Saturday, February 27, 2010

Day 10 (Belated): On Tithing

Yesterday, my "day job" paycheck came in, and we now have some money in our giving fund for this project ... but first, some housekeeping issues. We have an auto-deduction of 10% of my paycheck to various charities, which is matched by my company (a very nice perk), before I ever see it. Also, since January, we have been tithing another 10% of all our income to our local church. We did this religious tithing on a trial basis, from January through March, to see how we felt about it and include our experience as part of the 40 Days of Giving project.

Tithing
Our giving started back when Amber first mentioned the idea of tithing. If you're like me, you either don't know what it is, or only have a vague sense. I remember learning about it in high school history class, where it was presented as a sort of tax imposed by the Catholic Church during the middle ages. To be honest, while I knew it was based in the Bible, it didn't occur to me for many years that this was a doctrine still being practiced by Protestant churches today. Though I'd put some money into offering plates when they were passed over my life, it never occurred to me that this was equated to the tithing I'd learned about in school.

In 2008, Amber and I started giving 10% of our gross income to charities (predominantly non-religious ones) that we found worthwhile, and noticed that not only did it not hurt our finances, but it actually seemed as if our finances were running more smoothly than ever. (More on the details of this in my hypothesis post.)

While our local church has discussed giving quite a bit, they don't address the specific issue of tithing all that much. In fact, one thing that I really like about the church, is that they specifically say when speaking about giving that the people listening don't have to give to them, but they want them to give somewhere. Last December, the church implemented a series of sermons based on the book The Blessed Life by Robert Morris, which brought tithing, as opposed to just giving, front and center.

Essentially, Morris puts forth a fairly strict view of tithing. In his interpretation, the Bible calls for 10% of your income to be given to the local church. And, most importantly, this has to be the first amount given on any income, or else it doesn't count as a valid tithe.

His basis for this stance is actually fairly logical, if you assume the Bible as the literally true word of God, and I'll try to do it justice in the brief discussion below, then offer my criticisms (of his interpretation, not of the Bible itself). He also recounts many personal anecdotes on giving which support his interpretations, which I will not address here.

Why the First of the First?
One of Morris' big points is that the money you give needs to be the first check you write, before you put other things first. If you write your mortgage check before your tithe check, you're actually putting the mortgage company (or the house) before God. Here's the Biblical argument:

In Exodus 13 (seemingly moments after Israel is freed from Egypt), God goes at length to talk about how the firstfruits of all crops and firstborn of all animals, including people, belong to him. If you do not offer these firstfruits back to God, in the way he outlines, then you are stealing from God.

This passage details two ways you can deal with the first products of abundance: sacrifice it or redeem it.

Redeem it, in this sense, means that the firstborn is an unclean animal, and you should sacrificing a clean animal in its place. So, regardless of what happens, a sacrifice is needed for every firstborn, which belongs to God, or else you're stealing from God ... which means that you are living under a curse.

And while this is laid out in Exodus, Morris supports it with evidence from even earlier. For example, God was able to kill all the firstborn in Egypt because he had a "legal" claim on them, but the Israelites got out of it by sacrificing a lamb in their place (redeeming the firstborn). Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, but is allowed to avoid this at the last minute, though a redemptive sacrifice in Isaac's place was still called for.

(The astute reader and biblical scholar may realize an issue with the Abraham situation described above, in that Isaac is not actually Abraham's firstborn son. That was Ishmael. However, Isaac was the firstborn of Sarah. Exodus 13 describes firstborn as the first to "open the womb," so I guess Isaac still qualifies under that interpretation. In fact, I suppose that God could legally lay claim to both Isaac and Ishmael under this rule.)

The story of Cain and Abel, from Genesis 4, appears to be about this principle as well. Abel is specifically cited as giving the "firstborn of his flock" in an offering, and God accepts them. Cain, on the other hand, provides his offering "in the process of time," and God didn't accept it. In other words, since Cain's offering wasn't the first of his firstfruits, God was unable to accept it. Cain murders Abel in revenge, so the first murder comes about because of a tithing issue.


And this lack of acceptance doesn't appear to be just egotism on God's part. Since God is perfect, anything which does not recognize him first cannot help but fall under a curse.

Still, the idea that God cannot help but be perfect runs into some logical problems, the most famous of which is whether an omnipotent God can create a rock that he himself cannot move. If he can create the rock, then he cannot move it, and is therefore not omnipotent. If he can move any rock, he cannot create such a rock, and therefore is not omnipotent. Either way, there are fundamental limitations on God's power. 

Though Morris doesn't go this way in his discussion, it appears that he accepts the idea of limitations on God's behavior. Morris seems to be saying that God literally had no choice about accepting Abel's offering and rejecting Cain's. Even if God had wanted to accept Cain's offering, He cannot accept an offering that is not the first of the first. It's literally impossible for Him to accept second best as an offering.

In other words, to use an example that Morris makes in his video sermon series, if God were playing golf He would get a hole-in-one every single time. And, it seems (though, again, Morris didn't point this out), He would be unable to miss a shot even if He tried.

This appears to be a theologically complex point, and one that I've heard referenced before. It reminds me a bit of the Kevin Smith film Dogma, the plot of which centers on the idea that proving God wrong - even about a minor, insignificant thing - would result in the collapse of all existence, because existence itself is held together by the divine thread of God's infallible will.


And, in fact, the tithing story that Morris lays out goes back to the very creation of the universe, too. The Genesis Creation story itself (or rather "the Fall of Man" portion of it), in Morris' view, is about tithing and respecting the things that belong to God. God declares the Tree of Knowledge off limits. It belongs to him. Stay away from it. If you take anything from it, you are stealing from God and therefore will be cursed.

