by Al Maxey

Issue #108 ------- February 25, 2004
Not what we give, but what we share:
For the gift without the giver is bare.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)
The Vision of Sir Launfal

The Tithe That Binds
Should Tithing Be Bound
On New Covenant Disciples?

As New Covenant disciples of Christ we daily face challenges to our faith and freedom. Some of these are vicious onslaughts from the forces of evil. Others are far more subtle, and perhaps even well-intentioned by those who have simply not yet fully perceived the grace of our Father and the liberty granted through His Son. Meaning well, their actions nevertheless restrict and regulate in areas where we are free. Thus, law encroaches on grace. It is imperative, therefore, that such "lines in the sand" be identified for what they are, otherwise we shall slowly but surely be led away once more into legal bondage.

A current illustration of this very danger in the church of our Lord Jesus is brought to our attention in the following email I received from one of the readers of these Reflections. I will not give any names or locations, as I do not want to unduly call attention to these good brethren, however I think it is vital that the issue being raised in this congregation (and perhaps in other congregations) be addressed firmly, yet lovingly. Though seemingly well-intentioned on the part of these leaders, nevertheless there is an obvious tendency being evidenced toward the establishment of binding law upon disciples under a covenant of grace. Consider the following dilemma of this brother in Christ:

Tithing Prior to the Christian Era

The study of tithing in the Pre-Christian Era is not as simple an exegetical exercise as one might initially suspect. There were various types and categories of tithes, some occurring in Pre-Mosaic times and others enacted during the Mosaic Covenant. Scholars, and even ancient rabbinic sources, do not always agree on the nature and identity of some of these tithes. There is even confusion as to the relationship between tithes and the offering of first fruits. Some say they have a common origin, others declare them entirely separate. It is debated, from the writings of Josephus, whether there were two major Jewish tithes or three (Antiquities of the Jews, book 4, chapter 8, section 22; see the footnote). The safest conclusion is perhaps that suggested in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible -- "The different references in the OT to tithing probably indicate differing practices in various times and places" (vol. 5, p. 757). In other words, tithing varied greatly in the Pre-Christian Era and is therefore a rather difficult topic to pin down precisely or to characterize in sweeping generalizations.

It might also come as a surprise to some readers to learn that tithing was not a strictly Jewish practice. "Tithing was an ancient and general practice among other religions and cultures. ... Giving a portion of one's labor or of the spoils of war was known among a number of nations in antiquity" (ibid, vol. 5, p. 756). The Egyptians, for example, gave two tenths of their harvest to the Pharaoh (Genesis 47:24). The Lydians and Babylonians also practiced tithing. The Syrians forced their people, even those whom they captured, to tithe (1 Maccabees 10:31; 11:35). Many of these tithes, however, were for political purposes; a type of tax imposed by the ruler. In Jewish society, especially during the Mosaic period, the tithe was primarily for religious purposes, and was connected with various offerings (grain, flocks, oil, wine, etc.).

The Hebrew word for tithing is asar, and is derived from a word signifying "ten." Thus, tithing involves giving or collecting a tenth part. The corresponding Greek words (dekate and dekatoo) signify the same. In the Pre-Mosaic Era tithing is first mentioned in connection with Abraham, who, upon returning from his victory over the invading Mesopotamian kings, gave a tithe to Melchizedek, the king/priest of Salem (Genesis 14:18-20). In Hebrews 7 this incident is mentioned to demonstrate the superior nature of Melchizedek's priesthood to the Aaronic (vs. 4-10). One also finds Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, promising to give a tenth to God if the Lord will prosper him in this dangerous situation with his brother (Genesis 28:20-22).

However, it was clearly during the Mosaic Era that tithing truly came into its own, at least for the Jewish people. Moses made it very clear that the tenth part of land, grain, fruit and herd "is the Lord's!" (Leviticus 27:30-33). In the Pentateuch, there was legislative instruction given to the people regarding this practice of tithing -- who was to give, who was to receive, when, where, what and why. These can be studied at: Numbers 18:21-32; Deuteronomy 12:1-18; 14:22-29; 18:1-4; 26:12-15. References to the tithe in the prophets are: Amos 4:4 and Malachi 3:8-10. References to the tithe in the other writings of the OT canon are: 2 Chronicles 31:4-12; Nehemiah 10:36-39; 12:44; 13:5, 12. If any sweeping generalization could be legitimately made, it would be the following: "The aim of all tithing was to acknowledge that all man had belonged to God" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 757).

