Tithing: A Critique of Modern Practise and Pressure.

Last Sunday morning I was encouragingly reminded of a sermon I gave in February last year with regards to tithing, by a member of our community at Metro Christian Centre, Bury. As a conclusion to our brief conversation, it was suggested that I maybe try and write the message up as a blog post, so here it is.

Just a few quick pointers though, before you start reading.

Firstly, the context of this message was in a series we were doing at the time entitled “Generous”, which looked at the inclination of the entirety of our lives towards God and others. Ergo, it wasn’t a series specifically focused on finance. We seldom preach finance at MCC—and we’re proud of that! I am aware, and was aware whilst bringing the following message, of people’s suspicion of some sections of the church’s ability to fleece cash. We aren’t one of those churches, as the following hopefully makes clear, and we know many great churches, of differing denominations, which aren’t too. It’s sad that this suspicion exists, and more saddening that it has the grounds to exist because of actual practises. If those practices make you angry, please know that they make me just as angry, too.

Secondly, this is from last year, 2015. I’ve slept a lot since then–approximately 577 times, give and take the occasional (ok, regular) afternoon nap at the weekends. Because of that, things aren’t as clear in my head now as they were when I originally penned this. But my conviction remains the same. Even though I read from a number of sources and opinions at the time, things I have read since, re’ other topics, have pushed some of that former knowledge back (or out) to a hard-to-reach place for my recall. (As an aside, this “natural” forgetfulness is a good example of why it’s a good habit to keep studying). As such, I’ve simply tried to share here the heart of what I shared then, and kept my references to what they were in my original notes.

Finally, following on from the above, I’ve not attempted to re-write this message, but only endeavoured to tidy/edit my notes to make it readable as a blog. Keeping that in mind will be helpful to me.

With all that out of the way, here’s the message…

Enjoy (if that’s the correct salutation to give?)  😉


ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE

I’m sure that at some point during 2014 most of us had overheard about a craze known as The Ice Bucket challenge.

The idea’s not a difficult thing to grasp. In a nutshell, someone gets a bucket full of ice, cold water emptied over their accepting heads.

Its sound’s irrational–and probably is–but the original heart behind this seemingly crazy practice was a good one.

The motivation of those originally involved in this counter-intuitive practice was to raise awareness of  a debilitating condition called ‘Motor Neuron Disease’ (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) and also, in the process, to raise funds that would go towards researching this condition, in the hope of discovering treatment and prevention.

So there was good heart intent behind this practise; those involved knew that there was a need to be met and so they gave their own money, and encouraged others to do so, through this challenge. It wasn’t just a case of dumping water over your head; you gave your own money to dump water on your head, and the people who nominated you to do so, would give theirs as well.

The Ice Bucket Challenge was a great success! It’s important for me to stress this now, just in case someone gets the wrong end of the stick with what I have to say in a moment. But to be clear, I’m not “anti” the Ice bucket Challenge, and all those involved in raising monies and awareness of MND deserve a huge WELL DONE! In one week alone, the M.N.D Association, which would normally receive £200,000 of donations per week, received a whooping £2.7m, as well as the awareness of MND being an international topic of conversation in living-rooms, work places and super markets.

Now that’s a great thing!

On top of that, other charities benefitted as well; as people partook in the challenge to raise awareness and funds for other great causes, such as MacMillan Cancer Support and Water Aid (ironic as that may seem).

Even more great news!

But, despite the good motives and the great success of many, some good things, in hands of other people, go “off-track” in a way that shifts the expression of the deed away from its original heart.

Soon, what was originally a loving, generous expression of concern and compassion by many, became a fad for others. Some people just started dumping buckets of water over their heads just because it was trendy, and you got a few ‘likes’ for it on social media sites. I know this, because I know people who took part in the challenge and didn’t give anything to a charity; I know people who challenged others to do it but weren’t willing to give their own money to see those people do it.

It’s a sad admission of our times, but some people’s only motive for doing it was flamboyance and showmanship. Others did it because they felt pressured into doing it; they were told they were ‘tight’, ‘no fun’ or that it was ‘required’ of them otherwise they would have some kind of curse fall upon you for breaking the ‘chain’.

If your memory can stretch far enough, you’ll most likely remember a similar thing happening with the ‘No Make-Up Selfie’ challenge a year earlier.

You see, in both cases there was an original heart-beat that created the things like the Ice Bucket Challenge, but in time people moved away from that heart-beat. They kept the behaviour of the practise and name of what heart-beat’s created, but threw away the actual concern and compassion behind it.

