Today’s reading: Nehemiah 10-11.
By and large, today’s Christians don’t tithe. Should they? The numbers who give may vary from church to church, but it reminds me of the Pareto principle in which 20 percent of the cases produce 80 percent of the outcome. In other words, 20 percent of the members might give 80 percent of the total offerings. Many give nothing at all or only a pittance. Only a small percentage give ten percent of their income. Among Southern Baptists, members give about three percent of their income on average. So again, should they give more? How much more?
At this point the debate generally breaks down into two camps.
- The tithe was only binding on the ancient Jews living under the Law of Moses. Each individual should give now as guided by the Holy Spirit.
- Tithing is a principle, like those of the Ten Commandments, that continues to define our giving even under the new covenant of grace.
These are not the only two ways to frame this argument, but do you find yourself drawn to one more than the other? Which one?
After the returned exiles heard Ezra read the law, they renewed their covenant with Jehovah to obey it.
“Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our [ grain] offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work.” Nehemiah 10:37
They were continuing a long Old Testament tradition of emphasizing the tithe. The tithe stretches from Genesis (where Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe) to Malachi (when God tells the Jews they are robbing him by not giving the tithe). In between the Law of Moses set down the tithe as the method that the Israelites would use to support the Levites and priests. But this tithe was not the only offering the law required. There was an additional tithe taken every third year for local needs, there was a periodic tithe for supporting the Jewish festivals, and there were many required and voluntary offerings for sacrifices at the temple. Jesus even discussed the tithe with the Jews of his day. He told them they were good at keeping the tithe (as he said they should) but very poor at observing the more important matters of justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23).
Then the New Testament goes silent on tithing. In fact, Paul repeatedly teaches that the laws and ordinances that bound the Jews have been replaced by God’s grace extended to us through faith in Jesus’ death on the cross. Tithing is not part of the new covenant between God and Jesus’ disciples any more than circumcision or temple sacrifices.
But with the tithe gone, two important truths emerge:
- The tithe could mislead one into believing he or she only owed God a certain amount and the rest could be used as one pleased.
- While in fact everything we have belongs to God and is ours only in stewardship under his direction.
Jesus, always advancing radical devotion to his father, commended the poor woman who gave everything she had. He told the rich young man, obsessed with his wealth, to give up everything in order to follow Jesus. His parable of the talents taught us that we are stewards who should be multiplying what we are given, not for ourselves, but for our master. I think Jesus would say to those who insist on the tithe today, “Is your devotion so limited?” But to those who have done away with the tithe he might say, “What standard will you now use to show me that you believe everything you possess belongs to God?”
Image by More Good Foundation on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0