The attitude God sought in the tithe was an attitude of JOY. "In generous spirit pay homage to the Lord, be not sparing of freewill gifts. With each contribution show a cheerful countenance, and pay your tithes in a spirit of joy. Give to the Most High as He has given to you, generously, according to your means" (Ecclesiasticus 35:7-9 ... an apocryphal work also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach). Cheerful, joyous giving is also stressed in the NT writings --- 1 Cor. 16:2 and 2 Cor. 9:6-7. Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) captured the biblical spirit well when he wrote, "The manner of giving is worth more than the gift" (Le Menteur, act 1, scene 1). "Paul's exhortation to give with a cheerful heart reflects Deuteronomy's instruction about tithing, which emphasizes the importance of rejoicing -- e.g., Deut. 12:7, 11f, 17f; 14:26" (ISBE, vol. 4, p. 863).

Tithing and the Teaching of Jesus

"By Jesus' time the Pharisees had legalized the whole affair, and Jesus denounced them for paying attention to minutiae while they ignored the real issue of a pleasing moral life before God" (ISBE, vol. 4, p. 863). Jesus makes only three references to tithing, and they are all with respect to the abuses of the Pharisees -- Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42; 18:12. "In the first two passages He contrasts the minute exactness with which the Pharisees observe their less important and external laws of tithe with their careless disregard of the inner and more important virtues of justice, mercy, faith, and the love of God. In Luke 18:12 He illustrates how compliance with external requirements, especially when these are exceeded, as in the case of the Pharisees, and dissociated from the corresponding state of heart, breeds a culpable and overweening self-righteousness" (Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the NT: Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 732). "In the time of the NT, changes had taken place. The tithe of mint, anise, and cumin was a prescription of the Talmudic rabbis, which went beyond the intent of Scripture" (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 758).

Jesus regarded the tithe as important for the Jewish people, especially as a people under a covenant of Law. However, He also realized the people, as well as their leaders, had woefully failed to perceive the true significance behind these various practices. He further looked to a new spiritual day for the people of God. "Our Lord evidently thought the tithe, as well as the other OT institutions, to be of Divine origin, and binding upon the Jews of His day. At the same time, He foresaw a period when outward observances should give place to the more purely inward, as men should worship the Father in spirit and in truth -- John 4:21-24" (Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the NT: Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 732).

The perfect example of the true liberality of giving ... the genuine overflow of a loving, benevolent heart ... is seen in Luke 21:1-4, where Jesus commends "a certain poor widow" who "out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on." No ten percent here! This was no mere tithe ... it was the ultimate sacrifice of a trusting soul. Billy Ray Cyrus sings a song in which these lyrics are found -- "All gave some; some gave all." Most all were willing to give a tenth part, but a few were willing to give all. Paul would later commend the Macedonians for their spirit of giving. They gave "not as we had expected," rather "their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor of participation in the support of the saints" (2 Corinthians 8:2-4). Ten percent?! Not likely! But, what motivated such liberality? What led that widow to give all she had to live on? What caused the Macedonians to plead with Paul for the opportunity to give even beyond what the world might characterize as "generous"? The answer is found in Paul's own analysis -- "they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us" (vs. 5). TRUE giving, the type of giving our Lord has always sought, is the gift of SELF. It is not a "tithe" (just a portion) that our Father desires, it is a full self-sacrifice. All other gifts will then flow naturally from that one!! Walt Whitman (1819-1892) summed up this philosophy perfectly when he wrote, "When I give, I give myself" (Leaves of Grass, "Song of Myself").

Jesus lived and died under Law, during the Mosaic Era, thus He upheld the directives regarding tithing. Nevertheless, He began to call His disciples to a higher perception and practice; sharing with them the reality that something greater than LAW was quickly approaching -- a time when true acts of worship would transcend legislation, and would be spiritually offered up to the Father (John 4). The religious leaders of Jesus' day stressed legal exactness. Jesus repeatedly informed them, however, that they had completely missed the point of what God sought. As the Christian Era dawned this would increasingly come to light.

Tithing in the Early Church

"It is admitted universally that the payment of tithes, or the tenths of possessions, for sacred purposes did not find a place within the Christian Church during the age covered by the apostles and their immediate successors" (Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the NT: The Apostolic Church, vol. 4, p. 594). Centuries later some tried to reinstitute a tithe for the church, but "leaders in the church (like Irenaeus and Epiphanius) showed the arguments" of these who sought to bind the tithe upon their brethren "were not valid. Rather, freedom in Christian giving was emphasized" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 758).

