Freedom from the Tithe

Jason Micheli —  October 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

Sunday coming we’re kicking off the annual pledge campaign in my new parish. 

The church suffered an exodus of pledgers prior to my arrival. Approximately 53 giving “units” (lack of incarnational lingo, noted) left the church last year for various sundry reasons, totalling over $200K in giving. The church’s revenue through the 3rd quarter of this year is off by over $100K against an average of the past three years. 

If ever there was a time to double-down on the Bible’s talk of dollars and cents, it would now, right? I should whip out the good book and leverage Deuteronomy’s commands about first fruits and prescribe some portioning. I ought to lay down some lawI know from my church-planting days, for example, that the tithe is one of the benchmarks by which funders at the denominational level asses a new congregation’s vitality— by which they mean viability. Church planters therefore experience pressure to produce not only butts in the seats but people committing 10% of their income to the brand new endeavor.

Because a tithe, offering 10% from the top, is what the Bible commands.

Grace may not be cheap— it’s free, in fact— but running God’s grace-giving business is expensive.

Not only do you have to pay for your local forgiveness person, she’s pensioned too. 

Thus, God’s church is transactional even if his grace is something else entirely.

I suspect so many pastors avoid the subject of money is because they assume 10% is the scriptural obligation, yet they do not pastor a congregation that takes the Bible with enough seriousness even to warrant mention of something called a tithe. In my experience, it’s the IRS code not the mosaic code that most often provokes financial gifts nearing double-digit percentages.

And maybe it’s a function of not having taken the Bible seriously enough— at least, not taking the Gospel seriously enough— that we seldom ask if the tithe has been crossed off the list of God’s commands by the cross of Christ.

Just as a refresher:

The Lord commands the 11 tribes of Israel to give out of their first fruits an offering of 10% (in addition to all the other offerings prescribed to them) for the care of tribe number twelve, the Levites. As the priestly caste in Israel, from which the high priest was conscripted, the Levites were forbidden from possessing personal belongings of their own. God mandated the tithe as the means by which Israel would support those who mediating the atoning work for them before God. In other words, the purpose of the tithe was to fund the high priest who mediated atonement, year in and year out. If that doesn’t immediately ping your Gospel radar, you’re likely in the aforementioned group of folks who need to read their Bibles more. 

In particular, it would help if you read the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. 

In exhorting church members to give the “biblically-mandated” tithe, preachers effectively draw an analogy between the tribe of Levi and their atoning office of the high priest and the work of the church.

But— and here’s where Hebrews is a help— scripture insists that the office of the high priest is closed for Christ is our Great High Priest.

Interestingly enough, Jesus, being from the tribe of Judah wasn’t even qualified to be any kind of priest much less the ultimate and final one, which not so subtly implies the whole religion business the tithe funded in the first place was designed from our end not God’s. 

The original justification for the command about tithing is gone because Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest and, what’s more, his office has closed sign hanging on the shop door. Our priest, the Book of Hebrews says so plainly it’s a wonder we persist in not believing it, has finished forever his mediating work of atonement. The Great High Priest made an offering of himself and in his body born by a tree he made a perfect sacrifice, once-for-all. 

The purpose of the tithe has been perfectly fulfilled by our completely unqualified priest, Jesus Christ.

Because we’re justified in Christ alone by grace alone, the apostle Paul proclaims, we are now and forever free from the Law, including it would follow from the law which commands us to give 10%. Indeed, Paul insists, were we not free from the Law then Christ died for absolutely nothing. Likely, this is why there is 0% of the New Testament that instructs Christians to offer a 10% tithe. Jesus himself refers to the tithe 3 times in the Gospels and in 100% of those situations he doesn’t mention it in a good way, condemning the prideful hypocrisy of the Pharisees whose giving masks their begruding another mercy. Instead, the New Testament more often commends giving generated by gratitude and joy (2 Corinthians 9.7). Ironically, by Paul’s foolish Gospel logic, the message that you have been set free by grace from the demands of the commands, including the command to give a tenth, generates generosity. 

Neglect of the Gospel of grace and the freedom it has given, then, produces exactly the sorts of people who require an exhortation like the tithe.  

Certainly a 10% gift remains a command to which a believer can aspire but, just like love of enemy, the way towards it is in trusting that it’s all already been fulfilled for you by Jesus Christ.

Given the shape of my church’s budget, I realize how this little exegetical detour could prove bad for business (I don’t have to give that much!? Woohoo!). Then again, the product we’re selling is free. Business will always be a bad way to frame it.

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