PREACHERS TURN THEIR CONGREGATION into a synagogue – temporarily – when it comes time to raise money.
That’s an exaggerated way of reporting what some church historians say about the way some ministers raise money from their parishioners.
Many Christians have heard it preached this way all of their life:
- In the world’s first tithe, Abraham gave a mysterious priest named Melchizedek 10% of the valuables he got in a battle.
- Moses told the Jews they had to give 10% of what they owned to the temple, “which to us,” some preachers add, “means the church.”
- Malachi the prophet quoted God as telling Jews who did not tithe, “You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me” (Malachi 3:8).
- Malachi added, “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10). And by “storehouse,” some preachers add again, he means today “the church.”
Next, the preacher might urge us to fill out our pledge card and carry it up to the front of the sanctuary while everyone is watching. As a result, everyone can see who drops a card into the basket and who does not. The preacher might add that this worshipful procession is how it was done in Bible times.
Church historians weigh in
What some church historians say irritates them about this entire scenario is that the preachers are using obsolete Jewish laws to hard sell the idea that God demands Christians give 10% of their money to the church.
God does not require that, nor did the early Christians practice it, some church historians insist.
These historians add that none of the founders of Christian movements tithed either, including Martin Luther (theological father of Lutherans), John Calvin (theological father of many Baptists and Presbyterians), and John Wesley (theological father of Methodists, Nazarenes, and the Salvation Army).
What the historians say is this: early Christians rejected tithing because they said it was Jewish legalism. Those Christians insisted that tithing was part of the ancient Jewish law in the Old Covenant agreement between God and the Jews. And they said Jesus retired that system when he established the New Covenant agreement based on faith instead of the hundreds of Jewish laws in the Old Testament.
As one New Testament writer put it, “When God speaks of a ‘new’ covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13).
Christians who donated money in the New Testament didn’t seem to be tithing, some scholars say. Those Christians seemed to be giving offerings based on what they decided themselves, with God’s help. What they gave was not based on Jewish law or on what a preacher told them they had to give.
Paul advised the Christians of his day, “You must each decide in your heart how much to give” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Church historians report that Christians didn’t start teaching that God expected a 10% tithe of income until the mid-1800s…and that there are no sermons on 10% tithing before then.
Church historians writing for a variety of publications, including Mark Rogers writing “Passing the Plate,” for the conservative Christian History magazine, report that tithing became a fundraising technique after the American government stopped supporting churches with tax money, beginning in the 1830s.
This fundraising technique produced a lot more money than renting pews. So it became the preferred method of fundraising for the church, historians say.
Some of those historians say they don’t have a problem with churches requesting 10%. They say their problem is with preachers who strong-arm their congregation by insisting that 10% is a demand God makes of his people.
One historian I read, Dr. Paul Bassett, retired from Nazarene Theological Seminary (“Tithing is a new idea,” Illustrated Bible Life, September-November 1993), said he doesn’t have a problem with Christians tithing. “Let’s keep it. And let’s keep urging people to give it. But let’s free ourselves from the burden of trying to prove the theologically unprovable and from the attempt to transform a wonderful pragmatic device into a holy commandment.”
Saints go marching in
About that the idea of marching people forward to drop their money in a basket, that certainly was something the Jews did.
Jesus “watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins” (Luke 21:1-2).
But what Jesus told his followers to do, some students of the Bible say, doesn’t track particularly well with what the Jews did – or with what marketers tell pastors to do to raise max-money for the church.
Jesus said, “Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3).
Christians I’ve heard talking about the practice of marching their money and their pledges to the basket in a public display say they wonder how that practice is any different than the peer pressure technique we feel at a Tupperware party – or at any similar setting in which we are made to feel obligated to contribute whether or not we can afford it.
One last note
A lot of Christians get incredibly upset when they read reporting like this. It clashes with a fundamental teaching they have heard and practiced their entire Christian life. So the idea sounds like heresy to them.
Others get incredibly upset because when they look into this and find merit in what the church historians have to say, they feel exploited, manipulated, and even swindled.
I understand. And I’m sorry. But I do think it’s important to report on this topic from time to time because we so regularly encounter the flip side of the argument, and we so rarely hear the argument from the perspective of church historians.
For more on tithing
- Surprise: Tithing is Jewish, not Christian
- “Tithing,” Complete Bible Handbook, pages 226-228
- “A tenth for the temple,” The Complete Guide to the Bible, pages 293-294
- “Why early Christians didn’t tithe,” The Complete Guide to the Bible, page 294