I have to agree with the insight of the early church author Iranaeus of Lyons (ca. 125-202 A.D.). There was, and is, no need for a tithe among the disciples of Christ. Indeed, it is contrary to our very freedom to express our love and devotion without legislation and limitation. Ten percent is much too constraining for the genuine disciple; it is too limiting. Those with a spirit of liberality in their giving will far exceed a mere ten percent. Giving partakes of GRACE, which is boundless, and thus must never be restricted for New Covenant disciples, who abide within that grace, to a mere ten percent. Where grace abides, giving abounds!!! "Though the NT does not prescribe the tithe in a legal sense for the follower of Christ, yet he is taught to give systematically, bountifully, and cheerfully (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:6-7)" (The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1719).

The only place in the inspired writings pertaining to the Christian Era (post-Pentecost) where the word "tithing" appears is Hebrews 7, which "shows the superiority of the Melchizedek priesthood to the Levitical" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). Some have suggested, as the reader pointed out in his email to me, that since Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, and since one far greater than Melchizedek is here (Jesus Christ), therefore all men are still somehow obligated to pay tithes to this greater Priest. Such reasoning, however, misses the whole point of Christian liberty, the grace of giving, and the reality taught in Hebrews that the old has been supplanted by the new! We have moved beyond legislating portions, and have entered the era of liberty to give fully and freely. Seeking to bind tithing is nothing less than a return to law and a forfeiture of freedom; it legislates giving, rather than allowing it to be a liberal, limitless expression of a loving heart. Binding tithing upon those who are free in Christ is a return to LAW, which Paul warns in Galatians 5 can cause us to fall from grace and be severed from Christ. Why limit giving to a tithe, when our freedom allows us to be so much more generous and gracious, all to the benefit of others and the glory of God? It makes no sense whatsoever to follow such a course.

In all of the apostolic writings during the time following the establishment of the church "there is no evidence of a giving which is not free and spontaneous and which has not a moral and spiritual basis. No allusion is made to the necessity for the continuance of the Mosaic law of tithes. ... The relation between tithes and Christian giving may be apprehended as that between the law and the gospel as incentives and forces in life. It is the relation between a legal enactment which enforces by objective sanctions and a spiritual ideal which draws out all that is best and highest from those who recognize the significance of the blessedness of self-sacrifice for the sake of others" (Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the NT: The Apostolic Church, vol. 4, p. 595).

Concluding Thoughts

Although I believe the urging of the elders at the congregation mentioned by the reader, where these leaders are seeking to encourage the members to practice tithing, is probably well-intentioned, nevertheless it is misguided, in my view. When seeking to motivate disciples to acts of increasing generosity, don't legislate .... liberate. When disciples of Christ are set free from restrictive LAW, and when they come to appreciate their LIBERTY, liberality will abound in all areas of their walk, work and worship. True generosity of heart can't be legislated; it is a demonstration of a heart in the grip of grace!

The dear brother who wrote the above email to me suggested that the leaders of his congregation "read your articles all the time and talk of you with great respect." I am honored, as well as humbled, that they should feel this way. I pray that if indeed they regard my insights as worthy of consideration, they will give serious consideration to the meditations presented in this current article. Brethren, we are free in Christ; we are liberated. If you will emphasize giving as an aspect of GRACE, I think you will find your members giving and sharing with far greater liberality than if you seek to legislate their giving via a system of tithing. I want the leaders of this congregation to know: I love and appreciate you immensely, and the words of this article are submitted to your prayerful consideration with nothing but LOVE in my heart for each of you. It is my prayer that God's wisdom will be showered upon you in abundance as you serve as examples to your flock, guiding them in the way of His grace!!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Alabama:

I just finished reading your article on "A Lover's Quarrel." I am part of a Church of Christ in Alabama that is splitting apart because the leadership refuses to accept any change as good change. They still believe that every tradition that has been mandated through the years as law, IS LAW. It is a very sad and confusing time in my family's life. We so want everyone to come to understand the freedom of living life through the Spirit. It is what makes life such a joyous journey! Please pray for the leaders of Churches in the North Alabama area as they are so tied to their traditions that they see any variance from such traditions as not being from God. Please pray that we as a church can begin to reach the unchurched in a way that will make them feel acceptance and love when they walk in our doors, and that just might involve letting go of some of our traditions. Thank you for your articles. They make me think.

