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Giving To and Through the Church (Part 5)

[See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 in this series.]

Part 5: Another Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church

Unless I follow up on your comments and questions, this is my second-last post in this series on giving to and through the church. Some of you might be surprised that I’ve barely mentioned tithing yet. So, here we go!

But first, a brief review: In my first post I clarified my goals for this series and quoted two early Christian writings about giving (you may wish to review what they said about tithing). In my second and third posts I discussed three primary NT reasons for church giving: (1) to support needy local Christians, (2) to send relief to distant Christians, and (3) to support gospel proclaimers. And in my fourth post I discussed a controversial topic: church buildings and their expenses. On this last topic, we discovered that the normal NT pattern was for wealthier Christians to open up their homes to host church gatherings. When Christians needed more room, they met in public spaces, such as the Jerusalem temple or rented lecture halls.

Onwards to tithing. I will not attempt to summarize the range of current Christian beliefs and practices about this topic. I’m neither qualified nor particularly interested to do so. Rather, I want to present my own understanding of what the NT says on the matter, then invite your feedback.

The first thing to say about tithing in the NT is that the NT doesn’t say much about it. This is why I haven’t said much about it so far. To have featured it in my first post about church giving would not reflect the preoccupations of the NT writers as they wrote about giving.

We only have record of Jesus mentioning tithing twice:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23; see parallel passage at Luke 11:42)

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” (Luke 18:11-12)

These are the only times tithing is explicitly mentioned in the Gospels. The first instance is a command; the second is a description from a story. What should we make of these verses? Based on these verses, must Christians today tithe? I don’t think so.

Here’s why. Consider the first passage. First, Jesus is speaking to Jews. He is not speaking to Gentiles, nor even to Christian Jews. Second, Jesus bases his command on “the law,” that is, the Law of Moses. Under this Law, the Jewish tithe was designed in part to support the Jewish system of tabernacle and temple worship. Third, Jesus is speaking before his own death and resurrection which brought an end to temple worship, inaugurated the new covenant, and birthed the Christian church. So the audience, the rationale, and the timing all suggest the same thing: this command alone is not a good reason for commanding Christians to tithe.

The second passage contains a remarkable description (albeit a self-description) of a man who is truly outwardly righteous. He not only faithfully tithes according to his duty as a Jew, but he also keeps the “weightier matters of the law.” So here we have a description of a good Jew (though a self-righteous one). But we do not necessarily have a model for Christian imitation (that is found in the repentant tax collector). Or do you think we should also command all Christians to fast twice a week?

The only other place that tithing is explicitly mentioned in the NT is in the book of Hebrews, in the middle of a fascinating passage about Melchizedek:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything… See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. (Heb. 7:1-2, 4-10)

What can we learn about tithing from this passage? First, it was an ancient practice that preceded the nation of Israel and the Law of Moses. Second, in the event described here, tithing was voluntary. Third, tithing under the Law of Moses was designed to support the Levitical priests. (It was also designed to support “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow”; see Deut. 14:28-29.) Fourth, the Law of Moses with its ceremonies and commands is inferior to the New Melchizedek, Christ. This last point is the central point for the author of Hebrews. Immediately after the above passage we find this:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well… For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (Heb. 7:11-12, 18-19)

Can you picture the author of Hebrews writing this and then turning around and insisting on tithing? “I know there’s been a change in the law, but be sure you keep the commands about tithing! I know the law is weak and useless, but you need to tithe or else you’re robbing God!” (“Robbing God,” of course, comes from what is probably the most famous passage on tithing: Malachi 3:8-10. I’m not discussing such OT verses here because I’ve already argued that Christians are not directly bound by such commands from the Law of Moses. If I had space, however, valid and valuable lessons could be drawn from such passages.)

There are plenty of places in the NT where tithing could have been mentioned if it is required of Christians. Why don’t we read of it in Acts 4 and 5, where the apostles distributed the gifts of the first Christians to needy believers? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul emphasizes Christ’s command to support gospel proclaimers? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Timothy 5, which describes how the church maintained a list of needy widows to support? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Corinthians 16, where Paul urges believers to “put something aside” on a weekly basis toward giving?

