Countless sermons have been preached instructing people to give, and God will let you have the car you want, the house you want, and the life you want. Amusingly, my web logs indicate that this essay is found frequently by pastors Googling for prosperity sermons to preach on Sunday. It seems strange, though, that a people who profess to follow Christ are so anxious to convince the church that God wants them to be rich, when the Bible teaches no such thing – God has promised us no such prosperity, but only trials, tribulation, and possibly martyrdom. James teaches us that there’s something profoundly wrong with a miser, treating the notion of being rich as a sign of poor character in their lack of generosity. So are pastors just in error, wanting to see their congregation blessed in this consumer driven American culture, or are they preaching up promises of breakthroughs and finances because they know they’ll reap some of the benefits? In either case, Christians shouldn’t be so naive, given the role model we have in Jesus’ life.
It’s a dangerous road to go down, one that equates financial affluence to spirituality or to acceptance by God. It’s the reason many of the most conservative states in America choose to handicap their financial assistance programs to the detriment of human life; the end-game of this mindset is ultimately to let the poor die off and assign a higher value on human life to the financially affluent. Sound sick to you? Plenty of Christians in America use the slightly dulled down version of this in saying, “God helps those who help themselves”, ignoring Jesus’ example. In reality, God helps those who can’t help themselves, and God helps those who help others. He doesn’t care much for those who help themselves. The root of the (awful) belief that money is somehow tied to approval from God has its roots in the prosperity gospel mindset, and among the sociopaths who actually believe such things are many pastors who preach it on Sundays.
Money is so inconsequential in Christianity. What if God wants you to live in poverty so you can reach one specific person some day, who might later become the next Billy Graham or Mother Teresa? You may rebuke that thought, or call it false humility, but that’s what many of the men closest to Jesus did, so you can’t write that off without also writing them off.
The Bible can be easily twisted or misunderstood to mislead a congregation, who in all honesty should not be so easily manipulated. A few good sounding sermons in the absence of facts – or even common sense, and a church can quickly find itself in a position where money becomes a substitute for seeking God, and being “blessed” is replaced with some empty, counterfeit metric of prosperity. Even preachers with good intentions frequently lead their churches down the road of gold bricks and praying for wealth. It’s easy to believe it too – most people want to believe that God wants them to be better off than they are now, and that’s particular easy to grab hold to if you’ve been raised in a consumer-based American society, where financial wealth is socially connected to success.
But wait, didn’t Jesus come and die so that we could live better off than we were? Isn’t that what the whole gospel is about? Life more abundantly is reconciliation to God, not some better material life for us on Earth. So how is it that prosperity preachers have taken a sense of “more abundant life” and turned it around to suggest that we’re still waiting for some kind of breakthrough? Do we think we deserve better than what Jesus and his apostles had? Those who were closest to Christ were so affected by him that they chose abject poverty in favor of the greater reward.
The Corinthian church is an example of the dangers of a prosperity-driven church. They had gotten a little cocky and believed the apostles to be irrelevant, thanks to their supposed self-sufficiency. 1 Cor 4 describes the living conditions of the apostles – God’s sent – as a voluntarily meager and demeaning life. Chiding the Corinthian church, Paul explained the humility that he and other servants of God lived in for the purpose of advancing the gospel:
11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
Paul referred to the Apostles as being treated like “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world”. And yet, this was largely voluntary; Paul told the Corinthian church to imitate him. Paul loathed what little financial support he did accept so much he considered it to be “robbing the church”. The apostles put everything they were into advancing a gospel they believed in. They would only rarely accept money, and nowhere was it ever documented that they used it to buy a Cadillac. Most of the money they were entrusted with, they were mere pack-mules, bringing relief to famine-stricken areas.
Today’s prosperity-centric Christian propaganda is that “God wants you to be rich” – but even Paul denounced this, and declared it to be corruption.
…men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.
This is one of the reasons I support doing away with 501(C)(3) status the IRS affords to churches – if the church were really doing what the Bible called them to do with the money, it’d be tax deductible anyway, without the non-profit status, and may even be more motivated to help the community if keeping it in the church coffers no longer afforded them a tax shelter. But contrary to the lifestyle of people of God – who were martyred either in body, in posessions, or both – the western culture of the church mistakenly teaches its members that finances are to be poured into an establishment, rather than a cause. Rarely do you find men who are willing to make tents and smell like fish to preach the gospel anymore. When they do appear, we ship them off to third world countries, and with proportionately little support.
