NASHVILLE -- Recently CBS Sunday Morning news devoted a segment to the question of whether the Bible teaches tithing. The reporter featured a new book by Russell Kelly entitled "Should the Church Teach Tithing?" As a whole, the program had a decidedly negative overtone when it came to the biblical practice of stewardship we call "tithing."
Most of the arguments were gathered around a few predictable stack-poles. 1) Church leaders have used verses taken out of context. 2) Pastors have abused the teaching of the tithe to manipulate people to give. 3) The practice of a weekly collection is of relatively recent origin. 4) Tithing is a part of a legal system while believers are under grace. 5) Certain televangelists have used the tithe to fund their own extravagant lifestyle.
What are we to say about such objections?
The program was brief and thus only sound bites of much larger arguments were broadcast, but it is worth our time to look at these general objections. Let's look at a primary New Testament text where Jesus mentions tithing -- Matthew 23:23. The context is a denunciation of the scribes (experts in the Law) and the Pharisees (legalists).
Jesus brings seven specific charges, each beginning with the phrase "Woe to you ..." Following the introduction there is a brief cameo illustrating their failure to live up to the claim to be guardians of the Law. The fourth woe involves tithing as taught in the Old Testament Law. As might be expected, the first century legalists had been meticulous in observing the law. They had tithed their garden herbs. Jesus charged that they had neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith -- echoing the summary of true religion given by Micah (6:8). Jesus insists -- "These things should have been done without neglecting the others." This passage is not that difficult to understand in its present context. The mastery of elementary matters such as tithing is no excuse to ignore weightier issues. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Jesus believed and taught that tithing was a fundamental aspect of faith.
We must confess that some pastors on occasions have used biblical texts related to tithing in a manipulative manner to raise the budget or to build a building. Such behavior should not be tolerated, but it does not alter the basic biblical teaching. We should clearly teach that the stewardship of one's entire life is an act of worship and celebration. Tithing should not be connected to subscribing a budget, nor should it be presented as a means of receiving financial favor from God.
The historical argument cited in the broadcast was based on the need of the church to receive weekly offerings when the church was no longer funded by the state. I would insist that the church should never have been funded by the government in the first place and that a better historical marker would be the early church, not relatively recent history. Recent history contains numerous examples of misunderstanding and misapplication of biblical teaching, but that fact does not alter basic biblical teaching. The church should always examine its teaching based on biblical truth, not historical tradition.
The issue of tithing being a matter of the law in a community defined by grace misses the mark on several points.
First, the tithe preceded the giving of the Law. The first mention of tithing is found in Genesis 14:20 where Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of all he had. Abram has defeated Chedorlaomer and thus is entitled to the spoils taken in battle. The contrast in the story is telling. The defeated king of Sodom wants to make a deal with Abram, allowing him to keep the goods and returning the people to him. Melchizedek, on the other hand, meets Abram on his return and provides for his needs, bringing him bread and wine. Abram's spontaneous gift of the tithe is based on his renewed understanding that "God Most High" is the possessor of the heaven and earth. This is a biblical truth that goes back to the beginning chapters of Genesis. The spontaneous act of tithing was later codified in the Law.