Monday, September 01, 2014

Book Review (#79-81 of 2014) Tithing and the Church, Is Tithing for Today, Tithing: Low-Realm, Obsolete and Defunct

I will review three books in this post, which were free online (I will then break them up in my Goodreads and Amazon reviews). I recently wrote a strategy document related to church finances and had to think a bit about giving and think more about how other people think about it. Giving and tithing are often, erroneously, used interchangeably in churches today and that is a symptom of greater theological error. I am convinced I was taught erroneously about tithing both in Southern Baptist churches I've been a part of as well as from pulpits of other churches of diverse denominations I've attended. Asking what New Testament giving should look like, however, is like asking what our modern churches are supposed to look like. Our American Baptist churches are more liturgical and business-like than the ecclesia of Asia Minor in everything from finances to Communion.
My reading from Scripture and recorded history is that the earliest churches differed, sometimes contentiously, on various doctrinal issues (see Acts 15:7, 22-29; 21:21-26, Galatians 1, etc.). The predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem (particularly before destruction of the Temple) likely had members and leaders who tithed and kept other parts of the law, and expected others to as well, contrary to the practice of the mainly Gentile converts in Asia Minor. As such, I can respect a wide variety of opinions on tithing (see Romans 14). I attend church with many who state varying viewpoints; it's important I know where I stand without offending them. But, where possible over time, I want to humbly and gently try and correct what I see as their misunderstanding of who we are in Christ. So, I found books arguing different view points, inspired by this post on the subject: "You can't outgive God...and other stupid statements."

The only book of the three I recommend reading is Matthew E. Narramore's (likely a pseudonym) book, which I use to critique the other two books.

Tithing and the Church is by Gary North, who is a "Christian economist" and Reconstructionist. He is in the "Austrian economics is Christian economics" camp, and is one who would remake America into a theocracy with reinstituted Jewish law complete with stoning adulterers. His take is one of the more crass, but his arguments are in line with the common legalistic arguments in favor of a mandatory 10% tithe.

North's view of the church is institutional. It is far removed from the New Testament example of believers sharing all they have in common, encouraging one another in love, etc. North draws no New Testament examples-- he does not cite any of the several examples of church giving from Paul's epistles, for example. His church is the same "storehouse" that was the Jewish Temple, deacons are basically Levites commanded to receive tithes and keep aliens from partaking of sacraments. The pastors are essentially priests with great legal authority over individual believers. While this may sound extreme, it is essentially the logical conclusion you must reach if you believe that the Old Testament tithe is binding on Christians today.

North begins with the common prooftext Malachi 3:8-12, which appears to say that God blesses tithers and curses non-tithers. But North does not give any context to this passage (nor for any passage he quotes). God is not speaking to individual Christians in this passage, verse 9 is clear that it's for an entire nation--Israel--which had neglected God's covenant with it for hundreds of years. By applying its blessings and curses to Christians today, North is claiming the church is under the Old Covenant. If that is the case, it is not clear what Christ died for-- this is clearly contrary to the Gospel. You have to at least eliminate Paul's letter to the Galatians to follow North down this path.

North also never explains the nuances of the Mosaic tithe-- provisions were made for the poor (Leviticus 14), for example-- not everyone was simply giving 10% of everything as North implies. Sadly, North is concerned that even though he gives 10% of his income he may still "come under God's corporate negative sanctions" because others aren't doing likewise.

Dangerously, North's view on a mandatory tithe seemingly makes it easy to judge a person's spiritual condition. If blessings aren't flowing on that person, he probably isn't tithing. North actually advocates deacons to check the tax returns of church members to ensure they are tithing.

North then stretches Hebrews 7, another common prooftext of tithers, to fit his paradigm, claiming that the Lord's Supper is "the restoration of the Old Covenant's covenental feast of Salem." He wrongly confuses Abraham's tithe with the Mosaic tithe without giving explanations as to why he links the two. North claims that Melchizidek was Christ, and "any attempt to escape the obligation of the tithe is an assault on the New Covenant's High Priest, Jesus Christ." This is erroneous for many reasons, a few simple ones:
1. Abraham already had a covenant with God that was not predicated on his giving.
2. God did not tell Abraham to tithe, nor do we have any evidence that he did it again.
3. Abraham's tithe did not come from the "increase" that North claims we must all tithe from. It was spoils of war and essentially cost him nothing, since he gave the rest of his spoils to the king of Sodom. This contradicts North's beliefs about what the tithe should be.
4. God had already blessed Abraham and made him rich on the basis of His promise alone-- not on the basis of his tithe to Melchizedek.

Hebrews was written to Christian Jews to convince them to keep their faith in Christ and not turn back to their old ways of Judaism. They put their trust in being descendents of Abraham, and the author points out that Abraham paid tithes to a king and priest of the most high God who was not of his own lineage; we don't know who Melchizedek's parents were, nor his descendents but he was still a priest of the Most High. Psalm 102 tells us that Jesus would be a priest like that, as the author of Hebrews tells us that priests in the Mosaic covenant did not come from Judah. The point is that the covenant has changed, and that Jesus' is superior. (Other sources have phrased it better than this paragraph. I recommend D.A. Carson et al's New Bible Commentary for one of the best, most concise takes on Hebrews 7). North neither acknowledges nor addresses these millenia-old arguments against a binding tithe on Christians.

