Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Bring the whole tithe" (Mal. 3:10)

Catholics, I know, are not fond of the subject of tithing. My father once wrote, “One sure way to clear a wide empty space around one’s self, short of igniting a stink bomb, is to bring up the subject of tithing.”

I have never heard a message about tithing in church and not also heard some complaint about how there’s too much talk about money in the church. Any talk at all, it would seem, is too much for some folks. And yet, they discuss little else once they leave sacred ground.

What is it that makes our skin crawl when the priest dares say that word: “tithing?” Is it that money is too profane a topic for discussion in the church, like toilet bowls? Or is it that money is too sacred a topic to profane it by bringing it up at church? Do we serve mammon and not God (cf. Lk 16:13)?

Perhaps we’ve just seen too many televangelists.

A tithe is a tenth, ten-percent: that’s what the dread word means. It also means the first-fruits. If you pay your taxes and your health insurance and your life insurance and your 401K first and give ten-percent of what remains, you’re still giving, but you’re not actually tithing.

This is kind of like what Cain did, as opposed to Abel.

"In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil, while Abel, for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not" (Gen. 4: 3-5).

Cain only gave “in the course of time,” but Abel gave of the “firstlings.” It wasn’t that God liked meat, but not grain so much. It was that God wanted His children to trust Him and give first, not after they made sure they had enough for themselves.

Absolute trust in God is another unpopular topic.

But who says you have to tithe, anyway? The law is laid down in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Malachi, but that’s just Old Testament business, right? Once, in my ignorance, I confessed my failure to tithe to the priest, who quickly corrected: “That’s no sin. If that were a sin, the whole congregation would be in trouble.”

Difference of opinion as regards tithing is as old as St. Peter (cf. Acts 5: 1-10).

In the earliest Church, the Apostolic Church, nobody tithed. That’s because they didn’t have anything left to tithe on after “all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold and laid them at the apostle’s feet” (Acts 4:34, 35). In other words, nobody could give just ten-percent because they were all too busy giving closer to a hundred.

By the second century, gifts made to the church were seldom so extravagant. St. Justin Martyr (c. 160) wrote, “As for the persons who are prosperous and willing, they give what each thinks fit.” Tertullian (c. 197), unusually strident about other matters, laxly wrote, “If he likes, each puts in a small donation – but only if it is his pleasure and only if he is able. For there is no compulsion; all is voluntary.”

In old St. Peter’s day, folks were struck dead by the Holy Spirit for handing over less than everything (cf. Acts 5: 1-10) - quite the turn about in a mere century, it seems to me. The change in attitude did not go unlamented. St. Cyprian (c. 250) wrote:

"They used to sell houses and estates so that they might lay up for themselves treasures in heaven. They presented the proceeds to the apostles, to be distributed for the use of the poor. However, now, we do not even give the tenths from our patrimony!"

So it goes. So it is still going.

Now we call it one of the six laws of the Church: Catholics are obligated to “contribute to the support of the Church.” How’s that for vague? Yet, too many of us in the pews can’t in good conscience say that we do even this in a meaningful way.

Personally, I advocate a return to the good old understanding of the tithe – all that Old Testament business. After all, the Lord of hosts Himself says, “Bring the whole tithe… and try me in this… Shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven, to pour down blessing upon you without measure (Malachi 3:10)?” Even if it’s no sin not to, that ought to encourage each and every one of us to cough up the dough.


dave said...

I'm with you--in principle if not fully in practice.

I might quibble over whether the 10% should come before or after taxes. When the tithing law was made, the tithe was the only tax (as far as I can tell) and that was why it came from the first-fruits.

One never sees the money he pays in taxes, just as if a thief had come in the night and stolen a third of one's property. I am not saying that taxes are immoral, but they drastically reduce the income one requires to support his family. If I must pay 30% of my income before I see it and I tithe on my gross, then I am paying about 15% of they money that I can actually use. This does not seem to be what the law intended.

Of course, if one can give more, then even 15% is nothing.

dave said...

I said:

"I am not saying that taxes are immoral, but they drastically reduce the income one requires to support his family."

