Phillip Walters www.backyardbelievers.com
For some time now I have wanted to tackle a practice which is such a sacred cow that to oppose it makes me feel a little like Martin Luther (just a tiny little) standing in front of the church door with a hammer in his hand.
It’s the modern practice of tithing, a practice that, while it has little or no foundation in the New Testament, stands in some churches almost alongside belief in the Trinity or the Virgin Birth. However it is my belief that it is a sacred cow that is made of much the same material as the calf that Aaron built and needs to go.
It is untouchable because much of modern church practice relies on it; and it has to go because, just as Aaron’s calf was a way of worship without relationship, tithing has become for many a similar substitute for being led by the Holy Spirit.
Before getting into dismantling your confidence in the tithe as a thoroughly New Testament practice, let me first give you some of my own background.
Tithing for me started not long after learning to sing ‘Hear the pennies dropping …’ a ditty that I sang fervently every week in Sunday School as I struggled to untie the penny that mum had tied up in the corner of my handkerchief. My parents, though not Christians, sent me and my brothers off to the local Salvation Army and thus my Christian walk began. Thank God for the Salvos!
And, being the good evangelical mob that they were, my youth was spent imbibing everything that was necessary to being a good Christian soldier, including tithing which probably started with my first pay packet (to the dismay of my father). I believed in it and finished up practising and preaching it through most of my adult Christian life, good times and hard times, up until four years ago.
And I preached it well – and not just because my income depended upon it. I preached it from a grace aspect and with no compulsion – well, unless you call the Malachi threat of a curse ‘compulsion’ … but I’ll cover that later.
When the recent teaching about the need to tithe to the one who represents Christ to you came along I was excited and embraced that as well. We separated tithes and offerings, with tithes going for the Ministry, the equivalent of the priesthood (?), and the offering going to pay for the new Worship Centre, the equivalent of the temple (?).
Did those equivalents unsettle anyone? No? Well let’s move on.
So what happened four years ago? I think what happened was I began to be uncomfortable with the way some were interpreting the importance of the tithe and what seemed like a dread of the consequences of not having the tithe into the ‘storehouse’ on time. A week late, it seemed, could seriously dry up the flow of God’s provision and a cheque that the office girl had forgotten to post become a dam to God’s supply, even to those who walked in a lifestyle of extraordinary generosity.
So the questions started. Was God as legalistic as this? Did this at all reflect his character? Where in the New Testament do we find such fastidiousness in giving – except among the Pharisees? What about the ‘grace’ of giving? It was these questions and more that led me to take another look at the tithe, and especially as it related to New Testament practice.
And my conclusion? There is no basis in the New Testament for the modern practice of tithing. Rather the New Covenant writers present a new way of giving, no longer based on fixed percentages but based on relationship and listening. Not based on set formulas but on the unpredictable leadings of the Spirit. Read on.
JESUS AND THE TITHE
Have you ever noticed that the only time Jesus refers to tithing is in the context of a rebuke to those who were tithing? Come with me and take a look. The first passage is in Matthew 23:23 (also quoted in Luke 11:42)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Although this passage is often used as an example of Jesus teaching tithing – ‘this you should have practiced without neglecting the former’ – in closer look it is in fact nothing of the kind.
To start with, the ‘former’ that he is referring to is the tithing of their mint, dill and cumin. Even the most ardent evangelical tither would, I think, feel that this was not Jesus’ intent for his followers, and certainly I know of no one that obeys this ‘command’.
No, Jesus was not talking to his followers but to the Pharisees, a group of legalists who epitomised the religious system of his day, a system that was diametrically opposed to the way that was to come, the way of the Spirit, centring instead on the maintenance of mindless ritual and self-centred deeds as a means of salvation. Their attitude was epitomised by the Pharisee noted in Jesus’ second reference to tithing, Luke 18:11-13.
‘The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
I believe that what Jesus was in fact saying to them was this. If you want to live by the law then you are right; you do have to be fastidious about it and tithe your mint, your dill and your cumin. As Paul would later remind the Galatians, those who seek righteousness by the law are ‘obligated to obey the whole law’ (Galatians 5:3).
But Jesus was quick to point out that that particular law was not basically about giving a tenth of your wealth. It was about using it to promote justice, mercy and faithfulness. And by slavishly obeying the letter of the law you have missed God’s heart, and in so doing have failed in your objective, righteousness by the law.
THE FAILURE OF THE LAW
The truth is that the laws of God were good; however there was always an element of the law that could only be perceived and grasped by the Spirit. Jesus revealed that when he exposed people’s attitude to murder and adultery.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder… But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment … You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:21, 27)
The unspiritual mind cannot grasp the deeper things of the Spirit, cannot go below the surface and take hold of the greater sweep of God’s heart contained in the written code. Unspiritual man can be quite comfortable, however, with the surface details of the written decree. That’s because it’s a lot easier, and a lot less costly, than listening to the Spirit. But it seems that without the Holy Spirit the human heart, at its best, simply settles for those minimal aspects of the law of God that make a man look good, usually with the least amount of sacrifice or cost.
And the laws pertaining to tithing suffered from this as much as any other law, e.g. the laws pertaining to murder and adultery. This was the failure of the law as a means to produce righteousness and the reason that God sent his Spirit, to take us beyond the letter and into his heart.
And it’s the reason why the early church and its leaders left tithing behind and stepped up to another level.
PETER, PAUL AND JOHN – AND NO TITHE
Apart from a reference in the letter to the Hebrews (which I’ll come to) there is no reference to tithing in the rest of the New Testament. Nothing in Acts or any of the pastoral or doctrinal letters attributed to Peter, Paul, John or the other named writers.