So it’s something that began, in a specific time, to meet a specific need that then got turned into a practice that it was never meant to be…

OLD TESTAMENT TITHING

If you followed that, and you know my fondness for analogies, then you might guess where we’re going within this [blog’s] content. But just in case you don’t, and to be clear from the start–a tithe, or more specifically, the practise of tithing–is an Old Testament requirement, to meet an Old Testament need. But we are a New Testament people!

Tithing, as an institutional practice, was a part of the Mosaic covenant. Yes there are mentions of giving a tithe (a tenth, which is what a tithe means) before this, but it isn’t the modus operandi that developed as part of the Sinai/Wilderness commandments. Neither are the reasons/motivations for these pre-Moses tithes the same as those espoused in some modern churches

For example, in Genesis 14 it mentions the patriarch Abraham giving a tithe (a tenth) to Melchizedek, the priest King of Salem. But this act wasn’t the same as the practise of tithing which is instructed in Leviticus, Deuteronomy or Numbers (which we’ll look at in a moment). It’s also important to note that what Abram tithed was 10%, not of his own property/produce or flocks, but the plunder that he’d just taken in war. It’s also important to note that he gave the remaining 90% of the plunder away, keeping nothing for himself.

Also, Genesis 28 makes mention of Abraham’s grandson Jacob refusing to give God a tenth (tithe), until God gave him something first. This, before we even get to the real motivation behind the Old Testament practise of tithing, is a total antithesis to those so-called “prosperity” teachers who say you must give in order to get, even when you have nothing!

In the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 12:6-19, 14:22-29, Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:24-31), tithes were given to the priests only and brought into the Tabernacle (the meeting place where sacrifices where offered and ritual ceremonies took place). According to the Mosaic law, no one else could receive the tithes but the Levites, who, and this is important, had no land to farm or produce food from. Tithe-able goods were always things like, grain, crops, wine and meat, i.e. food and drink. Incidentally; Carpenters, Stone Masons, basket weavers etc. (even fisherman!), were never required to tithe under Moses’ Law.

Ergo, if that wasn’t obvious, not everyone was required to tithe under the Old Testament system of tithing, and only a certain tribe within Israel could receive the tithes.

And get this, every third year a special tithe was collected; when the tithes were given to God, via the Levites, with the specific instruction to bring them into the nearest town’s stores, invite the FOREIGNER, the FATHERLESS, the WIDOW, SONS, DAUGHTERS, SERVANTS and LEVITES, basically those who risked being at the bottom rung of society, and they were to be eaten together in the presence of God, with the commandment that everyone should eat and be satisfied.

That’s a great command! So tithing wasn’t a burden, but a means of blessing others.

As an aside, but a very important one, Money was not a tithe-able commodity under Moses.

Soak that in for a moment.  Because I suspect that may come as surprise to some. If someone tells you that the Old Testament law required cash tithes it didn’t; it was grain, meat, beer and such like.

Money did exist in those times, although it probably wasn’t thought of as we do in today’s western culture. But with the tithing practise, the only time money is mentioned is in Deuteronomy 14; if you had a long way to travel to where the tithes were collected and ate, then the law permitted you to sell your tenth of grain/meat etc. to save you the transport problems. Once you reached your destination you could then exchange that money back for food and drink to allow you to partake in the festivities or sacrifices; ‘When you arrive, use the money to buy anything you desire – an ox, a sheep, some wine, or beer. Then feast there in the presence of the LORD your God and celebrate with your household[1].

Imagine that in a Sunday morning service?

You see, there was a heart-beat behind the tithe; it was an initiative that facilitated societal needs being met. Along with the Mosaic practises of Sabbath, Jubilee, and Gleaning laws, Tithing was a system where those that had and produced, provided for those who didn’t and couldn’t.

In a sense–not to demean God in anyway–The Tithing system, under the old Law, was a divine Ice Bucket Challenge; it kept the awareness of need in the forefront of people’s minds, and it gave a means to provide for that need. It taught people to honour God by expressing His provisional nature to the poor.

If we wanted to practise that sort of tithing today–the actual Mosaic practise–then that would be great.

And yet … tithing doesn’t look like that today.

TITHING TODAY

Tithing has seen something of a revival in recent church history. The practise is preached, it carries the same name, but it has moved a long way away from the heart-beat behind the original practise. And, as highlighted above, it doesn’t even resemble anything like the OT practise, even though those who preach it is a divine requirement invoke the OT to back up their viewpoints. Some have taught it innocently–passing on what they have received—but others have sadly done so to exhort funds.

