THE WHERE AND HOW
In my last posting on tithing I set out to show that, far from tithing being put forward in the New Testament as an example of how to give, the early Christians actually stepped up to a new way of giving, the way of the Spirit.
No longer did they live by set routines, procedures and formulas but theylived in daily conversation with the indwelling Holy Spirit who took them past the letter of the law to the heart of the law, the heart of God.
This does not mean that we have been left with no written guidelines or instructions. The writers of the New Testament have given us some pretty clear directives concerning this ‘grace of giving’ but every one of them leads us to the Spirit to be fully ‘fleshed out’. For example we are commanded to support those who minister the word to us but are not given any instructions on ‘how’ to do that. For that we need to pray, discuss among ourselves and come up with a support method that ‘seems good to ourselves and to the Holy Spirit’.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In this article I want to look at ‘where’ our giving should be directed. Let me first of all deal with a couple of passages that have relevance to the direction of our giving but which have been, I feel, fairly misused.
ABRAHAM AND MELCHIZEDEC
Over the past fifteen years or so a teaching has taken ground that suggests that not only is tithing not actually ‘giving’ but that the ‘tithe’ is not really ours to give. It belongs to God (‘will a man rob God?’ – Malachi 3) and we are not free to do what we like with it. Specifically, it should go to the person who ministers Christ to you, the one who ministers the Gospel to you and is your primary oversight. This is based on both the New Testament instructions to honour those that teach us and the Old Testament instructions in regard to the support of the Priesthood. The prime example of this is Abraham tithing to Melchizedec (Genesis), and the recounting of this episode in Hebrews 7 is usually given as evidence of the New Testament support for tithing. So let’s briefly take a look at that.
Firstly it should be noted that the instructions re honouring elders with double honour is very probably an allusion to some form of monetary appreciation and support1. However the episode of Abraham tithing to Melchizedec is actually a poor example of how to do that.
- For one, this episode seems to be a one off incident. There is no reference to this being Abraham’s regular practice (Gen 14:18-24).
- The tithe came from the spoils of war, ‘a tenth of the plunder’ (Heb 7:4 NIV), none of which he kept anyway. It was not a part of his regular income or the first fruits of his labour.
- The Hebrews passage (Heb 7) is not given to teach tithing but to teach the supremacy of the Priesthood of Christ, an unchanging, pre-Aaronic priesthood more in keeping with the priesthood of Melchizedec (also Heb 5:6). Yes, it may be possible to use the incident as an example of God giving us earthly fathers who we should honour, but that honour should definitely be more than a one-off gift from our winnings!
- As far as honouring those who represent Christ to us the nearest that we have to that in the New Testament is
- The reference of the believers selling their goods and homes and “bringing them to the feet of the apostles” (Acts 4:35). The purpose here, however, was the distribution of such funds to the needy.
- Paul’s collection among the Gentiles for the Jerusalem church, an example of honouring those through whom they had received Christ (Acts 11:29).
- The Macedonians, who were extravagant in their support of Paul. However there is no suggestion here that it was a regular tithe (Phil. 4:18).
MALACHI AND ROBBING GOD
Undoubtedly the Malachi 3:8-12 passage is easily the proof text most quoted in any teaching on the subject of tithing. And it is a great passage, full of exiting promises of blessing to those who will honour God with their giving. As a friend wrote after my first article, “which part of the blessings which God promises in Malachi 3 wouldn’t any believer want?”
So let’s have a look at that one also.
- Firstly, although Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament it still is in the Old Testament, and its instructions relate to an old order and to a people who are under an old covenant. There was a professional priesthood that needed to be maintained and the tithe was clearly in place primarily for its maintenance (Deut 18:1-8).
- It therefore needed to be distinguished from offerings, which were for a different purpose. This distinction, however, is not even alluded to in the New Testament.
- Malachi is also writing to a hard-hearted, obstinate people. “Test me”, pleads the Lord. But His pleadings, it would seem, were to little avail, because without the Spirit, who was yet to come, the best that most could come at, as the history of the Law shows, was a tame religious routine, a far cry from the heart attitude that God sought.
