The proximate cause of this post was Levi Thetford’s recent quotation from C. H. Spurgeon, but the subject is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Giving to God shouldn’t be this complicated.
Ten percent of your income, right? According to the standard teaching on tithing that I’ve heard, that’s ten percent of your gross income, before any taxes and other things come out. This is, so we’re told, God’s Bit; it doesn’t belong to you and if you infringe on it, you’re robbing God. Also according to the standard tithe teaching, this part is all supposed to go to your church, and any giving to Christian organisations or individual missionaries that you’d like to do is “offerings” on top of that. I’m going to talk about both under the general heading of “tithe”, because I’m lazy (and a two-fingered typist) and typing “tithes and offerings” all the time is hard work.
Preferably, we’d like to do the sensible thing and budget our giving, set up standing orders to handle most of it so that the church and the individuals and organisations we support have a guaranteed, regular amount coming in.
This is easy if you have a fixed salary and know from week to week or month to month how much you’re going to make. But I work in the rather weather-dependent construction industry, and if it rains, I don’t work and don’t get paid. As no-one has yet found a way to schedule rainfall, this means I don’t know from week to week how much I’m going to earn.
In addition, due to the insane way America handles taxation, a massive proportion of my family’s annual income comes in the form of tax credits and refund. This comes in the form of a single annual amount, part of which is over-tax refunded (and has thus had tithe paid on it) and part of which is tax credits and other money the government gives us for reasons of social engineering (and thus hasn’t). I’m not an accountant. My degree is in Biology, which is the science you do if you hate maths. (How I came to be in construction is a long story). I’ve been committed to following the standard teaching on tithing and not robbing God, but I find calculating all of this to be an utter pain and a real burden. It really shouldn’t be this complicated.
Jesus said about the Sabbath that it was made for man, not man for it (Mark 2:27). By extension, what God requires is not supposed to be an unreasonable burden, but is for our good and benefit. I like to give, but I hate the hassle of calculating it all out so that I know I’m not holding out on God. It’s a pain.
So I’m coming to question the whole idea of how we approach the tithe.
The passages about tithing are all in the Old Testament. The Law, particularly the book of Deuteronomy, lays out the method by which the tribe of Levi were to be supported by the other eleven tribes (twelve if you count the division of Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh). The New Testament doesn’t even mention the word, apart from when Jesus is castigating the Pharisees for tithing their fine herbs while neglecting justice and mercy (Mt 23:23). Tithing wasn’t a requirement put on Gentile believers by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), nor was in mentioned as an instruction in any of the New Testament letters.
This is a far cry from what you’d expect if you listened to some of those well-known preachers whose whole message appears to be how God will automatically bless you and make you rich if you are faithful in tithing to Him. According to this teaching, the requirement to tithe is for all time and all peoples, a condition of receiving the blessing of God. If you don’t give God His cut, then He will cause all of your money to trickle away, and He will withdraw His hand of blessing from your life. And on top of the tithe, there are offerings, which are free-will gifts that you nevertheless ought to feel obligated to give, because God will not bless you unless you do.
Yay. Guilt and fear, all in the same package.
I touched on the automatic nature of God’s blessing that this seems to assume in a previous post, but it’s worth reiterating. God is not a vending machine, where you put tithe in and get blessing out. Unlike pagan gods, you don’t buy His favour.
Those whose teaching heavily emphasises the tithe usually phrase it as something like “God has covenanted Himself to bless you if you tithe”, neatly wiggling around the accusation that they are making God into a Coke machine. But the effect is the same, so really, isn’t the distinction pure semantics?
You’d expect that if they were right about how important tithing is, that there would be more teaching about it in the New Testament. If we’re expected to tithe, Jew and Gentile, there are very real and serious questions that need to be addressed. Should the Jew’s tithe go to the physical Levites in the physical temple, as the Law says? Should the Gentile’s tithe go to support those who administer the ministry of the Good News, or likewise to the (Jewish) Levites and temple? What about the fact that it was those in charge of the temple who were most hostile to the Gospel? And why should a Gentile believer in Jesus be required to keep the part of the Law regarding tithe when “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4)?
The New Testament does talk about giving quite a lot. But it manages to do so without once mentioning the tithe.
The summary of New Testament teaching on giving is that there is an expectation that we, as believers, will be doing so. This is natural and right; God is a generous God and if we are walking in step with His Spirit we will naturally want to be generous like Him. The New Testament says we should give generously (“with liberality”, as the King James Bible puts it: unstintingly, without measure, not counting it out). We should give cheerfully. And we should give what we have decided in our heart to give, not grudgingly or under compulsion (II Cor 9:7 and others).
Now, I have several pastors and numerous missionaries among my friends, and I know none of them are rolling in it at the best of times. They have to feed their families out of a part of what is given to the church. Anything which puts these worthy servants of the Lord further from the breadline is OK by me.
But I have to stand against the idea that tithe is a requirement and condition of blessing.
We’re told that we shouldn’t give under compulsion. I’ve seen churches that make the receiving of the offering into a huge “celebration” with dancing and clapping up to the front of the church to give. Can you say “psychological pressure”? Yeah. Everybody is given the opportunity to look and judge, and there’s a real sense of “we’re going to try and manipulate your emotions so that you will feel obligated to give more”. The Bible is clear. No compulsion.
But then, too, what is the tithe at all but compulsion formalised and writ large? If tithing is an absolute requirement, it’s a compulsion, and the New Testament specifically says that we should give what we have decided to in our heart, cheerfully because we want to rather than grudgingly because we have to.
If tithing is a condition of God’s blessing, how is this not legalism? Blessing is the favour of God. We’re now apparently saying that God’s favour is conditional on our tithing faithfulness; thus, it’s something we can earn and buy. Not only that, but that we have to earn and buy it; God’s favour is “conditional on our tithing”. We just made the favour of God into something conditional on a thing we have to do (tithing). Has no-one actually read Galatians?
“Oh, but we’re not saying that if you don’t tithe, you can’t be saved. Just that God’s blessing is conditional on your faithfulness in the tithe”. Grace is grace. Unmerited favour is just that, unmerited. I might say, with St. Paul; “Having begun with the Spirit, are you now trying to achieve your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3:3). Salvation, justification, sanctification and blessing are all by the grace of God.
I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but there is a New Covenant. We’re not under Law but under grace. The righteous requirements of the Law? Met in Jesus. Not only can we not earn God’s favour by what we do (including tithing), but we aren’t supposed to try, because trying to earn it is an offence against the grace and generosity of God.
Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t give. God is the ultimate Giver, and we want to be like Him. But let’s lose this legalistic approach to tithing and let God’s grace be our guide for giving. Seriously, which is the greater amount of giving: 10% or “with liberality”? Given Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments about murder, vengeance and adultery, why should we suppose God’s holy standards would be any lower in the lesser matter of giving? If the Spirit of the holy, gracious, generous God of Heaven truly dwells in our hearts, then He is the One setting the priorities for “what we have decided in our heart to give”. God’s generosity ought to be our standard, not ten percent. Getting tied up in exactly how much our tithe ought to be just seems a lot like Pharisaism and the attempt to buy off God like He’s some pagan idol or Mob boss.
“Freely you have received. Now freely give” (Mt 10:8).
So my family will be trying an experiment this year in not tithing. Instead, we will ask God what He wants us to give and then joyfully do what He says. I can almost guarantee that we’ll end up giving more.