Not to say there’s anything wrong with having wealth. Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man, as were many members of the early church as expressed in Acts, who had land and property to give away to help meet needs in the early church. James even recognizes and legitimizes wealthy Christians in his letter, reminding them to be generous and share. People work hard, and do well in business. There’s nothing wrong with this; the real problem with wealth is in others falsely connecting it to favor from God. Ananias and Sapphira are a good example of how this is not the case.
If you trace the prosperity movement back to its roots, the teaching originates from an often severely misinterpreted and out-of-context passage in the book of Malachi. Malachi 3:8-12 is taught in many churches as a key passage for the belief that tithing brings approval from God and lack of such brings a curse; a teaching which is both very dangerous and misleading. The next section explores this passage and explains what Malachi was really talking about. The “bless me because I give” philosophy is not only scripturally unsound, but dangerous – apart from the feelings of condemnation it can heap on an individual, it can introduce them to a compulsion that can truly put them under a curse. I’ve seen it first hand in prosperity-driven churches.
After this, you’ll take a look at how giving was transformed in the New Testament, and what giving looked like in the early church. Finally, the real dangers of prosperity sermons will be explained.
Dispelling the Myths of Malachi
8 “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ “In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse-the whole nation of you-because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the LORD Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty.
If you look at the verse above out of context, you might jump to the conclusion that God puts curses on people who don’t give, or that if we give like crazy, we can somehow manipulate his will to throw heaps of cash our way. This is terribly wrong, but is easy to want to believe – especially if you’re among the poor, who are the prime target of prosperity preachers. After all, there’s little point preaching prosperity to someone who’s already financially well off. Lots of Christians have been taught this kind of giving all their lives, and would be shipwrecked to find that it simply isn’t true. This false doctrine of prosperity hinges on the following mistakes:
- Failing to give tithes and offerings was not the sole reason for a curse to be placed on the people, and really had very little to do with it when put in context.
- The storehouse is not a metaphor for the church (as an organization), but was a physical room in the temple, which today is inside the Christian. The idea of giving to the church’s organization structure is Biblically inaccurate. The real New Testament application of this concept is in meeting the needs of others, which was a focus of Jesus’ own parables.
- The common belief that there is a devourer corrupting the livelihoods of all people is false. Instead, the devouring going on here is done by God as part of the curse He has ordained for wicked nations. He himself inflicted the devouring of crops on the nation, and makes a plea to the people for the removal of this curse.
- The test in this passage is intended as a one-time concession for a fallen people – and this, out of their immaturity. The passage makes no claim that tithes and offerings obligate God to bless individuals or that opening the floodgates is a recurring event. True giving, in fact, is a display of submission to God’s will, and if it’s done in the right attitude, will bend the person’s own will to steer away from their own desires and line up with God’s desires for physical things.
- The offerings referenced in Malachi did not refer to monetary offerings over and above the tithe, suggesting that you should give your tithe, and then another 50% on top of that to win God’s favor.
The Reason for the Curse
Some teachings on Malachi 3 suggest that slack giving is the reason a curse was placed on this people. Looking closer, the extent of the problem was much more serious than this. The chapters in Malachi leading up to this passage paint the picture of an unfaithful people – a people who have abandoned their faith in God and followed foreign gods (2:11), sacrificed crippled and diseased animals (1:8), and even taught false doctrines including marriage to pagan foreigners (2:8, Ezra 9:1, Neh 13:27-29). This growing abandonment of God leads up to the treasury running barren, hilighted by this passage. The true problem with the people was an all-out abandonment of God and subsequent turn to wickedness. Slack giving was a footnote compared to the real problems. In context, the temple treasury running barren is the symbolic conclusion of a people’s apostasy, and not the basis for a curse.
