Editorial: Mandatory tithes are Pharisaic tradition
The writer is a Church of God member and author of the book The "Lost" Ten Tribes of Israel: Found!
By Steven M. Collins
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.--Eric Anderson's response to my tithing article ["Earlier Journal Tithing Article Deficient," Oct. 25] poses cogent questions that merit a worthy response. I welcome his questions; one of my favorite sayings is "The truth will bear scrutiny." If a doctrinal viewpoint is true, it will sustain examination from any point of view.
Acts 15 records that the early apostles and elders had strong doctrinal disputes. However, a key aspect of the Acts 15 account is that the early church freely allowed such discussions in an effort to seek God's truth.
Unfortunately, the Worldwide Church of God did not allow honest and open discussions of doctrinal disagreements. That is why so many such disagreements abound today.
I hope the exchanges between Mr. Anderson and me will set an example that Christians can refrain from personal attacks while participating in an iron-sharpening-iron process that leads to a better understanding of tithing.
If I can compare Mr. Anderson's arguments to a tree, its trunk is his following statement: "Any approach that denies that tithing is part of God's law--and claims that tithing has passed away--must be soundly denounced in the Church of God . . . Tithing is still the law and will of God."
He makes a strong statement, but it is based on a large assumption. It assumes that the mandatory tithing practices of the modern Churches of God are based on the permanent, immutable law of God. Is this true?
This reply examines that assumption.
We know God can and does alter how He administers His laws in different societies. We know God totally reversed the Old Testament's theocratic laws about circumcision and burnt offerings in New Testament times (Galatians 5-6; Hebrews 9). We know God never intended the Old Covenant to be a permanent declaration of His laws and relationship with mankind (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Hebrews 8:8-13).
In the RSV Hebrews 8:13 is quoted as saying the Old Covenant is "obsolete" and "ready to vanish away."
Paul also wrote that the Levitical priesthood had been abolished and replaced with the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus Christ (Hebrew 7).
An immutable law?
Since it is clear that God does change various laws as His covenant relationship with mankind changes, we need to ask: Is mandatory tithing a part of God's eternal, immutable law, or was it a part of the temporary physical laws of the Old Covenant that were abolished when the New Covenant was established?
I believe the latter option is the correct answer.
An examination of the Scriptures from Adam to Moses indicates the Bible taught no mandatory-tithing law at that time. Abram's act of tithing in Genesis 14 was a voluntary thank offering, which Abram offered in appreciation for God's "delivering his enemies into his hand" in a war that rescued Lot (Genesis 14:20).
Later God noted Abraham would faithfully "command his children and household after him . . . to keep the way of the Lord" (Genesis 18:19).
Therefore we can assume that Abraham faithfully taught God's law to Isaac and Jacob. This fact reveals Abraham's views on tithing because Jacob (who was taught by Abraham and Isaac) saw tithing as a strictly voluntary act.
Genesis 28:20-22 records that Jacob's promise to tithe was conditional: He would pay the tithe only after God satisfied a series of conditions that were important to Jacob.
Jacob's attitude was consistent with that of Abraham: Both viewed tithing as a voluntary thank offering to be given after God had granted specific blessings. Consequently, there is no biblical evidence that God's people regarded mandatory tithing as a "part of God's law" before Moses.
Not mentioned in the Ten Commandments
Was tithing revealed as part of God's immutable laws at Mount Sinai?
No. God did not even mention burnt offerings, a Levitical priesthood or tithing in the Ten Commandments. God Himself stated in Jeremiah 7:22: "For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices . . ." (RSV).
God plainly said the system of burnt offerings and animal sacrifices was not part of His revealed (immutable) law to the Israelites.
As Paul notes in Galatians 3:19, "it was added because of transgressions." The system of burnt offerings and animal sacrifices was "added" after God's laws were given because the Israelites proved unable or unwilling to obey God's laws (Jeremiah 7:22-27).
That God said the system of burnt offerings and animal sacrifices was not a part of the original laws He had given to the Israelites is critical to an analysis of tithing. Why? Because the Levitical priesthood and a mandatory tithing system came into existence only because of the institution of the burnt offerings and sacrifices!
Numbers 18:6 records God's selection of the tribe of Levi to perform the ritual slaughter and burning of the numerous animal sacrifices required under the system of burnt offerings. Numbers 18:21 then records that He gave the Levites "the tenth in Israel . . . for their service."
It can be seen that the burnt offerings, the Levitical priesthood and a mandatory tithing system are three elements of a temporary system that was not a part of God's original laws. These three elements were temporary ordinances of the Old Covenant.
