NT Tithing

Re-posted from  Edge Induced Cohesion

For You Have Robbed Me, Even This Whole Nation: Part One

By Nathan Albright – Posted on April 28, 2012

[Note: Some time ago, a reader of this blog requested that I deal with the question of tithing for Christians today. It has taken me some time to ponder the issue, but today I am posting the historical introduction to tithing, examining the common proof texts used for tithing and placing them in a context that shows both the agricultural nature of tithing as well as the fact that tithing was designed to support the Levites and provide for the poor and needy, not to support a corrupt elite establishment of priests without a greater concern for the needy within the community of Ancient Israel. This first part of this two-part series looks at the historical context of the doctrine of tithing as it appears in the Hebrew scriptures (and one scripture in Matthew). The second part will speculate on why tithing is not mentioned after the book of Matthew and will examine in greater detail how the early Christian church addressed the needs that were covered by the tithing system of ancient Israel.]

The quintessential proof text concerning tithing is located in Malachi 3:8-12, which reads: “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such a blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, so that he will not destroy the fruit of your ground, nor shall the vine fail to bear fruit for you in the field,” says the Lord of hosts; “and all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,” says the Lord of hosts.

This is the second to last place that tithing is explicitly referred to in scripture. In the entire Renewed Covenant Scriptures there is not a single reference to the practice of tithing within the early Church of God [1], an omission that is very puzzling. To be sure, there are other laws of God that are not mentioned there, such as bestiality, but they are generally straightforward and minor laws, rather than fundamental doctrines of churches. Given the extensive concern of the early New Testament church with aid given to the poor and needy, as well as occasional mentions of the support that was due from members, the fact that any argument about tithing in the early church is an argument from silence (whether it opposes or supports the practice in the contemporary Church of God) ought to give us some pause.

At least some of the possible reasons why there are no references to tithing in the Renewed Covenant scriptures are contained in this particular proof text, though to my knowledge this is not generally acknowledged. Let us comment at the outset that for an ancient Israelite not to tithe was to rob God. God had clearly ordained that the tithes were to support the Levites and their service in the temple, and that the Levites themselves were to give a tithe of the tithe to support the priesthood. We will talk about this later, as it is an often misunderstood aspect of the tithing system of ancient Israel. Let us note that the whole nation of Judah was to bring the tithes into the storehouse of the temple, so that there was food in the house of God (in other words, the temple). We should note at the outset that what is being supported here in Malachi is the Levitical system as well as the temple and sacrificial system. Clearly there is no temple to store the tithes of the brethren and there are no biblically recognized Levites to store up the tithes.

Nonetheless, let us recognize that God considered the tithe His property. It was not the property of the Levites (much less the priestly elites) who received it, but the property of God. It was the duty of the people of Israel to support the poor and needy as well as the priests (indirectly) and the Levites (directly). But those tithes did not belong to the temple establishment. However, God promised agricultural blessings (which may be symbolic of economic wealth in general) to those who paid what they owed to God. One of the barriers, of course, to tithing was the corruption of the priestly system of Israel, but it is this element that has gotten very little commentary when it comes to the use of Malachi as a tithing prooftext without an examination of the greater context.

In order to gain this understanding of the problem of priestly corruption, let us view Malachi 2:1-9, which reads: “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you. If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart, to give glory to My name,” says the Lord of hosts, “I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have cursed them already, because you do not take them to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your descendents, and spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your solemn feasts; and one will take you away with it. Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord of hosts. “My covenant was with him, one of life and peace, and I gave them to him that he might fear Me; so he feared Me and was reverent before My name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and equity, and turned many away from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore I have also made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept My ways, but have shown partiality in the law.”