The Meaning of “Storehouse”
Many refer to the storehouse from this passage as “the place where you’re fed”, namely the church establishment, trying to make the point that the organization you belong to (and namely, the leadership of that organization) are the appropriate channel to direct your finances to. The storehouse really refers to the treasury room of the Temple of God – a physical place which existed – and was not a mere abstract metaphor (1 Ki 7:51, 2Ch 31:11-12, Neh 13:12):
11 Hezekiah gave orders to prepare storerooms in the temple of the LORD, and this was done. 12 Then they faithfully brought in the contributions, tithes and dedicated gifts. Conaniah, a Levite, was in charge of these things, and his brother Shimei was next in rank.
12 All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms.
The treasury room of the temple sanctuary is portrayed as being barren in verse 10. This likely referenced the grain, wine, and oil – not gold. This verse suggests one of two things: either God was symbolically starving as one who is abandoned does, or possibly in a literal sense that there weren’t enough resources in the treasury to care for the needs of the temple priests or to provide for charity (a major function of the temple).
So if the storehouse is a physical place in the temple – and under the new covenant, the temple of God is within his people – then the storehouse is no longer representative of the church in its physical or organizational sense, but rather the church as a people, and their own treasury room; the storehouse reflects both the needs of the Christian (as an individual) and their means to provide charity to others. If you were to give into the temple treasury in a New Testament sense, you would be sowing into someone’s direct needs as well as that person’s ability to minister to someone else’s needs.
A Corporate Curse
The first two chapters of Malachi make it very clear that this apostasy was an act committed by the entire people, and not any one person. It was the people who abandoned God, and only such a corporate act could lead up to a barren treasury room in the temple. Verse 9 shows that God dealt judgment to the nation corporately and not on an individual basis. There is no evidence to support the notion that even under the law, God cursed a sole individual for failing to give. Verse 11 is a direct reference to the curses listed in Deuteronomy 28, which are applicable only to an entire nation as judgement. The conditions outlined in Deuteronomy 28 extend far beyond mere giving, but rather the state of a nation’s fear of God at its core.
No Natural Corruption
It is erroneously taught that this passage supports the claim that there is a natural corruption occurring in the world, apart from God, that we require God’s protection from. The confusion exists when God promises to withdraw his curses if the nation repents. Verse 11 could easily be construed to think that God will bless them and make their crops last longer, but in context, what God is really saying is that he will stop afflicting their land – pests will no longer devour their crops, and their vines will not cast their fruit… because God will stop afflicting them.
The notion that nature or the devil has been given a license to slowly corrupt the prosperity of the believer is false. What is demonstrated in this passage is not an acknowledgement of an uncontrollable corruption, but rather God’s own intentional afflictions placed on the people as per the curses in Deuteronomy 28 for a wicked nation:
15 However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
18 The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
30 You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit
Opening the Floodgates
Verses 10 and 12 are key verses for claiming, “give and God will throw open the floodgates”. The blessings in this passage are even sometimes taught as God having an obligation to react to giving. It’s not. Waving checks around in the air and naming your blessing is the exact opposite of what God tells us to do in the New Testament – to not even let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. In verse 12, God’s blessings are a result of covenant – not money – and really have very little to do with giving at all, but the kind of relationship that comes out of restoration of a covenant with his people. This misconception is probably the result of the blessings in verse 10 being commonly mistaken as the “antidote” of God’s curse, but that’s actually verse 11 (God removing his curse).
The blessings in verse 12 show a completely separate event occurring as a followup to repentance – relationship. And if you look at Deut. 28, you won’t find these blessings there – instead they are the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant:
2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.”
In other words, God was offering to restore the nation back to the blessings promised through Abraham if the nation came back into covenant with him. The people were “cursed”; verse 11 allowed them to go to “not cursed”; and the blessings in verse 12 were reserved for even further covenant with God.
In addition to this, opening the floodgates with blessings does not necessarily refer to a monetary reward for tithing. It could easily be an example of a step God will take when his people take a step toward reprentance. Regardless, the floodgates of blessings are a temporary concession – a good faith gesture and desperate plea to those who would come back to him. At best, it’s a carrot dangled in front of the nation to repent. It’s God bribing us to repent, not us bribing God for a blessing. Do you really want to be on that list?
