Archive for May, 2018

Why tithe? Why not?

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Disclaimer: Although pastors may find my conclusion agreeable, none were consulted in the writing of this blog post. Nor am I trying to curry favor. The Senior Pastor of my church – with whom I have joyfully served and sometimes disagreed for nearly a decade – would surely absolve me of any charge of pandering. Smile 

[Note: While I quote from the 1984 edition of the NIV, links to Bible passages go to Biblegateway’s ESV, for reasons I give here.]

Tithing seems to be an endless debate among Christians – should we? Must we? I think the question is too narrow. The real question is “are Christians obliged to do anything?” If the answer is “Yes”, then we must ask whether tithing is one of the things Christians are obliged to do. There are Christians who take the most extreme position and, to the first question, simply answer “No”. End of discussion. Honestly, I think this answer – often given with the excuse that we have freedom in Christ – is nonsense that spans the entire unholy territory between license and cheap grace.

A more charitable explanation for answering “No” might be that it is meant to emphasize the stunning truth of grace without intending to cheapen it or equate it with license. Grace is arguably the greatest single distinctive of the Christian religion, but it doesn’t mean that Christians are without obligations. It means that we are forgiven when we fail to meet them. In fact, the words “obey”, “obedience”, and “obedient” appear 69 times in the New Testament (NIV 1984), with the majority calling for obedience to commands given by Jesus himself. You can see 5 of these instances in John 14:15-15:20.

[Note: The NIV 1984 renders the Greek word tēreō as “obey” while many other versions render it as “keep” or “observe”. I’m no scholar of ancient Greek, but since tēreō is so often used in conjunction with the word “commandment” – rather than, say, “suggestion” or “recommendation” – I think its meaning is clear enough for a layperson to proceed.]

Obedience to … what?

Obedience does not imply legalism. Legalism requires obedience to a specific set of rules, a list of do’s and don’ts. Legalism leaves no room for grace – follow the relevant rules and win God’s favor; break a rule intentionally or not and earn God’s wrath. But believers have been justified by God’s unmerited grace, so what does obedience mean to the Christian?

Obedience is not compulsory. To compel is “to force or drive, especially to a course of action” ( God never forces us to do anything.

We might soften the blow by reframing the question “what are Christians obliged to do?” and ask instead “what ought Christians to do?” But that’s really not much help: “ought; auxiliary verb meaning ‘used to express duty or moral obligation’”. ( Besides, such hair-splitting seems to be in the spirit of “what can I get by with?” rather than “how can I best live out my imperfect obedience to the sovereign Creator of the entire universe?”.

It has been said that “life is a sum of all your choices.” How do Christians make choices that reflect our relationship with God through Jesus? Christians are called to love God (e.g. Mark, Romans, and 1 Corinthians); we are admonished to “be holy” (e.g. Ephesians and 1 Peter). So we are called to make God-loving, holy choices.

We can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in choosing, but need help recognizing his voice; the Bible is the standard for helping us distinguish the Spirit’s leading from the leading of spirits that would lead us astray. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the greatest value of studying the Bible is not so much to learn what to do in this situation or that, but to learn about God himself – who he is, what he has done, his character, his expectations, what is consistent with his character and what isn’t – i.e. to learn about what it means to be holy (and why we should try to be). Though our knowledge is imperfect, it enables us to make the best choices we can (or, in our rebellion, the best are willing to make) in circumstances the Bible never specifically addresses.

It seems to me that the Pharisees did not read their scriptures this way, that they didn’t approach them with the goal of understanding what the Law and Prophets told them about God himself. Rather, they read the scriptures as a bunch of do’s and don’ts and relied on human wisdom to puzzle out rules to cover behaviors that were outside the scope of the scriptures. Scripture’s scope isn’t a problem if you approach it with the purpose of knowing God because nothing in Creation is outside the range of his character and interest. Because the entire Bible reveals one Father God, the thoughtful follower must seek God’s character in both the Old and New Testaments. So what does tithing say about God?

You might be thinking that I have the question backward, that we should consult the Bible to see what God says about tithing. My answer is that looking for “must tithe” or “may tithe” or “mustn’t tithe” simply repeats the Pharisees’ error. Instead, let’s see what the Bible’s mentions of tithing tell us about God’s character. I suggest that from what those passages reveal, we can infer an attitude toward tithing that will help us make a Godly choice.

A working definition of “tithe”

Before we continue, we need to look at what the word “tithe” means. In both the Old and New Testaments, it is nearly synonymous with “one tenth”. So to tithe means for God’s people to set aside 10% for God’s use by whatever person or organization he has designated. In the Old Testament, it was the Levitical priesthood; in the New Testament, it is the Church Universal and its surrogates – local congregations and possibly denominations (see the first two paragraphs in this post about the PCUSA) and parachurch organizations.

That brings up the question “10% of what?”. A reasonable answer often heard is “to give 10% of one’s increase.” Unlike the Israelites, most Western Christians’ increase is in the form of monetary income, so we’ll use the common meaning of giving a tenth of one’s income to the church (I’ll leave it to others to figure out if that’s before or after taxes). Tithes are different from freewill gifts and offerings, a distinction found throughout the Bible – the former pastor of a little non-denominational church I attend when vacationing used to highlight the difference when he introduced the Offertory by inviting the ushers to collect “the Lord’s tithes and our gifts”.

