Two of the things that contribute to faulty interpretation of the bible are; quoting it out of context, and ignoring the Spirit of the letter. These two have influenced a great deal of the conclusions reached in the most recent episode of the perennial debate about tithing.
On one end of the argument, the position often taken is that tithing is an Old Testament injunction, which has no place under the new covenant. On the other end, the conspicuous absence of any reference to the practice in the early church is discounted by emphasizing the fact that it predates the law (since Abraham gave a tithe), and referencing some tangential remarks Jesus made about tithing.
In reality, there is more we can glean from scripture to give a more liberating view of the subject.
Fundamentally, it is necessary to point out that there are important differences between the terms of the old and new covenant, which to a large extent correspond to the old and New Testament respectively. Nevertheless, it is critical to acknowledge that the old testament/covenant provides the context in which the new covenant/testament can be understood. So, while the believer does not live under the old covenant, it is useful that he understands it in other to appreciate and fully grasp the new covenant into which he was saved.
It is how for instance the 1979 constitution (and previous ones) provides a rich context for understanding the 1999 version. It should be pointed out though that, while you can use the latter for adjudication of life in the present, the former is only useful for instruction.
The next question that might then arise is, “are there any overlaps between the old and new covenant?” The answer is yes. Primarily, it is the same God who issues the two. Critically, while the letter (provisions) of the two varies significantly, the Spirit (ultimate objective) of the two covenants is the same i.e. to reconcile man to God.
When believers keep their eyes on the Spirit of the provisions in the old covenant, we are better able to identify the provisions in the new covenant with which God aims to achieve His unchanging objectives.
Which brings us to the issue of what God’s objective was in instituting tithing under the old covenant and how he aims to achieve the same objective under the new.
There is little if any disagreement about what the purpose of the tithe was under the old covenant. It was a provision made primarily to pay the wages of those who were mandated to be fully dedicated to religious duties, and also to cater for the needs of those who were unable to adequately fend for themselves.
In both cases, the Spirit of the provision was, to put it in one word, Reciprocity. The clergy were focused exclusively on providing spiritual service to the people, and so the people were in turn saddled with the responsibility for meeting the material needs of the clergy. For the other group (strangers, orphans etc.), who had none or limited access to land, and so limited opportunity to earn, God reminds the Israelites that they were themselves strangers in Egypt at some point and ought therefore to treat strangers as they themselves would have wanted to be treated. i.e. with accommodation.
What believers ought to focus on therefore under the new covenant is not the Letter (the word tithe) but the Spirit i.e. the unchanging objective of God; in this case, the idea of reciprocity.
The appropriate question to ask therefore is, “how does God expect us to reciprocate the sacrifice of those who are chiefly employed in providing us spiritual service today.
Old Wine in New Wineskins?
It is important to say that we cannot look to the old testament/covenant to provide a definitive answer to this. That would be like trying to adjudicate a matter in a Nigerian court today by relying primarily on the 1954 constitution. That can only result in miscarriage of justice. Consequently, We must look to the New Testament (and specifically portions related to the new covenant) for how God pursues his unchanging objective on this matter.
While you won’t find any reference to tithing in the early church, the new covenant is not exactly silent on the principle as may appear at first. A simple reading of 1 Cor 9, will illustrate that God still provides for those whose chief employment is spiritual in nature, by requiring those who benefit from such work to support their brethren.
1 Cor 9:
3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned?10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
It is fundamental to note that Paul the Apostle asserts that church leaders have a RIGHT to be supported by the congregations they serve. In addition, consistent with the well established principle of referencing God’s unchanging objective that transcends covenants, he arcs back to the law or the old covenant to reinforce the point.
Additional evidence that the principle of reciprocity is a trans-covenant objective of God can be found Romans 15:27.
“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?” In raising this question, Paul the Apostle provides us a relatable comparative for understanding the issue. In functional societies, soldiers are generally catered for using the taxes of the citizenry that they serve. This however presupposes that these are full time professional soldiers, not mercenaries for whom soldiering is a business.
It is this sort of soldier that the apostle refers to when writing to Timothy he said, “No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” ( 2 Tim 2:4). The meaning of this is that, the pastors who are entitled to support are those who like soldiers refrain from getting entangled in civilian affairs.
Again, it has to be said that in functional societies where you have professional soldiers, they typically don’t turn up as billionaires. Reading the portion in 1 Cor 9 again makes clear that the sort of support the Apostle was writing about was a living wage not a fortune.
He underscores this point, again with Timothy. Describing people who equate godliness with making a fortune as being of corrupt minds, he then says to Timothy that, as A MAN OF GOD, he ought to flee such ideas.
1 Tim 6:
…people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
In essence, the right that church leaders have to support was designed to be enjoyed in moderation. They were to consider themselves as soldiers and to flee from the entanglement that worldly goods invariably become.
The proper disposition to the enjoyment of this right is as Paul wrote to Timothy; “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”
A right waived
Knowing what the Lord describes in the aptly numbered Mark 4:19 as “the deceitfulness of riches”, Paul the Apostle, while not condemning those who relied on the church for support, chose rather to waive the right.
1 Cor 9:
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. 13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. 15 But I have not used any of these rights.And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
The Lord thus provides for pastors and missionaries who serve exclusively in the vineyard to be supported by the church. There should be no ambiguity left about this.
This provision is indeed a right, albeit one that is not to be enforced: this is a key point. As the sons of Eli grossly abused this right under the law, we see similar abuses today. The giving underpinned by the principle of reciprocity was not designed to turn soldiers to billionaires – those are mercenaries. That giving was designed to ensure that there is food in the house of God: Food for those who serve in the house and those who have nowhere else to turn.
When the sons of Eli abused that which was brought to the temple by enriching themselves and gorging on it, God called them Sons of Belial (1 Sam 2:12). There is a warning in there somewhere for all those who wish to enjoy the right of support from the church today. Do not become sons of Belial by placing demands on the people as the sons of Eli did.
A serious responsibility
It is not only pastors who can run afoul of God’s principle on this matter. Giving to support church leadership, and the needy is a sign of the maturing of a believer. For the immature, the Lord has this parable…
… “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
In closing, do not get into the rabbit hole of arguing about the meaning of words. It will only produce strife: only a lot of heat and no light. Settle on the trans-covenant, and unchanging objective of God to supply the needs of those who are employed to serve the church by those who are served by them.