Here we see a serious problem. The priests of ancient Israel were supposed to instruct the ordinary believers in how to obey and follow God’s ways. They were, however, more concerned with their own wealth and power and prestige than with instructing believers about the law, and perverting justice to favor their friends and their own interests rather than the interests of truth and justice. For this reason, like many ministers and preachers today, the priests were thought of during the Second Temple period as corrupt and contemptible and base (for so they were). We must therefore, even within the text of Malachi, view the concern about tithing as a part of a larger dynamic, especially if we see the same dynamic present within the Church of God today. Part of this dynamic was corrupt and greedy priests seeking to exploit their position within the religious hierarchy for their own personal prestige and financial benefit, and part of it was the resistance of ordinary citizens to pay their tithes in part due to the corruption of the priests, as well as their own greed. What Malachi does is promise judgment and condemnation on both the priests and the people who disobey their parts of the law, as well as promising blessings on those who obey. It is a particularly difficult thing to “do your verse” when other people are not doing theirs, but that is the divine command here.

Let us make the connection between the corruption of the priests and the analogous corruption of the modern Church of God plain. It is commonly thought that the tithe of ancient Israel was to be paid to priests (the religious elites), and in those churches that preach tithing the most strenuously, the end result is generally to support a well-paid elite ministry. However, this is not what tithing was actually about. Let us turn from the prooftexting of Malachi to examine the actual laws of tithing in the Bible, and how the use of tithes to support only a priestly elite itself was condemned by God through Nehemiah, so that we may better place our own tithing practices within the proper biblical context.

The first mention of tithing in the Bible is in Genesis 14:20, when Abraham tithed to the enigmatic priest-king Melchizedek after defeating the armies of four powerful Mesopotamian kings. It is significant to the purposes of our discussion that this was long before the establishment of the Aaronite priesthood, and also that this passage is used to defend the sinless and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ (it should be noted that no one aside from Jesus Christ currently meets the standard of being a priest in the order of Melchizedek, and that no one will until the resurrection, at which point all believers will meet that standard). We next hear of tithing in the account of Jacob, where in Genesis 28:20-22 Jacob promises at Bethel that if God preserves him economically that he will pay a tithe to God.

These passages preserve an essential truth but also provoke questions. For one, there was no recognized priesthood (aside from the rare presence of a possibly divine priest like Melchizedek). The book of Genesis does not provide any information on how and to whom the tithe was paid. Nonetheless, it does suggest that this was a recognized law of God long before the so-called Mosaic covenant in Mt. Sinai. We hear explicitly of tithing with regards to Abraham and Jacob, and infer that Jacob learned it through Isaac, and that the law was therefore passed down from the family of the patriarchs, even though we do not know exactly how the law was administered in the absence of a recognized priesthood and religious hierarchy. Since we have no divinely inspired hierarchy today, and the temple establishment is likewise absent (and has been for over 1900 years), we are therefore in an analogous position ourselves to that of the partriarchs being sojourners and outsiders (a fact which the author of Hebrews makes plain).

It is a curious truth that the tithe in the Bible refers exclusively to agricultural products, where it is often connected with the firstfruits and firstborn of the land and of animals. Leviticus 27:30:33, the last law of Leviticus, reads: “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord. If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one fifth to it. And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the Lord. He shall not inquire whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; and if he exchanges it all, then both it and the one exchanged shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.” Those who preferred to keep the wheat or other crop for themselves and pay their tithe in money had to pay the 20% penalty of thievery to do so. And no one was allowed to exchange the tithe of the animal, for if he tried, the original animal and the attempted exchanged animal both became holy to God and His property. Interestingly enough, it was the tenth animal, not the first, that went to God in the tithe, showing that God got his 10% after the needs of the farmer were taken care of, not before.

It is in this same agricultural sense that tithes were given to the Levites in Numbers 18:21-24, which reads: “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting. Hereafter the children of Israel shall not come near the tabernacle of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall perform the work of the tabernacle of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer up as a heave offering to the Lord, I have given to the Levites as an inheritance; therefore I have said to them, ‘Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.” We see that this heave offering is again an agricultural offering, and that as a result of having performed the mundane duties of singing or cooking or guarding within the tabernacle or temple that the Levites were to receive the tithe. The tithe was not to support the priestly elites (who ate from the offerings at the altar), but rather to support a landless group of servants to God’s temple and tabernacle establishment. The Levites were to be given a tithe of agricultural products so that they could eat without having to farm, so that their time could be spent in teaching the law to Israel in the towns and cities or in serving at the temple and tabernacle. It was not so that priests could get rich or get fat (see 1 Samuel 2:22-36) off of serving themselves while only pretending to serve God.

