I told a group of ministers recently that Peggy and I had spent some of our tithe money to fund a 4th of July barbeque for the neighbors on our street. As you might imagine, it ignited a very lively debate that sent the group scurrying for their Bibles. The tithes and offerings are to go to the church, one pastor insisted. It's called storehouse tithing - and scripture commands God's people to bring ten percent of all their earnings to the temple (or church as we call it in the New Testament era). Another said that it was an Old Testament law not required under the dispensation of grace but it serves as a guideline for giving, a minimum standard for the Christian. The tithe is to support the work of the church, they all agreed.
As they thumbed through their Bibles, a rather complex picture emerged as to the purpose and proportion of the various tithes and offerings. Some of it was to be offered up as burnt offerings before the Lord. Some went to support the priests and Levites who lead worship and ran the temple. Some was to be brought into the temple "storehouse" for distribution to those in need - a welfare system of sorts. Some was to be spent for "meat and strong drink" and consumed during week-long religious festivities. The one thing that did become very clear, however, was that the uses of the tithes and offerings that Jehovah prescribed for the children of Israel had little resemblance to the church budgets of any of these ministers.
It was apparent that while my pastor friends had little inclination toward adapting their budgets to square with the Old Testament allocation, they seemed quite comfortable telling their congregations that tithing to the church was a biblical doctrine. It's God's money and it is to be used for God's work, they affirmed.
And is God's work done exclusively in and through the structure of the local church? I probed. Well, one pastor retorted, if everybody gave their tithes and offerings to whatever ministries or activities they chose, the church would suffer. Elders, he said, are to have oversight of the resources of the church. How God's money is spent is not an individual decision. It's the responsibility of the corporate body under the leadership of ordained leaders. His doctrine was a familiar one to me, one I had been raised on in fact, one that interestingly served quite well his church-growth plans.
And what of God's mandate to care for the poor? How am I to support struggling single-parent families - the widows and orphans of our day - who live in my neighborhood but who may never become members of my church? Aren't the people of God to be agents of compassion and peace in their own communities? To invite my neighbors - rich and poor - to join together in a thankful celebration with games for fatherless kids and free barbeque for those whose earnings are meager - is not such a feast an acceptable offering before our God?
But you shouldn't use tithe for it, came the response. Hmmm. Now, if this were about being biblical, then joyful celebrations and sharing food with the poor must surely be as legitimate as paying priests their salaries and keeping the temple candles burning. Right? I sensed very little interest in going there. Church picnics, maybe. Benevolence budgets, perhaps. But for an individual to divert God's money to support acts of compassion among his neighbors - well that would undercut the church.
Then I saw it. Their argument made perfect sense. At least it would have fifty years ago when churches were an integral part of the neighborhoods around them. If the church were still the primary promoter of love of neighbor, the initiator of programs for community children, the orchestrator of charity for families in need, then tithing to the church would have a beneficial impact on the whole community. But such is no longer the case. These pastor friends, like most ministers these days, were leaders of commuter churches largely detached from the neighborhoods where they were located. Few had the time or budgets for much community outreach - a reality that became commonplace years ago when ministers and members moved out of the neighborhood. (This is undoubtedly the reason why urban churches often thrive while the communities around them disintegrate.) For these pastors, keeping their sermons relevant, their programs engaging and their churches growing was an all-consuming effort. Little wonder why they lacked interest in such a disruptive endeavor as restoring the doctrine of tithing to its intended purposes.
(Peggy just read this and asked if I thought my position might not be serving the interests of our own ministry. Hmmm. Naw!)