Monday, February 13, 2006

Tithing at the Beginning of the Reformation

Most studies on tithing have concluded that Martin Luther advocated the practice. This is argued on the basis of Luther’s reaction to the Peasants’ Revolt. However, this conclusion should be rejected as the following discussion attempts to demonstrate.
The peasants’ in Germany (c.a. 1520) rose up against the Catholic Church because of many abuses, including abuses related to tithing. The peasants were not a unified group, but were many groups. In the Twelve Articles of Memmingen, the peasants said that the tithe was “established in the Old Testament, and fulfilled in the New” (Article 2). However, they said that “none the less,” they would still pay the tithe of grain. However, the small tithes, that is, tithes of fodder and garden products, they refused to pay since they were unbiblical. Finally, they wanted the tithes divided between the pastor and the poor. Some other peasants groups were more resistant to tithes. Peasants in Memmingen and Solothurn rejected tithing completely, because “the New Testament does not impose this duty on us,” even though they were willing to support their pastor. The Salzburg peasants equated tithing with the work of the devil since “it has no foundation in Scripture” (Peter Blickle, Communal Reformation [1992], 42). It appears likely that the views of the German peasants anticipated the Anabaptists.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) explicitly argued against some of the peasants’ views. The reasoning for Luther’s outrage against the peasants appears to be founded in that he was against all kinds of insurrection, no matter the cause. This was, at least partly, due to Luther’s eschatology that the second advent was near: overt rebellion against the authorities was a sin against God. Specifically, he said that they had no right to keep tithes and disperse them among themselves (Luther, Works of Martin Luther [1931], 4:239-40). Luther solved the problems related to usury by encouraging the use of the Mosaic law (ibid., 4:68). In this discussion he employed tithing as a reasonable and praiseworthy solution: “in view of their practical convenience” tithes were considered “the most expedient form of taxing” (Sehling, “Tithes,” in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge [1950], 11:455). However, as Murray notes, Luther’s approval of tithing was as a civil tax given to the government; he did not view payment of tithes as a religious duty (Murry, Beyond Tithing [2000], 160). The context in which Luther made these comments was in relation to the peasants’ refusal to obey civil authorities, not on the relationship between the Mosaic law and tithing.

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