If you are not free not to give, you are not free to give. The insistence on enforcing tithing in the church today is the thin end of the legalism wedge. In this article we will explore why tithing is NOT for today and hopefully release many dear saints from the condemnation of the law and free them to the joy of the grace of giving.
The Tithing Controversy – No Laughing Matter (2 Corinthians 9:7)
Paul Anderson-Walsh [PG Dip Applied Theology]
This article has been adapted from Grace@Home, Series One “No Laughing Matter”
It was not until a recent visit to my barbers shop that I realized the full extent of the problem. It was not so much the now relentless advance of grey hair that disturbed me as it was the “hair-raising” conversation with the barber. We had been idly chatting about careers when he said, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you?”, his genial but somewhat loaded opening remark. My normal barber was away. “Yes,” I said with more than my usual note of caution. I could sense something coming but thought that any pre-qualification as to the errant concept of pastors versus the priesthood of believers would probably be a waste of time. “Hey, now that is a good business – there’s real money to be made there!” Although he was a non-Christian, he went on to cite various tele-evangelists who were, by their own admission (nay, boast), “Rich.” I squirmed . and sensing my discomfort, he pressed home the advantage by regaling me with one lurid story after another that he had seen on “Christian television”, so-called. It was truly awful. He had seen it all – “the Profits of God” masquerading as Prophets from God. Of course, my unsaved barber does not have the whole story but he has seen something and he, if you will, “Named it and shamed it!”
In this article, I am not going to state the obvious about much of what is portrayed on TV as I told the barber that those who teach “godliness as a means to financial gain” have perverted the Gospel. Instead, I want to address an equally insidious problem which is – the question of insisting that we, who are free from the law, are under the law of tithing.
Let us begin with the basic question that we are asked time and time again – namely, “Is tithing for today?” Let me stress two things:
- What is not at issue is whether a Christian should or should not give but rather, how we should give, now that we are under grace and free from the Law;
- Our experience is that tithing is the tip of the legalism iceberg.
Tithing is a highly sensitive issue and I believe it is not that the current emphasis on tithing is robbing us of God. The insistence that tithing was to be commuted into the New Covenant hangs by the slenderest thread. It is argued that “tithing is for today because Abraham [the father of all who believe] paid tithes before the law.” The reason the case is so precariously balanced is that there is only one reference to tithing in the entire New Covenant writings.
There is only one reference to tithing in the entire New Covenant writings. The rationale for the tithing argument goes something like this:
- Abraham is the father of all who believe;
- Abraham paid tithes;
- Abraham paid the tithe before the law was introduced;
- Tithing is pre-law and therefore, is still applicable.
In response, we make the following observations:
- If Abraham provides the paradigm for tithing, then we may also assume that the tithe is a one-off and is paid from the spoils of war;
- If the pre-law argument validates tithing, why do the same people not argue with equal alacrity that circumcision is a New Covenant requirement.?
The initial question that I want to explore concerns our motivation for “giving.” The following may simply be a commentary on my heart and not representative of the Christian community and I trust that you will not find me unduly cynical. However, my experience is that most Christians give for one of two reasons and neither is very honourable:
- Insurance : God will get me if I don’t
- Investment : God will bless me if I do
Therefore, we say that tithing for many a Christian, whether consciously or unconsciously, serves as their divine fire insurance premiums.
Perhaps now I am parodying the point but it seems to me at least that what we are doing in the main is on the one hand, we are paying God protection money to leave us alone and on the other hand, we are investing into the Kingdom with a view to maximizing our returns. We are seeking to protect and/or increase our asset base. What we are not doing is GIVING without any expectation of reward other than the reward of giving.
We give for one of two reasons – God will get me if don’t and He will bless me if I do
Does the Hebrews text support the argument for tithing?
