In modern Christian circles the practice of tithing has, for all intents and purposes, become a litmus test for one's commitment both to God and to the local church. Indeed, for some congregations one is not allowed to "minister" if he or she is not a consistent tither. And as one recent church billboard read, "Tithe if you love Jesus, anyone can honk." Now admittedly, this is one of the most blatant displays I have personally seen, however it gives voice to a mentality that has become a core tenant of faith in both independent and mainstream churches: namely, that tithing is a God-ordained practice that finances the kingdom of God, and facilitates the blessing of God in one's life.
In this article I intend to examine an aspect of this idealism that is either avoided or simply unknown. For in as much as many have undertaken the argument of whether tithing is a valid practice under the new covenant, an issue I leave to the discretion of each individual, few have considered the purpose for which God initially instituted the tithe. Ironically, the purpose of tithing proves to be a more fascinating and understandable than the circular, often ambiguous arguments of its validity. So then let's begin with a careful examination of the institution of tithing by the Lord in Deuteronomy, and then consider several modern positions of the practice in light of what we discover.
First, it is necessary to understand that tithing took on two distinct forms depending on the period of Israel's history that you consider. While in the wilderness the Lord commanded that the entire tithe should go to the sons of Levi in return for their service at the tent of meeting (Num. 18:11). However, when Israel settled in Canaan God, redefined the practice of tithing since the lifestyle of the people and their subsequent interaction with the priests and Levites markedly changed. It is this second form of tithing that the current practice is supposedly modeled after and therefore becomes the subject of our enquiry.We find its institution in Deuteronomy 14 immediately as Israel is preparing to cross the Jordan and enter Canaan. Now I will warn you, the scripture you are about to read will challenge your current understanding of this popular Christian paradigm. It is a direct quote from the New American Standard version and only the emphasis of certain words has been added.
You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year.
Before we continue you may want to read this passage again. In fact you may want to read it out of your own bible just to verify that I quoted it correctly. When you are sufficiently satisfied that it really does read this way I encourage you to read on.
In verse 22 it is clear that the Lord is commanding Israel to tithe saying, "You shall surely tithe " However in the next three verses He clearly articulates His intended purpose for the tithe; an even cursory reading of which reveals a conflict with the current paradigm of the tithe. So striking is the contrast that an honest student of the Word must ask the following questions:
Who does the Lord say should eat the tithe?
Without question the answer is, the tither, " so that (they) may learn to fear the Lord (their) God always." In fact the Lord even sanctions the tither to convert his or her tithe into money and subsequently "..spend the money on whatever (their) heart desires"!
How can this be! Have we not been taught that the tithe belongs to the storehouse so that there might be meat in God's house? Have we not also been taught that we will be cursed if we eat our tithe? And have we not been taught that we learn to trust, or fear, the Lord by giving our tithe away, not by consuming it ourselves?
Yet God Himself commanded that the tithe be eaten by the tither, and that in so doing they would learn to fear the Lord. He even went so far as to sanction the purchase of strong drink with tithe money for the express consumption of the tither!
Pause and Think
Let's begin by examining this opening passage, for it seems to stand in direct opposition to the current paradigm of the tithe. In verse 22 it is clear that the Lord is commanding Israel to tithe saying, "You shall surely tithe " However the next three verses express His purpose for the tithe. Who does He say should eat the tithe? You! It is to be eaten by the tither, " so that (they) may learn to fear the Lord (their) God always." In fact the Lord even sanctions the tither to convert his or her tithe into money and subsequently "..spend the money on whatever (their) heart desires"!
How can this be! We've been taught that the tithe belongs to the storehouse so that there might be meat in God's house. We've been taught that we will be cursed if we eat our tithe. We've been taught that we learn to trust, or fear, the Lord by giving our tithe away, not by consuming it ourselves. And yet God Himself commanded that the tithe be eaten by the tither, and that in so doing they would learn to fear the Lord.
The Lord's Mind Regarding The Tithe
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger to the orphan, and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.
