Tithing, Responsibility, and the Presence
Given that ethical/judicial context of two-way responsibility between men and their institutions, then, what is the Biblical way for us to think about the tithe?
– Tithing and Dominion, R.J. Rushdoony
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Welcome to Episode 63 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will tackle a topic which, for all 2000 years of church history, still remains unresolved: tithing. No, don’t expect me to resolve it in one little episode of one little podcast, if dozens of books by all kinds of theologians of all kinds of denominations, and tens of thousands of sermons by all kinds of preachers of all kinds of denominations have not led to anything close to agreement, nor even to approximate agreement on the issue. I sometimes think that tithing is a bit overrated topic, just like water baptism. If you remember, in the episode where we talked about water baptism, I pointed out that the proportion of our modern theological talk that we have devoted to water baptism doesn’t in any possible way match the proportion the Bible devotes to it: we have at the most half dozen verses in the Bible – a very low share compared to the whole Scripture – dealing with water baptism, while in our modern theological discussions we have thousands of books and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of chapters, lectures, articles, seminary textbook lessons, etc., that deal with the topic of water baptism. I wonder sometimes, where do we find all the material to comment on, if the Bible contains so little on the issue? The same problem I see in our theological treatment of the tithe: there is very little on it in the Bible (although, admittedly, more than about water baptism), and most of it is not prescriptive in any way, or can’t serve to give us any practical instructions or commands as to what we should do about it in the modern church.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the tithe is not important – just like I am not saying that the sacraments are not important. But importance has its degrees, and it is perfectly possible for the importance of some things to be overestimated, for different reasons. For one, it may be overestimated because of false ideology based on a fallacious worldview. To think of an example, it would be Paul’s discussion of the virtues of celibacy in 1 Cor. 7:32-35. Paul’s words are important, but a false ideology like that of the Roman church will lead us to ascribe too much “spirituality” to a special class of single people. Or importance may be overemphasized because it is in the personal interest of a special class of people to establish their power over other people; and I am sure you can easily figure what class of people may be served by overemphasizing the sacraments and the tithe. Especially the tithe.
Thus, as important as the tithe is, it is not awfully commonly covered in the Bible – at least not as much as other things, like righteousness and justice, which most of the time go unmentioned from the church’s pulpits in America. But if you have listened to most episodes of Axe to the Root, by now you know why the vast majority of pulpits seldom mention justice and righteousness, the foundations of God’s throne. This is not our topic now, however. This week, we want to look into a connection seldom made by most churches today, even when they claim to preach “Biblically” on the tithe. The topic is: What is the responsibility of the tither as to where his tithe goes?
“Responsibility” and “accountability” have become fashionable words in the churchian landscape of the last several decades. Now, when I say “fashionable,” I don’t mean that accountability is not a good thing. In fact, accountability – in terms of giving an account to other Christians about one’s beliefs, words, and actions – is part of the very nature of the covenant, and is an integral part of covenantal thinking. Remember, when we talked, in the first episode of Axe to the Root, about the nature of Biblical spirituality, and about the Biblical definition of a spiritual man, we saw that the Bible has only one definition for a spiritual man: one who judges everything. Biblical spirituality, therefore, requires that all the actions of all the people pass careful scrutiny as to whether they are in agreement with the ethics and the worldview of the Bible. The spiritual man must judge everything, and his actions must be subject to judgment; or, as Hebrews 5:14 indicates, a mature person is one who has trained his senses to discern between good and evil in everything. And he must judge himself; especially himself, as Matt. 7:3-5 and Luke 6:41-42 command. Therefore, in a world of Biblical spirituality, you will have to judge, if you are spiritual, and, conversely, you will have to be judged, because as spiritual as you are, you aren’t perfectly so, and therefore you are not above judgment by other people. In this mutual judgment between covenant people who are all spiritual, and yet who are all still imperfect in their spirituality, comes true accountability. We are judged by others in terms of good and evil in all we believe speak, and do, and we judge others in terms of good and evil in all they believe, speak, and do. This mutual judgment is what restrains us from going rogue on God and His covenant. This mutual judgment is what keeps us accountable to God.
