Postscript

I have been very gratified by the favourable reviews of my paper by several pastors and seminary professors. Some of them gave helpful extended critiques, pointing out a few weaknesses in my approach. I hope to address these points in greater detail at a later date in order to buttress my existing arguments; here I can only give some cursory comments.

  • As indicated at the beginning of my paper, the larger issue to be considered is the relationship between the OT and the NT, where Christians have adopted various positions "across the entire continuity-discontinuity spectrum". In particular, the place of the Law in the NT, and in particular, the Pauline view of the Law, have been subjects of voluminous writings in recent years. Obviously, such a discussion is beyond the parameters of my study, but this broader scope nevertheless needs to be acknowledged.

  • Also, my study is incomplete because I intentionally focused on tithing only, without considering other NT passages on giving, and more importantly, without taking into account the broader framework of stewardship. This wider perspective has practical implications; as my wife puts it, "Unfortunately, the 'tithing' attitude leads to an even worse one. Due to man's sinful and selfish nature, one tends to think '10% God's, 90% mine, and I can do whatever I want with my 90%'".

    There is always a great spiritual danger in thinking that if in some area we have satisfied a specific, concrete demand we have done everything that God requires. Ten percent is a lot of money to some folks; to others it's not very much. Isn't that one of the lessons to be learned from Jesus' comments about the widow's mite? To suppose that God demands 10 percent--and nothing more--can itself foster a remarkably independent and idolatrous attitude: "This bit is for God, and the rest is mine by right." Likewise, if you choose to give more than 10 percent, you may become inebriated from the contemplation of your own generosity.

    D.A. Carson, "Are Christians Required to Tithe?", Christianity Today, November 15, 1999.

    God is not glorified when we keep for ourselves (no matter how thankfully) what we ought to be using to alleviate the misery of unevangelized, uneducated, unmedicated, and unfed millions. The evidence that many professing Christians have been deceived by this doctrine is how little they give and how much they own. God has prospered them. And by an almost irresistible law of consumer culture (baptized by a doctrine of health, wealth, and prosperity) they have bought bigger (and more) houses, newer (and more) cars, fancier (and more) clothes, better (and more) meat, and all manner of trinkets and gadgets and containers and devices and equipment to make life more fun.

    John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, exp. ed. (Multnomah Books, 1996), p. 169, emphasis mine.

  • Some have noted that the Land was promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1; 17:8) before the Mosaic covenant was established, and hence, Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek establishes a permanent pattern. I think the pre-Mosaic emphasis is somewhat overblown; as one pastor remarked, "The argument that it was a 'pre-mosaic' institution is curious -- circumcision is also a pre-mosaic institution, but not too many are insisting on that today!" Of course, I would agree that Abraham's tithe has theological significance and an aetiological purpose. However, I don't believe one can simply (simplistically?) take this verse out of its historico-cultural context to impose a mandatory statute on Christians to tithe.

    First of all, tithing was a custom commonly practiced in the ANE. Secondly, the number ten is often symbolic of completeness. Hence, the tithe ("one-tenth") attests that all belongs to God, the Creator and "possessor of heaven and earth" (Gen. 14:22). Abram's tithe reflects his recognition of the Kingship of God. Thirdly, under the Mosaic covenant, the tithe becomes legislated as part of the Law in relation to the priesthood, and hence, the Israelites were obligated to tithe. However, it was never meant to be a just a duty, but a delight (Deut. 14:26), and an expression of reverence: "that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always" (Deut. 14:23). I need not belabour this, as I've already dealt with Gen. 14:18-20 elsewhere (1).

    Certainly then, the theological meaning of the tithe carries over into the NT teaching on giving. Here, however, the symbols give way to the substance, as we look to the Cross and see what an unspeakable gift God so graciously gave to us. It is no wonder then that the principle of fixed percentage is transformed into freely proportionate. In their helpful paper on stewardship, Ron Walborn and Frank Chan observe that, "On the subject of giving, the New Testament appears to de-emphasize the notion of percentage or amount. Nowhere does any New Testament writer call for a ten percent tithe. If in fact, the heart is the key issue, and if we are merely stewards of what is ultimately owned by God, then the driving question we must put to ourselves is not, How much do I give? but How much dare I keep?". Similarly, Charlie Dennison, in preaching against tithing as a binding obligation for Christians, asserts (2)

    that we who belong to Jesus Christ dare not place a percentage on our demonstration of devotion to him ... Thank God Christ's offering of himself was not an offering of a mere "tithe". The Cross of Christ means that we cannot hide behind a tenth ... the obligation laid upon us is that of Christ, who gave his all.

    It is best therefore, to view Abraham's tithe in a pedagogical rather than a prescriptive sense.

  • It is ironic that proponents of tithing who glibly cite Matt. 23:23, often manifest the same spirit that Jesus condemns in this verse! For these very people, in their zeal to force the "truth of tithing" upon others, actually end up ignoring the "weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness." Furthermore, in some churches where money is a central issue, their stewardship of the funds is often questionable. In his provocative article, David Norrington concludes that "contemporary Christian methods of collecting money help to distort the biblical balance between private and institutional giving; they help the church turn in on itself and help to keep babes as babes. No matter how worthy the ends, the means are unloving, unjust, contrary to the example and spirit of the New Testament and cause the name of God to be dishonoured." (3)

  • I share the genuine concern of tithing proponents that many congregations fall short in the area of financial stewardship, but I do not believe that a stricter adherence to tithing is the answer. At the close of his very helpful book (4), Dr. Stuart Murray outlines some practical and creative suggestions to alleviate this problem that churches would do well to consider. Christians need to free themselves from the prevailing allure of narcissism and materialistic consumerism and instead, opt for a simpler lifestyle more aligned with Kingdom interests.

In the conclusion of the aforementioned paper on Gen. 14:18-20 I tried to summarize my position as follows:

Some will speak of the need for a "guideline". But why do we need to go back to this rather unique and isolated incident, when we have a much superior example? What about: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, in order to make you rich through his poverty." (2 Cor. 8:9; ISV)? Or what about: "I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:19b,20; ISV)? If Christ and His sacrificial giving of Himself on the cross for undeserving sinners like us cannot motivate us, then nothing else will! The New Covenant paradigm for the Christian life is clearly Christocentric and "cruciformic".

It is NOT the amount, but the attitude that really matters. The use of the term "tithing" should be abolished in our discussion of Christian stewardship since it focuses on the amount ("tithe" means "one tenth"!), and because it inevitably gets associated with the obligation of tithing under the Mosaic covenant. The point of the NT teaching is that we give according to our ability and according to the needs at hand, from a heart of overflowing gratitude that has truly grasped the goodness and generosity of God's grace.

Or to put it another way, we may gratefully delight in the bountiful gifts bestowed upon us, but ultimately, our desire and delight is in the grandeur and glory of the great Giver himself!

Isaac Watts perhaps says it best in his moving and beautiful hymn:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
......
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.


Footnotes

  1. "The Patriarch and the Priest-King: An Examination of Genesis 14:18-20 in its Historical, Literary and Theological Context". (back to text)

  2. "Considering the Church [#21in a series]", (audiotape of a sermon preached at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church on Feb. 20, 1994). (back to text)

  3. "Fund-Raising: The Methods used in the Early Church compared with those used in English Churches Today", EQ 70:2 (1998):134. (back to text)

  4. Beyond Tithing. Paternoster Press, 2000. (back to text)