Thursday, November 5, 2009

Issues With Church: 2 - Tithing

How most Christians view tithing is strange to me.  As a kid growing up in church, I always wondered specifically how the 10% number happened to fall out of the sky and out of people’s checkbooks.  As it turns out, its from the Bible.  The word tithe in Hebrew actually means “the tenth part of”.  Here are a couple passages that deal with tithing in the Hebrew Bible (all Bible references are NRSV).

leviticus 27.30-33
30All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord. 31If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. 32All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. 33Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed.
Numbers 18.21-32
21To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting...
From what I can tell, these and other passages in the Hebrew Bible indicate that a tithe was distributed for the Levites, the poor, or the monarchy.  
But maybe you’re asking the same questions as I am.  When we give 10% of our income to the church, are we doing what the Bible requires of us?  I would argue - not exactly.  The church today doesn’t use the services of Levite priests and the services of our clergy today are not even closely related to those of the Levites.  
Besides all of this, is there evidence in the New Testament that followers of Jesus gave a tenth of their resources?  The simplest and straight forward answer I can give is - no.  I may be completely wrong, but I can find nothing in the Bible that suggests that Jesus followers are required to take part in the tithing laws of the Torah.
Here’s what the New Testament says: 
Mark 12.41-44
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
1 Corinthians 16:1-4 speaks about a collection for “the saints” (i.e. believers) and specifically mentions putting aside “whatever extra you earn” for that collection.  Notice, here, this is not a specific amount of money such as a tenth.
2 Corinthians 8 and 9 are also about the collection of money.  Specifically 9.6-7 reads, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
In Acts chapter 5 we can read the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  The husband and wife both dramatically die because they held back only “some” of the money they acquired from selling a piece of land from the apostles.  
From scripture then, we can read that the requirements for Jesus followers to give is not  akin to the tithe that the Hebrew Bible requires of Israelites.  Surely, collection in the early church was still gathered to help fund the spreading of the Jesus movement and to help the poor.  I believe our churches do a fair job of using the resources its received to spread the Jesus movement in the communities where we exist, but I think we all need to take a much deeper look at how much money our churches spend on behalf of the poor.
Matthew 23.23 (also see parallel verse Luke 11.42)
23“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.
These strong words from Jesus clearly reflect those from the prophet Amos in Amos 4.4-5.  In my own words what these verses tell is- we can give and tithe all we want, but if we neglect the needs of the poor and neglect matters of the heart, our sacrifice is not acceptable to God.  
So, I believe that we scriptures tell us at least two basic things about how followers of Jesus should give.
  1. As my wife likes to say - “Give until it hurts”.  Followers of Jesus do not give out of their abundance but out of their poverty.  The call of a Christ follower is not to give until we reach 10%.  In fact, if we are using a percentage marker to gauge where we start and stop giving, then we are not being cheerful givers who give because of the joy it brings to God and in return to us.  Instead, percentage based giving can hinder God from moving through our lives and the resources he’s blessed us with directly to those who are in need.  Always remember - a sacrifice pleasing and acceptable to God is not monetary, but rather is a broken and contrite heart.  If our hearts are fully broken before the God then we’ve handed over the pieces of our lives to God in admittance that we cannot put them back together.  The puzzle is too difficult for us to finish and there are too many missing pieces.  Only when we enter this place can we realize that we have nothing and we are nothing without the love of God.  It is here that we can learn to give freely, joyfully, and out of our poverty.  
  2. Remember the poor.  If somehow we can learn to give out of our poverty we can learn to meet the needs of other’s poverty. If our giving is not reaching the poor, we participate in injustice.  If our giving ignores the poor, we help spread injustice in the Kingdom of God.  If our sacrifices do not even take into consideration the needs of the poor, then our giving is in vain and not pleasing to God.  We should all reevaluate how our resources reach the poor, even if our giving goes directly to the church.  Churches (which are people) have a deep responsibility to meet the needs of the poor.  How much of your church's income is distributed in resources for the poor, as opposed to spent on itself? 

Never forget that these two ideas must work together at all times.  We can give to the poor often, but if our hearts are not broken in humility towards towards the greatness of God, then our giving can and most likely is in vain.  But in return, if our hearts are far from God, but we are good at going through the motions of being a Christian, we’d probably want to take a closer look at humbling ourselves by finding out how much we’re using our resources to help the poor. 


  1. You're making me think. Thanks.

  2. just found your blog, mate. looking forward to tracking your thoughts and contributing to the conversation. and thanks for trying to ruin my wonderful and systematic 10% commitment.

  3. Haha - I'm sure my thoughts are nothing new to such a well-read guy as yourself...