Posts Tagged ‘scripture’

Alcohol and the Bible

June 16th, 2012 13 comments

I am often asked for my opinion/perspective on issues related to alcohol and Christianity because of my experience as a distiller and as a pastor.  There has been a lot of talk around this amongst my friends because my hometown of Somerset, KY is about to vote on weather or not to allow alcohol sales in the county. I have communicated my thoughts with many people individually, but figured now is as good a time as ever to post them for others.

Here is a modified version of an email I sent to a friend while discussing the issue:

When discussing alcohol and the Bible, I think the burden of proof lies on those who choose to demonize alcohol. Obviously drunkenness is flat out forbidden throughout scripture, but there is a distinct line between the consumption of alcohol and drunkenness. In fact, if anything, the consumption of alcohol is held in high regard in the Bible. Consider the following:

One of the two central sacraments of Christianity involves the consumption of wine. If God/Jesus thinks drinking alcohol is bad, I doubt he would have set up communion around it. (By the way, it was a Methodist pastor, Rev. Welch, who started the tradition of using grape juice instead of wine and that was only in recent history. He went on to found Welch’s Grape juice).

Paul instructs his protégé Timothy to drink wine instead of just water for his stomach (1 Tim 5:23). We get most of our New Testament "dos and don’ts" from Paul, yet here he encourages his (young) apprentice to consume alcohol.

In the Old Testament (and carrying on into the New Testament), wine is not a symbol of sin, it is a symbol of celebration. In fact, THE central symbol of God’s blessing to his people is the symbol of wine. What do you think the phrase "my cup runneth over" means? It means that God has blessed him so much that he has more wine than he can drink. God shows his favor by giving alcohol (If you need references, I have a slew of them). Again, how can we demonize something that God sees as being a symbol of his love and blessing?

We can bring this imagery back to the New Testament when we look at Jesus’ first miracle: turning water into wine. I have 40+ page paper I wrote on this passage (you can read it here), but I will just give you the cliff notes: This miracle in John chapter two is used to frame the start of Jesus’ ministry. Not only is it significant that Jesus turned water into wine (again, why would he do this if God is opposed to alcohol), but the symbolism is striking. The ministry of Jesus is replacing an oppressive system of rules (the water jars were used for ritualistic washing), with overflowing blessing and provision. Jesus isn’t opposed to wine, he uses it as a symbol of showing how great God’s love and blessing really are. When we demonize alcohol, we miss out on ways in which God is showing his love.

Perhaps my favorite alcohol related passage comes in Deuteronomy 14 when it talks about how you handle the tithe. (By the way, I have major issues with the way the church teaches on tithing.  See here and here.) Basically it says you should take 10% of your yield and go to Jerusalem and use it for a celebration of what God has done with your friends and family. But, if you live so far away that you cannot physically bring your tithe to Jerusalem then you should:

"…turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose (Jerusalem); spend the money for whatever you wish– oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together." -DT 14:25-26

Did you catch that? If you can’t take your physical tithe to Jerusalem then you are supposed to sell it, and use the money to throw a huge party that includes wine and strong drink!

So, when you look at what the bible teaches about alcohol, you find that instead of demonizing it and calling for total abstinence, the bible actually celebrates alcohol and repeatedly uses it as a symbol of God’s blessing.

Now of course, the standard response is that drinking "may cause your brother to stumble" and thus it is better to abstain. I will admit that is a valid point, but only when used consistently. Tea-totalers will often argue that any drinking sets a bad example and may cause others to stumble. Basically, if someone sees you drinking then they will automatically fall off the bandwagon and become a raging alcoholic. I am sorry, but that logic is faulty. In most cases, the only people who "stumble" are the tea-totalers who get all bent out of shape at the thought of a Christian drinking. Of course you should not be taking shots of whiskey in an AA, meeting, but if you are enjoying a wine or beer with friends, I highly doubt that is going to cause anyone to stumble. There are places and times I abstain from drinking, but there is no way you can come up with a biblical argument for total abstention for all people in all circumstances.