When the system of burnt offerings was abolished by the blood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:7-17), the Levitical priesthood that was linked to the burnt offerings was abolished as well (Hebrews 7). With the Levitical priesthood abolished, there was no longer any need for the mandatory tithing system, which God had put in place solely to support the Levites' sacrificial duties (Numbers 18:21).
No biblical basis
It has been amply documented in The Journal's tithing series that even in ancient Israel the mandatory tithe applied only to agricultural production within the Promised Land of ancient Israel. It is hard to see how we can apply those Old Covenant ordinances to our modern society, which has no sacrifices, no Levitical priesthood and no theocracy.
The modern Churches of God have never established a biblical basis for their doctrine that the ancient agricultural tithing laws should be applied to modern wages.
Malachi 3:8-12 and Matthew 23:23 have been quoted out of context to attempt to justify that transition, but these scriptures actually argue against the tithing of wages. Why? Because both passages confirm that mandatory tithing applied only to agricultural products!
Malachi 3's language--storing food, or "meat," in the temple "storehouse," rain for the crops, rebuking agricultural pests and ensuring that "vines" don't "cast their fruit" early--confirms that God was discussing tithing solely in an agricultural context.
God promised agricultural blessings for the payment of the mandatory agricultural tithe that belonged to the Levites. When Jesus acknowledged that the Pharisees "should not leave undone" the tithing of mint, cummin and anise, He acknowledged the law's claim on a tithe of agricultural products (mint, cummin and anise are all agricultural products).
These scriptures contain nothing that indicates tithing ever applied to nonagricultural wages or income. Both passages also applied to times during which a temple functioned, with burnt offerings and priestly duties performed.
As Hebrews 7 and 9 make clear, burnt offerings and human priesthoods were abolished after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why would tithing survive the annulment of the sacrificial system and the human priesthoods to which tithing was directly linked?
Most of Israel 'gave as able'
Even in Israel's ancient theocracy, it is apparent that most Israelites were not subject to any tithing requirements. The oft-quoted passage of Deuteronomy 16:16-17 confirms this:
"Three times in a year shall all thy males appear [at three annual feast days] . . . They shall not appear before the Lord empty: every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee."
Does this passage command "all males" in Israel to tithe? No. God set no fixed percentage for this offering. Each was to give "as he is able," confirming that each head of household was to give an offering based on how he had been blessed that year.
Only the estate owners were commanded to give a fixed 10 percent of their agricultural "increase" every year. God let everyone else (merchants, craftsmen, laborers) decide for himself how much to give on an annual basis.
Some readers may think: But that was for the holy-day offerings, not the tithe.
That thought also shows how the modern Churches of God have taken the ancient agricultural tithing laws entirely out of context when applying them to our society. We understand that the ancient holy days were harvest festivals. Leviticus 23:39 notes that the Feast was to be kept after "the fruit of the land" had been "gathered."
Only after a harvest was finished could the land owners calculate what 10 percent of the crop constituted. When that calculation was made, those land owners would tithe that amount to the Levites, bringing it to them at the harvest festival.
The agricultural tithe was what we would call their "holy-day offering." Nonagricultural income was not subject to tithing. Wage earners, merchants and craftsmen would offer a freewill offering at those same feasts. However, as Deuteronomy 16:16-17 showed, that offering was not a fixed percentage of their income.
Origin of the three tithes
The triple-tithing system of the modern Churches of God apparently has only one antecedent in history. The Pharisees of Jesus' time had such a system (as Josephus confirms). Jewish literature is clear that in other periods two, one or no tithes were placed on the people (depending, for example, on whether there was a nation or whether there was a functioning temple).
Carefully consider this fact: The triple-tithing interpretation of the ancient tithing laws began as a "tradition of the Pharisees."
However, Jesus Christ condemned the "traditions of the Pharisees" as being "heavy [and] grievous burdens" (Matthew 23:4).
Consider also this fact: Even the Pharisees applied their tithing laws only to agricultural income. In applying the ancient tithing laws to nonagricultural income, the modern Churches of God have taken a position that is far more Pharisaical than the position of the ancient Pharisees!
Given that fact, what would Jesus say to the modern Churches of God if He walked among us today?
Many modern religious leaders (who have enjoyed the chief seats of our materialistic society by imposing heavy burdens on the people of God even as they exalt themselves above the people) would likely be shocked at what Jesus would say to them.
When Jesus sent His future apostles out to evangelize, He told them to take no "gold, silver or copper [coins]" with them (Matthew 10:9-13). Rather, they were to depend on the voluntary donations of people who would receive them. Jesus never instructed his future apostles to expect or demand mandatory tithes from anyone.
