Ever since Thomas Kane, a businessman from Chicago, started passing out pamphlets about tithing in 1876, the way American thought about the tithe has changed. He believed that tithing was a universal law that should be observed by all Christians, not just those under the Old Covenant (the Jews.)
But Christianity has gone back and forth on the issue of the tithe. It seems the early church fathers did not universally practice tithing. In fact, many of them outright denied its legitimacy in Christian thought. But by the time the Catholic church had been firmly established, it had become Christian Doctrine to tithe. But once the Reformation broke out, the tithe was once again ignited as a controversial issue.
Oddly enough, the majority of Christian Protestants today hold to some form of tithing. But again, that is a more modern development thanks to the work of Thomas Kane and those after him. For example, the Pilgrims in the 1600’s did not practice tithing. Instead they obligated each of their members to give to ministerial support and alms as a voluntary act.
In this post I want to talk about where did the concept of tithing come from. In future post we will delve into the more modern affairs of the tithe. But we must start at the beginning – the very beginning.
My goal in all this is not to uphold or deny the legitimacy of the tithe. Throughout these strings of posts, I will try and not have a dog in the fight. It is the only way to wade through the centuries of information. But that being said, I welcome your opinion – so feel free to say what is on your mind. Just be nice…
The Tithe: In Way Of An Origin
Mark A. Snoeberger in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal pointed out that,
The payment of tithes was no novel practice, having been performed for centuries by both biblical figures and pagans alike. It is well attested that the tithe was present in the very earliest of cultures—Roman, Greek, Carthaginian, Cretan, Silician, Phoenician, Chinese, Babylonian, Akkadian, and Egyptian—stretching back to the earliest written records of the human race.1
Tithing was an easy way to finance governmental and religious systems in the ancient world. And most ancient Near East towns developed first around the temple, shrine, or sacred precinct. It is no stretch, then, to imagine that sacred and secular government were one and the same. But, as the towns grew, stratification began to set in, and kings began to emerge, the landscape changed.
Tithing was a more sacred affair in the Early Bronze Age Near East cultures and before. But as kings and warlords gained prominence, the tithe probably became more of a function of the throne. Here, again, is Snoeberger:
In Ugaritic and Phoenician sources the tithe was generally paid as the standard unit of taxation owed to the throne. While priests sometimes collected this tithe, there was often no idea of worship involved – the priests were viewed as any secular recipient of the tithe would be. Further, it is apparent that, even when the priests collected the tithe, the state, and not the religious personnel, controlled its distribution.2
David A. Croteau (3) points out that the use of the tithe in ancient times varied widely and could be used for both secular and sacred purposes. I believe this is due to the fact that as the villages grew to towns and the towns grew to cites, the governmental pressures of the burgeoning population outstripped the resources of priesthood. Coupled with the need for protection from outside invaders, this gave rise to the ruling class of royalty. And with this rise of the warlord turned king, the tithe switched to flowing to the throne instead of the temple.
Origin: Why is this important?
In later posts I will talk about how these origins affect the early Biblical passages on tithing. But today we will focus on what I see as a tragedy and a triumph.
I have always puzzled over 1 Samuel 8:10-18. It is in the middle of why Israel rejecting God as their King is a bad idea. But the passage appears to be referring to how the tithe will be passed to the king. Here is part of the passage:
“He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks…” (bold added for clarity)
Given what we know of the origin of the tithe, this makes more sense. God set up the Levitical system so that He was their Protector, Judge, and King. But the Covenant was conditional. His protection only covered them when they served Him wholeheartedly. (Which that rarely happened.)
So Israel decided that the system was broken and needed fixing. If I’m right here, they saw that the majority of nations around them had moved from a priestly ruling class and shifted to a royal ruling class. This meant standing armies, coordinated defensive systems, and concentrated attacks on their enemies.
I am sure this was enticing to the Israelites. But at the end of the day, it was a rejection of God as King. It was an admission of failure. It was an admission that the Covenant of Sinai was not working.
The move was also completely rational. Despite their best efforts, they always seemed to be at the mercy of nations who had moved to a royal rule. Their current judges were corrupt. They had no hope of breaking the yoke Philistine oppression. It was a logical next step to a more tightly bound confederation of tribes. They had tried a theocracy and it was failing them. So it was time to move on.
But here is the beauty of God: I find it interesting that at this point of admission of failure, God begin to put into place the very means of a permanent fix. It was by the Israelites admitting that the Covenant could not work that God brought about the Davidic Dynasty – the line through which Jesus Christ would claim eternal rights to the throne of Israel. It is by His rule that we have peace through God because of His sacrifice. He is both Priest and King, Mediator and Protector. In Him, we enter a Kingdom of mercy not merit. So the New Covenant can not be broken by our sin.
The beauty of God is this: He used the rationality of the Israelites to prove the weight of our sin and the need of a Savior.
1 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Fall 2000, p71
2 Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Fall 2000, p77-78
3 A Biblical And Theological Analysis Of Tithing, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, David A. Croteau, 2005, p76-77