For You Have Robbed Me, Even This Whole Nation: Part Two

[Note: In Part One [1] of this note I examined the issue of tithing in the Law and Prophets. In Part Two of this essay, I examine the arguments used for offerings and contributions from membership, as well as the needs that were met in the early Church of God by the brethren according to the scriptures, as well as comment on the scarcity of mentions for tithing in the history of the early church.]

So, why is it that the practice of tithing is not mentioned at all in the biblical record of the early Church of God? Other than the one mention talked about in Matthew 23, and its parallel account in Luke 11:32), it is only mentioned one time, again in connection with the Pharisees, in Luke 18:11-2, which reads: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes on all that I possess.’” We see here that the Pharisee wished to be thought of as righteous for tithing, and the rest of the story reveals that Jesus Christ did not appreciate the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. We have seen above that the law of Moses did not explicitly tell believers to tithe all that they possessed (even if this appears to have been the example of Abraham from the solitary reference to tithing in his own life).

There are not many references to tithing in the early Church Fathers either. There are isolated references to it in the third century Didascalia Apostolorum, from John Chrysostom’s “Homilies on Ephesians,” and from John Cassian’s “The Conferences.” Interestingly enough, we see one notable example in the Didascalia Apostolorum of the comparison between the priests and Levites and the offices of the Roman Catholic Church: “Set aside part offerings and tithes and first fruits to Christ, the true High Priest, and to His ministers, even tithes of salvation to Him. . . . Today the oblations are offered through the bishops to the Lord God. For they are your high priests; but the priests and Levites are now the presbyters and deacons, and the orphans and widows. . . . Your fruits and the work of your hands present to him, that you may be blessed; your first fruits and your tithes and your vows and your part offerings give to him; for he has need of them that he may be sustained, and that he may dispense also to those who are in want, to each as is just for him [2].” Here we see a clear use of the tithing law as an analogy to Christian practice in a similar fashion to that used by many ministers who support tithing today.

There are at least a few possible reasons why the record of tithing is so scarce, and we would do well to consider these reasons. For one, during the time while the Christian scriptures were being written, the Second Temple was still in existence, and the tithe would have been paid to support the corrupt and ungodly priestly establishment of the time. Since nowhere in the New Testament do we find Paul or the other apostles saying that tithes are now to be paid to them, it is very possible that the entire issue did not need to be discussed since the early Church of God did not receive tithes while the temple and the Levitical priesthood were still in operation. Even the book of Hebrews only implicitly deals with the subject in pointing out that Levi, so to speak, paid a tithe to Melchizedek, and pointed to Jesus Christ as the Melchizedek priesthood, not explaining whether the ministry could be counted as priests in the order of Melchizedek themselves (since ministers are neither sinless nor eternal, the qualities which separated Jesus Christ from the Aaronic priests). Because of this silence, we cannot find within the Bible itself any sort of discussion of the mechanics of tithing in the New Covenant. It was the practice of the Hellenistic Church of the West to tithe to the Church, which was then to use the tithe to support its own (corrupt) priestly establishment and also provide for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. Nonetheless, it is not clear to what extent we should copy the example of the corrupt Hellenistic Roman Catholic Church.

Aside from the fact that the tithe would have been paid to the temple (not to the apostles) and the fact that the mechanics of tithing once the temple had been destroyed are never discussed in scripture, there are other reasons why the subject of tithing appears to have been so rare. For one, the tithe of the Mosaic covenant appeared to include only agricultural products and the early Church of God was mostly urban and professional. Perhaps it was thought that the specific Mosaic instructions would not have been helpful given the very different lifestyle of the early believers. Let us not forget, after all, that even the most zealous enforcers of the tithe in the Hebrew scriptures (like Nehemiah and Malachi) spoke of the tithe in terms of agricultural and not monetary terms. We tend to think of the tithe primarily in monetary terms, but the Hebrew scriptures (and the Renewed Covenant scriptures of Christianity) are far less money-obsessed than most of our own commentary on tithing.

There is also another reason, a very serious one, why tithing does not appear to have been a subject of great discussion among the early Church of God, until the sixth century AD or so when it was finally discussed in a couple of Roman Catholic church councils. The standard of the early church was far more stringent than mere tithing. Acts 4:32-37, for example, reads: “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles feet.”

Here we see the example of the early church. In an environment where generosity reaches such a level that no one is jealous about their own private property rights but gives all that they possess for the common benefit of all, it would appear to be rather superfluous and unnecessary to talk of tithing. The Christian standard of giving is far above and beyond the level of tithing. In fact, it is only because of our own comparative lack of generosity that tithing is even an issue for us at all. If you are giving 100% of what you possess in lands and houses to share with your brothers and sisters in Christ, it is unnecessary for a minister to write an article or give a sermon about the tithing law, is it not?