Unfortunately, however, this is not what modern pastors and preachers have in mind when they speak about accountability. And I am speaking here not just of any pastors and preachers, but of evangelical and Reformed pastors and preachers – or what passes for “evangelical” or “Reformed.” Ironically, the Reformation started with Luther’s attack against Rome’s ecclesiology; an ecclesiology that placed all the power in the church in the hands of a self-appointed institutional elite, which institutional elite insisted that it was by the right of its institutional power free of any accountability to the mass of ordinary believers and members of the universal church. Today, we like to look back to the Reformation as a gigantic battle of theological concepts, but the reality is, for the first 7 years after Luther posted his Theses on the door of that church in Wittenberg, the arguments used against the German Reformer were only ecclesiological arguments: “By what authority are you saying all these things?” “Who are your elders?” “What church are you a member of?” Etc. The theological debates didn’t start until 1524, when Erasmus published his Diatribe on the Freedom of the Will, to which Luther replied the next year in his The Bondage of the Will. The resistance against the Reformation was initially not against Luther’s theology – in fact, quite a few Roman theologians were willing to acknowledge the basic points of his theology as valid. The argument was against his claim that the Pope and his cardinals and archbishops should be subject to the same rules for accountability and judgment as the ordinary believers. That’s why the real controversy of the Reformation was not the doctrine of Scripture, nor the doctrine of predestination vs. free will, nor even the doctrine of salvation by works or by faith, but Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and, even more than that, what followed from it: the doctrine of the right and duty of private judgment. Yes, the same doctrine of the right and duty of private judgment which today is forgotten and never even mentioned in any Reformed or evangelical church throughout the United States. The doctrine that gave the spark of the Reformation has ZERO sermons devoted to it on SermonAudio today, and the vast majority of “Reformed” or “evangelical” church-goers have never even heard of it, and certainly not from their pastors or elders or seminary professors. For all practical purposes, what passes for “Protestant” or “evangelical” today has returned to Roman Catholicism.
Under this papist ecclesiology restored in the churches that claim to be “Protestant” or “evangelical,” accountability is only applied to ordinary members but not to church leadership. Obviously, if ordinary members are not priests (if their priesthood is not reaffirmed in the church’s theology) and if their right and duty of private judgment is not established and affirmed (because it is forgotten and not preached about at all), there is no theological principle that can keep the elders or the session accountable for anything they do. Except, of course, to themselves, which is no different than the practice of modern police department to “investigate themselves” and, of course, clear themselves of any wrongdoing, even when cops commit obvious crimes like murder of robbery. In my article, “Modern Presbyterianism and the Destruction of the Principle of Plurality of Elders,” I have shown how the very constitutions of Presbyterian denominations are so written as to prevent any judicial action against church sessions who commit injustice. On the surface, individual elders are liable to be taken to court; but that means nothing once you realize that according to the same denominations’ constitutions, rule in the churches is only joint, never individual. Thus, sessions as bodies make decisions but sessions as bodies are not liable, and you can’t take a session to court. (And if you take individual elders to court, they always have the session’s decision as their justification.) Accountability is only for the ordinary believers who are not protected by the legal power of their status as members of the session; for them, their “membership” only makes them vulnerable to all kids of injustices from the leadership. But for the leadership, accountability is zero. Thus, when you hear the word “accountability” coming out of the mouth of a modern “Reformed” or “evangelical” pastor or preacher, keep in mind, it doesn’t mean what you think it means. It only means that he keeps for himself the power to control your life and part of your money, under the pretext of “ministering” to you, while at the same time you are not allowed to ask about or seek accountability from him as to what he does with the power he has and with the money you are expected to contribute to his so-called “ministry.”
Responsibility, R.J. Rushdoony says in his Institutes of Biblical Law, pages 481-484, is not a one-way street. Even when we enter a covenant with God, Who has no obligation to anything in His creation, He still voluntarily assumes certain obligations on His part of the Covenant. It would be even more applicable to relationships between men: there is never a one-way street relationship where only one of the parties is responsible to the other. Responsibility must be a two-way street, otherwise, as Rushdoony shows from Biblical examples, it is not true responsibility but pure theft. In a relationship where only one party bears responsibility and therefore is accountable to the other, the other party is nothing more than a thief, and can’t be any kind of “minister.”
This context and background – of true Biblical responsibility and accountability – is the only legitimate context and background for any discussion on the tithe. Without first laying the foundation of true Biblical relationships of mutual judgment and accountability – including between members of the church and ministers of the church – we can’t really talk about the tithe. Without such background, the tithe becomes nothing more than extortion money; a fee levied on the ordinary believer to acknowledge him as part of the visible church. A refusal to pay the fee makes him officially un-admitted into the church. Again, not that the tithe itself is unlawful or un-Biblical; but the context in which it is paid – one-way responsibility between the ordinary members and the church leadership, and the total lack of accountability for the leadership – makes the tithe nothing more than theft. Unless we acknowledge this ethical/judicial reality of any relationship between church members and church ministers – not just the tithe – we are doomed to create nothing more than the same papist bureaucracy as Rome. And indeed, the vast majority of the so called “local churches” in the US are nothing more than local popedoms. This last week was 500 years of the beginning of the Reformation; and yet, looking at the churchian landscape in America today, one can hardly see anything else but Rome replicated 300,000 times.