This, from my own experience within a denominational strand that in main teaches tithing, is what I have seen and heard;

  • It’s taught as a command; that you must give 10% of your financial income. Even though the Mosaic Law isn’t about money at all, and forbids money being a tithe-able commodity.
  • It’s taught with a pressure behind it; that you’ll be under some curse if you don’t, or posited as the reason why financially struggles happen, “you don’t tithe, no wonder your finances are in a mess”. Which, again, is odd, as the OT law is only applicable to increase; Israel was never told to give what they didn’t have. For example, in the Leviticus stipulations, it was only the tenth cow under the rod that was tithed–if you only had nine, you couldn’t give the tenth. Tithing was post-script, not pre-script; it was a means of sharing God’s blessing, not a way to attract blessing. In this way, tithing didn’t impoverish those who didn’t have, it protected them and placed them on the receiving end of other people’s blessings.
  • It’s taught, or understood, as some kind ‘divine payment protection’ scheme, like it’s an ISA or something. But again, the OT law was nothing to do with a consumerist mantra about “giving in order to get”, instead you got in order to give. The kind of thinking that says “we must do, before God does”, makes God’s faithfulness sound rather precarious and dubious! [2]

For those placed under the pressure of all of this teaching, this just leads to being made to feel guilty, or burdened. Many simply cannot afford to give a tenth, and so are made to feel as if they are under some curse or that their salvation is at risk!

For many it’s seen as a fundamental practise of Christian life. Jumping ahead here—the under-lying heart of tithing, a means of doing justice and showing mercy towards others, especially those in need, is a fundamental, but tithing isn’t.

To share a brief story:

I remember one work colleague once telling me the story of his son. His son had just become a Christian at a mega-church whilst studying at university. My colleague wasn’t impressed; he’s not a fan of Christianity, especially modern charismatic forms. Most of his prejudices I disagree with, and I feel are unfair and based of caricatures, but I cringed with shame when he told me about his son tithing. His son had been told he must tithe, even though he was on a student loan! This, I agreed with him, was totally disgusting. Apparently, in this church, you couldn’t be passionate about Christ if you weren’t giving some financial pay-off.

Sadly, this isn’t the only story I could tell about this sort of abusive and exhorting teaching. But to quickly summarize some main objections (if the above analyse of what the Mosaic Law actually teaches wasn’t enough);

As Christians we are a New Testament People–tithing, like circumcision is not a requirement. Only Levites could collect tithes, and there is no Levitical Priesthood; we are, ALL OF US, part of a Royal Priesthood. There is no Tabernacle/Temple to bring the Tithes into; we are, together in Christ, the Temple of the Living God.

You are not required to Tithe, and neither are you under some curse if you don’t, neither is your salvation at risk. This isn’t some after-life mortgage scheme. You have already been paid for by something more valuable than silver and gold, and if God has already given us his most precious belonging–his son–why would he deal out curses? It’s Grace.

Tithing, in the modern “prosperity” sense, is just another manifestation of the consumeristic, materialistic and individualistic drives of our age–it certainly doesn’t represent what the Mosaic Law taught, and it doesn’t reflect the New Testament ideals either.

TITHING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.

Jesus himself only mentions tithing once, and in the context of critiquing the Pharisee’s own practise of the Mosaic Law; they made sure they gave even a tenth of the mint in their gardens, but they missed the point of the tithe altogether. It wasn’t about keeping account with God, but pursuing and extending justice and mercy towards the widow and the orphan etc.

The NT Church didn’t Tithe, and they were never required to tithe by Paul or the early Church Leaders. Why, because they understood the Grace that they had received, and so they practised something far better than tithing. They understood the heart-beat behind the law, so they went beyond the law. They practised the kind of community that tithing pointed towards, a community where tithing wouldn’t be required because needs were met by each other.

In the book of Acts we read of a church that held everything in common; they met the needs within their community, and history tells us they even met the needs of those outside of their community. The early church was GENEROUS with each other. With TIME, with POSSESSIONS, with HOMES and their FINANCES.