I understand there are good reasons to not drink at all, but the problem is, when you insist that approach should apply to everyone, you neglect the good that comes with the risk. Take sex for instance. There are plenty of passages talking about sexual sin, and total abstinence from sex is considered a virtuous option according to Paul. But, if you think that no one should have sex then you miss out on the gift that sexuality in a committed relationship is intended to be. The same is true with wealth. There are plenty of passages talking about greed and living a life of poverty is considered a virtuous option. However, if we demonize wealth then we miss the fact that God often uses wealth to show his blessing (bearing in mind that we are blessed to be a blessing to others).

The same is true with alcohol. It is a virtuous option not to drink, but requiring it puts us in a place where we cannot fully appreciate the blessings of God.

I said before, that logic of causing a brother to stumble must be used consistently. If someone is going to insist on abstaining from alcohol for their brother’s sake then they should never eat a Twinkie in front of a fat person, never drive a nice car in front of someone tempted to covet, never discuss controversial things with someone prone to anger, never have a baby around single people (because a baby requires sex to make that idea might cause a single person to stumble), etc. The list goes on… why should we only pick one example and live rigidly by it while ignoring all the others.

Of course if theological reasoning doesn’t work, you can always remind people that Elijah Craig, the inventor of bourbon, was a Baptist Pastor.

Categories: Faith, Spirits Tags: , , , ,

A quick thought on Power

August 11th, 2010 2 comments

Throughout Scripture there are some dominate themes regarding power:

  • God holds power but entrusts it to humanity.
  • Dominate (oppressive) power structures are always subverted.
  • The coming of the Kingdom of God results in the weak gaining power and prestige.
  • Power comes in weakness and sacrifice, not through dominance.

The examples of this are endless:

  • Jacob was the weaker, younger brother but fathered the 12 tribes of Israel.
  • King David was the runt of the bunch but became the most powerful King.
  • Gideon was chosen as a warrior leader because he was the least of those available; furthermore his army was culled to exclude the strongest.
  • Jesus was not a conquering King, but lived a submissive, sacrificial life.
  • The disciples were not leaders or scholars, they were regular guys entrusted with the future of the church.

The list goes on…

Despite this clear trajectory of power (re)distribution in the Kingdom, we still live in a day and time where the rich and the educated and the privileged lead the way.

What pains me the most is when scripture is used to justify and embolden the (oppressive) power structures – especially when it happens in the church.

When will we learn?  It is time for educated, rich, white, western males to step down and learn from those on the fringe.  I am convinced the gospel and Christianity can only truly makes sense when it includes and is led by those society has overlooked and disenfranchised.

My friend Terry posted a quick blog entry the other day on similar issues.  You can read it here.

Evolution of type design and the quest for Christian truth

September 2nd, 2009 No comments

I used to worry about what was true.  Now I spend more time trying to figure out what truth is.

At this stage of the game I find if I strongly disagree with someone, especially on theological matters, is often isn’t because we have come to different conclusions, but rather because we are asking different questions.

This tension has been made all the  more clear as I have wandered into the world of post-modern epistemology (if there is such a thing).  Many of my close friends fear that doing so has driven me to a place where any concept of truth is discarded; yet for me, I have made no judgments on truth itself, only on our own ability to comprehend truth.

So what does this have to do with type design?

Helvetica Documentary

Helvetica Documentary

The other day I watched a 1.5 hour documentary about the Helvetica typeface. Despite the seemingly mundane subject manner, the movie was quite interesting as it followed the rise of this Swiss font from the 1950’s to its ubiquitous status as the work horse of graphic design in the modernistic era.  You see Helvitca is an extremely “clean” font that supposedly could be used to convey pure meaning without getting in the way.  Rather than using hype and idealism, modernistic design (and the Helvetica font) could simply tell things as they were.

To put it visually, just look at these two coke ads:

Idealistic, life is beautify.  You drink coke because it will make everything great.

1950s: Idealistic, life is beautiful. You drink Coke because it will make everything great.

1970: Direct, unassuming, to the point.  You drink Coke because it is real.

1970: Direct, unassuming, to the point. You drink Coke because it is authentic.

For a while people soaked up this simple, direct style where everything had its place.  But eventually people began to realize that not everything in life fits into clear categories–in fact, life is hectic and chaotic and to ignore these aspects is not to be authentic.  This led to post-modernism where all the rules were thrown out and meaning was understood to be more in the experience than the text itself.   Unfortunately this way of thinking (and designing) eventually spiraled downward into a subjective mess of jumbled words and ideas.

