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.
Jesus as Melchizedek?
It is not impossible to argue for tithing in the church today. It depends on the cost one is willing to part with. Some have tried giving up the historically maintained divide between the Old and the New Testaments. With one Big Testament, it is conceivably easier to argue for tithing even though bigger problems ensue. The following are other avenues some use to either establish the doctrine of tithing or to support it.
- Melchizedek is not merely like Jesus; he was Jesus in human form. Hebrews 7 comes really close to saying that Jesus came to Abram as Melchizedek. Indeed, they share a lot in common. This Melchizedek is both king of peace and king of righteousness (1-2). Without beginning of days nor end of life, this Melchizedek is an eternal priest (1,3). This point of the king being eternal is one some take as a strong indication that he may be divine. In fact, it is at this point that some conclude that Melchizedek was Jesus. If this is true, then it would mean that Abram tithed to Jesus in Melchizedek. Furthermore, the issue of Old versus New Testament would seem to sublimate.
How do I respond? Even if we grant that the labels Melchizedek and Jesus have the same referent, this still will not do much good to the tithing argument. Remember, Abraham did not tithe from his earnings but from his plunder after a military campaign. Even when he did tithe, he did it once. Hence, the argument now under consideration still stops short of demonstrating why we should continually give tithes. Besides, I think that the conclusion that Melchizedek is Jesus is really an argument from silence. The passage in Hebrews does not say that Jesus is Melchizedek. If the author of the book really thought so, one would expect him to say that in the passage. Yes, the eternality of Melchizedek raises some questions, but the conclusion to divinity does not follow necessarily. Without philosophizing much—and there are a few counterexamples such as the eternal nature of humans—I simply say we just do not know what to make of the eternality of the king of Salem. And since the text does not say that Melchizedek is Jesus but that he is like Jesus, I follow the text.
Give taxes to Caesar and tithes to Churches?
2. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. If not for a friend’s input, I would not have known that some people use this statement to conclude that Jesus endorses paying taxes and tithes. But it is not difficult to see why someone who already believes in tithing on other grounds would construe this saying as endorsing tithing. All the Synoptic Gospels record the event where Jesus uttered those famous words. Some Jewish experts in the Law were bent on causing Jesus to offend and came up with a very tough, politically sensitive question of whether Jews, people of covenant, should pay taxes to the Roman government—a Gentile nation. Paul Maier, in his In the Fullness of Time (121) describes it like this: “It was a cruel alternative. A yes would have prevented any trouble with the political authorities but reduced Jesus in the popular mind to a Rome-serving lackey. A no would have pleased the crowd, but word of Jesus’ treason would have been reported immediately to Pontius Pilate.”
In response, Jesus says: “ ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’ They answered, ‘Caesar’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” Luke 20:24,25. A denarius was a Roman coin. So, when Jesus says to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, he is saying it is right to pay taxes. (I know, it would be great had he affirmed the opposite.) Some pro-tithing Christians conclude that “what is God’s” in the latter portion of Jesus’ statement is tithing. It is certainly not irrational that “give to God what is God’s” could refer to money since the first half of the statement refers to money. But is that what Jesus is saying here? I think there is a better alternative that explains all the data. First, the conclusion to tithing here is a major leap. There is nothing in the context of the event to suggest this conclusion at all. As I said earlier, those who draw this conclusion are already convinced about tithing on other grounds. But the question remains, “what is God’s that we ought to give him?” In verse 24, Jesus asks the questioners whose image and inscription are on the coin. Based on the answer to this question, Jesus said “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Considering that Jesus says to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar from the fact that Caesar’s image (and inscription) is on the coin, it makes sense to expect that the things that are God’s will bear God’s image and inscription. As it turns out, the things that bear God’s image are humans, not tithes! In other words, Jesus says to pay taxes but do not forget to offer ourselves to God because we belong to him. Paul Maier adds: “Prizes for everyone! Rome could hardly find the remark seditious, while the Jews knew the statement meant not 50 percent to God but more like 99 percent, since the human being belonged to God as his creation.” It may be asked, “Can one offer one’s money to God along with offering oneself?” Absolutely! I shall have more to say on this next.
