The most theologically destructive phrase uttered each Sunday

Offering plateIn many churches, just before the offering is taken up, someone says, “Now let’s give God his tithe and our offerings.”

Have you heard it before?

Do they say it in your church?

The idea is that 10% of what we earn (i.e. the tithe) rightfully belongs to God. It further suggests that anything “over and above” that 10% is your free decision. It’s God’s tithe, our offering.

This is one of the most theologically destructive phrases uttered each Sunday. If you’re using it, can I urge you to stop? If you’re a leader in a church that uses it, could you have some polite discussion with your pastor about it? And note: the people who are saying this are well-meaning, probably even fairly knowledgeable of the Bible. Don’t judge them or look down on them. Just ask them to stop.

Why it’s time to quit talking about “God’s tithe”

You don’t find the concept of tithing used positively in the New Testament or in most of Christian history.

The New Testament mentions the practice of tithing three times (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42; 18:12). In all three, Jesus is speaking of hypocritical, legalistic Pharisees. Two of the three references begin with “Woe to you!” The other is a parable about a Pharisee who is not justified before God. In these cases, the Pharisees think they have been duly obedient because they have tithed – giving even a tenth of their spices and herbs!

Throughout Christian history, many of the great theologians reference the tithe as something that “even the Pharisees did.” Their point: tithing is no big deal, certainly not a worthy Christian standard. Only in the past few centuries will you begin to find pastors and theologians positively referring to the tithe as a Christian standard.

For the majority of Christian history, tithing was not at issue. If you had asked a Christian if he/she “tithed,” I think they would have looked at you strangely.

Yes, the Old Testament says that a tenth of all the Israelites’ produce and animals belongs to the Lord (see Leviticus 27:30-32). But this is neither the last word nor the most prevalent word in Scripture about our possessions and God.

Faithful stewards

Much more prevalent – even in the Old Testament, and certainly in the New – is that all we have is from God and belongs to God. We live by God’s constant provision (see, e.g., Deut 8:1-18; Ps 104:24; 1 Chr 29:11-12). As our material wealth goes, whether it be a few nickels in our pocket or a few million in investments, the consistent message of Scripture is that it all belongs to God and is given to us as faithful stewards.

The call to us – rich or poor – isn’t to “give back to God” 10% of our earnings and do what we please with the rest. The call is to take 100% of what we have and ask what God would have us do with it.**

If we understand ourselves as faithful stewards of God, our focus shifts from giving God the 10% he’s due to a focus on simplicity and generosity. That’s a much harder focus, I’ll admit.

The tithe allows you to do the math, give away what you’re supposed to give, and go ahead without more thought. Simplicity and generosity is a constant challenge. “What would God have me do with this? How would God have me use this?”

If you’d prefer to keep it clean and easy, stick with the tithe. If you want a living faith – something beyond mindless following of simple rules – start thinking in terms of full stewardship of your life and resources.

How this can be so destructive – an illustration

So you may (or may not) agree that this is a better way to look at things. But theologically destructive seems a bit much. I don’t think it is. An illustration…

Several years ago during a Q & A after a stewardship sermon, someone asked a mega-church pastor if any amount of excess or wealth was too much for a Christian to keep. His response:

No. As long as you give back 10%, anything else is at your discretion. That’s between you and God.

(For what it’s worth, his church didn’t do the “God’s tithes and our offerings” bit. They say something good about giving out of a spirit of generosity. But I think this quote and other things I heard from him revealed the same mentality.)

That same pastor resigned a year later after confessing to a lengthy (and continuing) affair.

I don’t think the affair and the view of giving are unrelated here. The pastor believed that as long as you gave God his 10%, the rest was left to personal discretion. And he handled his own life similarly. He publicly gave God his part each week – showing up to faithfully preach – and then went in secrecy to his girlfriend’s house on his own time. I think he continued living such a contradictory lifestyle because he had convinced himself that continuing to preach throughout the affair was good — that he was still giving back to God his 10%, even if he did what he wanted with the rest of his life.

That’s not to say that if he had answered that one Q & A question differently, none of the rest would have happened. Please don’t write in the comments, “Yeah, because he believed in the tithe, he had an affair. Makes total sense!” That direct cause and effect isn’t what I’m suggesting. I don’t believe these are unrelated, though…

One piece of cloth

Scripture shows us that our lives are one piece of cloth. We don’t tear out a piece and give it to God, then do as we please with the rest. That’s true of our money, our time, our actions, our thoughts… all of it.

When we tell people to give God “his tithe and our offerings,” we tell people there are two pieces to life: the part that’s due God, and the part that’s ours to do as we choose.

Yes, we see tithes and freewill offerings in the Old Testament, but frankly, I think something very different is happening there. The call to us now is to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). We offer everything – all of it is a living sacrifice. That doesn’t make each moment or each dollar look the same. It doesn’t mean we spend all of our waking hours in worship services, or at outreach centers, or in Bible studies. And it doesn’t mean we put 100% of our earnings into an offering plate. But it means that all of it, in all of its variety, is God’s. And we handle all of it in that way — as stewards of what God has given, not as owners who choose to do whatever we feel like.

Living as if it’s all one piece of cloth is more difficult in some ways. It requires more discernment. It will probably involve constant reassessment. I don’t think my thinking and praying and struggling about how I should use the time and money God has given will ever end.

But this is also more freeing. Sometimes when something is ours, we hold it a bit more tightly. When it’s from God and belongs to God, we can give it back to God a bit more freely and fully. We can do what may be considered “radical” or “more than we have to do” with confidence and joy (and perhaps yet some trepidation) because they’re done as small responses to God’s already extravagant generosity.

So don’t give God his tithe and your offering. Offer all of yourself – your resources, your time, your body – as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. After all, it’s all God’s to begin with.

———————

** Some points I don’t have space to fully articulate in this post:

  • A call to simplicity and generosity would mean some people give away less than 10% — actually, that some people might be financial recipients rather than givers. You know that popular story about the widow’s mite (Luke 21)? I think Jesus is lamenting the devouring of this widow’s house, not celebrating her extravagant generosity. (This isn’t to discredit her great generosity, just to say that I think there’s a different point to this story.)
  • If abolishing a “tithe rule” excites you because it lets you off the hook, be sure to do some self-examination first. If you’ve recently eaten out, been to the movies, taken a trip, or have cable or Internet (just as a handful of examples), you might slow down before you say you just aren’t able to give any more…
  • If you’re a pastor telling people that you tithe, and they should, too, are you including your housing and utilities allowances in your own tithe calculations? If not, you’re either being deceitful, or you’re clueless about how the rest of your congregation lives.
  • I’ve heard many people say that our first giving must go to the local church. I don’t think that’s bad, but I’m also not convinced that it’s prescribed. If a church leader tells you the Bible (i.e. the Old Testament) clearly prescribes that our first 10% goes to the local church, ask them if they’re really ready for their local church to start handling money according to Old Testament prescriptions. (They’re not.)

4 thoughts on “The most theologically destructive phrase uttered each Sunday

  1. Very good, especially that last point….one of the OT prescription for use of tithe money was to go and buy wine and strong drink with it…I never heard that part preached…

  2. Thank you for sharing the true Spirit of the Law and not the letter only. Your reminder to seek our Lord’s will in 100% of our affairs has been enriching and strengthening to me.

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