Thank God that Malachi was not the last word but was followed soon by the book of Acts and by a people who did not have to “test” God but whose hearts and outlooks were radically changed – and for whom the same blessings promised through Malachi were available as they simply stepped into the grace of ‘giving’. No separation of ‘tithes’ and ‘offerings’ were now needed – since there was no longer a professional priesthood to maintain – and no comfortable formulas either. It was the day of the Spirit.
INTO THE STOREHOUSE?
There is, however, another element in Malachi that is worth looking at as we take a look now at ‘where’ our giving should be directed. It’s the storehouse.
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. (Mal 3:10)
In the OT the storehouse would seem to have been a place in the temple where the tithes and offerings were kept (Neh 10:39, 13:12), remembering that most of it consisted of produce (Num. 18:26-32, Deut 18:1-8) and very little of it was cash. Some have suggested that the New Testament equivalent is heaven, where Jesus recommended we store up good deeds, in preparation for the day of reckoning to come. Interesting thought but I’m sure that it is more common these days to equate the OT storehouse with the local church, our weekly ‘silo’ from whence cometh our spiritual nurture.
And here I need to be careful (as opposed to how I have been so far). And I need to be careful because I don’t want to undermine good ministries or direct much needed resources off to other worthy – but not necessarily spirit-inspired – causes.
However I am coming now from a position where stepping out of traditional building-centred church five years ago – and into home church – has caused me to take a new look at New Testament giving priorities. And basically NT giving seemed to flow into two priorities – (1) those itinerant workers who ‘live by the gospel’ and (2) the needy.
THOSE WHO LIVE BY THE GOSPEL
- It is common practice among many who teach tithing to equate the modern professional ministry with the Old Testament professional ministry, namely the Aaronic priesthood, and to therefore see the tithe as basically for the ministry. However the clear teaching of the NT is that we are ALL priests and though some earn their living from the gospel that does not mean they are the New Covenant equivalent or replacement for the priesthood. The same provision for paying full-time ministries does not therefore necessarily apply.
- In fact not all of God’s ministers in the OT were supported by the tithe. The prophets were not and NT ministers of the gospel probably have a great deal more in common with the prophets than with the priests. Perhaps the method by which the prophets were supported is therefore a more relevant guide. And most of the prophets were supported either by their own income or by the free-will support of those among whom they ministered.
- Certainly that is what we find when we step into the New Testament, both in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples, and later in the broader ministry of the church. There is clear teaching, both from the Gospels and the Letters, that those who earn their living from the gospel are to be adequately supported (3 John 1:5-8). Indeed those who minister the word, even though they may have other sources of income, are worthy of double honour (1 Timothy 5:17) and therefore should be recompensed on top of that income. It is true that Paul occasionally lived by his own hands but this appears to be only for a time and with a clear purpose (2 Thes 3:8). Certainly he had no qualms (1) about others being supported in ministry (1 Cor 9:4-6) or (2) himself receiving support from others (2 Cor 11:9). 2
- In reference to how ministers of the gospel are to be remunerated, however, the New Testament gives very little specific guidance other than that it is important that it happens. This suggests that local churches or individuals are free in this area to seek a system of meeting that requirement that “seems good to them and to the Holy Spirit”.
The other area where funds flowed was to the needy. Here, though, we need to be discerning. It is easy in our day, where our mail box, television set and the internet swamp us with an enormous plethora of perceived ‘needs’, to either (1) be overwhelmed by the needs around us, or (2) become indifferent the needs of others.
Jesus did NOT respond to need. Otherwise He would have become more exhausted than he sometimes was. And he would have been swayed from His real mission. We also cannot simply respond to perceived needs. And we have good examples in the scriptures to that end.
- It would seem that giving to the poor was primarily aimed at the poor within the Christian community (Galatians 6:10). God was establishing in the earth a new community, like the community of heaven, a demonstration of love, selflessness and provision. The Gospel was not just about coming to Jesus but was about being born into community. The attraction of Jesus was to be magnified by this demonstration of how those who embraced Him loved each other.