I meant, of course, that they reduce one's income, and this income is required to support one's family. However, the other reading, that taxes reduce what one needs to spend to support a family, is an argument for giving 10% from the gross income. To the extent that one benefits from taxes in government services, such as schooling, this might be seen as an increase in income.

Giving the 10% from the gross would, I admit, simplify things.

John R.P. Russell said...

My father also wrote:

"Then there is the problem of the gross or the net. Usually people are comfortable with whatever decision they make in this regard until tax time. Let’s say that the tax form is filled out for the net tither and there’s a refund coming. Using the net tither’s own logic, it would seem he would owe a tithe on the refund check. Seeing as how he didn’t tithe on that amount already. The net tither is really in a pickle if he owes taxes because he’s probably not going down to the rectory to ask for some of his money back, though I suppose the thought might cross his mind. So he finds himself in the position of either having to wince and eat the loss or bask in the warm glow of his inadvertent extra generosity."

These quotes come from a column my father first published on March 13th, 1988. It will eventually appear in full at The Writings of Thomas Alan Russell

Anne said...

John, I checked out the blog of your father's writings. That is a very neat idea. I look forward to reading them.

dave said...

A strict net-income tither who owes extra taxes could, as it were, garnish the Church's wages until his contributions had returned to the 10% mark.

But a tax return is probably more common, and since most people see the return as a windfall rather than a reimbursement, I imagine that the average tither would just give 10% of it without thinking too deeply about the issue of gross or net. In fact, I wouldn't be suprised if many gross-tithers actually tithe on that part of their income twice.

Your father's style is fetching. I take his point to be that one oughtn't be too legalistic, but should approach the subject of tithing with a sense of humor.

russkellyphd said...

The early church did not tithe becasue it did not teach tithing. That is seen in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian. Leaders like Cyprian, Ambrose, Chrysostom and Augustine tried to install it but failed. Two local church councils tried to install in during thd 6th century but failed. It did not have force until AD 777. Read the Catholic Encycloppedia!

While many affluent Christians can and should give more than 10%, it is a sin to threaten the poor with curses and a guilt complex because they cannot give ten percent. True gifts to the Chruch come from the generosity of the heart motivated by the Holy Spirit.

It is nonsense to quote OT passages because the first whole tithe went to the servants of the priests and not to the priests per Numbers 18:21-24.

Malachi 3:10 Has Been Misinterpreted

The “whole” tithe never was supposed to go to the Temple! According to Dr. Russell Earl Kelly in his book, Should the Church Teach Tithing?, the usual interpretation of Malachi 3:10’s “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse” is wrong for three reasons.

First, the Levitical cities must be included. God never told ordinary Israelites to bring the whole tithe to the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Nehemiah 10:38 that duty belonged to the Levites and priests. The Levites lived on borrowed land surrounding 48 cities. After the exile they lived in the 13 priestly cities in Judah such as Jericho and Hebron. Nehemiah 10:37b makes it clear that the people were to bring the tithes to those cities. Numb 18:21-24; 35 all; Josh 20, 21; 1st Chron 6:48-80; 2nd Chron 11:13, 14; 31:15-19; Neh 12:27-29; 13:10 and Mal 1:14.

Second, the correct interpretation of Malachi 3:10 must include the 24 courses of the Levites and priests. Only the older males ate tithes at the Temple and then normally only one week out of 24 weeks! Do the math! That is only 4% of the total work force! And with the wives and younger children staying at home it is only 2% of the total work force who needed to eat tithes in the Temple! 1 Chronicles, chapters 23-26; 28:13, 21; 2 Chron. 8:14; 23:8; 31:2, 15-19; 35:4, 5, 10; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 11:19, 30; 12:24; 13:9, 10; Luke 1:5.

Third, the word “you” of Malachi is referring to the dishonest priests and not the people: “Even this whole nation of you --priests.” In Nehemiah 13:5-10 the priests had clearly stolen the Levites’ portion of the tithe. Also, in Malachi 1:14 the priests had stolen that portion of the tithed animals which they had vowed to God from their herds. Read all of Malachi. God’s anger towards the priests and His curses on them are ignored by most interpreters (1:14; 2:2 and 3:2-4).

