Inspecting the Foundation
Annie Miller got saved. Really. Three years ago this June, right down the road from her house at Ichabod Memorial. But Annie Miller isn’t in church anymore and neither are her children. Some of the good folks at Ichabod think that she was probably never saved to begin with, and some think that she is just a backslider, but neither assumption is true. She believes, prays, and reads her Bible—well, okay, she reads Psalms and the New Testament. She doesn’t understand too much about her new faith, and if she doesn’t get some help she probably never will, but she has in fact been born again. Really.
You see, the truth of the matter is that Annie Miller is a "God-robber", and because of that, she is "cursed with a curse." So said Malachi, and as anyone who knows anything knows, Malachi was one of those Old Testament prophets. That is why she didn’t get that raise, why her old car keeps breaking down, why Jimmy broke his arm, and why the cat got run over by the fuel oil truck. This is the payback for not paying her tithe and she believes it. She believes it because she learned it right down the road at Ichabod, where people know a lot more about God’s Word than she does and the pastor even has a doctorate degree in it. Well, okay, they didn’t exactly tell her these things in so many words, but they talked about it a lot and that is the message that she took home from it.
Annie Miller and her children are going to start going back to church just as soon as she isn’t ashamed to show her face down there—meaning just as soon as she can afford to pay her tithe. Well, okay, she could probably pay it now if she could find a cheaper place, save on electricity and fuel oil, get a better car, and maybe tell Janie the truth about Santa Claus. Maybe then God would bless her. After all, she has been taught that she can’t afford not to tithe. But what would she do about Jimmy’s teeth? No, church will just have to wait awhile longer. Annie Miller is unhappy and confused. She doesn’t understand how God operates, and neither does Jimmy and Janie. They just know that their mom is sad and their cat is dead and that somehow God and the church are mixed up in it.
Perhaps you think that I am jesting. I wish I were. The truth of the matter is, there are a lot of Annie Millers out there, not sitting in some of the empty chairs in our Sunday school classes and the empty places in our pews, and guess what? They have a lot of company.
On the other hand, Ichabod has Bobby and Betty Lucre and they do tithe, without fail, ten percent, right to the penny. That’s why God has blessed them with wealth, unlike some. Their kids are grown, so now they can enjoy the fruits of their labors and investments—the second home on the lake, the new cars every other year, the fat portfolio, the bigger, better boat—and travel. Oh, how they love to travel. The Lucres have been members going on thirty years and Bobby is a deacon. They even know a little bit about the Bible.
Poor Ichabod Memorial--attendance is way down since the factory closed, and the budget is seriously in the red. You would think that folks would need the church even more after getting laid off, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. They’re drifting away and taking their money with them. A tithe from an unemployment check or a part time job at the Tasty Freeze would be better than nothing. Even more slackers like that Annie Miller, with their fives and tens, would help too if there were enough of them, but they never seem to stay around long enough to make a difference. Ichabod’s motto is Vision for Mission but the mission of the moment is just paying the pastor and keeping the lights turned on.
For every big-box church, bursting at the seams and flush with money, there are dozens of once vibrant churches barely able to keep the doors open. The days of reckoning have come for the Christian church in America, and it is ill prepared to meet the challenge. Spirits of pluralism, multiculturalism and postmodernism are testing the truth of the Gospel message and drawing away souls after them, while globalization empowered by the Internet siphons off the economic strength of the nation. The church cannot stand against the storm that is already beginning to blow unless it rests on firm footing, but one of its foundation stones has been removed—the foundation stone of sound stewardship. In its place is a shoring of sticks and there are cracks in the walls above. The strong foundation stone lying to the side, nearly covered with earth and grass, is the new covenant stewardship practiced by the early Christians. The shoring used to prop up the building above is the tradition of tithing.
The earthly remains of the first Christians had long turned to dust before the shadow of tithing began to creep into a church already rocked by schism, drifting in doctrine and compromised by adultery with the Roman state. Bearing no resemblance to the well defined doctrine of the Jewish nation and never practiced by the early Gentile church, what is falsely called tithing today is a cobbled together tradition of men usurping the rightful doctrine of stewardship within the body of Christ.
