Kent Hughes may be a gifted teacher, but there are things to disagree with him about. One issue troubled me recently when I was reading his chapter on giving in Disciplines of a Godly Man. First, I’d like to say that I know that I give less than I should. But the only reason for that is that I believe it’s biblically less-than-ideal for me to have credit card debt, so I am putting more than half of my income towards remedying that situation, in order that I may be more free to give in the future.
There are some points I want to make about the issue of giving, and how the modern church misuses scripture and manipulates the poor in order to keep the coffers full.
First, ancient Israel was intended to be a theocracy. Which means that the government as well as the state religion were supported by a 10% tax. The Levites, 1/12 of the tribes of Israel, were set apart for temple service, and they were supported by the other 11/12 of the nation. This was called a tithe. Numbers 18:21 says that the tithes are to support the Levites, who work in the service of the Lord, and thus don’t have their own fields and herds from which to eat.
Every year, the Israelites tithed to the temple. Except in every third year. Deuteronomy 14:28 clearly states, “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year…” (NIV). Now, maybe the NIV has it wrong, but this is the translation Hughes himself chose. But I always understood this to refer to that year’s tithe, meaning that the Levites only ended up with 6.67% of Israel’s income on average, and the other 3.33% went to the poor. If you count out the tribes and consider the Levites 1/13 of the nation, then giving them 6.67% of the nation’s wealth is a little more fair (Joseph was split into two tribes in order to even things out in battle, since the Levites weren’t soldiers).
Even though you might think of the concept of tithing as legalistic, if you look at Deuteronomy 14, you can see that God gives people immense freedom and variety in how they can give. Option 1: take your produce to the temple (verse 23). Option 2: if you live too far away from the temple and don’t want to cart all your produce, you can just sell it for money, and take the money to the temple, with your family (verse 25). Option 3: every third year, you do this in your local towns so that orphans, widows, nomads, and Levites who don’t live in Jerusalem can benefit.
But I think the big thing that stands out for me in Deuteronomy 14 is that it’s like a huge party. Verse 23 says, “…you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock…” (ESV). Verse 26: “…spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves.” Hello! Did you see that? God wants his people to party like crazy animals! “And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.” And every year, the party happened in the local towns, that all the disadvantaged in the area “shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”
No wonder people have a hard time giving today. It’s not as fun as it used to be! There used to be huge parties where you’d spend all of your tithe on steak and adult beverages! This doesn’t really have anything to do with the way tithing is done in churches today. I see more whine than wine when the offering plate is passed!
Now that I have the groundwork laid, I want to address the problems I have with Hughes’ interpretation. My chief argument with Hughes is the way he interprets the tithe for the Levites, the festal tithe, and the third-year tithe for the local poor, as three distinct tithes, all of which happened at the same time, so that it comes out to 23.3% on average. But I think it’s painfully obvious that each of these references refer to three different manifestations of giving for the same 10% of your income.
The trouble with Hughes’ interpretation is his resulting application. He’s either trying to guilt-trip people if they give less than 23.3% of their income, or he’s trying to guilt-trip them into giving at least 10% by saying, “Oh, come now, you have it easy. It could be so much worse, just look at the Israelites! They had to give much more!” We know that on average, people who call themselves Christians in America don’t give any more than those who don’t (and it’s much less than ten percent), so we all need to give more. But if someone already feels too overwhelmed and discouraged by a 10% goal to actually take action and commit to giving, how much more overwhelmed and discouraged they are going to be when you tell them the goal is 23.3%! Furthermore, by trying to use a Biblical reference to support a 10% tithe, and yet raising the Biblical tithe to 23.3%, he thereby nullifies his application of Old Testament law to support tithing 10% in the church. If we’re supposed to tithe like the Jews, then we’re supposed to tithe like the Jews. If we’re not, then we’re not!
My second gripe comes from something he said later in the chapter. For a chapter which is intended to be about how it’s bad to be materialistic, I think he shows his weakness with materialism by making it about numbers. Instead of glorying in what giving is: worship unto the Lord, giving ourselves to him in trust that he’ll provide for us. He mentions the widow’s mite, and how Jesus said she gave more than all the rest. Clearly, for Jesus, it’s not about quantity. And you’d think Hughes understood this, otherwise he wouldn’t have used the illustration. However, he then goes on to say something terrible!
And in the case of the Macedonians’ grace giving, the amount must have been way over 10 percent because 10 percent of their “extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2) would not have helped anyone. (pp. 198-199)
The audacity!!! It’s actually harder for poor people to give ten percent of their income than it is for rich people to, because the poor do not have anything expendible. So even if the poor Macedonians only gave 10%, that’s worth so much more to God than 10% given by a rich man, because it’s an act of sacrifice. Looking back at the widow’s mite, in Jesus’ mind, the others who gave would be doing good by giving until what they had left was the same as the widow. I believe that’s what God’s economy is like.
Christianity was never intended to be a state religion. It was about living in community, not supporting institutions. In the second chapter of Acts, we have the best picture of what Christian giving is supposed to look like.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (v. 44-45, ESV)
Remember, these were all Jews living in Jerusalem, the place where the temple was, the place where everybody took their tithes. Now they were Christians. It’s not that they stopped tithing to the temple and started tithing to the church. They were Jewish citizens in a land occupied by Rome. They tithed to the temple, and they paid taxes to Caesar. It was the law! But both of these became for these Christians social necessities, just as, if you live anywhere but Nevada, you have to pay taxes to the state as well as the federal government, and you give as the Lord leads you.
In the biblical New Testament form, giving will always mean there are some people who will receive more than they give, because they had “all things in common” and distributed “the proceeds to all, as any had need”. The biblical New Testament form, white American Christians would give to poor African Christians until you looked at their houses and couldn’t tell the difference between those who earned $8,000 a month and those who earned $80 a month. That’s what a literal interpretation and application of this verse would mean.
The church was never intended to look anything like the temple, just as giving was never intended to look anything like the tithe (although if it looked more like Deuteronomy 14, with the juicy meat and the drinking, we’d be doing a lot better!).
I might add that I need never have fallen into so much debt after the dot-com bubble burst, if giving in the church today looked like it’s supposed to, with those who have taking care of those who have not, rather than giving to support a new building, fancy lighting and video projection system, and a fancy new Mercedes M-class and Saab convertible for the pastor, all the while telling those who were receiving unemployment benefits that if they weren’t putting 10% of it in the offering basket, they were “robbing God” just as Malachi says. However, I must point out that even in my poorest state, I was much more well-off than tons of homeless people in America and the poor around the world.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt. 23:23-24, ESV)
If the chief phrase for you in that passage is “without neglecting the others”, then you’re totally missing Jesus’ point.
Like a quote a friend of mine likes to repeat as often as possible, “How much can I do without that I may have more to give?”
Like I said, giving in the New Testament is not about supporting institutions and building projects. It’s about helping those in need. There are links on my blog to WorldVision, an organization I support because they are Christians who preach Christ whenever they can, yet they care blindly for those who need their help, because you can’t preach to them if they starve to death.