Even the most cursory consideration of Hebrews casts doubt on the tithing argument. To begin with, Abraham’s “tithe” to Melchizedek betrays a fundamentally different spirit – notice that Abraham refused any gift in return from Melchizedek. He wanted nothing and thus, at the material level, he had want for nothing. To state our position more clearly, we are disturbed by the suggestion promoted by the legalistic linearity that giving can be employed as a mechanism for receiving. Moreover, we are intrigued that nobody, to our knowledge, has ever taught tithing without any anticipation of receiving in return. As one man once quipped, “If the only guarantee that I could give you was that if you tithe, you will have 10% less than you had before, would you still tithe?”
If the only guarantee that I could give you was that after paying your tithe, you would have 10% less money than before you gave it – would you still give?
There can be few verses that are better known or more misapplied than these: Mal. 3:8-10
“Will a man rob God? Yet, you are robbing me- the whole nation of you. But you say, “How are we robbing God?” In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me – the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test says the Lord of Hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down an overflowing blessing.”
A Response to Malachi
As with all Scripture, the book must be firstly seen within its historical and cultural setting and context.
- To whom are Malachi’s comments addressed?
- Can you think of a verse in Scripture that addresses you, a Christian, as a child of Jacob?
- Under what Covenant was God speaking to Israel – the Old or the New?
- True or false – Under the New Covenant, God will curse you if you do not tithe.
- We do not dispute that Malachi 3 is inspired. We simply ask that the New Covenant reader interprets this and all other Old Covenant verses through a New Covenant lens.
Israel’s Tithing System
We cannot stress too strongly the importance of interpreting Scripture in context. By the simple expedience of beginning the text two verses earlier, we can see how dramatically that alters one’s perception. For example, in the New Testament, there is a verse that every Christian in the world knows – it is from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi and he writes, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” I imagine that most Christians are familiar with this verse but how many can complete the sentence . “for it is God that is at work within you to will and to do.” [Phil. 2:12-13]
Now, if it is true that we have to be careful to set verses in their context, it is imperative that we also set the text into its historical and cultural context. In order to see these verses in their proper light, we must first ask the question – Under what Covenant was Malachi writing, the Old or the New? Quite clearly, Malachi is both Old Testament and Old Covenant. Therefore, any exposition and contemporary application needs to take that into account.
Unlike the New Covenant where we are a “Priesthood of Believers,” in the Old Covenant was a “Priest-class” – a specific tribe designated as Priests and this was the tribe of Levi. The Levitical Priesthood, as it was known, is the concern of the Malachi passage. The over-arching argument of Hebrews is that the Priesthood of Jesus is better than the Levitical Priesthood. The writer to the Hebrews insists that:
- The Levitical Priesthood was inferior to the priesthood of Melchizedek;
- The Levitical order is both outclassed and replaced by the new order and has become redundant.
Under the now redundant Levitical system, the priests acted as representatives for the people and served as mediators between them and God. Whilst having priestly privileges, a Levite had no worldly comforts. For example, he had no income and no property. A Levite had no independent means of support whatsoever. Moreover, when Jacob divided Israel’s inheritance, there was not even an allotment to Levi. In such circumstances, the other eleven tribes met the day-to-day needs of the Levites. It was, if you will, an Old Covenant quid pro quo – The other eleven tribes not being allowed to minister unto the Lord is tempered by the Levites not being able to work.
The solution was an entirely practical and pragmatic one. Each tribe would be responsible for bringing into a central storehouse one-tenth of their produce to meet their everyday needs. The Malachi passage is a rebuke to those who were withholding their support and thus, compromising this system.
I am of the view that tithing is one of the things in the Bible that is “biblical” but not Christian. I readily admit that for some that is a bitter pill to swallow but we take it for granted that circumcision is clearly biblical and yet, it is not viewed as Christian. The same can be said of polygamy. My fundamental objection is that those who press the hardest the case for tithing demand that we give like Israelites do not themselves live like Levites.