Postmodern poster design with multiple fonts, jumbled information and chatoic layout.  Credit: Dustin Parker

Postmodern poster design with multiple fonts, jumbled information and chatoic layout. Credit: Dustin Parker

In this way modernism was a response to the idealism of the 1950’s and then postmodern design emerged in contrast to the orderliness of modernism.  While each stage developed as a way to be “more authentic” in the end, each failed because it refused to take in the whole picture.  Life is not perfect, life is not always orderly, but at the end of the day it is not complete chaos either.

I have found many approaches to Christianity mimic these stages of design.  Some people preach a Christianity where once you are “saved” all your problems go away.  This is just n0t true and breaks down under the smallest amount of scrutinizing.  Some people think that Christianity is very clear cut and if you study Scripture close enough, you will be able to categorize all things into right and wrong / black and white / in and out.  This too is niave as it fails to take into account the complexities of the world and the ambiguity of scripture.  Finally, some people approach Christianity in their own way and refuse to acknowledge the coherence and direction it does provide.  These people are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater leaving a religion stripped of its power and uniqueness.

In design, the best pieces are those that can open a window to a better world, clearly convey information and emotion, and at the end of the day, strike a personal chord that is rooted in authenticity.

Clean, powerful, authenitic.  See other great posters that combine these attributes here.

Clean, powerful, authentic. See other great posters that combine these attributes here.

Our approach to Christianity needs to be similar.  We need to believe the faith we follow is moving us to a better place, yet acknowledge the pain and suffering of this current world.  In fact, the vision we have of the ways things can be is what should drive us to make it so.  When it comes to scripture and truth, we need to trust in the power of the narrative of scripture, yet also be willing to acknowledge its short comings and the holes in our own understanding of it.

I believe scripture does paint a clear picture of what it means to be the people of God and participate in the will of God.  At the same time, am not willing to assert simply believing in God will solve all the world’s ills, nor am I confident in saying we can distill pure truth from the Word of God.  Instead, I think Christianity is messy, yet follows a clear direction.  I don’t have all the specifics, but I feel I am wandering the right way.

Tutu on “Religious Human Rights and the Bible”

August 29th, 2009 8 comments

I few weeks ago I wrote a post discussing health care as a right.  Since then I have had several good conversations with people from across the political spectrum on what constitutes a “human right” and what the implications are of such a delineation.  Last night I came across a 1996 article by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a hero of mine) entitled Religious Human Rights and the Bible.  In just a few short pages he frames the question brilliantly by exploring how the Christian worldview calls us to understand the importance and dignity of each human being.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Tutu begins by acknowledging that religion (especially Christianity) has led to oppression and injustice.  Yet, he is quick to counter by pointing out the narrative of Scripture calls for a different view of things.  He bases his argument on the implications of the creation story where all humanity is uniquely created in the image of God.  He says:

The Bible claims for all human beings this exalted status that we are all, each one of us, created in the divine image, that it has nothing to do with this or that extraneous attribute which by the nature of the case, can be possessed by only some people… We must therefore have a deep reverence for the sanctity of human life… The life of every human person is inviolable a gift from God.

Being created in the image of God is not just about identity Tutu contends, it is also about calling and purpose.

The [Biblical Narrative] declares that the human being created in the image of God is meant to be God’s viceroy, God’s representative in having rule over the rest of creation on behalf of God.  To have dominion, not in an authoritarian and destructive manner, but to hold sway as God would hold sway–compassionately, gently, caringly, enabling each part of creation to come fully into its own and to realize its potential for the good of the whole, contributing to the harmony and unity which was God’s intention for the whole of creation.

When we understand ourselves and others in light of our connection with God, it requires a different response to questions about humanity and the rights of all persons.

[This understanding] imbues each one of us with profound dignity and worth… In the face of injustice and oppression it is to disobey God not to stand up in opposition to that injustice and that oppression  Any violation of the rights of God’s stand-in cries out to be condemned and to be redressed, and all people of good will must be engaged in upholding and persevering those rights as a religious duty.  Such a discussion as this one should therefore not be merely an academic exercise in the most pejorative sense.  It must be able to galvanize participants with a zeal to be active protectors of the rights of persons.