When the Levitical cities, the 24 courses and God’s anger towards the priests for stealing are considered, then Malachi 3:10 only makes sense when it only refers to priests who had stolen from God. Proof-text hermeneutics cause error.

It makes no sense to tell the people to bring 100% of the tithe to the Temple when 98% of those who needed it for food were still in the Levitical cities.

It is strange that the 3:10 of Malachi is so important It is while the 3:10 of Galatians and 2nd Corinthians are ignored. Perhaps those wanting to enforce the 3:10 of Malachi should also enforce the 3:10 of Numbers. Wow! Now that would lose members.

John R.P. Russell said...

Dr. Russ Kelly,

Thank you for the interesting information.

You seem to have the impression that I am advocating something I am not.

I do not believe that there should be a Church regulation on tithing. I agree with the priest who corrected me in the confessional: it's no sin to not tithe. I certainly do not suggest threatening the poor with curses. Tithes, in great part, ought to be given to the poor.

That being said, heroic gifts from the poor are worthy of great honor - the honor Jesus paid to the widow for her mite.

What I do believe is that tithing is a good idea and a source of great blessings. In fact, I don't need to read any text to be aware of this fact, which I experience in my own life.

russkellyphd said...


Although I am not a Roman Catholic I applaud the extent to which it helps the poor with much more of its resources than do most Protestants.

I was merely reacting to your title reference to Malachi 3. While in the Bible the original tithe went to the 48 Levitical cites, during the Middle Ages the tithe of church land went to the parish churches. It would not make sense to send the whole tithe to Rome and then have to re-ship it back to where it was needed.

The sowing and reaping harvetst principle works in my life also.

Thank God for His blessings.

Dusty M Brahlek said...

I feel a bit bad for commenting here due to the fact that I am not good at giving the full amount that I should. However, as many posts from the O'Neal's remind me, I do not make great amounts of money but I do spend more than I should on things that I do not need. I could live on MUCH less than I do. It will help if I stop sending money that I do not need to spend, get rid of my credit card debt and give that amount to the Church, local organizations, and other great causes. Our money really should go to the poor, needy, and broken before it goes to McDonalds. With that said, as a manager of a pizza place, I would not say not to spend ANY in such places. Though the "poor" do spend much money on things that they do not need and often times way to much on fast food. This is money they could give... They are not exempt. (Nor am I...)

Harold said...

I was never interested in money, so it was easy to tithe. Before becoming a Christian I never had money. Since tithing I really never have lacked money. My tithe is off the top, before taxes. I don't know how it happened, but now I'm a millionaire. I really never paid attention to finances. I would like to read about other tithers' experiences.

John R.P. Russell said...


That is an extraordinary experience. My father was a tither just like you and he also seemed to always have an abundance, though nothing like what you describe. I tithe too, and I have what I need, but not much excess.

I'm curious, how long after you started tithing did you become a millionaire?

I certainly believe that tithing in order to achieve material wealth is the wrong reason to do it. Perhaps you've been so blessed in part because of your tithing, but even more so due to your indifference toward money - because you serve God and not mammon.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know how much money I had until after I retired. I certainly agree we should not tithe in order to get rich, although tithing seems to be an exception to some obvious rules.
We are forbidden to test God, but God encouraged Israel to test Him about tithing. I wonder how many tithers have had similar experiences as I had? How has it influenced the Mormon experience?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the last comment was from Harold.

Mark said...

Thanks for writing this. It's an important reminder for every believer.

It's also an act of trust when we tithe or when we give.


Anonymous said...

I give money to church but not 10%.Before the French Revolution era,the European peasants were very generous with tithe.If my memory serves me right,peasants knew they would live in poverty from cradle to grave.They looked at their church as the first priority in life.It was where they poured out their sufferings and praised the Lord.They wanted their churches to he beautiful and holy.It was their way of honoring the Lord and showing him he came first.(It was special to them like sports and commerce are to American's)

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