In the longest passage about giving in the NT (2 Cor. 8-9), Paul pulls out all the stops as he tries to motivate the Corinthian church to give. Well, almost all the stops. He piles up stirring examples of generosity upon theological expositions about God’s “inexpressible gift,” upon borderline flattery of his readers, upon assurances of his own plans to handle donations with utmost transparency, upon psychological moves that will motivate his readers to avoid public shame, upon reminders of eternal rewards, upon assurances of God’s abundant provision, upon grand descriptions of how their giving will bring glory to God, upon… you get the picture. But there is one thing Paul does not do: “I say this not as a command” (1 Cor. 8:8).

Read 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 for yourself sometime. If you’re not motivated to give generously after you’re done, then commanding you to tithe certainly won’t help. If pondering “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (“though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor”) doesn’t move you to “excel in this act of grace” for yourself, then no amount of “compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7) will produce any gospel fruit.

I’ve argued strongly that tithing is no longer commanded for NT saints. However, the NT does draw an implication from OT tithing for believers today. Remember that tithing was commanded under the Mosaic Law in order to support temple workers. Then remember that we, the Body of Christ, are now a new temple. Then return to 1 Corinthians 9 and consider Paul’s logic:

Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:13-14)

First, Paul mentions offerings and alludes to tithes, reminding us how these supported OT temple workers. Then Paul makes a comparison (“in the same way”), saying that gospel proclaimers today should receive similar support. Is this an implicit command for Christians to tithe in order to support their pastors? I don’t think so, given everything else we’ve considered. But I think Paul is saying this: NT gospel proclaimers are the temple workers of the new covenant, and they have just as much right to material support as what OT temple workers had.

So, if you want to fulfill the OT commands to tithe, give a generous gift to someone who has proclaimed the gospel to you! Or give something to an immigrant, an orphan, or a widow. And if you make a personal choice (as I normally have) to devote a certain percentage to give away systematically, go for it. Just don’t command others to give a certain percentage. And don’t assume that your personal choice to tithe fulfills your Christian duty—no, opportunity—to imitate the generosity of Christ.

What do you think? Have I caught the heartbeat of the NT regarding tithing? Share your thoughts and questions below!


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Giving To and Through the Church (Part 3)

[See Part 1 for the series introduction.]

Part 3: Another Primary New Testament Reason for Giving to the Church

In my last post I identified two primary reasons for giving to and through the church: (1) to support needy local Christians and (2) to send relief to distant Christians. These are the reasons found in the first NT passage describing church giving and in the longest NT passage about giving.

Both of these reasons involve caring for physical needs. Crucially, however, both kinds of giving sprang out of gospel truth. The early Christians gave to needy local Christians because of the new unity and grace that they experienced in the gospel. And they sent physical relief to distant Christians in Jerusalem because they knew that they had received spiritual blessings from them. The gospel bound believers together and was the real reason for their generosity in response to physical needs.

In today’s post I want to examine a third NT reason for giving to the church. This reason will even more obviously involve spiritual motivations. Yet it, too, will involve physical needs just as much as our first two reasons.

The classic passage about this reason for giving is found in Paul’s first letter to Corinth. In the immediate context, Paul is describing his rights as an apostle:

Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? …If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? …Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:4-7, 11, 13-14)

This is a powerful passage, but also a potentially confusing one. The confusion mostly arises from the role this passage plays within its larger context. Within the larger context—a discussion about whether Christians should eat food offered to idols—this passage was written by Paul to share his own example of forgoing his liberties and rights in order to bless others. Given this larger purpose, Paul emphasizes how he gladly preaches the gospel without receiving support from others. In fact, on one level he actually prefers to be unsupported, for then he can boast of his voluntary service, he can expect a reward from God, and he can avoid putting an obstacle in the way of the gospel.

