Will a Man Rob God?
Voluntary tithing is popular in evangelical churches. Tithing goes back
to the patriarchs:
- “And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest
of God Most High. He blessed him and said, 'Blessed be Abram by God Most
High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has
delivered your enemies into your hand!' And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.”
- (Genesis 14:18-20, NRSV).
Everything belongs to God: "The earth is the LORD’S and all that is
in it, the world, and those who live in it..." (Psalm 24:1). He is
the Owner, we are the tenants. Those who give to the Lord's work are only
giving back what He has given them. Hearing that "God loves a cheerful
giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7), believers look for a benchmark. What level
of giving does God consider 'cheerful' and what 'miserly'? Hearing that
Abraham, God's friend, used the benchmark of a tenth, many find this to
be a convenient, and for most people a readily attainable, standard.
This type of tithing is a voluntary covenant between God and the believer.
Jacob, a sharp bargainer, even made his compliance with the covenant's
terms conditional upon God's prior compliance:
- “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, 'If God will be with me, and will keep me
in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear,
so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall
be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s
house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.'”
- (Genesis 28:20-22, NRSV).
It is a free undertaking of the believer, not a command of God. The sphere
covered by this tithing is "all," "everything." This
model of tithing will always be popular, so long as believers seek to emulate
those whom God commended. For the great majority of those who live in this
still-wealthy nation, giving one-tenth to God's work leaves them with more
than enough to live on. But the minority for whom this is not so rarely
choose to tithe, when the decision is left to them.
Taking it to the next level, some 'Oneness' Pentecostals and others like
the Latter-Day Saints make payment and reporting of 10% of one's income
to the church mandatory. Former members even report having been disfellowshipped
for failing to document payment of tithes. Can this practice be substantiated
from the Bible? Enter the law-giver Moses, who, it is hoped, will provide
the enforcement muscle to make even the unwilling impoverished minority pay tithes.
Moses' law includes three tithing commands which differ so widely in circumstance and intended recipient as to elicit two historic
interpretations: either these are three distinct tithes totalling not ten percent but 23-1/3% of agricultural production, or these three
are the same one exaction differently described. If the latter, the interpreter must again determine whether the tithe's apportionment
amongst its several named legitimate claimants is intended to be left to individual choice by the payee, or to societal negotiation.
The first interpretative choice was in force the last time Moses' law was
a living law code governing a functioning society. Josephus' understanding
of the law was that it enjoined three distinct tithes: "Besides those
two tithes, which I have already said you are to pay every year, the one
for the Levites, the other for the festivals, you are to bring every third
year a third tithe to be distributed to those that want; to women also
that are widows, and to children that are orphans." (Flavius Josephus,
Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 8, 22). The apocryphal Book of
Tobit also counts multiple tithes: "I used to hurry off to Jerusalem
with the firstfruits of crops and herds, the tithes of the cattle, and
the first shearings of the sheep; and I gave them to the priests of Aaron's
line for the altar, and the tithe of wine, corn, olive oil, pomegranates
and other fruits to the Levites ministering in Jerusalem. The second tithe
for the six years I converted into money, and I went and distributed it
in Jerusalem year by year among the orphans and widows, and the converts
who had attached themselves to Israel. Every third year when I brought
it and gave it to them, we held a feast according to the rule laid down
in the law of Moses and the instructions given by Deborah the mother of
Hananiel our grandfather..." (Tobit, 1:6-8).
Not including the tithe of the tithe (Malachi 3:8), by which some recipients pass along a portion of their receipts to others, the three
tithes, with their varying expressed purposes, are as follows:
1. First Tithe (Levites):
- “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the
fruit of the tree, is the LORD'S. It is holy to the LORD...And concerning
the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the
tenth one shall be holy to the LORD.”
- (Leviticus 27:30-32).
- “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as
an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the
tabernacle of meeting.”
- (Numbers 18:21-32).