Even if we capture the depth and breadth of the implications of this understanding of God and his people, we are still faced with the fact that humanity was given the freedom to choose right or wrong, good or evil, obedience or rebellion.  We must not only understand who we are in light of our creator, we must also walk the delicate line of what it means to embody this reality.  Tutu explains:

We are created to exist in a delicate network of interdependence with fellow human beings and the rest of God’s creation.  All sorts of things go horribly wrong when we break this fundamental of our being.  Then we are no longer appalled as we should be that vast sums are spent on budgets of death and destruction, when a tiny fraction of those sums would ensure that God’s children everywhere would have a clean supply of water, adequate health care, proper housing and education, enough to eat and to war.

Tutu contends that it is only when we are willing to first understand ourselves and others in light of our relationship with God and our role as bearers-of-the-image-of-God, that we are truly able to to grasp the dignity, worth and inherent rights of all persons.  He concludes:

The biblical understanding of being human includes freedom from fear and insecurity, freedom from penury and want, freedom of association and movement, because we would live ideally in the kind of society that is characterized by these attributes.  It would be a caring and compassionate, a sharing and gentle society in which, like God, the strongest would be concerned about the welfare of the weakest, represented in ancient society by the widow, the alien, and the orphan.  It would be a society in which you reflected the holiness of God not by ritual purity and cultic correctness, but by the fact that when you gleaned your harvest, you left something behind for the poor, the unemployed, the marginalized ones–all a declaration of the unique worth of persons that does not hinge on their economic, social, or political status but simply on the fact that they are persons created in God’s image. That is what invests them with their preciousness and from this stems all kinds of rights.

Tutu’s analysis is poignant and thought provoking — especially for Christians.  It is not adequate to define human rights in terms of the constitution or any body of law.  Likewise, we cannot base our decisions on what is right on economic models or political ideologies.  Instead, we must ask a different sort of question. We must inquire as to how we can love and care for all people — all of whom are created in the image of God.

All marks of emphasis in quotations are mine. Religious Human Rights and the Bible was originally published in Volume 10 of the Emory International Law Review.  You can download the complete file here from The Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.

Sotomayor – Determiner of Truth

August 17th, 2009 6 comments
Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor

I am bit behind the news cycles with this post, but I did not want to miss the chance to comment on the role communities play in determining truth.

On August 6th, the US Senate confirmed Sonia Sotomayor as the 111th  Supreme Court Justice in the United States.  By all accounts her confirmation was relatively smooth sailing despite the partisan bickering found mostly on the fringes of the discussion.   With her 68-31 confirmation vote she became just the third woman and the first hispanic to sit on our nation’s highest court.  This selection process revealed a lot about our nation, but it also provided a lens through which we can view and understand the nature of “truth.”

While the confirmation hearings were generally calm, many lambasted her as being an “activist judge” and several organizations openly opposed her selection.  The most most notable was the NRA, who submitted an official letter calling her views on the 2nd amendment into question.

If you read the letter and followed the arguments against her, you will find the people who stood against her did so largely because the disagreed with the way she understood the law.  The reason they were so adamant in their opposition is because they realized at the end of the day, it does not matter what any individual thinks a law means, but rather, what the majority of the supreme court thinks it means.  The NRA and other conservative groups want like minded thinkers to be on the court because they realize the what the second amendment (and all laws) truly means is not static, but rather is interpreted.  Literally, the law means whatever the court says it means.  You can disagree, but you will be wrong.

It is interesting when you think about how the leanings of the courts affect this.  At certain times in our nation’s  history, the truth of the law was more conservative.  At other times, it was more liberal.  But what was constant is that legal truth was determined by the supreme court and the community of people who formed it.

Morality functions in the same way.  The only difference is the communities who determine it are much larger.  Think of misogynistic practices and slavery.  At one time these practices were considered acceptable and moral — but obviously this is not longer the case.  Did the morality of the acts change?  No.  Rather, the communities who determine morality changed (over time).

I have learned from many conversations that many people are not comfortable with this discussion — especially Christians who believe in the absolute truth of scripture.  The problem is that the meaning and “truth” of scripture have changed more often than our Constitution.  If you don’t believe me just read a survey of how various commentators have understood The Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke.

