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A View from the Altar / Tithing, part 2
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Tithing, part 2

The Tithe, Moses-style

Note: Part 1 is found here.  There were three distinct systems of tithing under the law of Moses.  The first system was founded on the agrarian nature of the Israelite economy.  It required that a tenth of the produce of the land (Lev 27:30) be given for the maintenance of the temple and priesthood which — since they were a theocracy — also functioned as their government.  An interesting tidbit about that tithe is that Israelites were not to give their best, but just get a tenth whether good or bad (Lev 27:32-33) and hand it over as “holy” or set apart for divine service.  (Lev 27:33)  So the maintenance of the theocracy was limited to a tenth of the economy.  Wouldn’t that be great if our government had such a built-in limitation?  But I digress….

The second system of tithing was the annual festival.  There the Israelites were commanded to set aside a tenth of their “increase” and consume it in a big celebration in their capital city.  (Dt 12:6-7)  The word “increase” is in quotes because it is a quote and because it means the net, not the gross.  That’s a departure from much of the modern teaching on the subject, by the way.

There is a difference of opinion about the third system of tithing.  This one is described in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and requires that a tithe be given to the poor and the Levites every third year.  It’s not clear whether this was an additional tithe every third year or simply redirected the ordinary tithe for that year.  Either way, over the long haul, the total cost of tithing amounted to a maximum of 23 ⅓ percent of their produce, and that supported the theocratic government, the priesthood, the festivals, the triennial largesse to the poor and the Levites — everything.

The New Testament

Here is a brute fact about which there’s no space for controversy: No similar teaching is found in the New Testament.  It ain’t in there.  The reason for this is straightforward: The New Testament has no priesthood, no temple, no system of Levites, and does not encompass a theocratic government over a country.  And these things are absent because there’s no place for them in the purposes of the New Testament.  That’s not to say that the New Testament says nothing about giving, because it does.  But once we enter the realm of what Matthew Henry calls “the Gospel church,” the purposes, directions, and amounts for giving are all organized around that.

Much mischief has attended the mistaken view of the church as a budding global theocracy.  When that’s the view, the funding basis ends up with the look and feel of taxation.  Tribute money is forfeited to rulers who then decide what’s to be done with it.  No surprise, then, when the expenditures end up looking like something a government would do — churches plunge into debt for building programs and staff while other priorities go lacking.  Church members then get stuck with the bill, must endure perpetual entreaties to tithe, and on some occasions I’ve witnessed, threatened with divine wrath if they don’t pony up.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with churches having buildings, and there’s really not even anything wrong with the buildings being nice ones, and if a church gets big enough, it’s going to need some staff, and the staff will need to be paid.  The New Testament doesn’t forbid any of this.

Well, what’s your problem, then?

Jesus criticized the Pharisees concerning the “corban” custom.  Here’s how it worked.  Under the Mosaic system a person could devote anything he wanted to the Lord.  If you had a good garden spot, a favorite bull or sheep, you could dedicate that to the Lord.  If you later changed your mind about that, you could redeem it for a 20 percent fee.  (Lev 27:19)  The Jewish custom was that a thing which had been dedicated was off limits to other people even if it was redeemed (Lev 27:19).  The purpose of this stricture was to discourage people from making rash vows and then breaking them by forcing them to keep whatever they devoted to God or redeemed.  There may have also been a reaction against the pagan custom of selling in the market meats which had been offered to idols — Yahweh was not to be a marketing gimmick through selling things devoted to him.

The Pharisees used this to finagle a loophole in the law.  A man could tell his parents that he had intended to support them in their old age but then shirk his duty by saying that the money set aside for them was “corban” — devoted to God.  Under the Jewish custom of retaining what had been devoted, they could not give their parents anything whether the devoted thing had been redeemed or not.  So they’d just declare everything devoted to God, pay the fee for redeeming it, and then everything was off limits to their parents.   Alfred Edersheim remarks that certain Jewish rabbinical writings wrestled with the question of whether the corban custom justified setting aside one of the Ten Commandments and concluded that it did.

Jesus’ complaint was therefore that the customs of men had defeated the commandment of God, and he condemned them for it.  (Mark 7:9-13)  There was nothing wrong with devoting things to God, nothing forbidden about making a vow to God, and so on.  It was all acceptable… until people set their customs against the clear obligations of the Law of Moses and chose sides with their own convenience.

What 21st century Baptists need to gain from this is, I suspect, a bit uncomfortable.  We’ve got a corban going on with the custom of tithing, and it’s frustrating the weightier obligations of the New Testament.  It’s not merely the use of the tithe after it’s put into the offering plate.  No, it’s the teaching that the offering plate has got to come first, just as the corban must, even though there are more urgent duties all around us.

Shouldn’t we give to the church?

The usual formula about tithing holds that people should give to the church.  That seems simple enough, but it’s based on a theocratic misconstruction of what the church is.  It views the church as an institution separate from and somehow “above” its people.  This was how the Levites and priests operated their theocratic government.  They were specially designated under the Law of Moses as a distinct class of rulers, given no landed inheritance, and received the tithes of the people for their maintenance.  This is the philosophy Congress uses when writing tax law and sending forth its leg-breakers to collect.

The church is different.  The church is its people, not an institution distinct from them.  To say Christians ought to give their tithes to the church involves the error of assuming (without realizing it) the old Israelitish, theocratic model which the New Testament has explicitly abolished. (Heb 8:13, Heb 10:9)

Things are mostly reversed now.  The notion of supporting an institution with its outward accouterments of institution is 2000 years out of date.  It is now the church that does the giving, and it does so in a variety of ways.  God’s people should support the poor (Gal 2:10), their ministers (Gal 6:6), the widows (Acts 6:1), orphans (Jas 1:27), aged parents (1 Tim 5:4), brethren in distress (Rom 15:25-28), missionaries (Phil 4:15-18), and so on.  Typically this was done corporately (1 Cor 16:1), but there’s nothing in the New Testament to forbid individuals from taking the initiative of doing this themselves.

Indeed, the whole thrust of what Jesus said about the corban leads us to conclude that he wants us to take care of such things as obligations to parents before we drop something in the offering plate.  It’s not that corporate giving is unimportant or need not ever be done.  It’s that it’s lower in the list of God’s priorities than the theocratic taxation model would lead us to expect.  (E.g., see Matt 5:23-24.)  Paul’s direction to Timothy about the widows’ list seems to confirm that when he says that older women with living relatives should be taken care of by family so the church won’t be burdened.  (1 Tim 5:16)  Therefore, the Christian who supports his aged aunt is robbing neither the church nor God.  Rather, he is the church, and he’s giving as God has commanded.  The same is true for the guy whose brother is a missionary in Papua New Guinea and does his giving through Wycliffe or MAF.

Granted, these are exceptions to the general rule of corporate giving.  But the exceptions serve to shine a bit of light on an old custom, and the light helps us see things a little more clearly.  It might even keep us from accusing the innocent.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

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