The notion that God is obligated to bless all those who tithe presents a rather significant problem. If God was required to bless those who tithe, then he also would have also been required to open the floodgates of blessing for evil men. The Pharisees, whom Jesus affirmed were tithing under Mosaic law in the New Testament (Mat 23:23), were anything but on Jesus’ to-bless list. This would have created a paradox, as he was vehemently opposed to them, and in fact didn’t bless, but later cursed them because they were out of covenant with God. If giving money forced God’s hand, the most wicked wealthy people on Earth could reap blessings from God, and that’s simply not happening – unless, of course, you measure God’s presence in dollars.
God’s blessing comes to those who are in covenant with him, whose hearts are of the right attitude and whose wills are submitted to him, rather than their own wallets. It’s not measured in dollars either.
What Malachi Really Says
Malachi paints a picture of a just God in his wrath, casting a curse upon the nation causing their prosperity to corrupt and wither. He also illustrates the undying love and mercy of God in pleading with the nation to repent and be delivered of this curse.
What can be concluded from Malachi is that, under Mosaic Law, God judged the nation as a whole for abandoning God, worshipping foreign gods, and ultimately abandoning his temple to ruins. He provided a means of reconciliation that would lead to the withdraw of his curses, and further restoration into covenant with Him, along with a return of prosperity they’d lost by being cursed for their apostasy. This concession was offered on grace and not through the law.
This same pattern (redemption from the law through grace) is reflected in Jesus himself, bringing reconciliation through faith and repentance, and not through the law (Gal 3:21).
Believing that one can give their way into blessings is just as dangerous as believing that salvation can be earned by works or some other means. Both are based on covenant, and not the law or works.
What absolutely can not be supported by this passage is the idea that God curses any one individual for failing to give, or that justification can be achieved through obedience to the law – it was a concession provided through covenant. Christians need not be concerned with the concept that there is a devourer slowly chewing away at their prosperity, or that God’s hand of protection requires payment. God is not the mafia, nor does Malachi 3 support this concept.
Giving Transformed in the New Testament
Under the grace of the New Testament, which is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, and where the blessings from Malachi 3:12 flowed, much of the Old Testament’s representation on giving has been completely transformed – and in a beautiful way. Three key events occurred in the New Testament that affected the law and how it applies to giving.
End of the Curse
Just as reconciliation was provided through covenant in Malachi 3, reconciliation to God was provided in the New Testament in Christ through covenant. Gal. 3:13 teaches that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Christ absorbed the curses of the law (Col 2:8) and fulfilled the law’s requirements on our behalf through his own obedience. The curses of the law are therefore null and void for believers in Jesus Christ (Col 2:14), including the curses outlined in Deuteronomy 28 (although they did not apply to individuals in the first place). This means that when God looks at a genuine Christian who is living under the “law of grace” (Jas 2:8), it is as if that individual has fulfilled all of the requirements of the law, including those of the tithe.
This does away with the curse, but remember that blessing came under the Abrahamic covenant with God. Gal 3 shows that we are grafted into Abraham’s line as believers, leaving the choice up to us to remain in covenant with him.
The Temple and Storehouse Reissued
The temple of God dramatically shifted in the New Testament. It was no longer that of a physical building but rather believers themselves were made the temple of God (2 Cor 6:16). Jesus stopped referring to the template as “my temple”, and when he vacated the temple, used a sad irony in referring to it as “your temple”.
Notice throughout Christ’s entire ministry, not once did he tell his followers to sell their possessions and give the money to an organization, but rather give it to the poor; and this even before there was any fellowship of believers! Giving began with “the poor”, and later grew to include any believers in the church who were in need (Acts 4:32-35), although alms giving continued. Jesus sowed himself into people rather than the establishment. He didn’t care about the needs of any establishment; he was setting an example of what New Testament giving should look like based on a New Testament temple – the temple made of people.
“So that there may be food in my house”, which now calls for need to be met in others, as temples of God, for the purposes of worship and sacrifice and for charity, just like the original temple. This is perfectly in-line with James’ definition of the “royal law” as Christ’s commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself. The storehouse doesn’t refer to the church as an organization in the New Testament, but rather the believers themselves! This pattern of blessing people, and not a corporation, can be observed throughout the entire New Testament.
