Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Should Christians Tithe?

In Interpretative Method this week I raised the issue of tithing in relation to Malachi 3. I avoided the question that the passage raised 'should Christians tithe'. Here I will dare to give some thoughts:
1. Christians who believe God's word tells them to tithe should tithe: Paul when dealing with arguments over non-essentials such as eating, Sabbaths, eating meat from the temple butchery (cf. Rom 14-15; 2 Cor 8) suggests that the answer lies not in one group imposing on others what they should do, but on people living by their conscience as they believe in the Lord. Those who reject tithing should allow others to disagree with grace and freedom. Those who argue from the Scriptures for tithing too should not impose on others their viewpoint. We should allow freedom of conscience on this issue.
2. Christians who believe God's word does not endorse tithing should not: Similarly and for the same reasons, Christians who after weighing up the arguments believe tithing is not required of them, should live this out. They should continue to give freely and generously to the work of the Lord and the needs of others, but they are free not to tithe.
3. My position is that the NT does not endorse tithing: There are four references to tithing in the NT. Two are parallel texts (Mt 23:23; Lk 11:42) in which Jesus severely critiques Pharisaic pedantic tithing while neglecting a concern for the weightier matters of the need to care for the needs of those in desperate material need. While some argue that Jesus tells all Christians to tithe in the wording of these verses ('do not neglect the former'), I am not so sure. He is addressing the Pharisees in the Jewish world-view and at no other point does any NT writer refer to or endorse tithing except one reference in Hebrews. In the other passage in the Gospels Jesus also critiques the Pharisee who while being a committed tither, does not go home justified whereas the unscrupulous traitor tax collector is justified before God as he repents. The only other reference is in the context of the writer to the Hebrews arguing that Jesus belongs to the superior priesthood of Melchizedek. None of these texts clearly endorses tithing for all Christians.
4. The NT endorses radical, selfless, free, generous giving: These four cryptic references to tithing are totally subsumed in any number of references to radical giving to the needs of others. Luke's Gospel, Acts 4 and Paul's letters to the Corinthians give this most clearly. Christians are to reject greed and give radically to alleviate the suffering of others and to see the work of God flourish. They are to do so not for personal blessing, but out of grace wanting to see others experience the fullness of God's blessing. They are to do so without compulsion but in imitation of the selfless giving of Jesus Christ our Lord who though rich, became poor to bring wholeness and shalom to others. They are not to be limited by any 10% but give all they have over to God, not to make themselves poor, but that there may be equity. On the other hand those who are poor should not be oppressed by the tithing principle causing them to bring further suffering to themselves to meet some clergy imposed legal requirement. Those in need should be the recipients of the generosity of those who are wealthy as in the case of Barnabas who sold his land to alleviate the needs of the poor in the Jerusalem church or in the case of the Macedonian, Galatian and Achaian churches who cared for the Jerusalem church under poverty (similarly Acts 11:29).
5. The imposition of tithing will lead some to sin and some to suffer: The imposition of tithing can see the rich let off the hook in the Lord. They who are blessed materially are to give beyond any limit of a tithe, knowing that they have been blessed to give, for it is more blessed to give than receive. On the other hand, the tithe is an oppression to those without. This is what happened with the OT tithe. At the time of Christ the three-fold Deuternomic tithe and the Levitical tithe were applied along with the temple and Roman taxes! This meant that the poor people of the land were terribly oppressed with between 17 and 40% of their income going to others in this way. In our land with high taxation rates along with 10% imposition from the church sounds dangerously like oppression to me! As I said above, those who are in financial need in the church are to be the recipients of the generosity of the wealthy rather than oppressed and poor as others living resplendent financial blessing. In some quarters the rich are seen as the blessed ones and the poor correspondingly seen as cursed for their sin and disobedience. Such ideas are anathema in the NT!

So I would argue not for the tithe but for radical, free generosity as led by the Spirit. There is nothing in the NT that says that it is wrong to have a large income as long as it is ethically gained. However, the NT is emphatic in calling the wealthy in Christ to give gloriously and generously out of grace and gratitude to the God who has given everything they have! So let's just do it.

45 comments:

Nichthus said...

Nice one Mark. I love the way you've integrated Paul's great principle of 'living in conscience' into your argument. I wonder though if your statement, "the NT does not endorse tithing" might be better worded "the NT does not require tithing".

Love your summary - "I would argue not for the tithe but for radical, free generosity as led by the Spirit". Amen!

Stephen G said...

Some good thoughts, and probably worthwhile fleshing out into a general magazine article at some point. (Though the obvious place in the past for such an article in NZ would have been Reality, and I'm not sure where it would be now. Zadok in Aus?).

Do you have any thoughts on how Craig Blomberg uses Ron Sider's idea of progressive tithing?

Dr Mark K said...

Thanks nichtus. On the idea of progressive tithing: it is a nice idea but if tithing is not endorsed (or required), then why base giving on tithing at all. Why not seek to be incredibly and sacrifially generous as led by the Spirit. I have a mate who does this. One day he walked into the house and gave me a car! Why? Because God had told him. He blessed us considerably over the years. I think that spontaneous Spirit led, grace motivated, generous giving is what it is about. But the question is, will pastors who need the dosh to run their churches trust the Spirit?

Philip said...

Thanks for a great reflection on tithing. I am posting a pointer to it at my blog
www.everyhomeachurch.blog.co.uk

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