So, what does the New Testament really teach if not tithing? The rather simple doctrine of giving! The New Testament is full of exhortations on giving. It is important to note, however, that giving is very different from tithing. It is not a mere matter of terminologies; the referents of these terms are very different. Tithing is an obligation; giving is a free-will offering; a tithe is a fixed known quantity; giving is not. With giving, the giver is in full control of how much she gives: she may give more than a tenth, or she may give far less than a tenth. Regardless of how much one gives, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7, NIV). “Not under compulsion” rules out obligations. Notice also that the amount one gives is determined by oneself, not a standard one-size-fits-all of tithing. Of course, God can speak to a person’s heart concerning how to give or help in every situation. But ultimately, the gift is still expected to be a free-will offering. A critical example of cheerful giving from the New Testament is recorded in Acts 2. After the outpouring of the Spirit, many joined the early church. Verse 43 says, “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” It should be noted that nobody calls for offerings here. The people recognized the presence of God, and the fruit of kindness grew to maturity so that those who had goods and properties sold them. Notice that within that church, some gave whereas others received because they had nothing to give; indeed, those who sold their properties did so precisely because they recognized fellow sisters and brothers among them who lacked. Thus, the doctrine that if one does not give the same cannot receive is simply untrue considering this counterexample. Once more, there is no stipulation of how much to give here. The people were simply cheerful givers.
The New Testament has records of apostles being financially supported. Never did tithing come up. Both Jesus and the Apostles were financially supported (Luke 8:3). Paul was also financially supported (Philippians 4:15-18). Given that tithing is not a New Testament doctrine, why do preachers teach it as though it were? I can hazard a few responses. First, I think many preachers simply genuinely believe in tithing as they were taught. They simply have not had reasons to seriously investigate it. The fact that tithing is a popular doctrine among preachers certainly gives an impression that it is a sound doctrine—after all, these renowned teachers and preachers cannot possibly all be wrong, can they? There is a second reason that follows the first: preachers’ livelihood, unfortunately, often depends on the people’s tithes. Not all non-investigating preachers derive their livelihood from tithing. In fact, I know a few preachers who believe in tithing in this category. I once served with a pastor who was not paid in any way by the church but instead has a full-time job as a hospital chaplain; I have another pastor friend who is a medical doctor and is not on salary with the church. However, most preachers depend on the church for their living. Indeed, a pastor friend once pointed out that if the church does not require tithing – a fixed, safe minimum amount of money – the people are likely to not give enough. Thus, for many preachers, to investigate tithing is to risk the safety of their family and staff members who are on salary. I am not implying that all preachers consciously choose not to investigate. I am, however, saying the cost of investigating may be too much. This is a major reason I am convinced that the way churching is done needs to change urgently.
One final thought on why tithing may seem justifiable and biblical is that the structure of the modern church requires a constant source of calculable money to finance it. Being institutions built around pastors, many a church has a host of salaried administrative personnel and other ministers to help with the busyness. Today, when most people hear “church” what comes to mind is a building, a development that is sure to confound first-century Christians. The doctrine of giving as opposed to that of tithing is too risky to support the present church structure. The number of resources tied down in some church buildings can rebuild communities in some lands across the globe. I firmly believe that the future of the church consists of the devolution of the present system. I hope to see a future where passionate ministers of God will substantially rediscover Him as Jireh and will thus not need to construct a system that sees to their being taken care of. Tithing, despite the enormous attempts to put a New Testament toga on it, is a doctrine that brings back the legalistic element of the Old Testament—itself a likely diagnosis of our partial trust in God as the Provider. Giving, on the other hand, is very much in step with the spirit of grace that pervades the New Testament. When we become genuinely aligned with Jesus knowing his will for every moment, we shall see that giving is superior to tithing as we will discover that God really is Yahweh.
Maier, L. Paul. In the Fulness of Time: A Historian at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998. Print