It is not possible to successfully defend today’s doctrine of tithing from Scripture or the practices of the early Christians. Rather, it rests upon a three-legged stool of faulty logic, namely appeal to tradition, appeal to authority and appeal to the people. Simply put, appeal to tradition states that "this is right because we have always done it this way." Appeal to authority bases the truth-value of an assertion on the authority, knowledge, expertise or position of the person or body asserting it, be it parent, minister, writer, seminary, church or denomination. Validity of a claim does not necessarily follow from the credibility of the source. Claims must be tested, lest unsound doctrine pass from generation to generation like a bad gene. Appeal to the people concludes that a proposition is true because many or all people believe it. See, Jesus rose from the dead, was born on December 25th, was secretly married to Mary Magdalene, and turned water into grape juice. Sex outside of marriage is wrong, and so is dancing, tattoos (we don’t care if it does say "Mom"), going to the movies, and women in pantsuits.
New covenant stewardship rests upon a three-legged stool of time, talents (gifts) and material possessions (including money). Keep it in repair and the Great Commission gets done and it gets done right. But try patching up a broken leg with glue and sit down, if you’re feeling optimistic. The next time you pass a broken down, boarded up church that is not in the middle of a ghost town, ask yourself what happened to it.
You may have a warm, fuzzy feeling right about now, assuming that I am going to take your side in a matter pertaining to stewardship. Perhaps, but if you are looking for an excuse to be chintzy with God, you will not find it here. Or maybe your blood pressure is already up ten points because it looks like I am about to gore your ox and shoot the sacred cow from within the pages of a little book. If you think that I am going to expose the tradition of tithing to be false doctrine, you are quite correct, but only to call for returning the original foundation stone to its rightful place.
Nonetheless, let me give credit where credit is due. Tithing has done a lot of good in the world. It has helped build churches, schools, hospitals, and missions of every description. It sends missionaries, pays ministers and staff, electric bills, water bills, all kinds of bills, buys buses, electronic and music equipment, Sunday school literature, cribs for the nursery, Christmas baskets, light bulbs, and fertilizer for the lawn. It has helped countless individuals and families to put God first, discipline themselves, budget their money, and live within their means. On the other hand, it has kicked the poor believer to the curb, driven out those who have fallen on hard times, caused Christians to neglect their families, padded the pockets of the well-to-do, barred the church door against some trying to enter, allowed God-given gifts to go unused, constructed a wall of separation within the church, established a cult of exclusivism, a caste system and a pecking order, and weakened the body of Christ both financially and spiritually.
This will never do. Sound doctrine does not produce mixed results of this nature. Unsound doctrine does. A doctrine that cannot be followed by the vast majority of Christians in the Third World and by many in the richest country in the world is spurious, right up there with prayers to Mary and the saints. True doctrine can be followed by any Christian, rich or poor, American or Ugandan, migrant worker or CEO, wheelchair bound or Olympic athlete, 24-7.
Financing the Great Commission takes money. It takes a lot of money. And it’s going to take a lot more money in the time, perhaps the short time, remaining before the Lord’s return. The material needs of the twenty-first century church, especially in the developed world, bear little resemblance to the needs of earlier days. That is a given. But ends, however worthy, do not justify means. The God of truth is dishonored when counterfactual teaching, refuted rather than substantiated from the Bible and church history, is foisted off as fact.
We cannot allow anything less than one hundred percent honesty to be the engine that drives church doctrine. Tradition cannot be allowed to trump truth, thereby forcing ministers and teachers of the Word to become spinmeisters of Scripture, tampering with the evidence and resorting to convoluted reasoning in an attempt to defend the indefensible. The world is watching, and if you have looked around lately you may have noticed that it is not impressed. It rather suspects that if we are untruthful about little things, we may be untruthful about big things. The church should ever be the repository of truth, and when truth is compromised in part it cannot but have a negative effect upon the whole.
Of necessity, this book is confrontational and I make no apologies for that fact. God has a bone to pick with his church over this matter and has called upon a number of individuals to address it. The triune God is by nature confrontational. The apostles were confrontational, especially Paul, who even rebuked Peter to his face when he compromised his integrity in fear of the Judaizers (Gal. 2:11f). Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Volume1, page 358, has this to say about the matter. "The bold attack of Paul teaches the right and duty of protest even against the highest ecclesiastical authority, when Christian truth and principle are endangered…" Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos aside and corrected his teaching to the blessing of many (Acts 18:24-26).