From a Reader in Texas:

Memories!!!! Your Issue #107 was a reflection that brought back many memories from years past. Dr. Steve Eckstein preached for us at Bula, TX for some time in the late 1950's, driving over from Portales, NM. I was a pre-teen and we as a congregation were so "ignorant" when placed against his intellectual talents. Then Norman Warren, one of his students at the university Bible Chair, was with us for several years following. I guess I got a lot of my "basic religious training" from the "freedom thinking" teachers early on, and I did not really know it. Then in the late 1970's I began reading Leroy Garrett. His writings challenged my thinking and assisted in forming some of my beliefs about Scripture. At this time my fellow believers were still holding to the "pattern," and thought I had gone off the deep end. I am still at the same fellowship, now going on 34 years, and at times still seem to be the lone voice, but that is changing as new blood has a more "grace filled" view of God's plan for each of us and our worship.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Your "Lover's Quarrel" was great! Check out this website -- You may have seen this already. There are some really good chapters in this book by Leroy Garrett and Carl Ketcherside. "The Bed of Procrustes" is a hoot! It is about a Greek guy who makes all passersby fit into HIS bed by stretching them or cutting off their legs. Some people will do anything to get others to fit into their bed/opinion!! Keep up the good work!

From a Minister in Texas:

I know Leroy and Ouida were pleased when they read the latest Reflections that you wrote. They are a very gracious couple living out the last days of their long journey together. I had been so brainwashed against him in my days of preaching legalism, that I never dreamed I would make any effort to meet him. But after years of study and consideration, I concluded that he had discovered many years ago the Truth that many would later learn. So I contacted him at Denton, a short distance from here, and made a date to go see him. What a marvelous experience. I sat in awe listening to a gospel preacher with a Ph.D. from Harvard! It was such a thrill to be in his office, to see his library, the old, original computer with such a small screen that he first got in the high-tech age, to eat lunch with him and Ouida in their home, and to just spend a rich, rewarding day with them. I told him that in my earlier years my "idols" in descending order were Jesus Christ, Foy Wallace, Jr., and Roy Cogdill. At the bottom of the list, in ascending order, were Satan, Carl Ketcherside, and Leroy Garrett. He got quite a "kick" out of this confession. It is good to confess to one you so mistakenly represented in sermons for so long. We have since spent some time in worship with them. I too enjoyed the book A Lover's Quarrel. You ought to make a special effort to go see him while he is still with us. You will never regret the day, and will remember it as one of the best you ever spent. We enjoy all the Reflections.

From a Reader in Texas:

My son and his wife attend where Leroy Garrett is a member in Denton, TX. I went to your Reflections article that you recommended -- Why Do You Stay? -- and found the following statement about why you haven't left your heritage (and I'm glad you haven't; your take on Scripture is mostly very uplifting). Here is the statement you wrote, "You don't abandon the ones you love, even though at times they may seemingly desire it." It seems that this is also true in a Christian marriage. Instead of a husband or wife leaving, one should ask forgiveness, where and if needed, and do all possible to keep the relationship together, as God desires. I would appreciate your comments on a woman or man leaving the other mate and the children, abandoning them for another man or woman.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Thanks for sharing with us the story on Leroy Garrett. He has lovingly, but steadfastly, refused to be bullied "out of town." Reminds me of a Willie Nelson song. While I don't endorse the bar room setting, nor Willie's lifestyle, I enjoy some of his music. In this song, the management of a bar tries to throw Willie out of the bar, and Willie replies, "I didn't come here and I ain't leaving. I've been thrown into better places than this." I don't believe brother Garrett came looking for a fight, but neither did he allow anyone to "throw him out." I'm convinced that Leroy and others like him have been "thrown" into this "place" of leadership in reform. Like Paul, in 1 Cor. 9:16-27, I believe Leroy and others who bravely endure efforts to be "thrown out" do so because they are "compelled" to preach the Gospel. While clearly a servant of the Lord and of others, Leroy is "free" and belongs to no man (1 Cor. 9:19). May God give us the courage to trod the "less traveled road," and lovingly but firmly announce to those who would take away our freedom in Christ, "I didn't come here and I ain't leaving."

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