Truth is not individually relative.  That is to say, we all can’t go around making up what things mean.  But at the same time, it is dynamic.  Truth is determined by the communities who are willing to earnestly seek it.  It is my hope that each of us will take the question of truth seriously, just as we expect Sotomayor to seriously question what the truth of the law is in every case she is presented.

Brueggemann, God and the Bible

August 4th, 2009 3 comments

The following is a brief interview with an academic mentor of mine about the God of the Bible and the call for the church today.  Brueggemann says a few things that will be unsettling to some, but I think his points are thought provoking and important.


Walter Brueggemann on the Bible

Here are some of the key quotes in the interview:

  • I believe the God of the Bible is implicated in the inherent violence of the Bible.
  • I believe the God of the Bible is a recovering agent of violence… it (violence) is always latently there.
  • Violence is intrinsic to our inheritance… the question is whether or not we can resist this inheritance.
  • The big revelatory moments are characteristically departures from what has been taken for granted.
  • There is no final reading to the text — we are always going to be led somewhere else.

Without doubt most Christians are uncomfortable with calling God a recovering practitioner of violence, but without some serious theological gymnastics, it is hard to dispute — The God of the Old Testament used violence to bring about his will.  Let us not get caught up in this non-traditional description of God, but instead grasp the more important points Brueggemann is trying to make:

  • The narrative of redemptive history is pointing us in the direction of love where violence is no more.
  • Each generation is called to further the restoration of the world.
  • We must often fight with the status quo in order to bring about a better world.
  • While the next step is not always certain, the direction of the movement is.  We must move away from violence and oppression and towards a world where all things are set right.
  • We must be open to God’s will in these matters and be bold in our willingness to act.

Tithing Implications

August 3rd, 2009 No comments

Earlier today I published a post about what the Bible says about tithing and how it is decidedly differant than our regular understandings.  It was supposed to be a quick post, but ended up covering quite a bit of ground.  Rather than launch into the implications of my findings in that post, I decided to break it off into a seperate discussion.

Here is the cliff notes version of the previous post:

  • The only references to tithing in the New Testament either refer to Old Testament events, or are connected with religious leaders who miss the point.  Instead of tithing, a holistic understanding of giving is provided which emphasizes all things are God’s and are for God’s people.
  • The Old Testament tithe consisted of things produced from the land and was given to the Levites, aliens, orphans and widows – the four groups of people most marginalized because they lack land.
  • While some passages only mention that the tithe goes to the Levites, the more detailed passages say the tithe is to be taken to the temple (implied) and everyone is to consume it with their families in celebration.  There is even a provision that allows for people to sell their tithe and then use the money to buy whatever “party supplies” they wanted including wine and strong drink.  (See Deuteronomy 12:12-29 for all the details).

How does this jive with what we regularly practice regarding tithing or have been taught?  Here are some things we may need to rethink:

The Christian requirement for giving is 10%

This obviously doesn’t come from the New Testament, instead, it is a co-opting of an Old Testament idea.  BUT… if we are thorough in adopting the OT understanding of giving, we must also include the various offerings which accopany the tithe.  In the end, setting a 10% standard is more about convienance than biblical truth.  This is especially true if are neglecting to fully implement the concept as presented in the OT.

The tithe is to go to the church

This seems logical if we are trying to transition a concept centered around the temple into a world where the temple does not exist (and even if it did, would hold little significance for Christians).  If we understand that everything belongs to God, and we should give 10% of our assets (money) back to him, then it makes sense to give that to the church.  But, there are a couple breakdowns in that conclusion.

First, we must remember the tithe was not given to God (although a tithe of the tithe was — and that probably went to the priest), but rather it was given to the Levites  (at least according to Leviticus).  Since 50-75% of church budgets go to salaries that shouldn’t be a problem — except it is.  Even though Levites were the ministers of the day, it is not a clear correlation between them then and church staff members today.  You see, Levites were not given a salary, they were given food: grain and meat.  Furthermore, it was not wages they were being paid, but rather it was part of their blessing from God.  You see, when the promise land was divvied up, they did not get a share of their own, but were promised 10% of the yield of everyone else’s.  In essence, they were marginalized because they could not own land, but they were liberated because they lived on the gifts of others.  The tithe was how they survived day to day so they could minister, not how they earned a living so they could buy whatever they wanted.  In fact, the tithe was only given to the Levites as part of a larger celebration.  Whenever people had their yearly celebration of God’s blessing, they were to invite the Levites along and everyone would partake in the festivities together.  In other words, these servants received their share through an intimate connection with communal life.  The idea was not: “here is your share, go have your own fun.”  Instead it was: “we are celebrating together, come with us and have part of what God has blessed us with.”  This is not the salary structure we have in place at churches today.  We pay people to fulfill ministerial services for the church.