Though I have already talked at some length elsewhere about the tithe of the tithe [2], it is worthwhile to do so again briefly here within context. It is the corrupt practice of some to seek to use Numbers 18:25-32 to support people giving an additional percentage of their income to religious establishments to pay for expenses, but in the Bible the tithe of the tithe was paid by the Levites to the priests, whether in money or in agricultural products, as it is written: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak thus to the Levites, and say to them: ‘When you take from the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you shall offer up a heave offering of it to the Lord, a tenth of the tithe. And your heave offering shall be reckoned to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor and as the fullness of the winepress. Thus you shall also offer a heave offering to the Lord from all your tithes which the receive from the children of Israel, and you shall give the Lord’s heave offering from it to Aaron the priest. Of all your gifts you shall offer up every eave offering due to the Lord, from all the best of them, the consecrated part of them.’ Therefore you shall say to them: ‘When you have lifted up the best of it, then the rest shall be accounted to the Levites as the produce of the threshing floor and as the produce of the winepress. You may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward for your work in the tabernacle of meeting. And you shall bear no sin because of it, when you have lifted up the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy gifts of the children of Israel, lest you die.’ “ “ Here we see that the tithe was agricultural products, that the Levites themselves tithed to the priesthood from the best (not every tenth one, unlike the people) of the tithe, and that the tithe was their food, and wages, for the service they offered in the temple and tabernacle system.

Likewise, when we read about the second tithe, it is also phrased primarily in agricultural terms and only secondarily in monetary terms, and there (as in Leviticus 27, but without the penalty) money is the means of exchanging the agricultural produce, and not the way that the tithe is calculated in the first place. As Deuteronomy 14:22-29 reads: “You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat it before the Lord your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and of your flocks, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the Lord your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the Lord your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you. At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce and store it within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”

Let us reflect on this passage a little. We have already seen in Leviticus 27 that one tithe was to be given to the Levites as their wages and that they were to tithe to the priests from that as if it were the fruit of the land (which, being Levites, they did not have to give). Here in Deuteronomy 14, though, we see that the “second” tithe was also an agricultural tithe, since the Levites did not pay it, since they were not landowners in ancient Israel. It may be inferred from this that wages were not tithed on in ancient Israrel, because it is only agricultural products that are given as a tithe, and it is only if the place is to far to bring the fruit of the land that they may be exchanged (in the case of the second tithe) for money to pay for travel and for food and wine at the place where God has set his name. Clearly, this has implications for our current tithing practice. Interestingly enough, in the third year there was a tithe collected from landowners for the Levites, the resident aliens, the widows and the fatherless so that they were able to enjoy the feasts in Shiloh or Jerusalem.

