Tithing: 10% of what?

comic_greekfortitheIn recent years there has been a lot of talk in different circles relating to the tithe principle of the Mosaic Law. People think that a flat tax sounds fair.  Those who earn more would pay more. Those who earn less would pay less. This seems to make perfect sense on the surface, but when we examine the reality in the light of Scripture, it is not so simple.

Many evangelical churches and cults teach that one should give 10% of one’s income to the church. The Mormons require members to file an income tithe return to the church. Among evangelicals there is always the discussion of whether this tithe is to be on net or gross income. The practice of ‘tithing’ has now spilled over into the Antiochian Orthodox Church as Metropolitan PHILIP introduced it as a prescription for stewardship. Many people have rebelled against it, saying that it is not biblical, since it is from the Old Testament and we are not under the Law. Apparently, they have carried over their dispensationalism with them into Orthodoxy.

The tithe pre-dated the law of Moses. Moses only codified it for the Israelites and for our example. However they would be correct to say that a tithe on income is not biblical. It is, in fact, found nowhere in either testament. The concepts of measuring annual income and of income tax are quite modern, and thus, of necessity, measuring and giving a percentage of income must be modern as well. To be fair to Metropoiltan PHILIP, he was just trying to get Orthodox Christians to support the Church, on a level on par with how the “schismatics” support theirs. He was actually going easy on most members relative to what the New Testament standard for giving truly is. Dues paying is hardly New Testament, after all.

This is where things get exciting. For years, demagogues have been citing the Bible to support a flat tax, claiming that it would be fair, all the while knowing that it would favor their rich supporters, while shifting more of the tax burden onto the middle class and working poor. They got many people to support the concept, because it sounded fair and it sounded simple, and it resonated with what they ignorantly claimed the Scripture taught. The tithes of Moses (yes, there were three!) were on property, not on income. Furthermore, they were not the only taxes. No, they were not voluntary.

It always sounds fair and simple that everyone just pays 10%. What is interesting is that churches that teach “tithing” only receive on average about 2% of their members’ average income in offerings. That percentage is lower the wealthier the members are; a bit higher, the poorer the members are. People who have more money tend to hold onto it more tightly. The New Testament pattern for giving and that taught by the Church Fathers, most notably and most eloquently, St. John Chrysostom, is not tithing, but rather jubilary giving. It is not based on what one starts out with, but on what remains once one has given. What is right to give is determined by what is left. The goals are to further the Kingdom, to live in the Kingdom, to recognize that we own nothing, to use everything as stewards to further the will of God and His Kingdom, knowing that his mercies are new every morning. The Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, and Brethren in Christ used to all teach jubilary giving. When they did, their average giving compared to their members’ income was over 5%. This is still not great, but more than double the “tithing” churches.

I said that the Mosaic tithes were on property, not on income. This is an extremely important detail. This makes them much higher taxes. Every year, a tenth of the crops was to be paid to the Levites. Do not be distracted by the language in some translations that say the “increase” of the wheat, etc. to think that that means the net increase. It does not. It just means the yield of the land. There were no deductions for hired labor, for purchases of tools, for land rental, feed for draft animals, tool repair, work clothes, medical expenses, legal expenses, etc. It doesn’t even matter if there was a drought and one harvested less than one planted. 10% went to the Levites. That was not all. Actually before the harvest was taken, the first measure of grain was harvested and presented to the Lord as a wave offering. The harvest was also not done in such a way as to squeeze every last bushel of grain or fruit out of the field. It was an abomination before the Lord to harvest the corners of one’s field and not leave them for the poor to glean. It would result in being ejected from the congregation, in other words, losing one’s citizenship and inheritance and land.

When it came to the animals, they were all put in the corral and driven through a cattle shoot under the Levites’ rod. Every tenth one went to the Levites. This is interesting. It is by nature not regressive. It is not going to take a man’s lone cow. The tax only starts on a minimum herd of ten. Again, it matters not if the herd has increased or decreased during the year, or what the rancher or dairy farmer paid for feed; or how much he may have had to pay his hired help or what it cost to feed, house and clothe his slaves. One in ten went to the Levites, randomly. If he wants to redeem his prize bull from the offering, he must give an equivalent plus 20% as a substitute. This is all spelled out in Leviticus 27.

It is very interesting that there are going to be many who will read this and start screaming about ‘how is this relevant to a modern society’ and ‘do you want to drag us back to the stone age’ before giving up their concept of a flat tax that they claim to be just, because they think they took it from the Law of Moses or it resonates in peoples minds that it is from the Mosaic Law. You can’t have it both ways. Just because it is 10% or just because it is a flat tax, doesn’t mean it is fair. It all depends on what you are taxing to begin with.

Who decided that what happened last year is the only thing that is important? You could have a very good year and get nailed with high income tax, even though you had several years before where you had terrible years of losses and expenses. By the same token, you could have loads of money and no income at all last year, millions of dollars of assets. Is it right that you should be afforded all the privileges of protection and citizenship and community without paying your fair share? No. Not according to the Law of Moses, which was the only  model handed down to us by inspiration of God for a pattern for human government. The model we are given in the Mosaic Law for taxation is not an income tax at all, but a tax on actual property, so that everyone who has means bears their fair share.

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