Are indulgences for sale in your local evangelical church? Think carefully before you answer that question.
It’s certainly easy (and legitimate) to point the finger at charismatic faith healers and prosperity preachers. As we saw last time, their trinket sales and false promises are the obvious modern equivalent of the indulgences Johann Tetzel and the Catholic church peddled in the sixteenth century. But there is another, stealthier indulgence industry thriving today, right under our noses in the evangelical church.
Today many conservative evangelical pastors are reviving and promoting the practice of tithing. They argue that this Old Testament pattern—giving one tenth of your income—is still a requirement for New Testament Christians.
Unlike the crass forms of indulgences we’ve encountered thus far, the modern tithe has an air of biblical credibility. Tithing actually precedes the Mosaic law and first appears in Genesis 14:20. Abraham returned from a victorious battle—rescuing his nephew Lot—and gave Melchizedek, the king of Salem, one tenth of his victory spoils (it’s worth noting that Abraham’s first tithe didn’t come out of his own personal wealth).
A far closer parallel to modern tithing occurred under the Mosaic covenant. It became a requirement for citizens of the nation of Israel to demonstrate faithfulness to the Lord and fund the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system. “Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 26:30; cf. Deuteronomy 14:22-29).
But do those Old Testament requirements apply to New Testament Christians? Many evangelical pastors today answer emphatically yes. They appeal to the almost supernatural qualities of tithing described in Malachi 3:8–11:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” says the Lord of hosts.
Modern proponents see a two-fold mystical power in tithing based on that passage: access to God and protection from Satan. The formula is quite simple: Tithing purchases God’s blessing and doubles as Satan’s kryptonite. If you don’t tithe you’re stealing from God (verse 8); if you steal from God He has pronounced a curse on you (verse 9); and if you’re cursed, the devourer—Satan—has free reign over your health, relationships, and finances (verse 11). Conversely, if you do tithe, God will pour out His blessing on you and protect you from Satan’s attacks (verse 10). In many ways, it echoes Tetzel’s ancient sales pitch.
Ronnie Floyd, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, explicitly condemns nontithers as sinful: “When we do not practice giving the first tenth of our income and enter into the sphere of generosity, we are practicing and choosing greed.” Floyd goes on to say that tithing is the “only one way” for churchgoers to avoid the sin of greed: “Giving the first ten percent of their entire income to their local church” because when you tithe “you are getting God involved in your life supernaturally.”
James MacDonald, the founding pastor of the Harvest Bible Chapel church network, expands on that idea. He argues that the failure to tithe causes a blockage in God’s pipeline of blessing:
Some people look at other’s lives and wonder, “Why don’t I have what they have?” and “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers like He answers theirs?” They may speculate on all the horizontal reasons, but I can tell you why. The flow of God’s blessing into their lives has been plugged up by their own stinginess. They are not experiencing the grace of giving.
One of the most important decisions you make as a believer is to give your tithes and offerings to the Lord’s work. . . . God knows what you give. Every time that offering plate comes down the aisle, He sees you take that huge step of faith, cheerfully giving what you can. But His blessing is stopped up if you sit there fearfully, miserly withholding.
To be clear, I wouldn’t consider it automatically wrong for a pastor to encourage you to tithe, or if you decided that ten percent is what you want to regularly give to your local church.
But both Floyd and MacDonald went well beyond that in the above quotes. By making tithing (giving ten percent) mandatory and using their pulpits to strong-arm their congregations, they crossed the line between error and extortion. Telling people that they’re in unrepentant sin by not tithing, or demanding that people tithe under threat of being severed from God’s blessing, is straight out of the Tetzel textbook.
In his book Whose Money Is It Anyway?, John MacArthur explains that tithing was an Old Testament form of taxation that supplied the necessary funds to operate Israel’s theocratic government. He concludes that the principle of Malachi 3 does not apply to believers under the New Covenant.
For years, many conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist churches . . . have promoted tithing as the basic standard for what their members should place in the offering plate. But such a rigid concept, viewed as a universal and eternal principle for all believers, simply is not taught in Scripture.
The New Covenant principle on giving—the one you and I should live by—is not derived from some mandatory percentage. New Covenant giving flows from the heart and is personally determined. . . . “He who sows bountifully shall reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6–7). John MacArthur, Whose Money Is it Anyway (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2000), 113.
Sadly, rigid and unbiblical rules about tithing have become ingrained in the culture of many churches. For many there is simply no turning back from the massive budgets they now operate on. It will be no small feat to break those patterns and free congregations from those legalistic practices.
Those pastors who threaten satanic attacks and separation from God’s favor rightly deserve a place alongside the worst indulgence peddlers throughout church history—including the scribes and Pharisees Christ confronted during His ministry. In fact, our Lord modelled how we ought to respond to that kind of spiritual extortion during His earthly ministry. And we’ll consider that next time.