Additionally, when we see the third tithe/tithe of the third year (of which there is some dispute as to its collection and meaning), in Deuteronomy 26:12-15, we see a connection with both the blessings promised for obedience to the tithing law in Malachi as well as the concern for the tithe to support the economically vulnerable Levites and the poor and strangers, not to support a priestly elite. This law, like the tithing law in Leviticus 27, is not coincidentally the final law in Deuteronomy as well. It reads: “When you have finished laying aside all the tithe of your increase in the third year—the year of tithing—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your gates and be filled, then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the holy tithe from my house, and also have given them to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten any of it when in mourning, nor have I removed any of it for an unclean use, nor given any of it for the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God, and have done according to all that You have commanded me. Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as you swore to our fathers, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Here again we see that the purpose of the tithe was not to support a privileged elite but rather to provide for those who were poor and marginalized and were not able to enjoy the benefits of landownership. Additionally, we see that the Bible over and over again comments on the agricultural nature of the tithes—that the tithes were in either harvested plants or the animals of one’s herds. We should expect to see this specificity to agriculture as well as the concern for common Levites (and not elite interests) maintained when we read of the tithe discussed elsewhere in scripture. And that is precisely what we find, to give one example, in Nehemiah 13:4-14. Here we see that tithing broke down in large part (as was the case in Malachi) because of the corrupt dealings of the priesthood. Nehemiah 13:4-14 reads: “Now before this, Eliashib the priest, having authority over the storerooms of the house of our God, was allied with Tobiah. And he had prepared for him a large room, where previously they had stored the grain offerings, the frankincense, the articles, the tithes of grain, the new wine and oil, which were commanded to be given to the Levites and singers and gatekeepers, and the offerings for the priests. But during all this I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Then after certain days I obtained leave from the king, and I came to Jerusalem and discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. And it grieved me bitterly; therefore I threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room. Then I commanded them to cleanse the rooms; and I brought back into them the articles of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense. I also realized that the portions for the Levites had not been given to them; for each of the Levites and the singers who did the work had gone back to his field. So I contended with the rulers, and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their place. Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil into the storehouse. And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouse Shelemiah the priest and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah; and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered faithful, and their task was to distribute to their brethren. Remember me, O God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of My God, and for its services!”

Let us reflect at least briefly on this passage. Here again we see the agricultural nature of the tithe, and that the first tithe was to support the service of the fairly ordinary Levites, who were to be dedicated to guarding the temple and providing music, so that they did not have to work at their own fields to provide themselves food to eat. It is a biblical principle (which we will discuss further in the Renewed Covenant scriptures) that those who serve the people of God are to enjoy the fruits of their service. It is a wicked and corrupt establishment, whether in ancient Israel or today, that provides for only the elites and not for those less notable or powerful or privileged servants of the people of God. A godly establishment, such as Nehemiah’s efforts, provides for all the servants of God to be able to eat and devote themselves to service. Let us reflect upon this application of the principle of tithing to see whether our own tithing principles are more like Eliashib the corrupt and worldly priest or the godly Nehemiah. But even here, the tithing is strictly agricultural. Nowhere do we read of artisans or merchants being called to bring a tithe of their profits (much less their income) to the house of God—that would presumably have been their own offering, though.

And it should therefore not surprise us that the lone reference to tithing in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures also refers to the tithing of agricultural products. As Matthew 23:23 reads: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Here again we see tithing in relation to agricultural products, among the smallest seeds of the field, and here again (as in Malachi), we see that tithing is noted as a command (albeit within agricultural boundaries), and again, as in Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, and Malachi, tithing is connected with questions of justice and equity. We are therefore faced with several serious questions. Why is tithing not mentioned in scripture as the practice of the early Church of God? Did the early Church of God fulfill the needs that the tithe was designed for? If so, how? Let us turn to these questions now, as they force us to wrestle with the difficult question of the relevance of the tithing principle for Christians today, as well as the larger questions of justice and equity that are attached to the tithing law in ways that few people who preach about tithing seem to understand.

[1] There is one notable reference to tithing in Matthew 23, which will be discussed later on.

[2] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/numbers-18-25-32-the-tithe-of-the-tithe/


For You Have Robbed Me, Even This Whole Nation: Part Two

(Re-posted from Edge Induced Cohesion – Note, all embolden type emphasized by William Males)

By Nathan Albright – Posted on May 8, 2012

[Note: In Part One [1] of this note I examined the issue of tithing in the Law and Prophets. In Part Two of this essay, I examine the arguments used for offerings and contributions from membership, as well as the needs that were met in the early Church of God by the brethren according to the scriptures, as well as comment on the scarcity of mentions for tithing in the history of the early church.]

