Saturday, September 25, 2021

To tithe or not. . .

When Cain and Abel's offering in Genesis 4 is spoken of, there is no explicit explanation as to why the offering was being made.  It might be worth noting, however, that this wasn't the first offering Scripture speaks of.  And the first offering was not from man to God. The very first offering made was when God killed His creation to make clothes of animal skin for Adam and Eve, a gift to cover their nakedness. In one small way, this animal sacrifice was the first blood caused by sin and foreshadowed Christ’s own self-offering, whose righteousness covers our sin (Romans 4:3-8).  Blood was shed and this becomes the foundation for the shedding of blood that is necessary for the forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22).

“Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram […]. Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:18-20).  When the prophet Abram (later Abraham) was making his way home bearing the spoils of war and the riches of victory, he was met by a high priest in the order of God. This priest was Melchizedek.  As soon as Abraham saw Melchizedek, the wisdom of his heart recognized he was in the presence of one who was with God.  It appears that Abraham knew intuitively that he was to give a tithe of all that he had to this priest of God.  Though it was not the first offering given to the Lord, this became a spiritual covenant was set up for our time, whereby God's people were to give a tenth of its increase (what a person receives that is his or hers) back to God.  God met Jacob at Bethel and promised him covenant blessings; the patriarch promised God a tenth of everything granted him (Gen. 28:22).

The tithe gift is referenced in more detail in Numbers 18:21–26.  According to this, a tenth of the produce was to be presented to a Levite who then gave a tenth of the first tithe to a kohen (Numbers 18:26). Tithing was seen as performing a mitzvah done in joyful obedience to God.  This tithe became part of an Old Testament system that provided upkeep for the Jerusalem Temple and supplying the priests working there, who had no other livelihood and were given no land.  

To these were added the Burnt Offering, the Grain Offering, the Peace Offering, the Purification Offering, and the Reparation Offering.  The instructions for the Burnt Offering are given in Leviticus 1:3-17; for grain offerings are given in Leviticus 2; for the shelem, or Peace Offering in Leviticus 3  [including Thanksgiving Offerings (Lev 7:12), Freewill Offerings (7:16), and Wave Offerings (7:30)]; the Sin or Purification Offering in Leviticus 4; and the asham, or Guilt Offering, in Leviticus 5.

The question has always been whether or not tithing is part of the old covenant which is superceeded in Christ or whether tithing has a place in Christianity.  For those who think the tithe is abrogated, the New Testament attitude prevails: "give freely because you have freely received" (Matthew 10:8) and "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7).  Also, for those not in favor of tithing, Hebrews 8:13 is cited as proof the old covenant is fulfilled and no longer applies to Christians: "In speaking of 'a new covenant,' he (God) has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear." 

Some groups have adopted the tithe in a rigorous and legalistic way (think here the Mormons or LDS, where the failure to give 10% can prevent the person's participation in temple rites).  Some speak of the tithe as a goal and good practice to be held in honor but not as a rule.  Some do not speak of the tithe at all.  What is the Christian supposed to think? 

COVID and the drop off of attendance, the shift to more digital platforms for worship and instruction, and the overall distaste by many for paid clergy present even more challenges to the idea of tithing and to the overall support of the Church.  Some are hostile to the very idea of buildings, paid clergy, and administrative costs -- viewing them as the very antithesis of the Christian mission to share the Gospel and serve the Lord.  One Christian commenter, himself a member of a house church presumably without paid staff, went so far as to suggest that there were very good reasons for the Christian to stop tithing 10% every week.

So what about the tithe?  I, for one, have come to be very suspicious about the disconnect between Old and New Testament seen by some.  From worship to morality to tithing, many believe that the Old Testament has largely been abrogated and set aside so that it speaks merely as witness without reference to the present.  In worship this view means that the God who once carefully and specifically set out detailed instructions for worship now cares only that worship be meaningful, relevant, and satisfying for the worshiper.  In the same way, this view presumes that once clear prohibitions are now cast off as legalistic in the face of the new principle of love which accepts, tolerates, condones, and even welcomes change (consider the way GLBTQ+++ has found wholehearted acceptance among many Christians when such behavior was clearly condemned in the Old Testament).  In the context of tithing, this view suggests that God would not want anyone to give what they did not want to give, freely and willingly.  But is is that simple?  Does fulfilling the old mean casting it into the trash bin of history as mere footnote?  Or is it that the fulfillment of the old in Christ now means that the same thing becomes something new and different for those who live in Christ by baptism and faith?

