OK, I’m sure I’m going to end up regretting this, but I really don’t have much of a choice here. We’ve come to a passage which talks about tithing, and this has generated a lot of controversy here.
Let me first put out the disclaimer I’ve used a lot of times before: There are a lot of Christians I have complete respect for, fellow believers who have as much regard for the Bible as I have, who disagree with me. I hope that people know me well enough that they don’t accuse me of being unfaithful to Scripture. Also, let me apologize in advance of what’s a much longer post than I usually submit. I have a lot of friends who disagree with me on this, so I have to take a little longer to make my case. I have to tread carefully and explain myself thoroughly, and that takes space.
On one side of the issue are tithe. . .literalists I could call them. It’s a neutral term, I guess. I take the whole of Scripture as literally as the context dictates. I don’t take poetry or apocalyptic visions literally, for example. But in this context (on the topic of tithing in general and this passage in particular), I use this term because they take this passage quite literally. So this is my understanding of what they believe: Believers under the New Covenant are still under obligation right now to give 10% of their income (off of gross, not net) to the church (not a para-church ministry or to a missionary service, but only to the local church). If they do so, God will financially bless them: The promises of vss. 10-12 will be literally fulfilled in their lives. If not, if they fail in any of the particulars above, they’re robbing God and are thus under a financial curse. If a believer’s going thru any financial difficulties at all, this passage is the first place they look for an explanation.
On the other side are what I’d call non-literalists (for lack of a better term). They disagree with the above propositions in one particular or another. That of course raises the obvious question: “So what are Christians today obligated to give?” The answer from most—that I’ve heard—seems to boil down to “Whatever the Lord leads you to give.”
I have a few problems with both sides. We’ll dialogue with the first group today, and we’ll deal with the second group tomorrow. My questions to the literalists: If you believe in progressive revelation—in other words, we interpret Malachi in the light of Paul—then how do you deal with Paul saying “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”? Telling people “Either you give at least 10% to the church (gross, not net) or the Lord will financially curse you” doesn’t sound like “not under compulsion” to me. They can answer “Well, Paul in that case was talking about a special offering for a specific charity project, not the week-to-week expenses of a church.” Point taken. But I don’t find explicit instructions--anywhere in the N. T.--for keeping up with the ongoing expenses. This is the only passage I see—post Resurrection—where Paul or any epistle-writer talks this specifically about giving. This seems to be all we have on this topic.
The literalists might answer: “OK, Jesus himself when he was talking to the Pharisees said ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.’” They point out “Jesus specifically said 'You should have practiced the latter,' meaning tithing.” This means he’s telling them (and us) that people should tithe.
I guess they have a point, but it seems like the tithe literalists, quite frankly, are playing a little fast-and-loose with the book of Malachi themselves. Malachi later tells us “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.” Every believer in Jesus who eats pork products (mmmmm. . . bacon) understands that the rules for the New Covenant are (at least slightly) different than those under the Old one, so we’re obviously not going to take 4:4 as literally as we do 3:6-12. Now, were the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke under the New Covenant, or under the Old one? Most people would say “The Old one.” They were still performing animal sacrifices at the temple, as well they should've been. If any of them had eaten any bacon or sausage, that would've been a sin for them. So let’s please take that in consideration when we look at Jesus’ conversation with them.
Also, I need to ask the literalists another question: “With all respect, where do you see the words ‘local church’ in the Malachi passage?” In order to get to your interpretation, we have to translate “storehouse” into “the local church.” Not “storehouse” into “para-church ministry” or “supporting a missionary.” Why “local church” and nothing else? For someone taking this passage literally and in full-force for believers today, it seems like a bit of a stretch. With respect, I’m just sayin’.
And finally, do you really believe that if I tithe correctly, I’m guaranteed that God will bless me financially? Oddly enough, the ones who’ve told me this tend to be quite critical of the “Health and Wealth” Gospel, a heresy (and yes, I use that term purposefully) that teaches that A) Every believer has the right to perfect health and plenty of financial wealth, and B) If you’re suffering a deficiency in either, then something’s wrong with your faith or obedience. I wholeheartedly join with everyone who rejects this teaching for the heresy that it is. But assuming the literalists join me in rejecting it, how exactly does someone reconcile doing so with a literal reading of the promises in vss. 10-12?
So how do we apply passages like this, and how do we approach the issue of tithing? We’ll get to the second question tomorrow, but for now, let me say this: Our dogmatic adherence to a doctrine should be in direct proportion to how often and clearly the Bible talks about it. Christians who thoroughly believe in the complete inspiration of Scripture still disagree over this issue. As I once heard, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
In this spirit, let me say a brief word in defense of the tithe literalists. Even assuming that they’re totally wrong and I’m totally right on this, I feel really weird arguing with them on it. The giving of most believers in America is pitiful. I’ve heard statistics which say that Christians typically give at most 1-2% of their income to their local churches. If believers did tithe regularly, that would take care of all the necessary expenses of the church with much to spare. When the literalists are fighting against a stinginess that smacks of antinomianism, I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, if they’ll have me. Even if I disagree slightly with them on their interpretation of the binding obligations of the Old Testament on New Testament believers, this certainly--as far as I’m concerned--is not nearly important enough to break fellowship with them.
Heaven knows the main enemy of the Church in America today is not legalism but antinomianism. In taking a stand against what—quite frankly—has just a whiff of legalism, I almost feel like someone putting a lot of effort into a campaign of fighting polio. Polio’s a horrible disease to catch, but it’s not really a clear and present danger. Someone might rightly tell me “You know, if this was during the Protestant Reformation, you might have a point in fighting legalism. But that’s not the problem right now in America.” Once again, I hear you. But I can’t stand silent when I disagree with someone’s interpretation of Scripture, no matter what the cost. As the Germans might say, Warheit Uber Alles: Truth above everything.
Once again, I apologize for the long post. I understand that I might have lost some of you, either through boredom or by driving away Bible-believers who disagree with me strongly enough to stop reading. But I couldn’t in good conscience do anything else. I would ask that you read the next post and hear me out on the rest of my thoughts on it. May God bless all of us as we seek his leadership and guidance.
Father God, the dead last thing I ever want to do is lead anyone into disobedience. May your church truly come together on what’s important to you, and may we all be led away from stinginess and carelessness concerning your standards, and further into love, obedience, and gratitude.