden.
- Deuteronomy 14:22-29
- The Israelites were required to give one-tenth of what came out of the field each year.
- It was to be eaten in the presence of the Lord.
- The feast was to include their grain, new wine, oil, and the firstborn of their herds and flocks.
- The purpose of the tithe was so that they would learn to fear the Lord their God, always.
- If they lived too far from the Tabernacle/Temple, they were to sell the tithe, and take the money they got for it to the place where the Tabernacle/Temple was. There, they were to spend the money for whatever their heart desired, including cattle, sheep, wine and strong drink. With these, they were to have a celebratory feast in God’s presence.
- Every third year, the tithe was to be deposited in each town for the Levites, the foreigner, the orphans and widows.
In spite of the information in these passages, there are a number of gaps in our understanding of these requirements.
In Jewish tradition, this uncertainty resulted in three different tithes. The First Tithe, described in Leviticus and Numbers, was given to the Levites, who in turn, gave to the priests. The Second Tithe, of the remaining nine-tenths (Deuteronomy), was set aside to be consumed in Jerusalem. Every third year, there was a Poor Tithe. It was either another tenth (of the remaining portion) or a reassignment of the Second Tithe in the appropriate year.
As I approach these passages, I begin with the recognition that we are looking back across 3500 years of time. Given the detailed instructions in the other parts of the Law, I do not believe that God would have been vague in these instructions. They would have made sense to the original recipients. But, separated as we are by 35 centuries or so, we lack the background understanding necessary to fully comprehend all that was involved.
However, given what we can understand, it seems pretty clear that the concept of tithing as it is taught today bears little resemblance to the tithing found in the scriptures of the Old Testament.
Aside from the failure to meet the technical requirements laid down (e.g., must be given in Jerusalem), the modern concept of tithing fails to meet the Old Testament requirements on at least three counts.
- It’s Focus – The Biblical tithe looked back to what God had already given. It was not given as a way to get God to give you more.
- The Manner in Which It Was Given – The Old Testament tithe was much more than a check dropped in the offering plate, or a mouse-click for an online donation. It involved a feast consumed in God’s presence to celebrate His provision for your family. When I read Deuteronomy 14, I envision something akin to arriving at the Temple pulling a barbecue trailer with a side of beef and a keg of beer. We’re going to celebrate God’s goodness. All the staff and their families are invited to the party.
- The Recipients – The tithe was not given to an institution or organization. It was not paid to the Temple. It belonged to the Levites. The land God gave to Israel was divided among the other 11 tribes. Each person among these other tribes brought a tenth of all that this land produced. God gave this tenth to the Levites. In this way, the Levites received their share of the bounty God provided. Just as the land was the inheritance for the other 11 tribes, the tithe was the inheritance of the Levites. This is very different from making a contribution to a church who then hires an employee. Unlike the Levites, a pastor or other church staff member has no inherent claim to the funds given to a local church today.
Does this mean that it’s wrong to drop a check in the offering plate, or to make an online donation. Not necessarily.
My point is that the obligation to tithe as it is taught in modern times does not conform, in substantial ways, to the regulations laid down in the Law, and thus, lacks the Biblical basis it is presumed to have.
Should we try to restore tithing as it is taught in the Law?
No. It is no longer possible, nor is it necessary.
Impossible because, even if you were to be able to make your way to Jerusalem and find a Levite to give it to, the logistics of pulling off a feast to celebrate before God on the Temple Mount (the place designated by God to offer the tithe) would be more than a little problematic, since that area is currently under Muslim control. Can you say “international incident”?
Unnecessary because the tithe was given to the priests and Levites for their support in exchange for their service as intermediaries between Holy God and sinful man under the Old Covenant of the Law. With the death of Christ, a new covenant was instituted and the veil separating man from God was torn in two, top to bottom (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). As a result, we can now enter God’s presence in confidence through the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22, cf. 8:1-10:18). We no longer need a priest to mediate our relationship with God.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t give to support ministry?
No. We’ll look at that next.