So then there is a distributive aspect to tithing, however the guidelines are
very clear: for two years the tithe is yours to consume and the third year it
is given to someone who will redistribute the tithe to the stranger, orphan
and widow. To further clarify the matter, the Lord indicates that the two-years
tithe is to be used for a feast or celebration or, one could even argue, a vacation.
For did not the Lord sanction the conversion of the tithe into money and then
allow the tither to "
spend the money on whatever their heart desired."
Then the third-year tithe would insure that the storehouse would be full so
that strangers, orphans and widows would be properly cared for. And since each
family would be on a different harvesting cycle the overall effect is that feasting,
celebration and giving were perpetual within Israel.
Speaking of which, let us now turn our thoughts to modern Christianity's version of this divinely instituted practice beginning with what has become the cornerstone passage for it's defense - Malachi chapter 3.
The Matter of
"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. "But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings.
Is it true that the Lord is addressing the mishandling of the tithe in this passage? Yes. And is it true that He delivers a strong rebuke and speaks of a curse for their errors? Most certainly! However, the important question is, to whom is He speaking? To find this out we must look at Malachi 2:1, which reads, "And now this commandment is for you, O priests." For although Malachi begins as a general address to Israel, from this point on to the end of the book Malachi is addressing only the sons of Levi.
You see it was they who had defiled the nation by robbing the Lord, for they were spending the tithe on themselves and neglecting the alien, orphan and widow. Indeed, the all to familiar verse 9 is not saying that the whole nation is robbing God; rather the priests were robbing not only God but all of Israel as well! For in as much as they neglected the alien, orphan and widow, they brought a curse on the whole nation effectively robbing them of the blessing of God.
Remember, only the third-year tithe went into the storehouse. Therefore, it is only that portion of the three-year cycle to which the Lord is referring: the portion over which the priest held responsibility. How ironic that the passage of scripture so widely used to validate and impose the practice of tithing is actually speaking against those who collect them!
And What of
Unfortunately, the somewhat ambiguous nature of the Hebrews passage, gives rise to debate and speculation. And though most scholars agree that Abraham was not intentionally tithing since the law was more than 500 years distant, there is simply not enough information to establish doctrine either way. Historical records indicate that the practice of sharing a percentage of the spoil with spiritual figureheads was customary in Sumerian culture - a culture in which Abram was immersed. Still, there is no way to mount a conclusive argument. What we do know is clearly articulated in Deuteronomy when God instituted the practice throughout Israel. Beyond that we are simply exercising our opinion.
Remember, the tithe was a mandate imposed upon a people who did not have the Spirit of God dwelling inside them. They required a Law written in stone, for their hearts, not as yet transformed, were incapable of having the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus written on them. We, having been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, have no need for the Law. Rather, we walk in His life and we give as liberally as we wish. As our dear brother Paul has said in 2 Corinthians 9:7,
"Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."Am I then saying that tithing is not a New Testament principle? Absolutely!
However, even if it were, the modern Christian paradigm regarding its purpose and practice would still be grossly errant. Simply put, the tithe was always for the people: be they tither, alien, orphan or widow. So then what has God revealed as His nature and intention in this matter? First, that we should feel free to enjoy the blessings of the Lord and celebrate Him according to our abundance. Second, that there should be no poor or needy amongst us for the Lord has blessed us that we might be a blessing.
Remember, the law
was crucified in Christ Jesus, and He has become the end of the law for all
who believe. We are, therefore, no longer constrained or directed by a set of
rules, but by His Spirit. And since the Spirit of Christ dwells within us we
no longer need an earthly law to direct our generosity. Rather, we walk by His
Spirit, giving as He provides and directs, thereby fulfilling the law, not by
our adherence to it, but by our living of it.
Beloved, there is much more to consider with regard to this matter but this is a good stopping point to allow for study, prayer and meditation. Next month we will consider the questions of "Why?" and "How?" the doctrine of tithing has become so prevelant in modern Christianity. Also, if you are interested in the publish date of the full treatment of this subject in book form please email me.