Given that ethical/judicial context of two-way responsibility between men and their institutions, then, what is the Biblical way for us to think about the tithe? Keep in mind that while the Bible does speak about the tithe, and while it can be safely concluded from the little it says about it that every believer owes God a tithe, and that means not just given directly to God but to someone else on earth, whether institutions or projects or individual people, there is nothing in the Bible that specifically declares the procedural details of where and how the tithe is supposed to be paid. At least not in the New Testament. There are such specific laws in the Old Testament, but there is also sufficient evidence that these laws are part of the shadows of the Law, and therefore these laws are applicable under the New Covenant under the discretion of general equity at best. Besides, as we will see shortly, even the shadows of the Old Testament admitted of the use of discretion, common sense, and general equity contrary to the specific commandments – and in fact, Jesus approved of such use. To say it simply, there is more to the tithe than just giving it to a group of priests or elders. The group or session of priests or elders have to work hard to deserve it. If they don’t, the obligation of the tither is to re-direct his tithe. In other words, he has an obligation to pay it; but his pastor or elders are not entitled to it by default. Once we understand the Biblical principle that the tithe has to be given only in a setting of two-way responsibility, the theory that the giver is obligated to give, and then it’s on the church ministers what they do with it, is dispelled. The giver must make sure the money he gives goes to the right purposes, otherwise his responsibility is to not give, and to re-direct his money to where it will be used rightly. So, then, what is the principle?
Since the modern defenders of ecclesiocracy defend, in one way or another the principle of one-way responsibility – that is, the church member is obligated to tithe (that’s where the so-called “local church membership” matters the most, not the nonsense of “fellowship,” which is actually lacking in almost all the churches who practice formal “membership”), so, the church member is obligated to tithe but spending the money is left to the discretion of the church leadership – and since these modern defenders of ecclesiocracy point to the Law of God and its commandments to tithe to the levitical system, our best starting point in learning the principle behind tithing is to start from the exceptions to the rule. If there are exceptions to the rule, then it can be only because the principle of tithing is broken somewhere; and if we find out what is broken, we will be able to find the connection between tithing and the ethical/judicial foudnation for the responsibility of the tither.
In his Institutes, page 513, Rushdoony mentions one such exception, and comments shortly on it. Here are his words:
[QUOTE]The tithe is to the Lord. Thus, in the days of Elisha, a man from Baal-Shalisha brought his tithe to Elisha and his school rather than to the priests (2 Kings 4:42). In so doing, he was exercising his right to give to that which served the Lord best, rather to an official but apostate priesthood.[END OF QUOTE]
Notice how Rushdoony pays homage to the fundamental principle of the Reformation, the Right and Duty of Private Judgment, a principle that today is forgotten in every single church and denomination that claims to be “Reformed” or “Protestant.” I think, however, Rushdoony is slightly incorrect here. No not incorrect in the fact that an individual has the right and duty to judge who is eligible to receive his tithe: That much is obvious, if we understand the principle of Biblical responsibility and accountability. Where he is slightly incorrect is that he believes that the principle for giving is “to that which serves the Lord best.” While it does have some merit to it, I think there is more to consider in this situation. At least we know from the Bible, that even under the Old Covenant, the laws for the tithe were such as to be open to breaking when it came to giving; an individual could decide to give elsewhere, not to the priests, and that didn’t have to incur guilt. The bikkurim, the first fruits mentioned in this example, were specifically to be offered as a grain offering and also eaten before the Lord, in a sort of presentation of Israel. Taking them to a prophet somewhere in the wilderness was a violation of the Law. But Elisha didn’t see it as such. He instead used it to make the first example of feeding hundreds of people with just a little food, and some even remained, pre-imaging Jesus’s similar miracles. This connection with Jesus’s miracles is important, and we will return to it shortly. The question still is: what did the man of Baal-Shalisha (which literally means, The Lord of the Three, or The Lord of the Trinity, by the way, and is a city that no one really knows where it is) see in Elisha to find it necessary to break the Law and give him what belonged to the priests and the Temple?
