Thursday, January 25, 2007

Tithing: Moral Responsibility or Spiritual Mandate?

“I would rather give $20 willingly than give $100 grudgingly, or out of necessity. The money is really not the issue, but the attitude is.”

So said a Christian acquaintance of mine on an Internet message board I frequent.

It got me wondering. (Actually, it got me fighting mad.) What is the Christian motivation for tithing and/or giving? Is an offering to be given in order to garner favor with God, or is an offering to be given in order to fulfill a basic moral and social responsibility? When someone gives an offering, is the giver the central character, or the receiver?

The concept of tithing is as old as Judaism itself. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 14, it says the following:

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your the presence of the the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name...But if that place is too distant and you...cannot carry your tithe...then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink...Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD...At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that...the aliens, the fatherless and the widows...may come and eat and be satisfied.

In setting out the concept of tithing, God instructs the Jews to gather one-tenth of all the produce of their fields, and set it aside for a ritual feast each year at the temple. If the temple was too far away to reasonably transport all that food (this, of course, would have included cattle), then the Jews were to exchange the tithe for money, which they could later use, upon arrival at the temple, to buy food for the ritual feast. Every third year, the Jews were to forego the ritual feast, and give their tithe, instead, to charity, so that the needy would have a storehouse of produce throughout the year from which they could eat.

Depending on how you look at it, this is an early form of socialism.

Regardless, the Jewish concept of tithing one-tenth of all you owned grew from this Mosaic tradition. Each year, Jewish families and tribes would take their tithe to the temple where they would feast in honor and supplication with God. If they lived too far away to make the trip with their animals and harvested crops in tow, they’d sell it and use the money to buy food and wine once they arrived at the temple. The tithe they donated every three years to the poor helped create an ever-growing store of food and cattle, which were dispersed among the poor and needy. One can almost see the Levites tending to the donated cattle, breeding them, and dispersing meat and grain to the poor who came to beg. If the stores began to run low, they could always count on the donation of tithes every third year to refill the warehouses and cattle fields.

Tithing became an integral part of the Jewish tradition.

Things began to fall apart in the 6th century B.C.E. Around 586 B.C.E., Israel was invaded by Babylon. The Israelites were dispersed, many taken into captivity or fleeing to other nations. For several generations, the only thing that kept the Jews unified as a culture was their religion. However, because their temple was destroyed, and they were unable to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the tradition of tithing began to die off. Even after Israel was restored, the tithing tradition did not immediately return.

It was around this same time – during and after the so-called Babylonian Captivity – that many of the Old Testament prophets began writing about their visions from God about the restoration of Israel and the reasons for Israel’s many troubles.

One of those prophets was Malachi. In Chapter 3 of his book, he writes the following, speaking in the voice of God:

“Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. “...Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings...Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the LORD Almighty.

God is chastising the Jews for turning away from the tradition of tithing. He encourages them to begin tithing again. And he promises to “open the floodgates of heaven” and “prevent pests from devouring” the crops. God was promising to bring plenty of rain, thus allowing the fields to prosper, and to keep away nuisance crop-eating insects, making Israel rich and envied among the nations.

This passage in Malachi is often quoted by Christians as a biblical mandate from God to tithe one-tenth of their paychecks to their church, in exchange for blessings of economic and financial security.

Based on the history behind the Jewish concept of tithing, you can probably see why, even on the surface, this is a perplexing and convoluted belief.

The Jewish tradition never had anything to do with giving money to the temple. Tithing was basically a ritual feast – a way for ancient Jews to celebrate the abundance given them by God. It was also a way for them to provide food and sustenance for the needy and poor in their society.

I would wager that most modern Christians do not understand the origins of the tithing tradition. Most Christians believe God has told them to give one-tenth of their income to the church, so they simply comply (well, some of them comply – I doubt most people actually give the full 10%). But is there really any Godly mandate behind tithing, relevant to Christianity? After all, tithing was a Jewish tradition that did not involve the giving of money. Why have we continued the tithing tradition, when so many other Jewish rituals have been disregarded or outright rejected?

Well, primarily, the church needs the money. What better way to encourage members to give money than to draw from the tithing tradition in the Old Testament and tell your members that God has instructed them to give 10% of their paychecks?

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with giving money to your church. The church has to pay bills, after all, as well as salaries, and a good church would use the rest for noble charitable causes. But should we really call this “tithing,” as though it has any relationship to the ancient Jewish tradition of a yearly ritual feast in the presence of God?

And what about that quote that started it all? Is it really better to give $20 cheerfully than $100 grudgingly? What is giving about, after all, if not the benefit of the receiver? I doubt the receiver cares much whether your money is given cheerfully or grudgingly. All the receiver cares about is that the money is given. If you have $100 to give, why would you give less than that, unless you were only giving for the purpose of pleasing God, figuring God would be happier with the “cheerful” gift of $20 (“cheerful” because it doesn’t hurt your wallet so much) than the “grudging” gift of $100.

Such an idea is abominable to me.

Christians should give to their churches, and their communities, because it is the morally and socially responsible thing to do. Not because Moses told his followers 3,000 years ago that God wanted them to have a ritual feast every year in God’s honor. And certainly not because God promises to “bless” you if you do. We don’t give for blessings. We give because we love others and because it is our moral responsibility to help our fellow human beings.

Any other motivation for giving is, in my opinion, self-serving and contemptible.

Give that some thought the next time your pastor reminds you that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Unless you are giving for the express purpose of pleasing God and thereby securing some extra “blessings” for yourself, your attitude as you give should have no relevance whatsoever on how much you give.


Andrew said...

Very well said.

deine schwester :) said...

But what about The Solid Rock Church with the Touchdown Jesus sculpture? They make their members turn over their W2s every year. How's that for the Lord's will?

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, Andrew. I liked your blog as well...sounds like we probably have some things in common, spirituality-wise :)

Scott said...

E - Anyone who would attend a church like that deserves to have them steal their money.

Anonymous said...

tithe and offerings is a touchy subject. And i'm sure we all know that no matter how you give if you give with a wrong heart, it's of no value to GOd anyway.

Scott said...

Well, anonymous, that's sort of the whole point of the article. What does it MATTER if someone's tithe/offering is of any value to God? Isn't the point to help people? What does God have to do with it?

Carmen said...

If the third year tithes were collected and given to take care of the poor, we wouldn't have the worldwide homelessness and hunger of today. However, this tithe is glossed over. Religious leaders of today are not preaching about this tithe at all.

Scott said...

Thanks for posting, Carmen. I'm not sure that world hunger would be totally cured by a biblically-based third year tithe, but it would be a great start. And you make a good point about how churches today don't mention this tithe at all.

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