Bear in mind, this didn’t mean a free for all. After the body of believers were established, some respects of giving became somewhat organized and was funneled through the Apostles and later the church elders (Acts 4:35), however they acted as mere intermediaries to transport and redistributed the funds accordingly to those in need during times of famine. There is no evidence to suggest that the church had a bank account or any type of organizational fund. The purpose was to bring the “tithe” into his temple, now the living temple – the people.
Most church leaderships are still treating the church as an organization or a building, which is Old Testament thinking, where they really ought to be viewing the temple as the people themselves. They make the mistake of investing their money in material things such as buildings, projectors, sound stages, paved parking lots, and other things the New Testament church intentionally steered away from. The “organization” never touched the money in the New Testament. Rather than spend money on a physical building, the church gathered on public property (Acts 5:12) and in homes (Acts 8:3, Romans 16:5, 1 Cor 16:19), and not because they didn’t have the finances to build a building. In fact, there were several occasions noted in scripture where people sold land and gave the money to the apostles, where it would later be used to help those in need. Not only were the finances abundant enough to build a dedicated facility, but the land was already owned by members of the church. The church was also well respected by the people (Acts 5:13) and were not (yet) under persecution, yet even as the Christian movement began to diverge from the Jewish synagogues, there’s no record of them building. Instead of a building, the purpose of giving shifted away from a temple treasury and funneled directly into affecting people’s lives, with the church elders as stewards only.
The Law Transformed
Because of grace, the entire law was summed up into a single commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:14) outlining that all of the outward characteristics of a Christian would be demonstrated merely by following this one command. This further illustrated that matters of the heart were what was really important to God, rather than compulsory giving:
8 First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made).
Paul refers to the church’s offerings to his ministry as not only voluntary (Phlp 4:15) but also as a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice (Phlp 4:18) which was an offering of thanksgiving and praise (Lev 7:12-15, Rom 12:1, Eph 5:2) – not an offering of compulsion and begging. So to love your neighbor is to fulfill the law, and part of loving your neighbor involves ensuring their needs are met.
Is Tithing Then Obsolete?
So if we’re no longer under the law, why does the church still tithe? After all, if the requirements of the law have been met in loving our neighbor, then why would a requirement of the law (tithing) even be needed by the church? Let’s first take a look at whether there is any justification to believe that the New Testament made a command to continue tithing. The most commonly used verse to support this is from Matthew 23:
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Some misquote Jesus here to try and demonstrate that he specifically ordained the continuation of tithing under the law, but at this point in time, He had not finished his work on earth, and the Jewish people were still bound by the law. Jesus would have been committing blasphemy to tell them not to obey the law, and even he would have tithed on his own finances (John 12:6) in keeping with the law. It was only after Christ’s crucifixion that the law was fulfilled in Christ (John 19:30) and people would fulfill all of the requirements of the law through faith in Christ. The phasing out of the law is easy to understand if you put it into a simple timeline:
Before the resurrection:
18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
After the resurrection:
4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Any supposed requirement that tithing under the law extended beyond Christ’s resurrection doesn’t seem to be supported by the New Testament. What about instruction to the gentiles about tithing? The gentiles wouldn’t be familiar with the concept of tithing, and being that many churches Paul wrote to were predominantly gentile, it would have had to be mentioned in instruction had the practice continued, or they wouldn’t have known what to do. Instead, any such requirement was conspicuously left out of the epistles and even the Apostle’s letter to the gentiles (Acts 15:24-29). Specifically, verses 28-29:
28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
In other words, don’t play with the alligators, try to live right… farewell. There’s no mention of tithing, adopting Jewish law or culture, or any of the other things Christians are too quick to try and absorb from the Jewish roots of Christianity.
The Abrahamic Covenant
Tithing under the law has been obsolete for quite some time, actually. The tithe under the law demanded 23 1/3%, not 10%. This included two 10% tithes and one 10% offering taken up every three years, breaking down to 3 1/3% annually, as required under the law (Lev 27:30, Num 18:21, Deut 14:22, Deut 14:28). The single tithe (which means “tenth”) as we know it today doesn’t have its roots in the law, but originally comes from the tithe given to Melchizedek by Abraham when God made His covenant with Abraham.
