He [Melchizedek) blessed him [Abram] and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him one tenth of everything. – Genesis 14:19-20 (NRSV)
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.” – Genesis 28:20-22 (NRSV)
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the tithe these last weeks – but it has always been something I have pondered and puzzled over. When I was an Elder on Session at my church, we regularly talked about stewardship (if only indirectly by reviewing the financials each month). Once a year, we had a stewardship campaign and a stewardship sermon series. Once a year, we sent, completed and returned pledge forms. And once a year, we formally announced and dedicated our pledge to the church (to God?). If you have been involved in organized church, you probably have the same experience.
Usually we refer to this as “tithing” but all data will show that a very small number of Christians tithe (regardless of denomination or income level – although those with lower household incomes tend to be more likely to tithe). One of my struggles in approaching stewardship when I was in leadership was the focus on money.
Why not also ask people to tithe (or pledge) their time and spiritual gifts?
The verses above are the first mentions of the tithe in Scripture – and they’re not really very helpful in understanding the tithe or our participation in it. Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) gives a tenth to Melchizedek (tithe simply means “tenth” so this is the same thing). Melchizedek is both king and priest but we know virtually nothing else about him. The writer of Hebrews (chapter 7) seizes on this dual role but doesn’t offer us much more insight on the tithe itself.
Abram’s tithe is a tithe of war booty. It’s made to the local king, who also happens to be a priest. And it’s only made once. I don’t think this is overly helpful in guiding my recognition of God’s provision in every aspect of my life or in why I write a check to the church.
Jacob’s offering of a tenth is also a little suspect. It appears to be conditional on God’s provision rather than simply a response to it. Further, Jacob limits what he’ll tithe based on what God gives. How will he define what it is God gives? Gross or net? Regular salary or just my bonus? What about gifts from others?
Certainly Jacob makes this promise to God when he has nothing – he’s running away from home after stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing. The tithe seems like a bargain. Genesis makes no record of Jacob’s return to God or that this commitment extended to his family. In both Abram’s and Jacob’s examples, neither are done in celebration nor in the context of community.
I’ll come out right now and say that I don’t tithe. Committing to God and faith later in life, there is a bit of unwinding that has needed to time to enact. Further, my financial resources aren’t just mine – it is a decision I share with my husband. I could argue that we gave up half of our income when I left my accounting career, so maybe we’re actually tithing plus another 40% (or maybe I am tithing my time and spiritual gifts). I could also point to giving that is done from a place of faith and thanksgiving that doesn’t go to the local church but is being returned to God to feed the alien, widow and fatherless.
So what about the tithe? I’ve begun to study what Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy say about tithing. Over the next few posts, I’ll look at them and try to figure out what they mean for faith, worship and discipleship today.