The preacher’s face reddened as he belted out his favorite (some said his only) Sunday morning message. With Bible held high and voice rising, he loudly reminded the congregation of our duty to faithfully bring the whole tithe (with emphasis on w-h-O-l-e) into the storehouse. Not to do so was to commit that gravest of sins: to rob God! The storehouse, of course, was our local church. The tithe was one tenth of our household income, to be strictly calculated on the pre-tax amount. And if we stubbornly refused to adhere, it was only natural we would suffer the consequences – God would reluctantly withdraw His manifold blessings from our families.
It was many years ago. The preacher was a church elder who sometimes got to preach when the regular pastor was away. We’ll call him by the fictional name of Henry. On any other day but Sunday Henry was a chicken farmer. Back then, as a much younger Christian, I dreaded the mornings Henry was rostered to preach. I knew the sermon would be lifeless and boring, and everyone present would leave feeling like they’d been bashed over the head with a sledgehammer. These days, I simply wish Henry had settled for chicken farming, at which he apparently was very gifted. Even a sermon on chicken farming would have been preferable.
These days I also understand Henry’s tithing sermons were full of scriptural potholes big enough for an elephant to disappear into. In Part Four of my Idols in The Temple series, I want to highlight some of these potholes and show why the tithe, faithfully surrendered every Sunday by multitudes of Christian worldwide, is a modern day spiritual idol.
Wherever we find false doctrines that are widely taught and believed within institutional Christianity we will find a related lie, something other than Christ, has been embedded in the foundation and then built upon. The church of Jesus Christ cannot be built upon any other foundation but Christ Himself (1 Cor. 3:10-11). Faults in the foundations need to be identified for what they are, uprooted and replaced with truth, the Living Christ. The belief that God requires His people to tithe is one of these faults masquerading as truth that continues to misrepresent God and mislead His people.
One of the main scripture passages used to justify the doctrine of tithing is Malachi 3:8-10:
Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.’
The most important thing we need to note about this passage is that even if it was about money (which it is not), Christ followers are not subject to it, because it refers to Old Covenant law-keeping. And if you still believe Old Covenant law applies to New Covenant believers please see here, here and here.
So, what is the background and context of this so often misused passage?
- The tithe mentioned here was food and agricultural produce, not money. There were three types of tithes in Israel. I don’t have room here to expand on each of them, but none of them were monetary. ¹
- Though Malachi starts his discourse by addressing the whole nation of Israel (1:1-5), he quickly moves on to specifically addressing Israel’s religious leaders (1:6; 2:1). The passage above that we so often hear quoted to impose mandatory tithing on God’s people was addressed only to Israel’s priests, or ‘the sons of Levi’ ( 3:3). It was the religious leaders who God accused of robbing Him, not the ordinary people.
- The storehouse is not symbolic of our local church. The temple storehouse in Jerusalem was used for storing only 1% of the national tithe, i.e. a tenth of the tenth ( Neh. 10:37-38). The great bulk of the food tithe was kept in 48 designated Levitical cities throughout Israel (Num. 35:1-8), and the Levites, or priests, were to bring just one tenth to the storehouse in Jerusalem to provide for the ministering priests there. The storehouse was not a center of worship, nor was it considered sacred by the Jews.
- The curse was the curse of Deuteronomy 27:26 and referred to law-breaking (see also Deu.11:26, 27:19, Neh. 10:28,29). Israel had entered a “blessing or curse” covenant with God. If they kept the Law they would be blessed, if not they would be cursed. The law stated that the Levites (priests) must be provided for from the national tithe because they had been set apart by God to serve Him and had no inheritance of land as the other tribes did. It also stated that every third year the tithe must be put aside for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. So, the tithe was God’s provision for the Levites (priests with no land ownership) and the poor. 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 (Deu. 14:27-29; also 26:12,13).
- New Covenant believers have no covenant with God to keep the Old Testament law, and are entirely under a covenant of grace (Rom: 10:4). New Covenant believers are therefore not subject to any Old Testament curse (Galatians 3:10-13). New Covenant believers are sons and heirs (Gal. 3:26; Rom. 8:16,17).
- The religious leaders were robbing God by keeping back for themselves His provision for the poor and the stranger. ‘And I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against sorcerers, against adulterers, against perjurers, against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, and against those who turn away an alien—Because they do not fear Me,’ says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3:5)
- The blessing God promises in Malachi 3:10 is not financial blessing. Israel was basically a farming society. The wealth of the nation rested on the harvest and the harvest depended on adequate rain. The phrase to ‘open the windows of heaven’ is used elsewhere in the Old Testament as an allegory for rain ( Gen. 7:11; 8:2).
- The Old Testament tithe applied only to landowners and livestock owners. The tithe was to come from the land. The poor, those who worked with their hands, and craftsmen did not pay tithes, but received them ( Deut: 14:29, 16:11,14, 26:11-13).
So already, if we are to remain true to scripture, we can see some huge cracks appearing in the false foundation of tithe-teaching.
Fast forward to the New Covenant. Jesus, knowing the Old Covenant was about to become obsolete (Heb. 8:13), shifted the emphasis for His disciples from law-keeping to faithfulness in stewardship. He taught that God is both the provider and the source for every blessing. He encouraged His followers to steward everything entrusted to them by the Father with honesty, integrity and compassion (Luke 12:42-47; 16:12; Matt. 25:14-30) Jesus, as a carpenter, would not have tithed because tithing was a law only for landowners and owners of livestock.
As part of His Kingdom stewardship principle, Jesus especially emphasized care for the poor and disadvantaged. His only recorded mention of tithing was in conversation with the Pharisees, who were Hebrew non-believers and still subject to the Mosaic law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42). He commended the poor widow who humbly gave all the money she had to God, actively demonstrating her faith that He would provide for her (Mark 12:41-44). (No, she wasn’t tithing because the poor were exempt from the law of tithing.)
In Part B of this article, which will be posted tomorrow, we’ll explore another widely taught false doctrine frequently used to justify the practice of tithing – the teaching that because Abraham appears to have tithed, so should we.
¹.God commanded Israelite landowners and herdsmen within Israel’s borders to give THREE tithes. The first was for the support of the Levites and Aaronic priesthood (Num. 18); the second was for national religious festivals and was eaten by all (Deut. 12:1-19 and 14:22-26); and the third was every third year for the poor and strangers (Deut. 14:28-29 and 26:12-13) —a total of 23 1/3% yearly, plus the king’s tenth! For landowners and herdsmen, above the 23 1/3% was a freewill offering. For others, everything was a freewill offering. Russell Earl Kelly PhD www.tithing-russkelly.com
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2017. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.