- The priority was to those who were unable to supply for themselves, widows, orphans, etc. So, those who were lazy or those who were not discharging their duty to their family (1 Tim. 5:8), were given short shift and a stern word of encouragement (in other words it was not like our welfare system).
- Although there is clearly times when helping the poor was a communal effort, believers were not to simply leave it to the leaders to make arrangements for the poor. They were encouraged to show hospitality, discernment and care. They could not simply put something in the offering bag or the Red Cross envelope and get on with their own consumer lifestyles, conscience assuaged.
- Nor was their giving a result of emotion (and guilt?) charged appeals from the pulpit (2 Cor. 9:7). Paul’s suggestion was that each family systematically put aside an amount each week (1Cor. 16:2) so that when he arrived the money would be there. No appeals necessary, no wondering where the unplanned extra funds would come from. Or opening up their wallet and taking out “the highest note that’s in there – if you truly love the Lord!”
- This did not mean though that there were not times when the Spirit did not want them to go beyond their tidy budgets and ‘walk on water’, trusting Him for provision.
STAFF AND BUILDINGS?
In contrast to these two priorities, the greater percentage by far of giving in today’s church goes to staff, building programs and programs designed to maintain the Sunday worship service. Literally billions of dollars are tied up in bricks and mortar and platform ministry. This is the modern day ‘storehouse’ – and the main reason that many church have a vested interest in maintaining ‘tithing’.
But it would seem to me that there is nothing in the scriptures of the New Testament that support such priorities. As George Barna and Frank Viola chronicle so well in their challenging book, ‘Pagan Christianity’, these things were never a part of the first three hundred years of the church’s history; arguably it’s most vibrant and fruitful years. Be warned that an honest reappraisal of tithing may lead to a reappraisal of the ‘storehouse’.
A DANGEROUS TEACHING
When I first shared some of my thinking on this subject with a brother in our Fellowship, a true and faithful believer when it came to practicing tithes and offerings, his initial reaction was, “You can’t teach that. People won’t give!” That, I suspect, is one of the primary reasons that many in the modern church find the questioning of tithing dangerous; the suspicion that if people are released from the obligation to tithe, that the money will dry up or at least not be as predictable.
It’s a bit like some preachers fearing to teach grace in case it leads to licence. Or not allowing tongues and prophesies in the meetings in case it leads to abuse and disorder. That kind of thinking raises the following observations.
- There is something in us that is happier with an element of control and certainty, rules for conduct rather than each believer listening to and following the inner voice of the Spirit. The history of the church is unfortunately one of reverting to rules to bring about good Christian conduct, and the clergy, ever since the time of the Pharisees, have been good at designing and proof-texting such rules.
- What, however, if giving was to decrease with the removal of such a rule? Wouldn’t that simply be a true indication of the motives of the heart? A sign that people’s giving was the result of law and not of a generous attitude? And isn’t God much more interested in the motive of the heart than the church’s bank balance? And shouldn’t we have a similar aspiration for our people. Actually, although the removal of any aspect of compulsion may lead to an initial drop in giving, truth is it may in the end lead to a much higher level of spiritual life resulting in a level of giving that goes well beyond our expectations. In fact when I shared this with our people another believer’s reaction was, “This means I might have to give more!”
Obviously I have not been able to cover every aspect of this subject and I will need to follow this post up with a bit of a Q & A post. However I hope that the last two posts have given you some food for thought.
It is time for us to bite the bullet and step up into a new way of giving, the way of the Spirit. Such giving is unpredictable since the Spirit, like the wind, is unpredictable and we are meant to be a people who listen and follow the chase rather than live in the ‘safety’ of predictable routine and formula.
Giving that comes out of a sense of duty or routine is not what God is ultimately after. He waits to bless those who listen and, responding in faith, will come up the mountain with Him, up to another level of life in the Spirit.
1. Frank Viola, in ‘Pagan Christianity’, does put forth a fairly convincing alternative view on the meaning of honour in this passage.
2. I must say though that I doubt that there was anything like the level of fulltime pastors that we now have, a level which is greatly increased by a denominational system where every denomination has its own full time representative in the town, a very wasteful use of local finances and resources.