Thursday, April 4, 2019

Tithing, Charity, and Financing the Work of the Church

Collecting the Offering in a Scottish Kirk by John Phillip (1855)
Giving money seems to be a topic which preachers are either too eager or too reluctant to speak about. On the one hand, sometimes the appeal for money comes off as self-serving or driven by anxiety and economic pressures. On the other hand, others want to avoid seeming greedy or anxious, and will tend to avoid exhorting people on the topic. I tend to be in the latter camp. But avoiding the subject is not a remedy for bad teaching. So what does the Bible say? Here I hope to give an overview of what the Bible says about tithing, charity, and financing the church's ministry of worship, word, and mercy.

The Old Testament Tithe and the Levites

The tithe (giving a tenth) dates back at least to the patriarchal era, long before Moses and the law given at Sinai. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:20), and Jacob also vows a tenth to God (Gen. 28:22). The way it appears in these passages, it looks like the tithe was already an established pattern.

In the Mosaic law, it is debated by commentators whether there were one, two, or three tithes. Numbers and Leviticus refer to one tithe, given to the Levites and priests (Lev. 27:30-33, Num. 18:21, 24). Deuteronomy refers to using the tithe annually for the Levites and for feasting in Jerusalem and it refers to gathering it every third year as local communities for the poor and Levites (Deut. 14:22-29, see also 12:11-19). If these passages refer to three tithes, then one tenth went to the Levites, one tenth went to household celebration in Jerusalem (with Levites), and every three years one tenth was "laid up within your towns" for the local Levites, sojourners, fatherless, and widows. Yet, I find it most natural to take Deuteronomy, not adding tithes, but clarifying the multiple uses for what is always simply called "the tithe." Commenting on this passage in Deuteronomy, John Calvin say “Those are mistaken, in my opinion, who think that another kind of tithe is here referred to. It is rather a correction or interpretation of the Law, lest the priests and Levites alone should consume all the tithes, without applying a part to the relief of the poor, of strangers, and widows.”[1] If this all refers to one tithe, then the tithe was used to provide for the Levites, but also for religious celebration and (every third year) the care of the needy. The addition of these other roles in Deuteronomy would be explained by the fact that in Leviticus and Numbers the people were being still fed by manna. Deuteronomy was preparing the people to live in the land where the poor and needy would need help.

In both the "one tithe" and "three tithe" perspectives, a great deal of the tithe went to support the Levites, and a tenth of the Levites’ portion went to the Levitical priests. Those Levites who were not priests assisted the priests, enabling the priests to focus on their tasks of sacrifice and worship (Lev. 1-10), teaching (Lev. 10:10-11, Mal. 2:7), and benediction (Num. 6:22-27). In order to assist the priests, the rest of the Levites served a variety of functions, such as tabernacle transport (Num. 1:47-54), officials, judges, gatekeepers, musicians (1 Chron. 23:4-5, 25-32), treasurers (1 Chron. 9:26), and teachers of God's word (2 Chron. 17:7-9, Neh. 8). The Levites not only ministered in Jerusalem, but also lived in the towns, no doubt serving in the weekly local convocations that developed into synagogue worship (Lev. 23:3, Deut. 14:27, 2 Chron. 17:7-9).

The New Testament Tithe, the Apostles, and the Diaconate

Yet, in the New Testament, the Levites were supplanted. As the author of Hebrews points out, in Abraham, Levi gave the tithe to one who was superior, Melchizedek (Heb. 7:9-10). Christ came “in the order of Melchizedek,” and took the place of the Levites. His ministry on earth before He offered Himself as a sacrifice was one both of word and deed. On the one hand, He proclaimed, taught, and prayed, and on the other hand He healed, fed, and showed mercy to those who physically suffered. When he ascended to heaven, He left His apostles as those sent as representatives to carry on His ministry. Thus, it was natural in the early church for believers to lay their contributions at the feet of the apostles, rather than at the feet of the Levites (Acts 4:34-37). The disciples gave generously, beyond what was required by the tithe. They gave to the Lord for the furtherance of His ministry by giving to the apostles. The apostles soon realized that they needed to focus on the ministry of word and prayer, not managing money and the financial needs of the poor. Thus, they set up deacons to do this work and to thus carry out Christ’s ministry of mercy (Acts 6:1-7). The diaconate was established as a perpetual office in the church, mentioned also in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The apostles and elders were still involved in some of the recorded examples of collections for the saints (Acts 11:29-30), although they seemed to operate with others who might have been deacons, such as “our brother whom we have often tested” (2 Cor. 8:22) and “those whom you accredit by letter” (1 Cor. 16:3). It is likely, as was true in the early church, that the apostles/elders continued to have governing authority over the process, but left the detailed administration of finances and resources to the deacons (when deacons were available).

Current Obligations

The New Testament church, as administered by its officers, has the financial obligation to at least pay preachers (1 Cor. 9:3-14, 1 Tim. 5:17-18) and financially assist those in need (1 Tim. 5:3-16, 1 Cor. 16:1-4, 2 Cor. 8-9, Acts 4:32-37, 11:27-30). Some needs, in both categories, will be occasional and will require a specific offering. Other needs, in both categories, will be regular, requiring regular giving. While the tithe is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament, it remains the biblical pattern for regular giving to the church, such that Christians should give to the church in a similar way. While the use of the tithe is not identical to that under the old covenant, it generally covers the same functions (teaching, worship, charity, religious celebration).

In addition to regular and special giving to the institutional church, all Christians are called to give charitably to others (1 Tim. 6:17-19, 1 John 3:17), to lend charitably (Luke 6:34-35, Lev. 25:35-38, Deut. 15:1-11), and to cultivate economic practices equivalent to gleaning (Lev. 19:9-10). Men are especially responsible to providing for one’s household and relatives (1 Tim. 5:8), and each person is called to work as they are able to further the wealth of one’s self and others (Eph. 4:28, 1 Thess. 4:11-12, 2 Thess. 3:12).

Example of the Early Church

The early church continued to gather the regular contributions of the church, which were administered by the deacons who reported to the bishop. As Calvin remarks concerning the early church,
"For [the deacons] received the daily offerings of the faithful, and the annual revenues of the Church, that they might apply them to their true uses; in other words, partly in maintaining ministers, and partly in supporting the poor; at the sight of the bishop, however, to whom they every year gave an account of their stewardship” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.4.5). 
Some early church leaders, like Justin Martyr and Tertullian simply refer to a collection without explicit reference to a "tithe," but others like Cyprian of Carthage and some early church manuals like The Apostolic Constitutions do refer to the practice of tithing (as a minimum, not a limit), and this became more common as time went on. Also, as the church grew, the division of church goods was specified with greater detail. Calvin quotes Gregory I (A.D. 540-604) as an example of this,
"Gregory speaks still more clearly: 'It is the custom of the Apostolic See,' says he, 'to give command to the bishop who has been ordained, to divide all the revenues into four portions – namely, one to the bishop and his household for hospitality and maintenance, another to the clergy, a third to the poor, a fourth to the repair of churches'" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.4.7).
Calvin recounted these practices to commend them. During his era, the Roman Catholic Church had lost sight of the practice of Scripture and the early church and had become corrupted by the love of money. This area of life was one in need of reformation. In our consumeristic age, where both Christian individuals and church leaders can be misguided with their use of money, may we learn to trust God for our daily needs and use our wealth for His glory, fulfilling our personal responsibilities as well as giving to the church for its ministry of word, worship, and mercy.

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