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
So tithing as we know it came before the law, and under a covenant – the same covenant through which God promised the blessings of Malachi 3:12. Galatians 3 ties this together in explaining that Christ was the promise given to Abraham, and all believers are now children of Abraham (both Jews and Gentiles). Abraham’s tithe was based on covenant, and his justification came by faith – the same as the Christian experience. If we tithe, then we tithe under the Abrahamic covenant and not the law, and are doing so based on a promise – and that promise has come in the form of Jesus Christ – not a nice house in the hamptons. Our promise is Christ alone, and as even the atheists know, salvation doesn’t require a cash donation.
Whether the tithe under Abrahamic covenant carried through into New Testament churches is not crystal clear, but there is very little evidence to support the notion that it did. Gal. 3 makes mention of Jesus as the seed (not “seeds”) which was promised Abraham, and therefore it’s reasonable that orthodox tithing was likely completed in Christ. While formal tithing may or may not have become phased out, a regular offering was taken up and people were to give according to their income (1 Cor 16:1-4). This was related to gifts taken up for the traveling apostles to fund their ministries. Some form of regular giving did continue, and joyful giving was stressed (2 Cor 9:7), it’s likely that putting the yoke of tithing onto the backs of gentiles would have raised more tension between Jewish and gentile believers, who were being pushed by Jewish ascetecists to obey their laws and customs.
A Different Kind of Giving
Whether you “tithe” or you “give”, you do so to your high priest – your Melchizedek. No, that’s not your pastor, he’s not the “High Priest of God Most High”; this is Christ himself (Heb 3:1). And if you do this, then certainly you ought to do what Christ has commanded you to do with it – fill the storehouse by loving your neighbor as yourself, meeting the needs of others (including the needs of those who minister to you), and providing charity. This is a very different type of giving than the compulsory giving most are used to. Where’s the church as an organization in all of this? It’s nonexistant, except as an assist to help get the money to those who need it.
Orthodox tithing was not demonstrated in the early Christian church, but instead a much less formal approach to regular giving – but giving did continue. It was done joyfully and voluntarily and extended far beyond monetary giving. Other documents bear witness to the importance of personal giving over corporate giving. The Didache, a liturgical document written to remote gentile churches, expresses sowing the firstfruits of everything – fresh fruit, oil, etcetera – into prophets and other ministers – literally going to their door to deliver it when you open the jar. This again plays into the notion that God is more interested in blessing the Christian than the establishment. Another example can be found in an an apocryphal letter attributed to Barnabas, and copied elsewhere, encouraging believers to share all of their belongings, “for if you are fellow partakers in that which is imperishable, how much more shall you be in the things which are perishable.” There was clearly a sense among certain communities that brotherhood and generosity were of great importance.”
The mechanics behind tithing were possibly a moot point anyway, as there was a great outpouring of giving in the early church (Acts 2:45) to the point where individuals even sold their posessions to keep others out of need – giving greatly exceeding any tithe amount previously required under the law. And it’s counter-intuitive and paradoxical to believe that the outpouring of all of these people’s finances was motivated by the desire for more finances. The apostles funneled some finances simply out of convenience – namely, to direct money to missionaries and to carry over to other churches that were in need, but this was largely the exception rather than the rule. Jesus repeatedly encouraged and illustrated selfless, personal giving to those in need, and repeatedly took issue with corporately sponsored temple scams and central authority.
The Apostles did have rights to funds for the purpose of advancing their ministry, although Paul boasted that he never exercised this right. There are plenty of ministers today who claim their rights of the church funds, but use it for anything but the ministry (sorry, your boat named “the office” doesn’t count as ministry equipment, even if you claim it on your taxes as such). In addtion to this, I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to claim an apostle’s rights, you’d better have the marks of an apostle to authenticate this right (2 Cor 12:12). Another litmus test for so-called apostolic rites is whether the finances are being used for the two documented purposes in scripture: advancing the gospel, and charity for those in need.
