Friday, May 07, 2010

The New Testament Tithe Is 100%

Very interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal today, on tithing of all things. The very title of the editorial speaks volumes: Pass the Plate and Grow Rich in Spirit. If that doesn’t capture the prevailing view of the church, I don’t know what does.

Tithing as a practice seems very holy, very spiritual. It is also one of those doctrines that are grounded more in traditional understanding than in Scripture. It is tempting to look at the Old Covenant life of the Jews and compare it to our lives as Christians and think we have it way easier than they did. They had all those laws and rules and stuff, we have grace! Sweet! The hard reality that rarely appears in the teaching of the church in a meaningful way or practiced in a genuine fashion is that being a Christian requires far more of us than being a Jew. As long as you followed the rules as a Jew, you were seen to be in good standing. Granted the rules we pretty onerous but for Christians we are called to so much more. I think an event in the New Testament helps to understand this issue more clearly.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt 23: 23-24)

Wow. Those are powerful words and not just for Pharisees. You can tithe everything, following the letter of the law down to the smallest detail, and still not be living life for God. Jesus is saying it is not about the tithe (or any other activity), it is about a heart for God. There are many parallels in the Bible to this, notably Micah 6: 6-8 and Isaiah 66: 1-4.

The danger I see in much of the teaching on giving in the church is that it becomes very much like what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 23: 23-24. Do A, B and C and you are a “good Christian”. Even though A, B and C are very positive things like read your Bible every day, go to church on Sunday, etc., the fulfillment of those items is not the purpose. The reality, as Christ so forcefully taught the scribes and Pharisees, is that you can do lots of the right things and still have hearts far from God.

The life we are called to between regeneration and glorification is far more all-encompassing than checking off boxes on a checklist. We are called to die to self, to deny ourselves, to love others more than ourselves, to take up our cross daily, to turn the other cheek. In gaining the right to call God “Abba, Father”, we relinquish all of our other cherished rights. In giving it is no different. “Tithing” ten percent is not the standard even though it is often referenced as if it is. Giving is so misunderstood and so poorly practiced that I wonder if the way we practice it is even Scriptural at all. In the church “tithing” or giving is seen as a line item, a budget item. I allocate X percent of my income to giving at the local church, taking into account my other expenses like car payment, mortgages, etc. The picture in the New Testament is complete surrender and abandonment. When you accept that you are called to give up what you once cherished as your life, you shoudl find that your money and property become essentially meaningless.

Where this notion of New Testament tithing really falls apart is that in traditional Christianity, Christian giving by and large goes to support the institution of the church: buildings and maintenance, Sunday school materials, pastoral staff salaries. Believers in the earliest days of the church not only gave a portion of their income, they sold their possessions (Acts 2: 44-45). I can’t even fathom someone selling a cherished family heirloom and giving the money to a brother in need. The early church went so far as to not even consider their possessions their own (Acts 4:32 ). That doesn’t mean they didn’t have any personal property, clearly they owned homes and clothes and other sundries. It also was not a proto-socialism because the state was not involved in coercion. What it does mean is that for Christians our offering is our entire life and everything in it, not just a percentage of our income. I think Christians would be more willing to live a self-sacrificial life like we see in the New Testament if their offerings were used to help one another (“as any had need”) instead of used to fuel the machinery of the institutional church.

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1 comment:

Aussie John said...


Great article. I recently asked the question on another blog about the tithe,"How can we give God 10% when He owns all of what we have and are?"