Even if we look at the more straightforward passages that only say 10% goes to the Levites without mention of a larger celebration, we find this model does not fit into modern church life.  Take Numbers 18 for instance.  It says the tithe goes to the Levites since they have no inheritance.  This idea is grounded in an understanding of God’s blessing that is linked to inheritance and land.  With the new covenant, the promise is no longer of land, but of adoption as God’s children.  The Levites got the tithe because the other tribes got the land.  But today, no one has the land.  We are no longer a geographically centered religious movement.  If we are going to compare our ministers to Levites, we must compare the parishioners to the other tribes who have been given a specific inheritance.  That analogy simply does not work.  In a post-resurrection church, each of us has the same promise.  One group does not need to give to another group because their spiritual promise is different.

Even if we get past salaries, thinking that our tithe goes to the church also neglects the image of communal sharing that is embedded in the scriptures.  Families did not give their tithes to central entity to throw a party, rather they came together to a place of communal significance and each family celebrated in their own way.  Their unity was through individual contribution, not through corporate design.

Finally, and most importantly, our current model of a tithe going directly to the church neglects the third year.  Remember of Deuteronomy 14:28-29, “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns,  so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

Every three years the tithe is supposed to go to meet the needs of the marginalized in society.  Not only that, but the needs are to be met within the confines of the community.  I doubt many churches can claim that 33% of their income goes to meeting the physical needs of the those on the fringes of society.  Even then, when our tithe goes to the church, it often misses the key connection between individuals and the marginalized.  Each family is to play a role in meeting the physical needs of those in their community.

God will bless us if we tithe

First, let me say not everyone believes this, but I have heard it enough that it is impossible to ignore.  Second, it is not that I don’t think this is true, but at the same time I don’t think there is a causal relationship.  It is not an “if-then” situation.

This misunderstanding of the nature of tithing is rooted in a bad analysis of Malachi 3.  The prophet argues that Israel is stealing from God by withholding tithes and offerings.  After repremanding the nation, he says this in 3:10:

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.

Sure, the straightforward reading reveals that God promises to bless them if they bring their whole tithe.  However, it is the details that are most important.  The people are to bring FOOD to God’s house.  Why are they bringing food?  Based on the scripture we have examined, the only reason they would bring food as a tithe to a storehouse would be so it could be distributed to marginalize — to the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows.  Also, the blessing promised revolves around there being so much food that there will not be a place to store it.  But, again the storing of food is intended for those on the outskirts of society.  So… God is not just promising people that if they give to the church, he will bless them.  Rather, God is saying that if the people of Israel are diligent in setting resources aside for those who need them, he will always ensure there is enough to give.

So what does it all mean?

Let me be clear.  I am not arguing that we should not give 10% of our money to the church.  Instead, I am saying we need to understand what scripture really says about the tithe and apply that to our giving.  Here is what I have concluded:

  • The tithe is an Old Testament concept.  Instead of focusing on giving a part of our assets, we need to wrestle with understanding what it means that nothing truly belongs to us — it is all God’s and it is for all his people.
  • There is nothing special about 10% and in all honesty, focusing on this number might do more harm that good.  When we put a percentage on what we give, it is easy to feel satisfied with our giving level.
  • We should give so that some people can minister full time.  That being said, our giving should be designed so they can live and not in exchange for ministerial services.
  • In both the Old Testament understanding of tithe and the New Testament witness to giving, there is a definite bent towards helping the marginalized.    Not only should we give so others can live, but we should do it not only corporately but individually as well.  This means we have the homeless over to our home for dinner and not just give money to a soup kitchen in the city.
  • We are to celebrate the blessings of God communally and include others in the festivities.    We are not just talking about Sunday worship; we are talking about complete throw downs with unbelievable extravagance.  This is the place where rich and poor all eat the finest meals together because God has called them all to be fulfilled and to be his people.

