Appendix A: Tithing

One issue of ongoing interest to the church is financial giving, tithing to be precise. We preachers have been taught to schedule a yearly sermon underscoring tithing as a law of God that must be obeyed.

The tithe in Malachi’s time was promised blessings that—some understand from the language—would exceed their wildest dreams.

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that [there shall] not [be room] enough [to receive it]. (Malachi 3:10)

These blessings, for a materialistic age and a congregation that probably fancies winning the lottery, become a financial thing. No one is interpreting the prophet to mean health or domestic bliss or anything other than more money.

In fact, Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel are brought into service here to support the idea that every dollar given is an investment that brings greater financial dividends.

Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. (Luke 6:38)

The plain truth is that this is not the plain truth. When I found opportunity to do a detailed study of the Biblical idea of the tithe, my research took me in a different direction. Luke 6:38 in context is referring to loving your enemies, being merciful and not condemning. But I was in no real position to oppose the common interpretation. All I chose to do was not to preach on the topic, in hopes it would go away.

In practice, I gave money back that was given under false pretense or duress or pressure. On one occasion, it was a $10,000 donation given by a gentleman from the sale of his house. His wife’s consternation made her disapproval obvious to us. The trustees promised to pay it back. It was a large sum in those days, and some had been reallocated already, so, payments would be in installments as contributions made it possible. On another occasion, I returned $1,000 which I had rejected because it was given under duress.

If someone came to me with a choice between buying bread or giving to the church, I told them to buy the bread, because I found support in Scripture for fiscal responsibility more immediately applicable and instructive than enriching the church’s coffers. In my opinion, the tithe was misappropriated.

I couldn’t say this in the pulpit. Church leadership enjoyed having money to spend. Don’t we all?

Their fear, I think, is that if we don’t remind people of a given truth—and in their minds, tithing qualifies here—the people will soon forget it and lapse into irresponsibility. If we say it is okay not to tithe, just to give as you feel led, they will never feel led. Then the church funds will dry up, and we could be in dire fiscal straits. Besides, the average parishioner would not be relieved to hear that we have been lying to them all these years. Their feelings would begin vacillating between confusion and rage, and that is not what a pastor is called to stir up.

But the truth still remains the truth, and even a cursory study of Scripture should bring others to the same conclusion to which I came.

What is that conclusion? Are you ready for this? It is blatantly clear and irrefutably evident, at least to me.

Simply put, the tithe in Old Testament times was designated for the priests’ salaries. This included all full-time temple workers, down to the janitors, who were also part of the same tribe, the Levites.

Deuteronomy 14:22: “You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year.”

Numbers 18:26: “Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, ’When you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance…”

If one looks closely at the Scripture on the subject they may, as I did, observe some interesting facts about the narrative. Firstly, they would tithe food, not money. If there needed to be repairs made to the temple, they took special monetary collections, not to be confused at all with the ten percent of their crops and herds that went to the clergy for food and sustenance.

Secondly, Israel in Old-Testament times lived under a theocracy, not a democracy. The government was not taking fifty percent of everything they made. We can put this in Biblical terms of Samuel’s concern.

And he [a king, i.e., the government] will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive yards, [even] the best [of them], and give [them] to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. (1 Samuel 8:14,15)

Thirdly, there was more than one priest or temple worker per 200 temple goers, probably today’s average. The Levites were one of twelve tribes, so the ratio was much tighter. If we were to translate all our tithes into groceries, how much do you think would be too much for the pastor and his family to consume? If we work God’s math, it might make a little more sense. The other tribes, compared to the Levites, numbered 11 to 1. The Levites received in effect 110% of the income the other tribes earned. But since the Levites took ten percent of what they got and sacrificed it to God, they were left with 100%, or roughly the same amount of whatever other tribes had. This is assuming that the number of individuals in all tribes was the same and the crop yield was the same. Now, we know this to be highly unlikely, so we concede that point, but God’s math still gave the Levites and their families an amount of food comparable to the average. I think we can admit that.

Every third year, a second tithe was taken for the poor. Again, it was food, not money.

When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithes of your increase the third year, [which is] the year of tithing, and hast given [it] unto the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be filled. (Deuteronomy 26:12)

This food together with the right to glean in the wheat and barley fields at season’s end after the harvest, gave them enough to eat. Homelessness was probably not a problem, since most Israelites inherited part of their parents’ estate, and this was perpetual. If they held a mortgage, it was wiped every fifty years.

Beginning to get a different picture? Perhaps. but the tithe is Biblical and can even serve in our time within a Biblical perspective, if we look more closely at it with honest inquiry.

We notice, for one, that the government has taken over many of the responsibilities given to ancient Israel. But then again, it was their government that organized it. They were under a theocracy. God was their ruling body.

It goes without saying that inheritances are not legally protected anymore. There is a tax on it for starters. And if your debt results in a lien upon your house, there is no fifty year parenthesis to help you keep it.

Laying all this aside, my recommendation is to make sure the pastor and his family, if they are full-time, are able to live on a comparable economic level as the average of their congregation. At least provide them with a livable salary. Think of it. If eleven families assume this responsibility, it should work. What happens to the pastor’s tithe? I don’t care. How about the poor? Or let pastors share in a collective support program for home-missions works.

Comparable should mean that the pastor gets to have a homestead. He should have the church’s blessing to own a home. Goodbye vow of poverty, and goodbye parsonages, manses, and so forth. And goodbye private jets and 50-room mansions and condos in Florida, too. But hello to retirement accounts and a reasonable salary.

What about affording the building, the church? What about money for carpets and air conditioners? Church rent or mortgage? And utilities? What about it? It has nothing biblically to do with the tithe. Any money—and this in old Israel was actual money—is collected separately. Again, in Israel, since it was a theocracy, there was a head tax. We cannot relate to it unless we enjoin the government to build our sanctuaries for us. That’s not going to happen.

And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. (Leviticus 27:3)

Money for rents, mortgages and other nice things for the church are collected separately, or should be.

We obviously have a realistic problem since most people do not tithe as a rule. Furthermore, the pastor’s salary is part of an overall budget to support all aspects of the ministry. Some pastors are very well off, because they have large congregations. Others struggle with meeting a home budget. This, in my view, cannot represent the Biblical idea.

The tithe in the New Testament, from the words of Jesus, simply supports His faith as a Jew.

But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Luke 11:42)

I have come to believe that tithing has been updated, if not replaced, with Paul’s words to the Corinthians. They are self-explanatory for my purpose here.

Each one {must do} just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)

I am not a debater. My reasoning here is to relate the pain of conscience that this issue has caused me, and I apologize for not resolving it in my experience. Had I, I might have found things a lot easier economically.

Oh, what about TV preachers? If they are worth their salt, designate your offerings to pay for the air time. I do not believe there is any such thing as a TV pastor. They should stick to evangelism.

When it is all boiled down, giving is giving. As long as the figures are disclosed to the givers, and they consent, all is well in Christendom. Even the government is happy with that. So that’s that.

Over the past ten years, we have supported a number of ministries. But I doubt that it was ten percent.