Last Sunday my vicar (pastor), Rev Mones Farah, preached on generosity, including giving and tithing; his sermon notes are online. This is a subject which he touches on rather rarely, because he doesn’t want anyone to think that he is money-grabbing. Unusually, this sermon was somewhat controversial among church members – or perhaps just among the people I talked to this week. The controversial points were that he implied that Christians are required to tithe, and to give that tithe to the local church.
Any suggestion that Christians are obliged to tithe is rightly controversial. Every mention in the Bible of tithing, as a specific amount, is in the context of the old covenant. The detailed laws on tithing (in fact multiple tithes, but only on agricultural produce) relate to providing for the Levites and for the temple in Jerusalem. Thus tithing, like sacrifices, must be understood as part of the ceremonial law which is no longer binding on Christians. I won’t go now into the complex issue about whether any part of Old Testament law is binding on Christians. The implication of this is that tithing is not a law for Christians. But I don’t think my vicar actually said that it was.
This view of tithing is supported by Justin Taylor, who refers to excellent articles by Köstenberger and Croteau. These articles, unlike some others I have seen on the Internet on this subject, are based on top quality scholarship. I have serious disagreements with Taylor and Köstenberger on some other issues, but not on this one.
My vicar rightly said that God instituted the tithe. He did so as a law for the people of Israel. But the law, while not binding on Christians, is part of the Christian Bible and shows us the general principles by which Christians are expected to live. The details of tithing to Levites and to the Jerusalem temple are not binding on us, and cannot be because the temple no longer exists. But the general principle remains, that God’s people should give a portion of their income, depending on how much they earn, to support their fellow believers who are in need, either from poverty or because they are engaged full time in God’s work. This principle is reaffirmed in the New Testament:
13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
1 Corinthians 9:13-14 (TNIV©, my emphasis)
1 Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
1 Corinthians 16:1-2 (TNIV©, my emphasis)
The New Testament does not specify a proportion, as the Old Testament does, but (as my vicar quoted) specifies that:
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7 (TNIV©, my emphasis)
But the Old Testament law, and the examples of Abraham (Genesis 14:18-20) and Jacob (Genesis 28:20-22), suggest 10% as a suitable starting point for our giving, as a basic minimum to be expected of any Christian – although not as a law to be imposed on everyone. But many of us will be able to give more than this, as God provides for us and calls us to give. For example, God has provided so abundantly for Rick Warren, through sales of his Purpose Driven books, that he is able to give away 90% of his income and live on 10%.
As for who we should give to, surely our first responsibility is to ensure that the local church fellowship of which we are a part, and those who serve there, are not in need. For the principle is clear: “those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel”. Some preachers, like Paul and Rick Warren, are able to dispense with this support, but most of them depend on it.
While I appreciate the dangers of appealing to Malachi, the Old Testament prophet, in this matter, surely the general principle he put forward still applies to Christians. I am not sure in what translation my vicar found “So that my house might be full.” (The word טֶרֶף teref which he seems to render “full” in fact normally means “prey”, but here and in a few other places is usually understood as “food”.) A better translation seems to be:
“…Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. …”
Malachi 3:10 (TNIV©, my emphasis)
The principle here is that we should give the whole of what God tells us to give so that his house is abundantly provided for. In Malachi’s time God’s house was the temple. For us, his house is the church, not so much a building although that also needs to be provided for, more the community whose every need should be met abundantly from its members’ giving. As for God’s promise of abundant blessing for those who give generously, this is reaffirmed in the New Testament:
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
2 Corinthians 9:10-11 (TNIV©, my emphasis)
I will close with some words from my vicar’s sermon:
There is no greater insult to God than to keep his house in poverty. I wholeheartedly believe that if we keep God’s house well supplied and well stocked up great things will be achieved not only in the individual church but all over the world.
Update (2nd July): My vicar’s sermon from last Sunday is now available for download. While he and I don’t entirely agree on this matter, we agree that we must not throw away the principle of tithing because the details of the Old Testament laws cannot be applied in our society today.