Moreover, if tithing is a New Covenant praxis, why does Paul not mention it when he writes a thoroughgoing passage on giving? I do not think that it is sufficient to argue from silence that tithing was an axiom of the Christian life. Accordingly, I raise the following objections:
- The Levitical priesthood belongs to the now obsolete Levitical Priesthood;
- The entire book of Hebrews makes the argument that Jesus and His Covenant is superior to Moses and his covenant;
- The point to note is not that Abraham paid the tithe but that Levi paid it. His purpose in doing so is to pose the question, “Which is the greater priesthood, the one who paid the tithe or the one who received it?”;
- Hebrews confirms that there has been both a change in the priesthood and a change in the law;
- In the New Covenant, there is no such office as Priest, rather, we are a royal priesthood; priest and pastor are not interchangeable terms;
- The apostle Paul not only supported himself, he also supported others.
Only When I Laugh – Guidelines for New Covenant Giving
It occurred to me recently that in 14 years in Pentecostalism, I never brought anybody to the church where I was on staff. On reflection, one of the central reasons for not doing so was that I was so embarrassed at the way in which “we” asked for money. The church, because of giving, has alienated many Christians. How tragic when one considers what a wonderful joy it is to give. The apostle Paul himself tells us, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35]. What he did not say was that it was more blessed to give in order to receive.
The insistence on tithing as a praxis has had the effect of eclipsing the true typological value of the tithe. It is well accepted that many things in the Old Testament are “types” or “shadows” of things in the New Testament. These “types” find their fulfilment in the New Covenant and the tithe is an excellent example. My suspicion is that the tithe is just such a “type” because in the Old Covenant, it was seen as the first fruit. Since the tithe is the “first fruit”, it is actually a “type” of the believer. In the New Covenant, the believer is the tithe. In effect, it is not that the Christian pays the tithe but that the Christian is the tithe and that puts pay to discussions as to whether we tithe “nett or gross.” Complete surrender or abandonment means that we have been “tithed” 100%.
It is not that a Christian pays tithes but rather that the Christian is the tithe
In the Old Testament, the tithe was the portion that was set apart for God. We can see from the New Covenant that the word “sanctified” means “set apart.” Thus, we are the set apart portion.
This idea seems to cohere with Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 8, the only sustained teaching on giving in the Pauline corpus. There, he made an illuminating comment. Paul spoke of the people of Macedonia who, in spite of severe affliction and chronic lack, gave liberally:
- Gave joyfully [v.2];
- Gave voluntarily [v.2];
- Gave sacrificially [v.2];
- Gave beyond their means [v.3, v.10];
- Gave of their own free-will [v.3];
- Begged Paul to allow them to give to the saints [v.4].
What was it that prompted them to give in this almost irresponsible way? The apostle told the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 8:5:
“And this, not as we expected, but they [a] gave themselves first to the Lord and [b] then by the will of God to us.”
If it is right to say that the Christian is the fulfilment of the Old Covenant tithe, then could it be that the Christian is robbing God by withholding tithe, that is to say, withholding themselves?
The Grace of Giving
2 Corinthians 9:6-11
“The point is this; whoever sows sparingly, will also reap sparingly and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has made up in his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful [hilarious] giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things in all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written:
He has distributed freely, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.
If you’re not free NOT to give, you are not free to give
Principles of Giving:
- Only give as the Lord leads;
- Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows bountifully will reap bountifully;
- Each one must give as he has made up in his mind;
- Giving should never be done either reluctantly or under compulsion;
- God loves a cheerful [hilarious] giver;
- Give no more than what you can give hilariously;
- When you give hilariously, God is able to make all grace abound to you;
- Hilarious givers never lack the means to continue giving hilariously;
- What you have was given to you freely;
- God is the He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food;
- The reason he multiplies your seed is to enable you to sow (and not store) and increase your harvest of righteousness;
- When you give in this manner, you will be enriched in every way for all your generosity which, through us, will produce thanksgiving to God.
My heart is to see “hilarious giving” replace payola (spiritual coercion). I have simply lost count of the number of people who have been taught to “sow” their way out of debt and to give what they don’t have to “get” what they don’t, in any event, need. Let us leave the final word on the subject to Jesus (which is generally a good idea).
“Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, HONOUR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER, and HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF HIS FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH!
But you say, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God” he is not to honour his father and his mother. And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” [Matthew 15:3-7]