Again, why? Because of one simple word: grace. Grace revolutionizes us from those who tithe and give charity, to people who pass the grace. ‘- Scott McKnight[3]

The NT does have a something to teach about giving, though. In particular, Paul gives some great advice to the church at Corinth with regards to a collection for the church in Jerusalem (see, 2 Corinthians 8 & 9). However, it’s interesting that Paul never appeals to any Old Testament sanction or allusion for this offering, he simply appeals to grace; the generosity of God. Paul’s advice on giving, broken down into bullet points, is as follows. Notice how this advice contrasts with what some “prosperity” preachers would say, and how it mirrors the under-lying heart-beat of the original tithing system;

  1. Give out of what you do have, not out of what you don’t. Don’t give so much that you suffer from having too little (8:12-13). So, if you’re struggling to pay your bills, but your tithing–if I can be bluntly honest–pay your bills.
  2. Give willingly, not under pressure (9:5). Ergo, it’s not a requirement. Don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure, give cheerfully out of a heart that wants to give (9:7).
  3. You must each make you own mind up about how much to give (9:7). There’s no prescriptive amount. This isn’t about quantity, but the heart in which it is given. For some of us 10% is just unattainable, two percent is more than generous, and that’s ok.

We are called to be generous; not consumeristic, or materialist, or individualistic. We are not called to look for means to make ‘profit’ but to seek ways in which to bless. After all God has not called us to 10% stewardship of life, but whole-life stewardship. God has called us to show justice, mercy, care and provision for those who need it.

In my home church, Metro Christian Centre, Bury, no one is required to give a tithe. But we do desire to be the counter-culture community that seeks to be generous. And generous in a way that isn’t ‘pressured’ or ‘prescriptive in quantity’, nor reluctant, but which joyfully flows according to what we have.

We are called to go beyond tithing; we are ‘post-tithing’, seeking to be the reciprocal expression of the grace we have been shown in Christ. We have freely received, so we freely give.

We are not called to tithe, but we are called to love one another; our neighbour and our enemy.

I love my church family. I know we are a generous church. And I don’t mean about the offerings. We hear stories all the time about people physically and financially meeting needs within our community. Keep doing it. And if you’re not doing so, but you can afford to do so, then why aren’t we?

Of course our church, like others, requires finances to operate. But we are not going to wrap that up in some out-of-date OT requirement, that makes people a) feel guilty b) feel threatened by potential curses, which actually just taps into some consumeristic tendency and not a generous one, and c) actually testifies against the blood of Jesus that has already, gracefully, purchased us. MCC Bury isn’t Ice Bucket Church, in the gone off track kind of sense, and we have no desire to be one of those churches. We are not going to ask people to tell us their salaries. We are not going do a special preach before every offering. We do not charge a subscription fee. We simple trust you.

We want to be a church that is motived by and reciprocates the grace we have already received. So I’d encourage you to give; give voluntarily, give cheerfully, give wisely, give generously.[4]

— Tristan Sherwin, author of *Love: Expressed*

Foot Notes:

[1]. As a further aside, this text in Deuteronomy 14 offers an important insight into correctly understanding Jesus’ actions within the Temple, when he overturns the tables of the money lenders. As with others, such as N. T. Wright, I do not believe Jesus was protesting the sale of goods in the Temple. Torah allowed for this. Instead, Jesus was carrying out a prophetic demonstration against the Temple system itself by temporally bringing the sacrificial practice to a stand-still.

[2]. On that note, after I preached this message at church, one of our church family came to me upset over what I said. They were adamant that through their practise of tithing, God had always met their needs and never let them go without. This thinking is extremely common is “prosperity” settings, and has been taught for decades. However, could it be that God is just, simply put, faithful? Even without our tithes? The basic premise of the gospel is grace, not bribery, or our own faithfulness to God. Also, I would answer in response to this thinking, what about those who have tithed and still gone without? It happens! More than some would admit. Maybe the modern tithing culture itself, which sees prosperity as blessing and poverty as curse, creates an environment where these people feel falsely guilty over their predicaments and unable to ask for help without risk of being shamed? Some people, under the pressure of such teaching, commit what they don’t even have, getting in more dire-straits–which is totally out of sync with the purposes of the tithe in the first place. Of course, those kinds of stories aren’t shared from the front of churches that wish to promote their own kind of tithing; only their version of what constitutes “good news” stories are shared.

[3]. Just in case the link doesn’t transfer from my notes, see:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/01/09/paul-was-post-tithing/

[4]. I know I have only briefly dealt with tithing in the Old Testament in this message, and an even briefer survey of it in the New Testament, and, as some would have noticed, I have completely skipped any dealing of the historical development of things such as Temple Taxes or Church Taxes. This reason for this is simple; most “prosperity” teaching on tithing does so with an appeal to Old Testament passages, and not to Second Temple period or European Medieval developments.


Header Image: “Feed The Poor Man’s Greed”, by Veeegeee, at deviantart.com


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