If the apostles and elders of the early church could be resurrected to witness the lavish ways of life (private jets, expensive homes, limousine services, costly world travel, etc.) of various Church of God leaders in recent decades, I believe they would be shocked. I believe they would be equally shocked to learn that the modern Churches of God had implemented the mandatory tithing traditions of the Pharisees instead of the instructions of Jesus Christ to accept voluntary donations.
A mistake of the Pharisees
When God gave His law to the ancient Israelites, He warned them in Deuteronomy 4:2 to neither "add" nor "take away" from what He commanded. Jesus lambasted the Pharisees for adding their human traditions to the law, making it a burden to His people (Matthew 15:3-6). When the Churches of God add to God's law a modern tradition that mandatory tithing applies to wages even though there is no biblical command or precedent for such a teaching, we are making the same mistake as the Pharisees.
Further showing that mandatory tithing was never a part of God's immutable law is that Paul's epistles and modest standard of living are strong evidence that he never expected or received tithes from anyone (this was discussed in my tithing article in The Journal, June 30 issue). Paul lived by the same instructions Jesus had given to the 12 apostles in Matthew 10:9-13.
Peter's rebuke of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 includes no acknowledgment of any mandatory-tithing laws binding on the Christian community. Peter plainly stated to Ananias and Sapphira that all their money was their "own" and "in [their] own power."
If Peter had believed they somehow owed a tithe to him, he would have said "90 percent" was "thine own." If he had believed in the Pharisees' tithing system, he would have said "70 percent" or "80 percent" was "thine own."
Like Paul (Hebrews 7:14), Peter was aware that the tithe could be given only to a hereditary Levite who was employed in the system of animal sacrifices. Peter made no tithe claim on the money of Ananias and Sapphira. Nowhere in the New Testament canon do we see any apostle or elder assert a supposed right to a mandatory tithe from anyone.
This is strong evidence that all of them understood that the abolition of the burnt offerings and the end of the Levitical priesthood had meant the end of any mandatory tithing system as well.
God expects giving
Where does the above leave us? We still have the New Testament's exhortation that Christians should be generous givers (2 Corinthians 9:6-9), and Paul also asserted that he had the right to expect donations from the people whom he served (1 Corinthians 9:1-15).
Yet people's finances vary, and each should "give as he is able" (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). That was the guideline in ancient Israel for all nonagricultural income, and it is a good summation of how the early New Testament church approached the subject of giving.
Tithing, sacrifices, Levites
In conclusion, I welcome Mr. Anderson's questions. However, I believe I have responded to his criticisms by toppling the trunk of the tree of his objections. If one can demonstrate (as I think I have) that mandatory tithing never was a part of God's permanent and immutable law, then the rest of the objections fall when the trunk of the tree falls.
I believe Scripture teaches that mandatory tithing was a temporary ordinance applying only to the time a whole tribe (Levi) had to be drafted into service to administer a labor-intensive system of burnt offerings. When the sacrificial system was abolished, the Levitical priesthood ended, and so did the mandatory-tithing rule, which was designed to support the Levites during the time the sacrificial system was required.
The New Testament accounts indicate that is how the early church understood tithing as well.
Four difficult questions
Finally, here are four questions that the advocates of the traditional triple-tithing system of the old Worldwide Church of God cannot answer:
nClearly, the Old Testament's tithing laws applied only to agricultural products. Where does the New Testament authorize the extension of the mandatory tithing laws to nonagricultural income?
nSince the mandatory tithing of agricultural produce was instituted to support the Levitical priesthood's sacrificial duties, where does the New Testament teach that tithing is still valid when both the sacrificial system and human priesthoods were abolished long ago?
nSince the New Testament never shows any apostle or elder receiving or claiming mandatory tithes from his church membership, where do modern church leaders find any biblical authority to claim a mandatory tithe now?
nJesus Christ condemned the Pharisees' traditions and the leaven of their attitudes and practices. One of their traditions was a triple-tithing system. Why have the modern Churches of God copied the tithing system of the Jewish sect most criticized by Jesus Christ?
Unless the advocates of a mandatory, triple-tithing system can satisfactorily answer these four questions with biblical evidence, their case collapses.
It is time to acknowledge that the traditional tithing doctrine of the Churches of God is wrong.
It would be just as wrong to go to the opposite extreme and say that modern Christians owe nothing in the way of donations. Paul clearly taught he had the right to expect and receive donations from the churches he raised. Paul also urged Christians to be generous with their voluntary gifts and donations.
It is time that the modern Churches of God adopted the New Testament's teachings and examples about supporting the church with voluntary donations instead of taxing it with mandatory tithes. If we change and do things God's way, perhaps God's blessings will follow.
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