It must have been the same thing as in another example where what by the Law belonged to the priests was given to a non-priest: 1 Samuel 21:4-6, when Ahimelech the priest gave David and his men the consecrated bread which only the priests were allowed to eat of. Another violation of the Law, and yet, God didn’t seem displeased with it; in fact, Jesus affirms that it was right and just to do it, in Matthew 12:4. (See also Luke 6:1-5 and Mark 2:23-28.) Jesus’s words here indicate something, however, which is usually missed in the English translations, which translate it either the consecrated or sacred bread or the shewbread. The phrase Jesus uses, however, is different; it literally means, in Greek, the bread of the presence, in all three gospels. Now, the original Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 24 only uses the phrase “sacred” or “consecrated” bread. Why did Jesus change it to “of the presence”? The phrase “bread of the presence” is used only twice in the Old Testament, once in Exodus 25:30, and then in Exodus 39:36. The bread is usually called kodesh, that is, “consecrated,” and Ahimelech uses that same phrase, but for this specific case, Jesus prefers to call it “of the presence,”, as in its less common use.
He obviously does it to indicate that the shadow parts of the Law can be ignored when a greater issue is at hand. He is speaking of His disciples violating the Sabbath (which was true, they were violating it), and after giving His examples from the Law, He ended with His justification of their actions: “Something greater than the Temple is here.”
Now we are beginning to see the common element: There is a presence there. Jesus preferred to use the less known name of the bread – the bread of the presence – and He ended His lesson with, “There is a greater presence here.” Returning to His other example in Matt. 12, the priests breaking the Sabbath in the Temple and not being guilty. Why? Well, they are in the Temple, and the Temple was not a magic place, it was the presence of God. Obviously, if the Presence was gone, the Temple was nothing, so the only thing that saved the priests was God’s presence.
Now that we have noticed the common element, we can return to the man of Baal-Shalisha and ask, what did the man see in Elisha, after all? Again, he saw the presence of God. The story of him bringing Elisha his first fruits is right in the middle of a long passage (2 Kings, chapter 4-6) describing the everyday miracles Elisha was performing in Israel and outside Israel. Now, modern cessationist theologians to the contrary, miracles are not limited to proving the veracity of a word; they have a much greater function, and that function is to indicate of thepresence of God. All the miracles in the gospels were meant to prove to Israel that the one called Emanuel, that is, God with us, is here. “Are you the One,” asked John the Baptist, “or should we wait for another.” (There’s your long Baptist tradition of distrusting God’s miracles and trusting men’s words.) Jesus’s answer was: “Look at all these miracles. What else do you need to know Whose presence is here?” Such examples can be found everywhere in the Bible, where miracles indicated the presence of God. So the man of Baal-Shalisha knew well: This Elisha dude has miracles happen around him all the time. God’s presence must be with him. I will put first fruits where God’s presence is.
The same principle can be seen in other instances of the tithe, or of any offering whatsoever. Why did Abraham give Melchizedek a tithe? Hebrews 7 explains it: Melchizedek, whose name is both priest and king, was the presence of the very God: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God.” Abraham, whose spirit was very sensitive to the presence of God (remember Gen. 18:3), and he could certainly sense when someone has the presence of God with them. This is what made him give a tithe.
Jacob’s pledge to give a tithe was related to the same factor: God’s presence. In Genesis 28:10-22, Jacob has a dream, and he sees God, and God repeats to him the promise of His covenant. Jacob wakes up and his reaction is, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” Again, God’s presence is there. He calls the place Bethel, the House of God, even though there was no temple nor any institutional arrangement there; and, by the way, there has never been any in the history of Israel. And then Jacob promises to serve God and – wait for it – to “surely give a tithe” to God. Again, it is God’s presence, and that in a place where there is only a stone, and there has never been anything else, no church, no temple, not even a synagogue.
And there are many other examples in the Bible, where people felt obligated to give money where they saw the presence of God: when the Israelites contributed to the Tabernacle, later to the Temple, when Naaman wanted to donate a fortune to Elisha, when the Christians in Jerusalem sold their property and took the money to the apostles, etc., etc., etc. To this we need to add the special tithe of the third year which was not even related to the Temple system in any possible way (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12-15). It was supposed to be kept in the towns and used as welfare for the porr, the strangers (yes, welfare for the strangers, in the Bible), the levites, the orphans and the widows. But again, mentioning all these categories means that the tithe was supposed to deomnstrate that God is present among His people Israel, for His abundance and mercy can’t be anything else but a sign to His presence. Immanuel, God with us.
In every such example of paying some form of a tithe of making an offering to God, the common element was that the giver sought the presence of God and gave to the place where he saw that presence. The Presence was the factor; while Rushdoony is correct that the giver has the responsibility to decide who deserves the tithe, I think his explanation for the fundamental criteria is inadequate: it’s not where the money will serve the best, it’s where the presence of God is.
