In common talks, we may say something like “God can do anything” often because the being we have in mind has superlative qualities. This statement needs to be properly qualified for it to be always true. For instance, we may want to add that he can only do what is logically possible. We would not ask if God can make himself non-existent, for example. In our conception of God, we also believe that he knows all things, including the very next word I will type before I type it. Indeed, he knew me before I was born. The relevant issue that we will pursue in this essay is the problem that arises when we ask, “Could I have not been born given that God knew me (including my being born) before my mother conceived me?” Expressed differently, did my parents have a real role to play in my birth process? The Christian answer one gets for those questions above varies depending on who one asks. In fact, much denominationalism exists in the church precisely because of how people have answered those questions. In European Church history, the debates have continued to rage unabated for centuries. Thankfully, for my purposes, that history will have minimal effects because my focus is not Europe but Africa. Hence, I shall refrain from using registers often associated with this discourse so that no-one may charge me with any misrepresentation.
There is a common understanding of a crucial passage of the Bible in John 10 that many—perhaps, the majority—of Christians grossly misunderstand. It is the kind of error that results when we do not pay attention to textual as well as cultural contexts. To properly situate the passage, we need to address some fundamentals that may be lost on us today.
In my discussions with preachers and individuals who believe in tithing, at this point in such conversations, some would say something like, “But I know tithing works; I have seen God’s blessings in my life as a tither!” As harmless as this statement is, it is no good for doctrine. It is a rather emotional response to the issue. First, how does one know a priori that God’s providence in one’s life is tied to one’s tithes if one is not already committed to such a view of God? The fact that something works or is perceived to work does not make it true. The main issue is whether a robust defence can be made for tithing—whether our beliefs are founded on truth. We want to faithfully understand what is expected of us.
Parsing the Argument
For years, I truly believed the defence of tithing in all its potent forms that I was aware of. I was prepared to follow God’s directives. Helping the matter was the fact that all the preachers that I served under all faithfully gave their tithes as well. Recently, I had reasons to doubt this defence; I believe that it falls quite short in explaining why Christians ought to tithe. One of the strengths of the argument is its grounding of tithing’s provenance in Abraham as opposed to Moses or Aaron. However, it should be noted that Israel did not tithe because Abraham did; instead, the descendants of Israel gave tithes specifically because God commanded them to do so. They were so commanded because one of their brothers, Levi, had been set apart by God to only focus on ministering. Whereas other tribes of Israel had material possessions upon entering the promised land, Levites did not. God himself was their possession, and God provided for their daily needs by giving to Levites the tithes—of grains, animals, spices, flour, olive oil, among other things—that the other tribes bring to God:
I was a faithful tither. Why would anyone not be? I was taught that nobody can out-give God, a teaching that I found rather easy to understand: if the God of the universe, who gives liberally without faults-finding, invites me into a covenant of giving and receiving, I think I would rather oblige. I took it so seriously that on the 22nd day of February 2009, I increased my “tithe” to 20 percent of my income besides offering and other needs the church might have. For me, it was a simple matter of following through with truth wherever it led. Tithing, I was convinced, was an obligation every Christian must despatch. It was obvious that the church needs financial support to thrive and do all the good works. Besides, the Bible was quite clear on this subject; at least, so I thought. I was a member of a great church—one that is a very good ground for training young believers, I should add—which taught based on Luke 6:38 that if one does not give, one would not receive. (Never mind that the context of that verse makes it doubtful that Jesus was talking about giving money or anything material.) The church often would even remind members that it was impossible to love without giving for even God demonstrated his love for humanity by giving Jesus (John 3:16). All of this appeared to be sound doctrine, and I believed it wholeheartedly.
When people say something is or isn’t “biblical,” several things may be in view. The simplest use of the word is understandably literal. By “biblical,” the speaker would be inquiring whether a debated idea, subject, imperative or even a word appears anywhere on the pages of the bible. Typically, the implicit notion is that if the debated thing is found in the bible—usually with little regards for context – the speaker is prepared to give in. For example, a parent may observe that baby Jesus was named on the eighth day and then conclude that such an act is “biblical.”(Naming the child on the eighth day is probably after a Roman cultural practice, not Jewish.) A literal use isn’t always correct and can often be dangerous.
Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain similar positions on the subject at hand. Both of them push a one-person-in-the-Godhead theologies. In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses go as far as producing a version of the Bible representing their views. In fairness, this passage is often a head-scratcher for many a Christian who defends Jesus’ divine nature as well. And, I should add, the problem is not new either, and it predates both Islam and Jehovah’s Witnesses as organizations. The issue formed the nucleus of the Arian Controversy that resulted in the convening of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
The passage I want to focus on is found in the first chapter of Colossians where Paul describes Jesus as a firstborn. What did Paul mean?
There is no question whatsoever that Paul identifies Jesus intimately with Yahweh. (See the divinity series here.) Prior to the Second Century AD, Judaism recognized two Yahweh figures. Jews, having carefully studied their scriptures, believed that there were two good, eternal, and divine persons in heaven.[mfn]1 For a scholarly treatment of the issue, see Alan Segal’s “Two Powers in Heaven”.[/mfn] Paul identifies Jesus as the Second Yahweh figure. Of course, other New Testament writers also teach that Jesus is a Yahweh figure. Hence, we read that Jesus did things only appropriate for Yahweh such as receiving worship and prayers, forgiving sins, claiming the holy name for himself, proclaiming himself as the Lord of the sabbath, etc.