Tithing: Law or a Grace? by John Ortberg

What John Ortberg articulates in the following, taken from Leadership Journal, is the position that I’ve come to espouse over the years, regarding the oft controversial matter of tithing as it relates to the New Testament church.

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One of the things Jesus never actually said was, “By the way, now that I’ve introduced grace into the equation, no one needs to worry about tithing anymore.”

Tithing is considerably less popular than words like generosity or sharing. Among lay people the most common question associated with tithing is: “Am I supposed to base it on net income or gross?” Among pastors the question is: “Isn’t tithing an Old Testament concept? Aren’t we under grace now?”

This question more or less assumes that it was only post-Pentecost that the church discovered that God is the owner and that people are stewards. It implies that legalistic old Israel thought all they had to do was check the “I tithed” box and then got to spend the rest however they wanted (ignoring biblical statements like “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”).

Worse—a certain looseness of thought about grace sometimes becomes a rationale for not giving at all. A friend of mine made the case: “If my kids are really the Lord’s, then I can count the money I spend on their food and clothing and college tuition as falling into the ‘good steward’ category. If I use my home for hospitality and hosting small group, then the same goes for furniture acquisition and home makeovers. I use my computer for Bible study and my phone to store worship songs, so those items are stewardologically deductible.” This type of “all-grace giving” where we give “everything” to God looks suspiciously similar to giving nothing to God.

What if tithing is actually one of God’s great gifts to us? What if tithing isn’t opposed to grace, but is actually a vehicle of it? I’d like to go back to one of the classic statements about the tithe in Scripture, and look at why tithing is in fact God’s great tool to create generous people.

Spiritual training wheels

Tithing is like training wheels when it comes to giving. It’s intended to help you get started, but not recommended for the Tour de France.

How do you know when to take training wheels off? The quick answer is: when they’re slowing you down. How do you know when its time to stop tithing? For all of us not living in dire poverty, the answer is when you’re giving way more than 10 percent. Tithing is a bad ceiling but an excellent floor.

The prophet Malachi famously spoke of failure to tithe as a kind of robbery of the divine. “‘You are robbing me. 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 flood gates of heaven and pour out so much blessing there will not be room enough to store it.'”

God invites human beings into an experiment. He challenges people to test it. At the same time, failure to tithe is called robbery. Tithing is not the last word in generosity; it’s the …

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11 Responses to Tithing: Law or a Grace? by John Ortberg

  1. Lon says:

    I’ve written quite a bit about my perspective on tithing. I think the perspective described here just confuses the issue by making it a law vs grace question, which it is not, I believe. In the New Testament, charitable giving is encouraged, sacrificial giving is praised, and generosity is described as a “work” of faith. Nothing else is taught about to whom we are to give, and how much we are to give. Therefore giving is ultimately a matter of private conscience. We do harm to the church by teaching that a minimum percentage must be given to the local church. We should teach people to grow in giving, to always look for ways to give more, and to focus on supporting the great commission and the great commandment, which is not always the focus of our churches.

    • TC says:

      But I see no confusion, except in recommending in the words of Ortberg tithing as “an excellent floor.” Other than that, I believe Ortberg and you are saying similar things.

      Both neither should we speak of “Law vs Grace” but “Law and Grace” as they relate to giving.

      • Lon says:

        But there is a big confusion because so many mistakenly equate law with OT and grace with NT — as if tithing has to do with law and not grace. But the true key categories here are old covenant and new covenant. No one questions that the ritual cult of the old covenant was typological of Christ’s priestly work, and is therefore “fulfilled,” i.e. completed, “passing away,” “set aside,” obsolete, making way for the new covenant. So, we must ask why the formal tax system that supported the Levites and priests who executed the cult (the tithe) should have continuing relevance and be newly applied to the mission of the church. The NT simply doesn’t teach us anything about this, neither floor, nor ceiling.

  2. TC says:

    Yes, but notice that Ortberg associates tithing with grace. I believe the title of the post is just PR at this point, not really indicative of what Ortberg goes on to demonstrate.

    At any rate, on the matter of tithing, I go back to Abraham, not the cultic worship of Israel per se. Having said that, we need to be careful about how we interpret the NT statements about the Old covenant being fulfilled, obsolete, and so on, as if the Old doesn’t still instruct us, or is meant to do so.

    Neither do I believe that the NT teaches that we should tithing as Israel did in their cultic worship. However, I believe we have been furnished with a pattern, a principle, if you will, to build on, that floor concept.

    • Lon says:

      Abraham’s example may be good to follow, but that is not the same as what is explicitly taught and should therefore be normative. (Think about all the examples we have in Acts that we don’t consider normative). All this amounts to is that “tithing is a good idea, a good place to start.” And good debate is hard in this format, so perhaps I’ll end with that.

  3. Craig Benno says:

    My concern here T.C is which tithe are we talking about. There was more than one tithe in the OT. The 10% one was a third yearly tithe.. and when you add all the tithes up, they amounted to around 27% and not 10%.

    However, within a New Testament framework of teaching the new Gentile converts about tithing, I think its always wise to ask what was it that Paul did teach the Gentile church about tithing. After all, they were the new converts coming out of idolatry and Godless practices.

  4. Craig Benno says:

    P.S the tithe spoken about in Malachi is not the temple tithe. It’s the social justice tithe, the one which is meant to feed and look after the widow, orphan, sick, lame, refugee, homeless and the other less fortunate in society.

  5. TC says:

    Craig,

    On the matter of tithing, I understand the accumulated amount, but I’m after the principle here, even in my reference to Abraham. With Abraham we don’t have the cultic system as with Israel as a covenant nation. But it’s instructive that we find this principle of tithing in advance. There’s that inner logic of Scripture going on.

    But on this matter, I’m not hard and fast. I take the principle approach and that is why I endorsed Ortberg’s tithing as an “excellent floor.”

  6. I respectfully disagree with Ortberg. Tithing actually stands in the way of becoming mature sons in regards to giving. Why are we trying to prop up something that was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14)? Because we don’t understand the implications of the New Covenant. It changed everything. Ortberg is still stuck in an old covenant paradigm; not that we can’t learn anything from the old covenant. It’s just that there are things there that simply don’t apply anymore, and until we are able to grasp the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how that changed how we relate to and receive from God, we will live our lives through a strange mix of law and grace, and that’s what I see with Ortberg’s article.

    The malachi verse on tithing is one of the most abused scriptures within the church. There are all sorts of problems with how it is typically taught and it’s too much to get into now, but consider this: The “tithe” in those days actually consisted of several tithes and when added was about 25%. Who ever came up with just 10%? My point is simply this: Those who claim, “If you don’t tithe, you’re robbing God” are actually thieves and robbers themselves according to their own theology.

    We don’t need “tithing” to be generous givers. What’s needed is a heart filled with the presence of God, who will creatively direct our giving in the way He wants. Ultimately, it’s that simple.

    Hey, we’re all interested in the same thing; glorifying God. I know you are pursuing God like the rest of us, my brother. Just wanted to share some thoughts on the topic. Grace and peace to you!

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