Nor is Acts 4 the only place where this generosity of spirit is recorded in scripture. 1 Corinthians 9:11-15 reads: “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel. But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than that anyone should make my boasting void.” It was not only the early brethren of the Church of God who lacked the obsession with money so common in our contemporary Christian practice among lay members and ministry alike, but the Apostle Paul preferred not to take money from the immature Corinthian congregation rather than to feel bound to pander to them in order to receive their tithes and offerings. He preferred to work with his hands making tents and preaching rather than to hinder the gospel by taking money from those who were immature and not solidly grounded in the faith. It was not the money of the brethren that Paul wanted, but to help them on the road to salvation.

How many ministers today follow this example? To the extent that our concern as members or ministers is to acquire the things of this world, are we any better than the Pharisee who looked down on the (supposedly law-breaking) tax collector and talked about how much he prayed and fasted and tithed. God demands more than pray, pay, stay, and obey [3]. These are only a bare minimum, nothing to be proud about, nothing to brag about. If we perfectly obey the law, we are only unprofitable servants because we have only done what God has required of us, and not gone above and beyond the minimum standard. And yet even the law itself is a standard for too hard for many of us to even approach in our conduct. We therefore ought to conduct ourselves with humility and not look down on others, recognizing that we too are in need of God’s mercy. If, as seems likely, the absence of tithing discussions in the New Testament is because neither the ministry nor the membership was obsessed with acquiring material wealth or in simply giving the bare minimum, does that not put us to shame that we should consider tithing a high standard of giving in our own present day and age?

Given the generosity of the early Christians as is recorded in scripture, an example set by leaders such as Paul and Barnabas, and followed by congregations, it would appear that at least one of the reasons why tithing is not necessary is because a much higher standard than tithing was expected. This is clearly not the case right now. To tithe is considered an immense burden by many people, and to give at a standard higher than tithing is hardly even conceived by many Christians. However, we ought not to be too hard on believers when the example of money hungry church leaders, who show no example of generosity but seek as much money to buy fancy houses and cars and golf course memberships as they can, is so blatantly selfish itself. Rather, we ought to consider the contemporary church experience like that of the Second Temple period of Malachi, a time of broken relationships and broken trust between a corrupt religious establishment and a fairly selfish populace. Since Malachi is a prophet of considerable relevance to our own experience, we therefore ought to expect tithing much more commonly discussed in our own time than it was in the early Church, and that is precisely what we find.

Nonetheless, we find from the record of scriptures that the precise concerns of the three tithes were themselves addressed in the early decades of the Church of God. Let us recall that the first tithe dealt with the financial support of a group of people devoted to religious service. We find this same concern addressed on at least two occasions by Paul. Intriguingly enough, though, he does not cite the law about tithing, but rather a different law, concerning not muzzling the ox that treads the grain. In addition, we also see a concern about Holy Day observance, but here again no tithing is mentioned either, nor any travels by ordinary members to Jerusalem for the Holy Days. In addition, we have a strong concern in the early church for the less fortunate, but here again tithing is not mentioned. Instead, the language used refers to family duties as well as the expectation of generosity from brethren. Let us take these concerns in order.

The tabernacle and temple establishment used the first tithe to support Levites (who in turn supported the priests with a tithe of the tithe). In the early church of God, we have a clear expectation that members were to support their ordained leadership. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:9, Paul quotes a law about muzzling oxen: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” adding the following revealing comment: “Is it oxen God is concerned about?” Later on, in 1 Corinthians 9:14-15, Paul states (as quoted previously above): “Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the Gospel. But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done for me.” Paul was stating that Christians had an obligation to support their religious leadership, but that he was not greedy for their money. It is revealing, though, that Paul cites a law about muzzling oxen rather than the tithing law.

Nor is this citation accidental. Paul again cites this same exact law in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, and again this law is cited with regards to the rewards of elders for their service in the Church of God [4]: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Here again we see the work of being an elder being treated accordingly with wages, which had to come from believers, and here again it reflects a concern that people receive the wages they deserve for hard work as well as a “double portion” of material blessings as the “firstborn” of the Church of God. Again, these scriptural references to the law there is great meaning, and clearly state the obligation of members to pay wages to those who preach the gospel message and help govern the congregation well, but again tithing happens not to be the point of reference for Paul concerning the support of the ministry.

