Talking about Tithing - Part Two

Bishop Brian Tamaki teaches the folk at Destiny Church that tithing is commanded in scripture, and that not to tithe is robbing God. Tithing is an ancient taxation practice often applied by rulers to ensure themselves a regular income. It meant a proportional contribution of produce or land was made to the leadership of the community. Therefore it is not surprising that it turns up in the rules surrounding the Temple cult of the ancient Hebrews, along with regulations covering the religious practices of sacrificing animals and grain.

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has some marvellous stories to tell about the sacrifices people were willing to make in order to honour God. In Jewish understanding, sacrifice meant a symbolic offering of food, and cultic worship was developed to include a whole catalogue of animal and crop offerings, intended to remind the worshippers of God’s rule over their lives. Worship was focussed on God’s holiness and purity, and his willingness to enter into a covenant relationship with them, as long as they continued to obey his law and fulfil his purposes. Over time the worship patterns became more and more complicated, the sacrificial rituals more demanding and the connection between what was required and what it meant, became more and more obscure. The predominant theme of Holiness, separation from the everyday, was applied to time, space, people, and resources, as the people were challenged to dedicate themselves to God. Holy Time led to the practice of keeping Sabbath and other holy days, Holy Space led to the focus on tabernacle/Temple as the dwelling place of God, and Holy People led to the setting aside of the priestly order of Levi. In this context, let’s just look at how this worked out with Resources.

The Old Testament system regarded certain belongings and harvests as holy and dedicated to God. This was a religious custom found in many nations of the ancient world, but in the case of the Hebrews it was not offered at a pagan temple, but to the priests at the house of Yahweh, the one true God. One tenth of any crop was set aside to be offered in worship, and every tenth animal too was dedicated to God. Some of these offerings of course provided the food for the priests and Levites, and tithes were also used to support widows, orphans and refugees, but these were secondary purposes. Giving a ten percent tithe was a way of acknowledging that all possessions came from the generosity of God; in my childhood we sang about this notion from the old Presbyterian hymnbook, in "We give thee but thine own."

But the Bible makes it clear that this system came to be abused as well. People got into debt – not just because of cheating on their tithes as we read about in Malachi – but also because these subsistence farmers, owing many taxes, got so far behind, there was no catching up. That is when the Sabbath year should have kicked in and given them a fresh start – but the Bible tells us those provisions became neglected over the centuries. Specific legislation was even enacted to allow the pursuit of old debts once the Sabbath year was over. So again the system was abused.The idea of some resources – a special percentage - being holy and special to God just didn’t work, and the widows and orphans, who were supposed to be cared for, were neglected. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah all complained that the needy in the community were being oppressed; that can only mean that the tithes were not being used for their proper purposes. The concept of a special percentage automatically going to God wasn’t functioning as it was supposed to, just as the special leaders, sacred places and holy times were also being misused.

Under the new covenant of Jesus Christ, we believe all resources are holy. Hebrew tithing implied that 10% belonged to God, Christian giving means 100% belongs to God. In our society when not too many of us rear sheep and goats, or harvest barley or grapes, we’re talking about money. I recently read a Japanese Christian’s comment about the Western use of the word stewardship, whenever the church was talking about the need for funds. In other parts of the world, he said, the expression is simply "money for the church". Utilising the more obscure term stewardship suggests that "money" is a dirty word, not to be used in sermons and church literature. Yet that is far from the truth; every church budget is a theological statement. It reveals our perception of God's goals and plans, and it challenges us to be involved in fulfilling them.

Jesus didn’t think money was a dirty word; in fact he preached about money and economic issues far more than about sex or violence, or any of the other sins we tend to focus on. Jesus was intensely interested in economics, because money is at the heart of our value system. He challenged the hold the wealthy Temple rulers had over the ordinary people of the villages, and he proposed a new way of thinking about resources – that all possessions are holy, that God is interested in how we spend every dollar, not just the ones we give to the church. Offerings are not to be compared with obligations like paying tax to the government, or subscription to a club. They are much more about being members of a family, a family where some are more needy than others, a family where values need to be expressed in priorities, a family where giving is an act of love and not of compulsion.

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has these principles in mind. In Chapter 9 we read his affirmation of one church’s willingness to give, in this case for a specific needy cause, but underneath are some clear principles there - giving to the church is meant to be universal, regular, planned and motivated by love. That of course was how the Old Testament tithe – and the Sabbath and the temple – began, for expressing gratitude and joy and honour of God. Universal means no follower of Jesus should see their income as 100% their own, but allow the Spirit to rule all their spending and giving, including gifts to the work of the ministry. Regular and planned means we should not be erratic in our offerings, but see it as a priority, if for no other reason than that our church elders need some certainty for planning. Many folk only give when they attend, despite the fact that the ministry payments and electricity bills and playdough costs go on when they are not there. That's why I recommend giving by Automatic Payment as a practical way of implementing a spiritual decision. Motivated by love reminds us that Christianity is about giving God's love to those around us, and that clearly has an impact on our use of resources. There is a tremendous privilege in giving, and when we are motivated by love, we will, within our means, give generously. CS Lewis once said, "I do not believe one can settle how much we should give – I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare."

Perhaps most of us don't think of financial giving as a spiritual discipline, but the Christian heritage tell us there are godly financial habits we can adopt that have a very practical application to our spiritual health. Although we are not bound by Old Testament laws, some followers of Jesus - not just the members of Destiny Church - do find the habit of tithing, or setting apart a tenth of our income for the work of the kingdom of God, helps them connect with Christ and his church. Unlike the farmers of the Temple era, we now support the poor of society with our taxes, but the wider work of the gospel does not receive government funding. Ten percent is an achievable amount for most people, at most times, though we must never forget that there will be seasons in individual or family life when a tenth may not be appropriate. Some - students for example - may give far less, but many of us could give more!

In my Presbyterian upbringing, we saw finances as a private matter, and giving to the church as a matter between us and God. We tended not to talk about offerings at all, let alone the specifics of whether we tithe, and whether we should take it on our 'before tax income" or after expenses have been taken out. But maybe we need to. In a church of 400 members receiving an average individual income of $15000 a year, (a conservative guess!) total offerings could be $12,000 every week. Think of the ministries we could fund with that!

Yes, tithing is an Old Testament rule, not a principle for Christians who are supposed to give freely and cheerfully. But the New Testament principle is that the same God who taught the Hebrews about tithing is the Lord over our spending, and assigning a regular definite percentage to God’s work is just as appropriate today as it ever was. Tithing – in some shape or form – is a habit that will reap a good harvest.

Sow a thought and you reap and act.
Sow an act and you reap a habit

Sow a habit and you reap a character

Sow a character and you reap a destiny
But what do you think?