2. Second Tithe (Festivals). Animals consecrated to the Lord are nonetheless
also consumed by human diners. The sacrificial system allotted a set portion
of the victim to the priesthood, but the farmer retains an interest in the festival tithe:
- “You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces
year by year. And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the
place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain
and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your
flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.”
- (Deuteronomy 14:22-23).
3. Third Tithe (Welfare):
- “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce
of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because
he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless
and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied,
that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”
- (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
It may be objected that leaving interpretation of Mosaic taxation to its
recipients creates an obvious conflict of interest. These interpreters
had every incentive to multiply exactions. But modern-day tithing advocates
also have an agenda. They assert that God has always required precisely
ten percent of His people, never more and never less. This impels them
to collapse exactions which classical commentators count as distinct, such
as first-fruits and the tithe. In Bible fact God has not always demanded
precisely ten percent; more was asked of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:22)
and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). While counting separate exactions leaves
us with a high rate of taxation, what welfare state, as Moses designed,
has not had a high tax rate?
In any event, whether one or three, the Mosaic tithe was not a tax
on income, but a set-aside of a fixed portion of agricultural production.
This distinction makes a real difference. Who pays and who does not? From city-dwellers
in ancient Israel, cobblers, potters, blacksmiths, soldiers,— Moses did not require
one tenth. Jesus was not required to tithe His income from carpentry, nor was Paul obliged to
tithe his income from tent-making, nor was Peter expected to pay ten
percent of his income from fishing. The tithe was a tax on one form
of production, agriculture. Also important in an agrarian society:
landless rural laborers did not pay tithes. It was not a tax on all rural
incomes, but a tax on agricultural production.
While landed proprietors
Henry and Em collect and forward one tenth of their crop, their farm
hands Hunk, Hickory and Zeke, paid in cash, do not remit one tenth of their
income. To suggest that, if Henry and Em had been able to retain 100 per
cent of their crop, they would have been able to pay Hunk, Hickory and
Zeke more, equates to saying that, if Wal-mart paid less for the goods
they import from China, they could pay their hired help more. Certainly
they could. Substituting an income tax for Moses' crop and herds tax creates a new
crop of winners and losers. Hunk, Hickory and Zeke are worse off, because
they now must pay ten percent of their income. Henry and Em are better
off, because any reasonable income tax allows payers to deduct their legitimate
cost of doing business: mortgage interest, fertilizer, irrigation, seed,
Hunk, Hickory and Zeke's wages, transport to market, etc. Some years farmers
make money, some years they don't. Yet every year farmers within Moses'
reach pay a tenth of their produce. The market mischievously penalizes
communal agricultural success; yet whether a glut sparks a price collapse
or famine a price spike, a tenth of the produce is still owed. Modern readers
find it easy to monetize farm production alongside every other commodity,
yet the Mosaic law, with its strictures on gleaning, retains an awareness
that food is different, food sustains life.
Now consider the case that causes scandal to the world: an elderly widow subsisting on Social Security of $6,000 a year. Some
preachers accuse her of 'robbing God' if she does not fork over $600. Yet who can live on $5,400 a year? They shrug, explaining that
they did not make the rules, God did. Yet God did not make this rule. God never imposed any income tax. They have reconfigured
Moses' agricultural set-aside as an income tax. Even
under the Old Testament system, this elderly widow living on cash remittances
did not owe a tenth, because she manages neither crops nor herds. Moreover,
under the Old Testament system, she was a recipient of tithed goods (Deuteronomy
14:28-29), not a payer. As will be seen again when we get to the New Testament,
transforming someone from a net recipient into a giver is an absolute change
of polarity, not an adjustment of quantity.
To this tithing advocates respond, while under Moses' law the elderly widow
does not technically owe a tenth of her cash income, the Bible clearly
sets forth the principle of giving to God. Of course it does, and many
other principles besides, including not oppressing the poor: "He will
bring justice to the poor of the people; He will save the children of the
needy, and will break in pieces the oppressor." (Psalm 72:4).