I am writing in response to the article by Gary Hoag and Jon Wiebe, “Avoiding Tarnished Teaching,” from the January/February issue regarding stewardship for the church. I found the essay insightful in a number of ways, notably for the authors’ clear criticisms of the prosperity gospel and exhortation to live out the lavish generosity to which Christ called us.
It is for this reason that I found the essay’s first section unhelpful. The authors are correct in noting the scholarly dispute over what constitutes a tithe (10 percent or 23.33 percent) and are right to encourage churches not to trod over grace in order to make an ironclad law out of the tithe. However, their encouragement to dispense with the idea of a tithe altogether would, I fear, be unwise.
They are wrong that “Jesus never used the ‘tithe’ in teaching his disciples.” In response to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who tithed to the very last penny but disregarded the heart of God’s law, Jesus castigated them, while also exhorting, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23, Lk. 11:42). Neither is the tithe a mere matter of the law—Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, a priest of God Most High, long before the handing down of the law (Gen. 14:17-24). And since the authors call for reading through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount, every time that Jesus brings up the law, he does so to make it more stringent. The commandments not to murder or commit adultery become calls to not even get angry with or lust after another. It would stand to reason that, since everything that we have is from God, the command to tithe would become a call to give everything away—as the rich young ruler found out to his chagrin. One need not rely on Old Testament law and prophecy to find biblical warrant for the concept of the tithe.
Their counsel is also lacking in a pastoral sense. In their effort to uphold the gospel of grace over the demands of the law—a worthwhile effort!—I fear that, in practice, their call would lead to fewer people giving less money, rather than the other way around. Americans, on average, give away around 2 percent of their disposable income to charity, and it is not all that different within the church. I fear that the removal of any kind of call to tithe would lead to Christians giving less, rather than producing more cheerful givers.
We should encourage Christians to be generous but not out of any obligation. We should give because of this truth: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9-10). When taught in this way, the tithe can play a part in encouraging gracious generosity.