Personal charity, on the other hand, clearly continued as a personal act that was not filtered through the church, but the responsibility of every Christian. This is illustrated in the New Testament (Luke 10:30-37, 1 John 3:17). In addition to this, Jesus gave the nod to providing charity to the lost with his parable of the good samaritan. The samaritan never once questioned the beaten man’s faith or doctrine before caring for him – even after a priest and a levite (who were associated with the temple as an organization) passed him by. This does away with the idea that we’re only called to help other Christians. The Old Testament temple was an outpouring of charity on the community at large – it was a hub for providing charity. As the New Testament temple has morphed into the Christian as an individual, this responsibility is also attached.
Transformation of Reaping
The old law dictated “a curse”. In the New Testament, a different principle is at work – that of sowing and reaping:
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
This passage has absolutely nothing to do with becoming prosperous. You may notice a few interesting highlights: the passage denotes its own purpose as a means of caring for the poor. The result of one’s giving also was not more money, but “thanksgiving to God” (e.g. reaping salvation for the lost). In other words, God may bless people so that they can be generous to the poor on every occasion, and as a result, people might see God through your generosity.
Some people make good stewards of God’s money, and God’s going to give them lots of it to distribute to others in need. Some can’t handle money at all. Some don’t need as much of it to do what God’s called them to do in life. The New Testament replaced the curse for a blessing. More exciting, our giving is no longer a compulsory action, but a catalyst for God to open doors, and an excuse (not an obligation) to trust us with more (Phlp 4:17) and prove ourselves faithful.
The Dangers of Compulsory Tithing
If the curse is done away with, this begs the question of why real-world experience shows that individuals trying to please God through tithing sometimes feel as though they’re cursed when they fail. As related to the teachings of Malachi 3:8-12, this could possibly be a result of being placed under the one curse that the New Testament says a Christian really can be under:
10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”
By being manipulated into believing that giving to the church somehow justifies you in God’s eyes, you’re putting a yoke on your own back. This yoke is the real curse – the idea that Jesus’ salvation was somehow incomplete, and that people somehow have to perform to a certain level to receive blessings or approval from God. By rejecting Jesus’ complete absolution for our sins and his perfect and complete fulfillment of the law on our behalf, seeking justification by works will put an individual under the curses of the law, and compulsion. Living under the law is, in fact, the only way a Christian can be put under a curse, because in doing so you are rejecting Jesus. It’s critical for a Christian to understand that not only are they forgiven for their sins, but have been set free from all of the curses of the law (Rom 10:4, Gal 3:13) and provided reconciliation through covenant (Gal 3:7). If there were any conditions or restrictions, it wouldn’t be by grace.
Romans 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
If we are to be judged by the law and placed under a curse, then Christ’s crucifixion was incomplete. His crucifixion was complete, and a better way has been made for us. By continuing to teach that individuals are under a curse if they don’t give enough, or even that giving protects people from natural loss, is not only a gross misunderstanding of the book of Malachi, but also puts a yoke around people’s neck that can burden them for a lifetime.
Tithing was a beautiful practice, and came about before the law existed. But God doesn’t need your money. It has always been an act of covenant. The New Testament provided a new covenant: one without compulsory demands. Giving in the New Testament is clearly voluntary – and not a requirement. God didn’t bless people based on how much money they gave. Since the gentiles wouldn’t have understood the concept of tithing, however, giving obviously became less formal than it was among the OT communities, and Christ put the responsibility to love our brother as a fulfilment of the law – the storehouse is our fellow man. It is clear that the giving in the New Testament was over and above any amount required under Old Testament law, and came from the heart without fear of a curse or under compulsion.
Christians should follow the patterns set forth in the New Testament and embrace sacrificial giving out of a thankful and joyful heart, not to just sit in some church bank account or to make the pastor rich, but to meet the very real material needs of others both inside and outside of the church – that’s what the New Testament church did. The idea of a new testament “tithe” is a farce; it all belongs to God, not just 10% of it, and it’s up to you to figure out where there is need and to fill those needs in others. That’s the real message of the New Testament: your life is not your own. Those who preach blessings and curses measured on financial giving have missed what’s important – namely, that we’re not waiting on a breakthrough. We’ve already had our breakthrough in Jesus. That what’s really important in this world is the gospel – not the “almighty” dollar. In light of apostles who walked in rags and were homeless and starving (1 Cor 4), how dare any of us suggest that God owes us better, least of all Christian leaders.