But in order for Paul’s example of forgoing rights to have any legitimacy and power, he first needs to emphasize that it is indeed his full right to be fully supported. It is this emphasis that is relevant to our topic in this post. Paul claims he has a “right to refrain from working for a living” (1 Cor. 9:6). Listen again to how strongly he states this point:

The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:14)

So here we have our third reason for giving to and through the church: to support gospel proclaimers. (This reason is found repeatedly throughout the NT. See, in addition to the texts I discuss here, Luke 8:1-3; Rom. 15:24; 1Cor. 16:5-6; Phil. 1:3-5; 4:10, 13-18; Tit. 3:13-14; 3John 5-8.)

Where did Paul get the idea that the Lord commanded such support? And who does he mean by “the Lord”? Earlier Paul quoted the Law of Moses as evidence that gospel proclaimers should be supported (“You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain”; 1 Cor. 9:9, from Deut. 25:4). Is this what he means when he says “The Lord commanded”?

I don’t think so. First, in quoting that OT command, Paul refers to “God,” not “the Lord.” The term “the Lord” is used in this chapter, as usually in Paul, to refer specifically to Jesus Christ. Second, I think we can find a statement of Jesus that supports Paul’s claim.

Listen to Jesus’ instructions to the seventy-two workers:

“And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest… Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:2, 4-9)

First, notice the task given to these seventy-two workers: they were gospel proclaimers. Second, notice that Jesus is giving commands in this passage. Third, notice that brief clause in the middle of verse 7: “The laborer deserves his wages.” While this clause is not a command, it is given as evidence to undergird a whole series of surrounding commands: “Stay in one house, eating and drinking whatever they provide. Don’t look for other places to stay. Eat whatever is set before you.” Why do all these things? Because “the laborer deserves his wages.” Jesus presents this as an undisputable universal principle, a principle that commands specific behaviors.

Perhaps the Gospel of Luke was already written before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Or perhaps Paul knew these words of Christ from those who shared them orally. Either way, I (with many commentators) think Paul was referencing this teaching of Christ and teaching that it applied to all gospel proclaimers, including himself.

Does this command apply only to missionaries, or does it also apply to local church gospel proclaimers? Listen to Paul’s words to Timothy:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

Notice some details in these verses: First, these verses are discussing elders, a term used for local church leaders. Second, Paul says these elders are worthy of double “honor,” a term used earlier in the same chapter to refer, at least indirectly, to the church’s material care of needy widows. (The same term honor is used in the next chapter to refer to the respect and good service that Christian bondslaves must give to their masters.) Third, notice how Paul says that it is especially those who work at preaching and teaching who should be honored, thus matching the focus in 1 Corinthians on gospel proclaimers. Fourth, notice the Scriptures that Paul uses to support his command: The first is the same OT command that he used for the same purpose in 1 Corinthians 9, and the second is the same teaching of Jesus that I suggested was the basis for Paul’s statement “the Lord commanded” in that chapter. The citation of that teaching here confirms the hypothesis that Paul also had it in mind when writing to Corinth.

Put these details together, and it becomes clear: Paul is telling Timothy that local church leaders—those who preach and teach the gospel—should be given generous (“double”) material support. (Mounce suggests another likely interpretation of “double honor”: respect + an honorarium.) In fact, if we compare this passage with 1 Corinthians, I think it is fair to say this: Paul thought that local church leaders who devote themselves to gospel proclamation have a “right to refrain from working for a living.” “The Lord commanded” that they “have [a] right to eat and drink,” and not “at [their] own expense.”

I realize such statements make some conservative Anabaptists a little uncomfortable. But I ask: Have we run so far from the salaried minister model that we are no longer hearing Scripture well on this point? Yes, the salaried model has its own problems. But what problems have we been reaping by expecting all (or nearly all) our local church leaders to provide most of their own support? What additional gospel proclamation could be happening if some of our leaders dared to devote themselves to that work full-time, and if we dared to support them to make it possible? What gospel fruit might we see grow right in our own churches and communities? (And it seems to me that we should not limit such support to “ordained” brothers, but extend it to any and all full-time local gospel proclaimers. If we do this for unordained missionaries “on the field,” why not at home?)

I plan to return to 1 Corinthians 9 in my fifth post in this series. But now it is your turn. What do you think? Have I handled Scripture faithfully here? What do I still need to learn? What do you think our churches need to learn?

Post your comments and questions below!


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