So, why is it that the practice of tithing is not mentioned at all in the biblical record of the early Church of God? Other than the one mention talked about in Matthew 23, and its parallel account in Luke 11:32), it is only mentioned one time, again in connection with the Pharisees, in Luke 18:11-2, which reads: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes on all that I possess.’” We see here that the Pharisee wished to be thought of as righteous for tithing, and the rest of the story reveals that Jesus Christ did not appreciate the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. We have seen above that the law of Moses did not explicitly tell believers to tithe all that they possessed (even if this appears to have been the example of Abraham from the solitary reference to tithing in his own life).

There are not many references to tithing in the early Church Fathers either. There are isolated references to it in the third century Didascalia Apostolorum, from John Chrysostom’s “Homilies on Ephesians,” and from John Cassian’s “The Conferences.” Interestingly enough, we see one notable example in the Didascalia Apostolorum of the comparison between the priests and Levites and the offices of the Roman Catholic Church: “Set aside part offerings and tithes and first fruits to Christ, the true High Priest, and to His ministers, even tithes of salvation to Him. . . . Today the oblations are offered through the bishops to the Lord God. For they are your high priests; but the priests and Levites are now the presbyters and deacons, and the orphans and widows. . . . Your fruits and the work of your hands present to him, that you may be blessed; your first fruits and your tithes and your vows and your part offerings give to him; for he has need of them that he may be sustained, and that he may dispense also to those who are in want, to each as is just for him [2].” Here we see a clear use of the tithing law as an analogy to Christian practice in a similar fashion to that used by many ministers who support tithing today.

There are at least a few possible reasons why the record of tithing is so scarce, and we would do well to consider these reasons. For one, during the time while the Christian scriptures were being written, the Second Temple was still in existence, and the tithe would have been paid to support the corrupt and ungodly priestly establishment of the time. Since nowhere in the New Testament do we find Paul or the other apostles saying that tithes are now to be paid to them, it is very possible that the entire issue did not need to be discussed since the early Church of God did not receive tithes while the temple and the Levitical priesthood were still in operation. Even the book of Hebrews only implicitly deals with the subject in pointing out that Levi, so to speak, paid a tithe to Melchizedek, and pointed to Jesus Christ as the Melchizedek priesthood, not explaining whether the ministry could be counted as priests in the order of Melchizedek themselves (since ministers are neither sinless nor eternal, the qualities which separated Jesus Christ from the Aaronic priests). Because of this silence, we cannot find within the Bible itself any sort of discussion of the mechanics of tithing in the New Covenant. It was the practice of the Hellenistic Church of the West to tithe to the Church, which was then to use the tithe to support its own (corrupt) priestly establishment and also provide for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. Nonetheless, it is not clear to what extent we should copy the example of the corrupt Hellenistic Roman Catholic Church.

Aside from the fact that the tithe would have been paid to the temple (not to the apostles) and the fact that the mechanics of tithing once the temple had been destroyed are never discussed in scripture, there are other reasons why the subject of tithing appears to have been so rare. For one, the tithe of the Mosaic covenant appeared to include only agricultural products and the early Church of God was mostly urban and professional. Perhaps it was thought that the specific Mosaic instructions would not have been helpful given the very different lifestyle of the early believers. Let us not forget, after all, that even the most zealous enforcers of the tithe in the Hebrew scriptures (like Nehemiah and Malachi) spoke of the tithe in terms of agricultural and not monetary terms. We tend to think of the tithe primarily in monetary terms, but the Hebrew scriptures (and the Renewed Covenant scriptures of Christianity) are far less money-obsessed than most of our own commentary on tithing.

There is also another reason, a very serious one, why tithing does not appear to have been a subject of great discussion among the early Church of God, until the sixth century AD or so when it was finally discussed in a couple of Roman Catholic church councils. The standard of the early church was far more stringent than mere tithing. Acts 4:32-37, for example, reads: “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles feet.”