Likewise, the tithe is not referred to in scripture with regards to keeping the biblical holy days, even though those holy days are referred to very often. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:8: “But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost,” but does not include any comments about how far brethren were expected to travel for the holy days, or how that travel was to be paid for. Paul’s letters seem to presume that members would stay in the general area of their congregation, and so presumably costs were expected to be low. We do not know, for example, how the early Church of God kept the Feast of Tabernacles. However, it would appear obvious for at least one festival (the Pentecost of Acts 2), second tithe was used for the brethren to reach Jerusalem from so many nations from Arabia to Persia to Rome and Greece and what is now Turkey. That said, we know little of the usual travel habits of the brethren in the early Church of God. For those churches which do keep the feasts, and which travel for them, we see to little surprise that a second tithe is commanded from the pulpits for such purposes, even without a great deal of support for the practice in the early Church of God for such extensive traveling.

However, we do know from the early Church of God that ordinary brethren were expected to be hospitable to godly traveling ministers, so that they would not have to stay in motels. Costs were kept low for travel in the early Church of God through the hospitality of ordinary members. Allowing a traveling minister and his party to spend the night (something I have been lucky enough to partake in) was considered to be sharing in the labor of that minister, for good and bad. To give two examples, 2 John :9-11 tells us: “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him: for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” John is saying here rather clearly that if we greet and show hospitality to an open heretic we show ourselves to be heretics ourselves.

Likewise, showing hospitality to godly ministers allows brethren to share in the work, as John says in 3 John :5-8: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name’s sake, taking nothing from the gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth.” By showing hospitality to a minister we share in their work for the truth—whether for good or evil.

Again, though, the Bible does not refer to this sort of sharing as an aspect of tithing. Rather, instead of the members traveling to a place and spending money for hotels, we see that the practice of the early Church of God was sending ministry out to the people (wherever they were) to say at the homes of brethren and enjoy fellowship with them. The concern was about sharing in the work of a minister and enjoying the conversation over food, as well as accepting the traveling ministry as part of one’s local community of faith (probably also including home churches). We lack this understanding today, as the Church of God is not so much a genuine community of neighbors and fellow believers who regularly share the hospitality of each other as it is a temporary weekly assembly of people who barely interact on a regular basis. And again, with such a vibrant local community, it seems entirely possible that no extensive travel for the holy days was necessary, though admittedly we lack extensive evidence to say for certain whether or not members traveled long distances for the festivals of God either one way or the other.

Likewise, there was a great focus on those in need among the early Church of God, far greater a focus than is present in the Church of God community toady (partly for political reasons—when the poor are seen as deserving their fate, charity itself is seen as an evil, but when they are seen as suffering from time and chance, we are prone to share what we have in the knowledge that the same undeserved misfortune could fall on ourselves also according to divine providence). It is clear that the early Church of God rejected the heretical views of the “prosperity Gospel” which assumed that the wealthy and powerful were righteous and that the poor and ill were wicked. Rather, the Church of God was deeply concerned with showing generosity to the poor.

For example, stealing was condemned among believers but the goal of hard work was not selfish benefit, but rather the ability to give generously to those who had need. As Ephesians 4:28 reads: “Let him who stole steal no longer, but let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” Again, the whole purpose of hard work for those who were able bodied was to allow them to give to those who were not able bodied, but who had no one to provide for their needs. It should be noted that families were supposed to take care of their own first, as it is written in 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” To refuse to take care of the needy in one’s own family, if one has the means to do so, but to pawn them off on the church or on general society was considered gross impiety, as generosity and charity is a core aspect of what it means to be a Christian. On the other hand, seeking to take advantage of generosity was not viewed any higher by Paul, as it is written in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, in the context of lazy and disorderly busybodies, “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this; if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” Clearly, such verses are not talking about those who cannot find work (despite their efforts), but about those who refuse to work, which are a very small proportion of those in need.

The issue of generosity to brethren in need is of vital importance in the development of authority within the Church of God. After all, the entire office of deacon was established to ensure the proper distribution of charity to Hellenistic widows because of a perceived problem of bias within the early Church of God, as it is written in Acts 6:1-4: “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Here we see a new office granted to those who had been caused offense by the lack of generosity of the Aramaic-speaking brethren. We see a discussion of offices and of a distribution of food, but again, no tithing is discussed despite the obvious logistical issues involved.

Again, likewise, we see in Acts 11:27-30 a notable charitable effort for the brethren of Judea: “And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” Here we see a substantial logistical effort to provide need to the poor brethren of Judea, but brethren give according to ability. The same is the case in a later, and more substantial effort, where Paul and Titus (and presumably others) sought donations from the congregations of Achaia and Macedonia for Judea. In all of the discussion about generosity in 1st and 2nd Corinthians, tithing is not mentioned at all, even though the subject of the substantial collection was part of the third tithe of the Law.