On to the second question …

… is tithing is one of the things Christians are obliged to do?

Tithing by God’s people is obviously consistent with God’s character, so what reasons might there be to declare that tithing is excluded from our obligations – from our ought-tos, our duties, our obedience – to God? Why might we excuse ourselves from a form of submission that obviously pleases God?

Tithing is a remnant of the Mosaic Law which Jesus fulfilled on our behalf

That statement is true as far as it goes, except that tithing predates the Law of Moses:

After Abram [Abraham] returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:17-20)

Melchizedek, though little is known about him, is especially noteworthy as a priestly representative of God Most High. He was the priest/king of Salem (Jerusalem); his name means “my king is righteous” or “king of righteousness” To bless Abram, he brought out what are essentially the elements of the Last Supper and of Communion, bread and wine. Further evidence of his worthiness to receive Abram’s tithe is that fact Jesus himself “has become a high priest forever, in [after] the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:20, also Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5:5-6)

It seems clear that in the Bible’s numerous references to bringing a tithe or tenth, God is telling us that 10% is an acceptable – and even expected – response to his providence and grace.

“God loves a cheerful giver”

Paul tells the Corinthians and us that “each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

The idea seems to be that as long as you’re happy with what you decide to give, God’s happy too. But let’s look at it in context. Paul is anticipating a “generous [and voluntary] gift” from the churches in Macedonia: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2):

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:5-8)

This passage with its pleasant reference to the “cheerful giver” says nothing about tithing. It definitely doesn’t say that if the thought of giving God 10% of your increase makes you sad, angry, or frightened, you are entitled to find some other amount that makes you cheerful. We are free to “decide in [our] heart” what to give and we can decide in our heart whether to tithe. But that heart is not meant to be a selfish or greedy heart but a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit into a grateful and generous heart. God has equipped us – and continues to equip us – with not only a transformed heart but a renewed mind (Romans 12:2) so that we may grow spiritually and make decisions that are more God-loving and holy, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” but out of obedience and gratitude.

For all these reasons, I have come to believe that tithing – even for a Christian living under grace – is a God-loving, holy, and obedient choice.

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NIV 2011? No.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

As a new forty-something Christian in 1989, I was introduced to the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, published in 1984. Our Senior Pastor recommended it, so when I went out to buy a Bible, I picked the NIV Study Bible. I found it readable and understandable. I didn’t get too hung up on whether it was a translation or a paraphrase or something in between. As a layman, I wasn’t qualified to evaluate the scholarship behind the various versions, so I consulted other versions, commentaries, and trusted Christian friends to guide my understanding of what I read in the NIV. In the intervening years, I’ve spent enough time reading, studying, discussing, and teaching the Bible that I have confidence in the usefulness and reliability of the 1984 NIV.

Not all of my reading and study time is spent with a print Bible. Over the years I have come to depend more on electronic forms, either online (e.g. or software installed on various devices, primarily E-Sword (Windows), AcroBible (Android), and PocketBible (most desktop and portable platforms). So when the 2011 edition of the NIV appeared online and as an option in my study apps, my curiosity was aroused.

As I read familiar passages in the 2011 edition, I noticed a very different tone. Part of it was unnecessary inclusive language that interfered with the literary flow of the text. Much of this language is just plain awkward, e.g. using they and their as singular pronouns. Such wording calls attention to itself instead of to the meaning of the text; it is the triumph of syntax over semantics.  But at least such foolishness doesn’t alter the fundamental meaning of the passage. Then I came across Matthew 15:25-28 in the 2011 edition. Here is how three older versions render the passage (emphasis added):

The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."  [NIV 1984]

Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” [NKJV]

Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.” He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” [The Message]

Then there’s this from the 2011 edition of the NIV (emphasis added):

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” [NIV 2011]

In the first three versions, the woman agrees with Jesus, accepts his analogy, and carries it a step further to explain her confidence that he could help her and might yet agree to do so. But in the 2011 edition, she directly contradicts Jesus and asserts that, as a matter of fact, it is right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.

This viewpoint rang a bell, reminding me of something I had seen a few years before in some PCUSA publication or web page. In her book Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (2004), Frances Gench, feminist theologian and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, quotes another writer, Susan Ringe: "In this story, however, [in contrast to Jesus’ usual exchanges with hostile questioners] it is Jesus who provides the hostile saying and the woman whose retort trips him up and corrects him." Gench adds (you can almost hear her chortle) "in other words, she delivers the punch line and trumps him!"

Seven years later, the new edition of the NIV provided a rendering of the passage that fits the feminist interpretation suggested by Gench and Ringe. Did the editors read Gench’s book? It’s impossible to believe they didn’t. Were they influenced by it? Obviously. No thanks; I’ll keep using the 1984 edition.

Thankfully, I had bought the NIV 1984 for all of the software I use, so I’ve been able to keep it on all my devices. Biblegateway offered the NIV 1984 as an option for a while, but now you can only read the NIV in the 2011 version. I don’t bother; if a link sends me to a passage on their site, I read the ESV instead. Fortunately, print versions of the 1984 are available at I don’t think software vendors are allowed to sell the NIV 1984 any longer.

Note: After writing this, I spent a little time Googling. Suffice to say, I’m not the first to find problems with Zondervan/Biblica’s politically correct cash cow.

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