Here we see the example of the early church. In an environment where generosity reaches such a level that no one is jealous about their own private property rights but gives all that they possess for the common benefit of all, it would appear to be rather superfluous and unnecessary to talk of tithing. The Christian standard of giving is far above and beyond the level of tithing. In fact, it is only because of our own comparative lack of generosity that tithing is even an issue for us at all. If you are giving 100% of what you possess in lands and houses to share with your brothers and sisters in Christ, it is unnecessary for a minister to write an article or give a sermon about the tithing law, is it not? (Again, all bold emphasis by William, not Nathan)

Nor is Acts 4 the only place where this generosity of spirit is recorded in scripture. 1 Corinthians 9:11-15 reads: “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ. 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. But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than that anyone should make my boasting void.” It was not only the early brethren of the Church of God who lacked the obsession with money so common in our contemporary Christian practice among lay members and ministry alike, but the Apostle Paul preferred not to take money from the immature Corinthian congregation rather than to feel bound to pander to them in order to receive their tithes and offerings. He preferred to work with his hands making tents and preaching rather than to hinder the gospel by taking money from those who were immature and not solidly grounded in the faith. It was not the money of the brethren that Paul wanted, but to help them on the road to salvation.

How many ministers today follow this example? To the extent that our concern as members or ministers is to acquire the things of this world, are we any better than the Pharisee who looked down on the (supposedly law-breaking) tax collector and talked about how much he prayed and fasted and tithed. God demands more than pray, pay, stay, and obey [3]. These are only a bare minimum, nothing to be proud about, nothing to brag about. If we perfectly obey the law, we are only unprofitable servants because we have only done what God has required of us, and not gone above and beyond the minimum standard. And yet even the law itself is a standard for too hard for many of us to even approach in our conduct. We therefore ought to conduct ourselves with humility and not look down on others, recognizing that we too are in need of God’s mercy. If, as seems likely, the absence of tithing discussions in the New Testament is because neither the ministry nor the membership was obsessed with acquiring material wealth or in simply giving the bare minimum, does that not put us to shame that we should consider tithing a high standard of giving in our own present day and age?

Given the generosity of the early Christians as is recorded in scripture, an example set by leaders such as Paul and Barnabas, and followed by congregations, it would appear that at least one of the reasons why tithing is not necessary is because a much higher standard than tithing was expected. This is clearly not the case right now. To tithe is considered an immense burden by many people, and to give at a standard higher than tithing is hardly even conceived by many Christians. However, we ought not to be too hard on believers when the example of money hungry church leaders, who show no example of generosity but seek as much money to buy fancy houses and cars and golf course memberships as they can, is so blatantly selfish itself. Rather, we ought to consider the contemporary church experience like that of the Second Temple period of Malachi, a time of broken relationships and broken trust between a corrupt religious establishment and a fairly selfish populace. Since Malachi is a prophet of considerable relevance to our own experience, we therefore ought to expect tithing much more commonly discussed in our own time than it was in the early Church, and that is precisely what we find.

Nonetheless, we find from the record of scriptures that the precise concerns of the three tithes were themselves addressed in the early decades of the Church of God. Let us recall that the first tithe dealt with the financial support of a group of people devoted to religious service. We find this same concern addressed on at least two occasions by Paul. Intriguingly enough, though, he does not cite the law about tithing, but rather a different law, concerning not muzzling the ox that treads the grain. In addition, we also see a concern about Holy Day observance, but here again no tithing is mentioned either, nor any travels by ordinary members to Jerusalem for the Holy Days. In addition, we have a strong concern in the early church for the less fortunate, but here again tithing is not mentioned. Instead, the language used refers to family duties as well as the expectation of generosity from brethren. Let us take these concerns in order.

The tabernacle and temple establishment used the first tithe to support Levites (who in turn supported the priests with a tithe of the tithe). In the early church of God, we have a clear expectation that members were to support their ordained leadership. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:9, Paul quotes a law about muzzling oxen: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” adding the following revealing comment: “Is it oxen God is concerned about?” Later on, in 1 Corinthians 9:14-15, Paul states (as quoted previously above): “Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the Gospel. But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done for me.” Paul was stating that Christians had an obligation to support their religious leadership, but that he was not greedy for their money. It is revealing, though, that Paul cites a law about muzzling oxen rather than the tithing law.

