Steve Sensenig takes A Closer Look at Tithing, in which he cites Jollyblogger’s question, Can we ever spend the Lord’s tithe on ourselves?

Coincidentally, last weekend we were discussing tithing in our small gathering. This one issue seems such a a hot one. Not now, but back then, when I was in the church and being told I had to tithe. Now that I’ve exited the matrix institutional church system, the whole tithing thing looks far from innocent. Let’s review:

  • The Bible doesn’t say a lot about tithing, and where it does talk about money the majority of instances refer to care for the poor. Interestingly, the first and last mentions of tithing in the Bible both talk about Melchizedek.
  • The New Testament talks about giving rather than tithing… and while there’s no mention of an appropriate sum or percentage, the indication is that it would have commonly been more than a tithe.
  • The granddaddy tithing passage in Malachi is near the end of a long address to the priests. Maybe they were skimming off the top and not bringing in the whole tithe. God wasn’t happy about it anyway. The passage is typically used as an injunction to tithe.
  • Despite the Malachi passage being addressed to the priests, it is now preached to individuals as a “promise” that tithing will bring blessing, but failing to do so will bring a curse. It always seemed to me that this was all too formulaic and promoted a form of selfish giving. In contrast, we looked at a passage in Amos that talked about how the people faithfully gave their tithes, but God still wasn’t happy because he didn’t have their hearts, so they were under a curse. Apparently the tithe doesn’t work for curse-aversion after all.
  • There is but a single New Testament passage that can be construed as an instruction to tithe, and to get there requires some pretty big gymnastics. Basically you have to reverse the logic in Jesus’ words, but not directly. I’ve heard this one explained that because Jesus didn’t condemn the practice, he therefore was giving it an endorsement. Uh, no.
  • Considering the collection of New Testament mentions of tithing, it would appear that almost all of them are in the context of judgment, condemning legalism, or a return to the ways of the law when the believers should in fact live under grace. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that in the New Testament, the practice of the tithe becomes almost the epitome of legalism.

We talked about how the continued instruction to tithe and the teaching that it was an obligation removed all the joy of giving. We were continually encouraged to “have faith” to live on 90% and give 10%. Not doing so was evidence of a lack of faith. (I fail to see how it’s not a lack of faith to require topping up the tithe to cover transaction fees, but I digress. Yes, I’ve covered this before!) I have to say, the thermometer always bugged me… the one that said “God’s tithes and our offerings.”

Obviously I’m not saying that giving is bad, but the force with which the congregation has been instructed to tithe and the carrot-and-stick reasoning that it has been given is just plain wrong.

One question that we didn’t have an answer to is where this forceful teaching of tithing began, and how the motivation of blessing/cursing became attached to it. I wonder if at some point the church needed to increase the draw in order to meet expenses, and went to the Bible in search of proof-texts for the practice of regular giving. The practice of the tithe would clearly fill that objective, even if it needed a bit of twisting and pushing to make it fit. I don’t really know, but it seems plausible to me. After years of teaching it a certain way without questioning it, we kept teaching it and actually diverged even further from the truth in our thinking.

Some of the reading I’ve done recently suggests that the practice of tithing may have come in with a lot of other things (like the structure and government of the church) from early Christendom’s heavy borrowing from governmental practices. I’m interested in other people’s thoughts on the matter, particularly history but also personal views and experiences.