All of this is tied to the promise bestowed on all of God’s people:  We are blessed so we can be a blessing to all.

The “Biblical” concept of tithing

August 3rd, 2009 No comments

Go to church, read your Bible, pray and tithe.  If you have these things down most people will consider you to be a pretty good Christian.  In fact, while mainstream Christians may disagree about other points of Christian orthopraxis (correct action / behavior) it seems these go without questioning.

That being said, the concept of tithing is not as clear cut as we may think.

Photo of a Collection Plate

First, the New Testament is virtually silent when it comes to tithing.  In Matthew 23 and Luke 11 Jesus critisizes the religious leaders for strictly obeying the tithe concerning spices, yet neglecting weightier issues.  Luke 16 also mentions it directly, but again, the person who brings up tithing is revealed to be insincere and misguided.  Beyond that, the only mention of tithing is in Hebrews 7 where it refers to an Old Testament example.

Instead of a tithe (litterally a tenth), the New Testament witness seems to point to a more holistic understanding of wealth: its all God’s and it is for everyone.  The epitomic example is surely Acts 2:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Now what about the Old Testament… surely the OT concept of tithing is universal and refers to giving money to God… right???

Well actually, the concept of tithing found in the Old Testament is a bit different than I think most would imagine.

The practice of giving a tithe is initially found in Genesis.  First, Abram gives a tenth of his property to the mysterious king/priest Melchizedek in chapter 14.  Then, in chapter 28, Jacob promises to give a tenth of his possessions to God.  Neither of these tithes are commanded, instead the action was initiated by the giver.

In Leviticus, we find the tithe is part of a much larger system of giving that includes offerings (just read the opening chapters to get a a gist of things). Chapter 27 of Leviticus describes the tithe formally.  It is to be 10% of everything from the land and it is to go to Levities (those who cared for the Tabernacle / temple and did not have a land inheritance).  Numbers 18 expands on this and says the Levities are to give 10% of what they receive “to the Lord.”  This probably means it goes to support the priests.

The Book of Deuteronomy provides a more complex (and I would argue less familiar) description of tithing.  Chapter 12 offers a brief description of tithing but it is chapter 14 that really expands on the concept:

22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field.  23 In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.  24 But if, when the LORD your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the LORD your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you,  25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose;  26 spend the money for whatever you wish– oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together.  27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.  28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns;  29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

What?!?! Let me make sure I get this straight.  We are to take our tithe, bring it to the temple (implied) and there we are to have feast with our family and friends! BUT… if we have a long way to travel, we can take our tithe, sell it, travel to the temple and then buy all the supplies we could ever want to throw a massive party…. AND…. we are encouraged to buy wine or strong drink.  Why is this not preached more often?!?!?

So we learn the primary purpose of the tithe is to celebrate with family, but what about the people it is to be shared with?  The Pentateuch says  each year we are to share the tithe with the Levities, and then, on the third year, rather than going to the temple, we are supposed to take our tithe and give it to Levities, the aliens, the orphans and the widows.

We need to be clear here.  Being a Levite does not just mean a person works in “God’s house” and ministers to people.  It also means this person has no inheritance of their own.  When it came to divvying up the promised land, this group got left out.  They have no land and no potential to raise their own crops or animals.  Their material blessing must come through the generosity of Israel.  This firmly places them among the marginalized of society.  This understanding is strengthened when they are listed about the trirfecta of societal fringe groups: the aliens, orphans and widows.  In ancient Israel, these 4 groups represented those in most need because they could not have land of their own.

When we take the time to explore it deeper, we find the Biblical tithe was designed to provide a celebration of God’s blessing with special attention to bringing the marginalized into this celebration.  This seems much different than the understanding that is usually taught (or implied)

Beyond the Pentateuch, mentions of tithing is sparse.  It is most often found when a group is being called back to obedience.  (i.e. During the Hezekian reform in 2 Chr 31 and in Nehemiah and Malachi during the post-exilic period.)  The only other occurrence “tithe” is a brief mention in Amos 4.

Once we realize what scripture actually teaches about tithing, perhaps we can honestly explore some of the larger implications.