Nor is this citation accidental. Paul again cites this same exact law in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, and again this law is cited with regards to the rewards of elders for their service in the Church of God [4]: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Here again we see the work of being an elder being treated accordingly with wages, which had to come from believers, and here again it reflects a concern that people receive the wages they deserve for hard work as well as a “double portion” of material blessings as the “firstborn” of the Church of God. Again, these scriptural references to the law there is great meaning, and clearly state the obligation of members to pay wages to those who preach the gospel message and help govern the congregation well, but again tithing happens not to be the point of reference for Paul concerning the support of the ministry.

Likewise, the tithe is not referred to in scripture with regards to keeping the biblical holy days, even though those holy days are referred to very often. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:8: “But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost,” but does not include any comments about how far brethren were expected to travel for the holy days, or how that travel was to be paid for. Paul’s letters seem to presume that members would stay in the general area of their congregation, and so presumably costs were expected to be low. We do not know, for example, how the early Church of God kept the Feast of Tabernacles. However, it would appear obvious for at least one festival (the Pentecost of Acts 2), second tithe was used for the brethren to reach Jerusalem from so many nations from Arabia to Persia to Rome and Greece and what is now Turkey. That said, we know little of the usual travel habits of the brethren in the early Church of God. For those churches which do keep the feasts, and which travel for them, we see to little surprise that a second tithe is commanded from the pulpits for such purposes, even without a great deal of support for the practice in the early Church of God for such extensive traveling.

However, we do know from the early Church of God that ordinary brethren were expected to be hospitable to godly traveling ministers, so that they would not have to stay in motels. Costs were kept low for travel in the early Church of God through the hospitality of ordinary members. Allowing a traveling minister and his party to spend the night (something I have been lucky enough to partake in) was considered to be sharing in the labor of that minister, for good and bad. To give two examples, 2 John :9-11 tells us: “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him: for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” John is saying here rather clearly that if we greet and show hospitality to an open heretic we show ourselves to be heretics ourselves.

Likewise, showing hospitality to godly ministers allows brethren to share in the work, as John says in 3 John :5-8: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name’s sake, taking nothing from the gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth.” By showing hospitality to a minister we share in their work for the truth—whether for good or evil.

Again, though, the Bible does not refer to this sort of sharing as an aspect of tithing. Rather, instead of the members traveling to a place and spending money for hotels, we see that the practice of the early Church of God was sending ministry out to the people (wherever they were) to say at the homes of brethren and enjoy fellowship with them. The concern was about sharing in the work of a minister and enjoying the conversation over food, as well as accepting the traveling ministry as part of one’s local community of faith (probably also including home churches). We lack this understanding today, as the Church of God is not so much a genuine community of neighbors and fellow believers who regularly share the hospitality of each other as it is a temporary weekly assembly of people who barely interact on a regular basis. And again, with such a vibrant local community, it seems entirely possible that no extensive travel for the holy days was necessary, though admittedly we lack extensive evidence to say for certain whether or not members traveled long distances for the festivals of God either one way or the other.

Likewise, there was a great focus on those in need among the early Church of God, far greater a focus than is present in the Church of God community toady (partly for political reasons—when the poor are seen as deserving their fate, charity itself is seen as an evil, but when they are seen as suffering from time and chance, we are prone to share what we have in the knowledge that the same undeserved misfortune could fall on ourselves also according to divine providence). It is clear that the early Church of God rejected the heretical views of the “prosperity Gospel” which assumed that the wealthy and powerful were righteous and that the poor and ill were wicked. Rather, the Church of God was deeply concerned with showing generosity to the poor.