In this view, the entire the history of humanity is therefore about the cursed consequences of stealing from God ... but you can alleviate the curse by offering a tithe, and turning the curse into a blessing.

Why 10 Percent?
The 10% figure comes in part from the word itself - tithe means "one-tenth." There are various references throughout the Bible, but probably one of the most relevant is Genesis 28:22, where Jacob (also known as Israel) says, "of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you."

Why Brought to Local Church?

In Exodus, God gives the rule to the people of Israel that "The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God" (Exodus 23:19). This and many other places in the Old Testament that discuss tithing make it clear that the tither should bring it to the "house of the Lord." Not television ministries, or distant Christian (or, heaven forbid, secular charities!), or anywhere else - the actual house of worship that you frequent, and you shouldn't really designate it for anything. It is, after all, God's money, not your money.

The church itself, of course, is free to designate it however they want, presumably guided by whatever religious principles upon which the church is founded. If you're going to a church, you have likely assumed that the church's leadership has some idea of what they're doing, so they can be trusted with the allocation of these funds. If not, then you should really choose a different church. Our local church funds a lot of community programs and international aid work, including ministries which help out in developing countries, so it's not just all going to pay the pastor's salary.

More Good Stuff
Morris goes on to discuss the idea of "mammon," which is a spirit of greed, and how it is diametrically opposed to love of God. You can't be greedy and spiritually righteous, and I certainly agree with this.

He also outlines a "principle of multiplication" which expands on his idea of being blessed. The blessing is obtained by the tithe, but when you give over and above the tithe amount, God will multiply what you give many-fold. The key example of this is the 12 loaves of bread that Jesus uses to feed 5,000 people in Luke 9. Jesus blesses the bread, but it multiplies only when the disciples give it away. (It's a cool analogy, but I have to admit I found the expansion of this into a general religious principle to be a bit of a stretch.)

My Criticisms
Even if you assume that the Bible is literally true, I have some problem with Morris' interpretation in one respect - the bit about the tithe only being valid if it goes to the local church. I disagree with this not only on grounds of personal belief, but also on theological grounds.

Morris is right that there are numerous references to bringing the tithe to the temple, but most of these are found throughout the Old Testament. And in the Old Testament, the temple wasn't just a church where people held meetings, it was literally the location where the ancient Hebrew people believed that God was physically manifested on Earth. He was in the back, behind the curtain, in the Holy of Holies. So you weren't just taking the money to a building and handing it over to some intermediaries, you were literally taking the money (or firstfruits or firstborn) to God Himself.

Under the New Testament, however, the rules are changed around. When Jesus died, the curtain was ripped asunder in the temple, symbolizing that God was no longer contained within the back of the temple, but was out in the world. In fact, Jesus says (Matthew 25:31-46), "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.... Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" and "the kingdom of god is within you" (Luke 17:21).

In other words, theologically, the New Testament untethers "God" from the temple itself and places him squarely inside of each and every person, especially those in need. So if you give your 10% to those in need, you are tithing under New Testament theology. You are giving God's portion of your money back to God's people, the needy. It does not matter in the least if the money goes through a church. 

Throughout The Blessed Life, I was continually thrown off by the author's repeated insistence that the money should only go to Christian organizations. It just seems like that was his own prejudice, in the midst of a discussion which, otherwise, I found quite compelling and internally consistent.

Of course, if you go to a church and find that it's servicing the spiritual needs of you, your family, and your community, you should certainly help to support it. But for those who don't, there are still many ways to give, and you shouldn't feel compelled to give to a church just because you think you'll be cursed by God if you don't.

All that having been said, though, I still enjoyed the book, and I think that everyone who claims to be a Christian should read it. If you believe the Bible is literally true, as many Americans do, then it presents powerful teachings that will make you question whether you're doing enough.

The book is extremely well thought out and written, and I do believe that he makes a very strong case that the Bible tells us that, at minimum, 10% of our income should be given away. Whether or not you're "cursed" if you don't do this, I'm not sure, but part of the point of this experiment is to find out if you're "blessed" when you do it. We've been donating it Morris' way - 10% to our local charity, right off the top - since January, and have not noticed any substantial change over the abundance flowing into our life over when we were giving 10% just to secular charities for the past year and a half. (There is, of course, the very odd incident of selling the pick-up truck just as I wrote the first tithe check, so I'm not ruling it out completely yet.)


Auto-Deduction
My company has a really good charitable matching program. Back in October, we decided that instead of giving a single payment to be matched, we'd sign up for their auto-deduction program. Ten percent of my gross salary from work is auto-deducted before I ever get the paycheck, and is split up among various charities. It gets paid out at the end of the year, along with the matching funds from the company. Here's how we decided to break down the donations this year:


This was before we decided to also tithe to the church, or decided to do the 40 Days of Giving project. If I'd known back in October that we'd have made either of those decisions, I can honestly say that I probably wouldn't have wanted to give a full 10% into the matching program, which commits us for the entire year.

Giving 20% (church tithe plus matching program) through January and February was manageable, but just barely so. It pretty much ate up any financial margin we had, though we didn't have to actually do without anything ... we just couldn't really splurge too much.

As you may be able to tell from this post, I'm personally feeling like our secular donations are doing more good than our religious donations, and that may be a bit unfair. Our church was able to send someone to help in Haiti, for example, and that was certainly worthwhile. They help fund worthwhile works in the community. But compared to healing a kid with a cleft palate or offering a starving family a means to provide meals for their family, it just seems kind of paltry by comparison.