Rather, when we step into Acts we find a pattern and level of giving which has nothing to do with set percentages or ‘planned giving’ programs but everything to do with responding to the Holy Spirit as he made needs known to a listening people.
The early Christians discovered that the Spirit was like the wind, invasive and unpredictable. He invaded their comfortable, earthly-secure lifestyles with a vision of heaven that changed their attitudes to material possessions and this world’s priorities. He released their heart from the grasping, accumulating mind-set that they’d inherited from Adam and set them free to be like Jesus, extravagant and fearless in their giving.
He also rattled their dependence on the need for things to be patterned and predictable. He wanted them to become listeners rather than have them settle into rote patterns of behaviour. The tithe may have been necessary for a people whose hearts were hard, the kind of immature church-goers that Malachi was wrestling with at the close of the Old Testament, but it was not the way of the Spirit.
And nor was it the way of the champion of the Spirit, the apostle Paul.
PAUL AND A BETTER WAY
There can hardly have been a church in New Testament times that was not influenced by Paul, a man sovereignly appointed by God to lay a bedrock of teaching that would become a foundation of church life and practice for generations to come. The sweep of subjects covered in his letters to the new churches is breathtaking.
Here is a man who knows the Old Testament scriptures well and has no trouble drawing on them to undergird his teaching on a huge range of subjects, from individual conduct to church life to the life to come. And he is not neglectful of the need to set in place some sound principles on the subject of giving, devoting two whole chapters to it in 2 Corinthians alone.
And yet, given an abundance of Old Testament passages on tithing to draw from, he uses none. Not a word, not a syllable. Tithing, it seems, is just not an important part of the equation for Paul when it comes to giving. It is certainly not the kind of key principle that is commonly taught today.
Paul’s teaching on giving (which I’ll cover in more detail later) is basically this.
‘Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.’ (2Corinthians 9:7-8)
There is a grace of giving (2 Cor 8:7) and a level of provision (2 Cor 9:11) that we are meant to step into – and indeed excel in – and all that is required is the nurturing of an attitude of joyful abandon and extravagant generosity in relation to material things. There is nothing there about a tithe needing to be in place first of all or a distinction made between tithing and giving.
For Paul ‘deciding in your heart’ had to do with walking in constant fellowship with Jesus, imbibing His values and priorities, and listening to His Spirit. This involves a lot more than putting a rote ten percent in the bag each week and leaving it to ‘the church’ to decide where the Spirit wants it used. And then going home feeling good because you are a faithful tither.
Granted that many tithing believers reading this do not have such a lazy attitude, regularly give way above the tithe and are walking in abundant provision and the grace of giving. I’d like to suggest, however, that this grace has nothing to do with tithing and everything to do with stepping up into freedom in regard to this world’s values.
SO WHAT DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT ACTUALLY TEACH ON GIVING?
One of the main principles of the NT is that we have moved into a new life in which we are no longer directed by a system of rules and regulations (or percentages) but by the inner voice of the Holy Spirit, God Himself indwelling the believer and directing his ways. This is the promise of Ezekiel 36:26 –
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Those laws, according to Jesus, were now simply defined as ‘loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbour as yourself.’ And the new way that we would do this was by the power of his indwelling Spirit, not by following a set of rules or techniques. We would do it by living as He lived, listening and obeying.
It was into this new lifestyle that the early church was baptised at Pentecost as the Holy Spirit fell upon the individual believers and the church as a whole. His presence changed the way they operated in every aspect of their lives, including giving.
Consequently the book of Acts does not give us a picture of a new community that now repents of their slack attitudes to the tithe and tithes more conscientiously, but one that goes beyond tithing and is typified by a whole new outlook and abandon in regard to earthly possessions.
New Testament giving is typified by a quality of giving that is outside the natural. For instance
- the widow with her mite who ‘out of her poverty put in all she had’ (Luke 21:1)
- the believers in Acts sharing ‘everything they had’ even houses and land (Acts 4:32)
- the Macedonians giving ‘out of … their extreme poverty … beyond their ability’. (1 Cor 8:2)
If we are tied to a percentage this can sound frightening. However, if we are tied to the Spirit this can sound like getting a life worth living!
TO SUM UP
There is more that I’d like to tackle but for now let me finish with a summing up of the apostle Paul’s teaching on giving found in 2 Corinthians chapters 8 & 9. Here are his basic points.
- Everything belongs to the Lord and has been entrusted to us.
- We are to excel in the grace of giving as with every other grace.
- We are free and responsible to determine for ourselves the level of our giving (also 1Cor 16:2)
- Our giving should however take into account the following guidelines
- We are to give first to the Lord, the firstfruit of our increase.
- We are to be liberal, sacrificial and generous in all our giving with an understanding that he who gives abundantly reaps abundantly.
- We are to be systematic and regular. (1Cor 16:2)
- We are to give from a joyful heart.
- Our giving is to be a considered and thoughtful offering, taking into account our income. (also 1Cor 16:2)
- But it should also be by faith and take into account God’s ability and His desire to meet all our needs.
- We are to honour and bless those who are over us and who live by the gospel (1Tim 5:17)
Phew! That’s enough for now. I think I’ll take a break – but I will follow soon with PART II in which I’ll try to tackle some of the following questions.
- Is it okay to tithe as a considered part of my giving?
- What about the great testimonies that follow tithing?
- How can my ‘offerings’ be blessed if the ‘tithe’ is not first in place.
- What about Hebrews 7?
- What about Malachi?
- Where is my ‘storehouse’?
- How should ministry be supported?
- Why are some churches afraid to question the tithe?
Phillip Walters www.backyardbelievers.com