Does God disdain buildings and paid clergy and all the accoutrements of church life?  If He did, why would He allow for all the creature comforts that have become normative (from heat and air conditioning to comfortable seats to coffee bars)?  The tithe was never simply a God tax.  Even Jesus honors tithing, even if he said it was less important than other things (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42).  It was and is an offering of faith for the work of the Kingdom.  Specifically, it is for the support of those whose vocation is to serve God's people with His gifts.  No less than St. Paul points out this equivalence between the way priests in the Old Testament made a living and how pastors in the New Testament made a living. “Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).

The tithe is not the end all and, indeed, only the beginning of the return of God's gift as an act of worship and thanksgiving to the Lord who is the source of all good gifts.  The work of the Kingdom is hindered by a lack of laborers for the harvest and resources to fund their work.  When the Lord sends forth His disciples out, He tells them not to pack extra things or money for the journey or for the work but to depend upon the households of God's people and their generous support.  That remains the pattern today.  But to suggest that the God who once expected 10% from all is now content with the ordinary 2% of Christians today (given willingly and joyfully) is to presume God both naive and shallow.  At a time when the work of the Lord is even more urgent and the enemies of that work so strong, we have been more urgent cause to reconsider the tithe and rejoice in the privilege of giving.  No law can detract from or displace what God has done in Christ but surely the Christian's heart can be moved at least as much as was seen as minimal in the Old Testament.  Or, perhaps, that is the real problem with tithing.  We are not as committed to the work of God as say with our words.

1 comment:

Carl Vehse said...

From J.T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, pp. 414-5 :

"With respect to the tithe which God enjoined upon the Jews in the Old Testament, Lev. 27, 30, we must remember, on the one hand, that also this provision belonged to the Ceremonial Law, which has been abolished by Christ, Col. 2, 16. 17, so that it is no longer binding upon Christians in the New Testament; on the other hand, however, the abolition of the law of tithing must not be abused by Christians in the interest of neglecting liberal giving, since also in the New Testament God exhorts His saints to give continually and liberally, 2 Cor. 9, 6. 7.

"But while God in the New Testament desires constant and liberal giving just as much as He desired this in the Old Testament, He accomplishes His purpose not through commands and threats, but through appeals to the love of His saints, which is rooted deeply in His own manifestation of grace and mercy in Christ, 2 Cor. 8, 7-10.

"To this distinction between the Old and the New Testament, Luther calls attention when he writes (St. L., XII, 337): 'In the Old Testament it was commanded that [the Jews] over and above all the annual tithes which they had to give to the Levites had to contribute a special tithe every third year for the poor, the widows and orphans, etc. Now, such giving is neither expressly determined in the New Testament, nor is demanded by specific laws; for this is a time of grace, in which every one is admonished to do this willingly, as St. Paul writes, Gal. 6, 6.'

"St. Paul himself explains this difference, saying: 'Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world; but when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law. . . . Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir
of God through Christ,' Gal. 4, 3-7. Because in Christ Jesus believers are children of God, they are no longer under ceremonial laws, to be compelled to do God's will by coercion; but being under grace, they grow by faith in the grace of willing Christian service, 2 Cor. 8, 9, loving Him because He first loved them, 1 John
4,19; Gal. 6, 6-10. That does not mean that the Law should not be urged upon Christians or that neglect of Christian giving should not be reproved, Gal. 6, 7; but it does mean that the Christian pastor, when inculcating Christian liberality, must constantly refer to the grace of God that has appeared in Christ Jesus, our
Lord, in order to stimulate Christian giving, Titus 2,11-15. It is only at the foot of the blood-stained cross of Calvary that the believer learns the art of Christian giving."