We are indeed called upon to admonish one another (Rom.15:14), not out of mean-spiritedness, not for tearing down but for building up the body of Christ. I will be the first to admit that calling tithing into question can appear as a slap in the face to the many faithful souls who have sincerely believed, taught and practiced it, often at the cost of great personal sacrifice. They will not lose their reward. It is no small thing to have someone imply that what you learned at your parents’ knee and in Sunday school is a distortion of Christian doctrine and, as I said above, it has accomplished much good. Be that as it may, God is calling his church to repentance. How we as individuals, local bodies and denominations deal with the issue will be critical for the future of the church. There is room for disagreement but not division. Controversy can be either destructive or constructive. Destructive if it brings conflict, hostility and bitterness resulting in division, constructive if it leads to meaningful dialogue in a spirit of humility, civility and familial love resulting in correction.
Although called upon by the Spirit for some time to prepare this book, I resisted, not willing to be the cause of division within the church and especially not wanting to hurt the many dear brothers and sisters in Christ, including those in ministry, who may disagree. Preparation of the book was begun in earnest in April of 2005, and is backed by thirty-five years of in-depth study of the Word of God. Answering a call to a ministry of the written word in 1975, I have heretofore confined my work to editorial writing on a number of subjects, chiefly in opposition to abortion and scientism. Continuing within the Southern Baptist denomination from childhood, I am neither an ordained minister nor seminary trained, and retired from secular labor in 2002.
If, as it is said, "a picture paints a thousand words", the reverse is also true--a thousand words can paint a picture. Along with chapters that dissect the doctrine of tithing, I have included a number of illustrative chapters and a short story, which plays out as the book progresses. Proponents of tithing are fond of quoting success stories to illustrate and extol the virtues of the doctrine. Quite naturally, they draw upon a biased data selection, but there is another, darker side of the matter that my own examples will serve to illuminate. While my "slices of life" are drawn from truth, there being countless actual cases like them, none are based on real individuals or real churches. They are entirely works of fiction; so if you think that you recognize yourself or your church in any of them, do not be alarmed—it is not you. One can argue a case point-by-point, but unless a human face is put on it, the mind, weakened by the fall as it is, may not come to comprehension. Hobbled by habits, preconceptions and prejudices, ingrained thinking is difficult to penetrate, and there is truth to the old saying, "Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up." Jesus, being fully aware of this matter, often taught in parables.
The book itself is directed primarily at ministers and other church leaders, but is not beyond the easy comprehension of the average Christian. Whether your church teaches tithing as an ad-mixture of law and grace, or as an expected example, or perhaps does not teach it at all, this book is for you. Although I avail myself of multiple versions of the Word in my own studies and advise all others to do the same, I have quoted from the King James Version throughout unless otherwise noted, the reason being that most readers are familiar with the prose.
The bibliography at the end of this book includes authors of both persuasions and I have listed them in alphabetical order, rather than separating them into two camps. No subject worthy of serious consideration should be studied from one side only. Prior to my own writing, I read the pro-tithing positions of Ron Blue, Larry Burkett and R.T. Kendall, and the opposing position of Russell Earl Kelly, which is exhaustive in its presentation of the subject matter. The other authors’ works were read after my own was completed and in preparation of this introduction. There are any number of other materials on the subject, some out of print, and some confined to the Internet. I do not necessarily hold to every statement or opinion of those opposing tithing, nor disagree with those who favor it. It appears to me that each individual is genuine in his or her desire to serve the Lord.
Returning the foundation stone of new covenant stewardship to its rightful place, with its concept of grace giving rather than the supplanting tradition of tithing, is crucial in restoring health to the body of Christ. God expects a set percentage from no one and the very best from everyone in terms of time, talents and material possessions. I have no illusions that the restoration will come about easily. A battleship is not turned on a dime, and there are powers in the spiritual realm whose vested interests are not those of the triune God. Nonetheless, until health is restored to the body, revival will not come, and the Reformation remains incomplete.