So, it is clear that the early Church of God met the requirements of providing a livelihood and wages for elders, provided hospitality for traveling ministers, met for the holy days (even if we do not know exactly how far the membership was expected to travel, if at all), and provided for the needs of the deserving poor and widows. However, in all of this discussion, which takes up a fair amount of discussion among the books of the Bible we have from the first few decades of the Christian experience, we have no references to tithing as part of the practice of the Church of God. Members instead gave according to their ability, and were expected to give far more than just ten percent. In our less generous times the tithe is often preached from the pulpit because otherwise people would probably not give at all. Nonetheless, our understanding of the tithing system in ancient Israel ought to show us that the tithe was expected largely of the landed wealthy, and such people were very rare in the urban Church of God (and fairly rare today, it should be said). Therefore, it ought not to be surprising that living sacrifices and offerings of a cheerful giver are what is expected of brethren in the New Testament church, rather than a ten percent tithe.

This is not to say that the tithe is wrong, nor to deny that God provides blessings to those who faithfully give, but rather to show that God’s expectation of us is far more than merely ten percent, and is far more a matter of generosity of heart and spirit, and compassion for our fellow believers, first among our families and then among our brethren in the faith, than it is a matter of an easy percentage or amount to give to the church that absolves us of further concern for our brethren in need. It is instead the needs of our brethren, rather than ease of calculation so that we may not be troubled or obligated further to our brethren, that takes precedence in the biblical model of godly generosity. If we combine all of the scriptures together, we might say that to tithe merely means that we are not thieves, but to be genuine loving Christians requires a far higher standard of generosity and a far greater lack of concern for acquiring or hoarding wealth and resources for ourselves. On that scale, we all have far to go before we reach the noble standard generosity of the early Church of God. We ought therefore to be humble and strive to meet a greater standard of love and concern for our brethren than is currently the case.





About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to For You Have Robbed Me, Even This Whole Nation: Part Two

  1. Justin Glasgow says:

    Hi Nathan!

    As with any article on religion and Christian concepts, there will be always be ensuing dialogue… I guess I am the first. Mine is more of a critique, if I may, than a disagreement.

    I understand your thesis statement to more or less be this: “Tithing 10% is only meeting a base requirement and as Christians more than the bare minimum is expected of us.” (Or something very similar). The big issue is that I almost didn’t come to understand that this was what you were getting at because the first 21 of 23 paragraphs are primarily spent seemingly disproving the concept of tithing.

    What I’m getting at is that I do very much agree with you that we should do so much more than the bare minimum, as we are able. But if it is really your purpose to portray this point, it seems to me that you could motivate many more of your readers to consider the concept of enhanced, love-driven generosity by directly addressing the duties of a Christian (as you did primarily in your last 2 paragraphs) then by dismantling tithing as we know it. Had I quit reading anywhere short of the conclusion, there is a good chance I would have thought that this was strictly an anti-tithing or anti-giving essay and that Nathan had lost his marbles!

    Also, it seems somewhat unfair to clump everyone in the modern church together, whether implicitly or explicitly, as greedy and money-grabbing. While that can be true in some cases, don’t forget that many in the church do not limit themselves to 1st tithe alone, but also pay good amounts of holy day offerings, 3rd tithe in some cases, and are not expressly limited to just those either.

    I hope my unasked-for critique hasn’t come off as harsh or prideful. I know you spent many hours writing and researching this. Perhaps I misunderstood, as I am sometimes prone to do? Anyway, just a little feedback from a guy who nearly missed the entire point, and who thought he’d point out what he saw.

    Hope you’re doing well. Glad to stumble upon your blog and see that you’ve been writing so prolifically!


    • Well, there are plenty of points. This was the second part of a post, and the evidence for tithing, such as it exists, comes almost exclusively from the OT. A large part of my point was to discuss why generosity is mentioned so largely within the NT but that tithing is not mentioned at all in the NT outside of a few scattered (and fairly critical) Gospel references. As someone who is particularly keen on the actual evidence at hand, I thought it worthwhile to examine precisely that interest and account for its absence where we would expect it, as well as critique those who seek to promote tithing for their own selfish benefit.

      Thanks for the well-wishes. I do keep fairly prolific, helped no doubt by the suggestions of others. As far as the critique goes, I think it’s a fair one and I doubt it will be an uncommon one, but this post is missing the context of the first 4500 or so words about tithing, and so without context it is indeed a difficult matter. Thanks for reading until the end, though.

  2. Pingback: For You Have Robbed Me, Even This Whole Nation: Part Two « Gates of the City

  3. Pingback: Heavier Things | Edge Induced Cohesion

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