By Fr George Adimike
The subject of tithes has become a topical one in recent times. It is partly because of the retrieval of this biblical practice by a brand of Christianity with its wealth-affirming and world-embracing culture. This religious practice is, often sadly, presented as the ultimate prerequisite for membership in the kingdom and attainment of salvation, and as the key to prosperity. The tithe resources have made many self-acclaimed men of God stupendously affluent, and they in turn flaunt their material wealth and talk down on those who are yet to catch a big break. Their opulent lifestyle raises the question of the value of tithing. It is undeniable that the Scriptures prescribe tithing. But it was intended as a pedagogic tool to teach the people of God about divine providence and sovereignty over creation, charity and generosity, religion and good order, acknowledgement and gratitude for divine provision, and trust and appreciation of material wealth as grant. There are generally three types of tithes, drawing from their beneficiaries and purposes.
In God’s instructions about tithing, one easily notices that tithe is more than one type. The first tithe goes to God through the Levites and priests, for whom God provides through tithing throughout the year. This first tithe is a sacred one offered for the advancement of the work of religion received by the Levites and priests (cf. Numbers 18: 21, 24; Nehemiah 10:38). The second tithe is for family and feasts (Deut. 14: 22-27). In his reiterations of the points of laws and commandments, Moses reminded the Israelites of the need to use part of the tithe for themselves shortly before his death. As such, they used the second tithe personally as part of the feast of the Tabernacles in recognition of Divine Providence. Then each family benefits from the tithe as part of the ways of recognising the provident nature of God’s grace. And lastly, the third tithe serves the needy, the poor and those at the circumference of Jewish society (Deut. 14: 28-29). So from the system of tithing, we can see that tithes celebrate God’s providence and, through that, advance His universal government. The tithing system, therefore, serves God, self and society. These beneficiaries of tithing inform its meaning and context.
Christians, as trustees of the true riches of God, would appreciate that in the New Testament, Jesus never paid, never collected, never instructed and never recommended tithes (tenth); instead, he called for a hundred per cent surrender of material possession to God. According to him, “if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (cf. Matthew 19:21; Luke 18:22). And quite evidently, the early Church responded wholeheartedly to this demand of a hundred per cent as a mark of their total self-giving (cf. Acts 4: 32-34). Jesus demonstrated the Christian’s attitude to wealth through his teaching and example. Material goods are supposed to serve God’s glory and human edification. They form part of the expression of the munificence of God and His provident government of creation.
The proper understanding of this religious practice has come from an adequate understanding of the Scriptures. To do so, the harmony of the two testaments has to be established in a solid theological foundation of the unity of scriptures. In the Old Testament, the truth comes to us in a veiled form, fully revealed in the New Testament. Together both make up the Sacred Scriptures and help in the proper understanding of the Word of God. For instance, in the Old Testament, the people of God have a provisional relationship with God, whose name they cannot pronounce. In the New Testament, we have a personal relationship with Abba, Father. The Old Testament prescribes ten commandments or six hundred and thirteen precepts, while the New Testament prescribes two commandments. The Old Testament allows divorce, and the New Testament restores the indissolubility of marriage between one man and one woman. The Old Testament permits revenge, and the New Testament insists on absolute forgiveness. In the Old Testament, the law is paramount, while love sums up the law and prophets in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, wars are allowed, while in the New Testament, peace excludes violence. In the Old Testament, Passover, while in the New Testament, Paschal Mystery. In Old Testament, 10% and in New Testament, 100%.
Without taking the Bible as a unit in appreciating its message, biblical literalism will only promote proof-texting, selective application and selective amnesia. It also leads to the instrumentalisation of the Scriptures in eisegesis and its absolutisation in the justification of a religious idiosyncrasy or myopia. The ramifications of this biblical literalism include locking or imprisoning God in His Words and denying Him His freedom, liberality, ineffability and inexhaustibility. The implication would be that God’s revelation of Himself exhausts His esse, essence, quiddity, whoness and whatness. The progressive revelation of the mystery hidden in God, which was ultimately revealed in Christ, took a process that is only appreciated as a whole and not in a cafeteria mentality of pick and choose.
As the Old Testament is the pedagogy of the New Testament, so is tithing the pedagogy of total surrender to God in the New Testament. Jesus did not make any positive statement on tithing; he alluded somewhat to it while instructing his hearers. Instead, he demands the totality of material possession, prioritising the total offering of oneself to God instead of part of possession. The necessary transition from present to presence, from part to whole, is a message many are wont to miss. In his expo of the judgement, Jesus prioritised giving to the poor (cf. Matthew 25), making it clear that conversion of one’s material wealth to spiritual capital has to be life-giving and condition-transforming for those harassed on the existential highways by structural or individual bandits. Tithes have to be part of the agency of God in His universal government, and they participate in the mystery of His providence. Only then does it give worth to God and stream with other acts to form an ocean of worship.
Giving to the Church provides supernatural character for our giving since she is the agency for distributing spiritual treasures and divine wealth and gathering human tributes to God. However, giving to the Church is never a substitute or replacement for giving to the poor. It is not either-or but both-and. Some exaggerate the horizontal giving to the man in need, neglecting to give in the Church. In contrast, others exaggerate the vertical and focus on giving in the Church in forgetfulness of the needy in the community and on the circumference of the world. Our tithing serves its purpose when it is deployed to promote the cause of the Gospel, promote family and personal well-being, and to give life to the needy. In other words, we steward our material goods as trustees. The measure of our tithing will be our availability to give to the Church, use them for family well-being and for charity. By this means we store up treasures in heaven and turn our thanksgiving into thanksliving, and material wealth into spiritual capital.
You can reach Fr George Adimike at email@example.com