For example, stealing was condemned among believers but the goal of hard work was not selfish benefit, but rather the ability to give generously to those who had need. As Ephesians 4:28 reads: “Let him who stole steal no longer, but let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” Again, the whole purpose of hard work for those who were able bodied was to allow them to give to those who were not able bodied, but who had no one to provide for their needs. It should be noted that families were supposed to take care of their own first, as it is written in 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” To refuse to take care of the needy in one’s own family, if one has the means to do so, but to pawn them off on the church or on general society was considered gross impiety, as generosity and charity is a core aspect of what it means to be a Christian. On the other hand, seeking to take advantage of generosity was not viewed any higher by Paul, as it is written in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, in the context of lazy and disorderly busybodies, “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this; if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” Clearly, such verses are not talking about those who cannot find work (despite their efforts), but about those who refuse to work, which are a very small proportion of those in need.

The issue of generosity to brethren in need is of vital importance in the development of authority within the Church of God. After all, the entire office of deacon was established to ensure the proper distribution of charity to Hellenistic widows because of a perceived problem of bias within the early Church of God, as it is written in Acts 6:1-4: “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Here we see a new office granted to those who had been caused offense by the lack of generosity of the Aramaic-speaking brethren. We see a discussion of offices and of a distribution of food, but again, no tithing is discussed despite the obvious logistical issues involved.

Again, likewise, we see in Acts 11:27-30 a notable charitable effort for the brethren of Judea: “And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” Here we see a substantial logistical effort to provide need to the poor brethren of Judea, but brethren give according to ability. The same is the case in a later, and more substantial effort, where Paul and Titus (and presumably others) sought donations from the congregations of Achaia and Macedonia for Judea. In all of the discussion about generosity in 1st and 2nd Corinthians, tithing is not mentioned at all, even though the subject of the substantial collection was part of the third tithe of the Law.

So, it is clear that the early Church of God met the requirements of providing a livelihood and wages for elders, provided hospitality for traveling ministers, met for the holy days (even if we do not know exactly how far the membership was expected to travel, if at all), and provided for the needs of the deserving poor and widows. However, in all of this discussion, which takes up a fair amount of discussion among the books of the Bible we have from the first few decades of the Christian experience, we have no references to tithing as part of the practice of the Church of God. Members instead gave according to their ability, and were expected to give far more than just ten percent. In our less generous times the tithe is often preached from the pulpit because otherwise people would probably not give at all. Nonetheless, our understanding of the tithing system in ancient Israel ought to show us that the tithe was expected largely of the landed wealthy, and such people were very rare in the urban Church of God (and fairly rare today, it should be said). Therefore, it ought not to be surprising that living sacrifices and offerings of a cheerful giver are what is expected of brethren in the New Testament church, rather than a ten percent tithe.

This is not to say that the tithe is wrong, nor to deny that God provides blessings to those who faithfully give, but rather to show that God’s expectation of us is far more than merely ten percent, and is far more a matter of generosity of heart and spirit, and compassion for our fellow believers, first among our families and then among our brethren in the faith, than it is a matter of an easy percentage or amount to give to the church that absolves us of further concern for our brethren in need. It is instead the needs of our brethren, rather than ease of calculation so that we may not be troubled or obligated further to our brethren, that takes precedence in the biblical model of godly generosity. If we combine all of the scriptures together, we might say that to tithe merely means that we are not thieves, but to be genuine loving Christians requires a far higher standard of generosity and a far greater lack of concern for acquiring or hoarding wealth and resources for ourselves. On that scale, we all have far to go before we reach the noble standard generosity of the early Church of God. We ought therefore to be humble and strive to meet a greater standard of love and concern for our brethren than is currently the case.

[1] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/for-you-have-robbed-me-even-this-whole-nation-part-one/

[2] http://www.antiochian.org/node/16719

[3] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/pray-pay-stay-and-obey/

[4] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/1-timothy-517-25-let-the-elders-who-rule-well-be-counted-worthy-of-double-honor/

Thanks to Nathan for taking the time to put this together!

Live for the King!

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