Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Jesus and Tithing-A reply to Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund has written a blog post on the Gospel Coalition website defending the practice of tithing from Jesus' teaching in Matthew 23:23. It's a very short post, but I think his presentation is pretty much what I've seen in using that passage to advocate tithing. The verse seems straight forward enough: Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their lack of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, but never abrogated the tithe. Instead, Jesus appears to commend the tithe. So how could it be possible that Jesus commended tithing yet Christians wouldn't be required to tithe?

First, those who come from the perspective that the shift from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant contains much continuity (much similarity) might read Matthew 23:23 and conclude that tithing continues. That makes a lot of sense from that perspective. Someone coming from the view of discontinuity (little similarity assumed) might point out that Jesus made this comment to those under the Old Covenant and therefore assuming it applies to Christians is naive. In my chapter in Perspectives on Tithing, I said: "This verse should not be used to argue for the continuation of tithing based on the clear fact that Jesus' statement about tithing was for the scribes and Pharisees who were still under the olod covenant" (page 74). Reggie Kidd responded to this thought when he said: "It is inadequate to observe that Jesus was addressing scribes and Pharisees rather than post-Easter Christians" (Perspectives on Tithing, page 110). I will take up Kidd's challenge below.

Second, most discussion on the text does not contain much careful, in-depth analysis. It seems clear on the surface so digging deeper doesn't seem necessary.

Third, I was challenged by Kidd (above) to dig a little deeper and I published these thoughts on Tithing After the Cross (chapter 3). Basically it seems that Jesus might be commenting on a hotly debated rabbinic question: is it necessary to tithe dill? The Mosaic Law never says you need to, so Matthew 23:23 doesn't fit well into the Mosaic Law's teaching on tithing. But it is very comfortable in the 1st century rabbinic debate. So it appears that Jesus is in agreement with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (who post-dated Jesus). Since the parallel in Luke 11:42 says that "every kind of garden herb" was being referenced, and it is clear that the Old Testament does NOT command nor commend that, Jesus seems to be commending Jewish oral traditions, not Old Testament law.

Finally, a detailed study of the tithing laws in the Old Testament reveal that the Jews actually gave closer to 23%, not 10%, in tithes. So if Jesus was commending the Old Testament practice of tithing (and I just argued that he was not), then he was commending about 23%, not 10%. This is a serious issue that needs to be discussed when trying to apply Matthew 23:23 today.

I was very surprised by the comments below Ortlund's post. Of the 16 comments made, 13 were clearly in disagreement. The only "extended" defense said this: "Every single objection I have ever heard or seen to the practice of tithing has been an excuse to try and give less. You’re right, it isn’t matter of the law, it’s a matter of the heart." Attacking the person rather than dealing with arguments is easy to do. This is an unfair statement. While I have encountered this same thought among those who do not advocate tithing, I have also encountered very generous believer's who desire to see God glorified in their finances.

For two free online resources, see the following links to articles published by Dr. Andreas Kostenberger and I on tithing several years ago:
1-"Will a Man Rob God?" (Malachi 3:8): A Study of Tithing in the Old and New Testaments
2-Reconstructing a Biblical Model for Giving: A Discussion of Relevant Systematic Issues and New Testament Principles

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