Another problem with North's view is that only 10% of what we earn is God's, and the other 90% is totally ours. The reality is that everything we own is God's, and we are simply stewards of it; from Genesis through Revelation, this is what we're told repeatedly. In his view, we can earn righteousness and blessing-- diminishing Christ's sacrifice and manipulating God-- simply by paying 10%.

Another disturbing aspect of North's argument is that his most commonly cited source is himself-- his other books. His social theory examines the relationship between the Church, the State, and the Family. He sees the Church has having delegated economic authority to collect 10% and its refusal to preach its moral mandate as "cutting its own purse strings." He sees the State's encroachment on economic freedom through taxation as a consequence of the modern Church neglecting its economic mandate. He believes there will one day soon be an economic collapse in which the people of the world will no longer look to the State as guardian of the economy, but why would they look to churches who have neglected their moral authority and are so weak economically, he writes?

The second half of the book devolves into long argument against his father-in-law R.J. Rushdoony, who apparently lost his senses even more than North. Apparently there were some doctrinal schisms in the Reconstructionist movement and North decides to use this book to attack Rushdooney's odd positions. In the end, one can easily conclude that both North and Rushdooney are dangerous cranks, oblivious to any criticisms and the Reconstructionist movement something to be cautioned against. This is a zero-star book that no one should buy. It is terribly written.

One thought-provoking part of North's book that I agreed with was the urgency of churches to stay out of debt. Perhaps one day soon the government will remove the tax deductability of donations to churches, which will further erode churches' financial positions.

John F. Avanzini's Is Tithing for Today? is a shorter book that also looks at references to tithing out of context. Avanzini differs from Gary North in that he claims tithing started in the Garden of Eden-- Adam and Eve took care of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but were forbidden to eat from it, which the author equates to a tithe. This is quite a stretch and it stands to reason that if this were the case it would be held up elsewhere in Scripture-- it isn't, and people like Avanzini who make this claim do so with a bad understanding of the New Covenant. Avanzini also takes Malachi 3 and Hebrews 7 completely out of context, doesn't bother to explain the context, and does not consider anyone's explanation of the text. He even claims that Hebrews 7 provides a "biblical account of the Christian church receiving tithes well into the church age," which is clearly unjustified. Part of the problem with Avanzini and North is that they rely on the King James Version rather than examine the Greek to see what words were added by translators.  

But Avanzini goes a step further in making our righteousness dependent on our tithe, rather than on Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. A person who is not seeing God's physical blessings flow on them is probably not tithing, according to Avanzini. Neither Avanzini nor Gary North teach the Gospel or explain Jesus' propitiation in their books-- that is easily the most damning aspect of their books. God's favor is something we can earn by giving just 10% of our income, that seems like a bargain but it's not the Gospel. Zero stars, do not buy this book.

Matthew E. Narramore (probably pseudonym)'s Tithing: Low-Realm, Obsolete & Defunct does an excellent job not only debunking arguments in Gary North and John Avanzini's books, but by explaining the Gospel. Narramore does not attack anyone by name, and accepts that God blesses people of all different views. Someone who gives 10% cheerfully and sincerely is pleasing to God, but that person also misunderstands the Gospel and who we are in Christ.

Narramore works carefully through the prooftexts given by those advocating a mandatory 10% tithe and explains their context succinctly. He explains what the various Mosaic tithes were and how the New Covenant is superior to the old.

"Ten percent is not an eternally sacred standard of giving. God required much more than the tithe under the Law of Moses. There were many more sacrifices and offerings that were commanded. Many interpret the Law to require two separate tithes and some believe that it required three...Jesus never called anyone to a ten-percent commitment. His call was to absolute abandonment of all things for him and absolute commitment of all things to him."

"The leaders in Jerusalem concluded that they would give the gentile believers only four instructions...But even some of these instructions were based on faulty theology. Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians chapters 6, 8, and 10 that eating food offered to idols is not an issue if you have a revelation of the truth in Christ. If tithing was as important as it is said to be, the church leaders in Jerusalem would have certainly mentioned it."

"People who have wrong beliefs about tithing can still be greatly blessed, according to their faith and how they follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. But no matter how blessed and successful they are, it doesn't validate their doctrine and it doesn't mean they have all that God has made available. The glorious life of Christ cannot be fully experienced while following a way of life that was intended for men who lived before the resurrection...When the church gets a revelation of their union with Christ they will start living to serve God. They will have to be told to stop giving instead of having to be constantly harangued to start giving...The New Covenant has ended the compartmentalization of life. No part is more spiritual than another. In God's family enterprise we are expected to live for him with all of our resources, not just money." 

"If failure to tithe makes me a God-robber, then my righteousness depends on tithing. If failure to write out the first check on payday to the local church causes me to lose the favor of God on my life, then my righteousness must depend on doing that. If tithing is what redeems the remaining 90 percent of my paycheck, then the blood of Jesus did not redeem it. If a curse is going to come upon me for not tithing, then Christ has not redeemed me from the curse of the Law."

I give this book 4.5 stars as it is concise, clear, and biblically-based.

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