But how could a giver decide where the presence of God is? Isn’t he supposed to just accept the word of his ecclesiastical rulers as to where that presence is, as a sign of “submission” to church authorities? Not at all.
In all these cases in the Word, the presence of God was a personal, direct revelation to the giver. Ahimelech the priest knew – from Samuel’s prophecy – that David was God’s beloved. Abraham personally knew Melchizedek was an image of the Son of God. The man from Beth-Shalisha could personally judge that God’s Spirit was with Elisha. Jesus’s disciples had a personal revelation that He was God; “Peter, Peter, flesh and blood did not reveal that to you, but My Father in heaven.” Jacob had a dream and a personal revelation. The presence of God is not determined by institutional arangements. Sometimes He does abide by the institutional arrangements, as long as the leaders of the institution obey His voice – which hasn’t happened too often in history, and is certainly far fom happening today in the so-called “Reformed” or “evangelical” churches. In other times, God is outside the institutions that are officially bearing His name, as He was in the times of the prophets, and in the time of Jesus, and in the time of the Reformation. When God is outside those institutions, it is the responsibility of His worshipers to seek and pray for personal revelation to indicate His presence, and re-direct their tithe accordingly. The tithe is owned to God. Since it is owned to God, it must be paid where God is. If a church or other institution wants that tithe, it must make sure it is obedient to God and therefore has His presence. If not, it doesn’t deserve the tithe, and then it is responsibility of the giver to not give it his tithe, but seek the presence of God.
The presence of God is a concept, however, long-forgotten in our churches. It was the central concept of the Old Covenant. Where God’s presence was decided everything, decided more than than any institutional organization or ceremonial activities could decide. Israel in Elijah’s time had a powerful monarchy, an established Temple hierarchy, was a prosperous and vibrant culture still eating the fruit of blessing from the previous generations; and yet, when Elijah left Israel and went to Mount Sinai, God’s presence was there with him, the lone ranger prophet of no roots and no church membership. (Remember, Elijah was an exile in Israel, he couldn’t even offer his mandatory sacrifices under the Law.) The Bible clearly speaks that it is God’s presence that decides everything; institutional action doesn’t. Even where the institutional leadership has all the power, where the Presence of God is missing, eventually they become powerless and lose their churches, and children, and eventually the culture. The presence of God is a central concept in the New Testament; in fact, this was the very promise of the New Covenant, that God will establish His dwelling place among and in His people, and will walk among them, and that the new name He will be known is Immanuel, God with us. This presence was very obvious in the descriptions of the early church in Acts; both Jews and Gentiles acknowledged that presence. And yet, there is nothing even close to it in our modern churches in America. Our churches are all dead, for all practical purposes; they are all devoid of the presence of God, no one can recognize it there. In fact, if anything, our whole generation – and probably a few generations before us – has lost even the sense of discerning the presence of God. We don’t even know how it looks like, we haven’t even experienced it once, we don’t know what it is to have a church really moved by the Spirit and the Word, all we have is whitewashed tombs that we attend every Sunday to participate in “services” that are grimmer and more somber than a funeral service. And then we demand that people attend them regularly and even pay us money for them.
The tithe, therefore, must be restored in its true meaning and intent; but more important than that, our discernment of the presence of God needs to be restored before anything else is restored. We in the US have been losing not only the culture but also our children and our churches – which is not bad, given that most of those churches are not worth a dime – and that loss has a spiritual reason for it. The Temple was lost when God’s Glory Cloud, God’s presence. This may be the reason we are losing. And the restoration will start when each one of us prays for, seeks earnestly, and through the Holy Spirit develops that discernment thta will make us capable of saying like Jacob, “I can see that God is in this place.” And then act – and tithe – accordingly.
The book I will assign for reading this week is RJ Rushdoony, Tithing and Dominion. While after so many years and attempts at consistent development of my views of tithing, I would like to correct a few details in that book if I could, its general view of the tithe and its relation to dominion and Christian life is unsurpassed in all Christian literature so far. The tithe is not about your church, and not about any church. The tithe is about God and His Kingdom. Once we learn that principle, many things will change to the better.
And remember in your praying and giving Bulgarian Reformation Ministries. God has been with us in Bulgaria, granting success to a mission that, unlike many other missions, has operated on a shoestring budget. We need help to edit translated books, and we need help to publish these books and put them in the hands of Bulgarian Christians. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter (to find out if God’s presence is with our mission) and donate. God bless you all.