SHOULD THE CHURCH TEACH TITHING?
BACKLASH AGAINST TITHING, WALL STREET JOURNAL

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Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD

Video Essay on You Tube

russkellyphd@yahoo.com

The Backlash Against Tithing

 

As Churches Push Donations, Congregants Balk;
'That's Not the Way God Works'

By SUZANNE SATALINE
November 23, 2007; Page W1

 

Critiqued by Russell Earl Kelly, PH. D.

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Kelly: I was a major contributor to the WSJ for this article, having worked with Suzanne Sataline furnishing names, information and e-mail addresses since March 2007 and also for March 2006. She has wanted to do this article for a while. Overall I think it is a good article and praise her for it. Hopefully it will open many more doors of opportunity and Christian media will finally allow dialog on the subject of tithing and allow anti-tithing books on its Christian bookshelves. Seemingly unknown to them they already allow anti-tithe authors such as Walter Elwell, John MacArthur, J Vernon McGee, Charles Swindoll and Merrill Unger.

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WSJ: Can you put a price on faith? That is the question churchgoers are asking as the tradition of tithing -- giving 10% of your income to the church -- is increasingly challenged.

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Kelly: Pro-tithe teachers want their parishioners to think that the church has always tithed. Actually the Catholic Church admits that it was not until AD777 before it could legally collect tithes from church land it owned. And it was not until after the 1870s before most non-state churches in the USA began teaching tithing.  It is a relatively new doctrine to enter the mainstream church. Anti-tithe advocates do not set a percentage for giving. Some should give more than 10% and others less.

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WSJ: Opponents of tithing say it is a misreading of the Bible, a practice created by man, not God. They say they should be free to donate whatever amount they choose, and they are arguing with pastors, writing letters and quitting congregations in protest.

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Kelly: To be more clear, we believe that exact tithing was only commanded to Israel in the Old Testament and was never commanded to the Gentiles or Church.

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WSJ: In response, some pastors have changed their teaching and rejected what has been a favored form of fund raising for decades.

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Kelly: “Decades” is not the word pro-tithers use. They say that tithing has “always” been taught in the church since the first century. However, having researched this in many reputable books on the history of the church, I have yet found any which agree with them. The “earliest” church fathers are quoted by anti-tithers. It is the theologians and not historians who teach that tithing has always been in the church.

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WSJ: The backlash comes as some churches step up their efforts to encourage tithing. Some are setting up "giving kiosks" that allow congregants to donate using their debit cards when they attend services.

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Kelly:  I have no objection to using “debit” cards for freewill giving but I do object to using “credit” cards because they money could be borrowed rather than earned. There is a basic difference in the definition of tithing between the two groups. Modern tithe-teachers erroneously define tithes to include monetary increase. My understanding is that, although money was essential even in Genesis, God always defined the tithe as food from inside Israel which He increased.  The tithe increase did not come from man’s skills.

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WSJ: Others are offering financial seminars that teach people in debt how they can continue tithing even while paying off their loans. Media-savvy pastors, such as Ed Young in Grapevine, Texas, sell sermons online about tithing. And in a shift, more Catholic parishes are asking churchgoers to tithe, says Paul Forbes, administrator of McKenna Stewardship Ministry, a nonprofit that says it has encouraged more than 500 parishes to tithe in the last decade. Popes haven't requested tithes in recent decades.

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Kelly:  It is good to teach sound financial principles. However, while secular money advisers are telling their clients to invest extra money for their future, the churches want the first of that extra money in their coffers BEFORE any other bills are paid. We think that is both unbiblical and unethical because tithes are not firstfruits.

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WSJ: Church leaders say tithing isn't just a theological issue, but a financial one.

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Kelly: These make tithing a theological issue when they demand that tithes be given BEFORE medicine, food and heat are purchased. Tithing is theological and must be explained by interpreting Scripture; freewill giving is financial. By making tithing a theological issue, many of them place a curse on those who cannot afford to tithe. The success of churches does not depend on tithing but on rather on giving the members the spiritual food they crave and need. There are many non-tithe-teaching churches which flourish financially without teaching tithing.

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WSJ: Americans gave an estimated $97 billion to congregations in 2006, almost a third of the country's $295 billion in charitable donations, according to Giving USA Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization in Glenview, Ill. But giving to religion is growing more slowly than other types of giving, says Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That's partly because people are attending church less frequently, says Mr. Rooney, and are giving to a wider array of causes, including secular ones.

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Kelly: Perhaps average American are getting tired of seeing their money used for expensive cathedrals, gymnasiums and expensive mansions, cars and airplanes for the top echelon of so-called preachers of the gospel. Those who abuse money are making all of the honest ones look bad.

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WSJ: That worries some church leaders. "If everyone gives 2% of their income because that's what they feel like giving, you aren't going to have money to pay the light bill and keep the doors open," says Duane Rice, an official with Evangelical Friends International, a denomination that believes that tithing is required by the Bible.

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Kelly:  I reply that churches in this country flourished before tithing was introduced after the 1870s. The answer is not to coerce and threaten members with an unbiblical financial percentage. The answer is to provide what the people need spiritually.

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WSJ: Many Christians who don't read the Bible literally say that by tithing they are not misreading the text, but rather interpreting it differently.

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Kelly: If that is true, then why do seminary educated church leaders with Masters and Doctorate degrees run from ordinary members who want to enter dialog about tithing. Why don’t they allow and even encourage open discussion if they believe their position is not only defensible but correct?

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WSJ: Tithing has its roots in the Biblical tale of Abraham presenting a tenth of the war spoils to Melchizedek, the king of Salem.

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Kelly: The pro-tithing example of Abraham illustrates how pro-tithers misuse the Bible. (1) The Bible does not say that Abraham “freely gave” his tithe of spoils of war. (2) He only gave a tithe of spoils of war and did not give a holy tithe. (3) He did not give anything from his own possessions. (4) He gave the 90% back to the king of Sodom. By using proof-text arguments and ignoring sound principles of studying the Bible they reach their false conclusion and will not engage in an in-depth study with those who disagree. It is easy to demonstrate from the texts they do not quote that it is very possible that Abraham was merely following a current Arab custom concerning spoils of war.

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WSJ: In the Old Testament Jews brought 10% of their harvest to a storehouse as a welfare plan for the needy or in case of famine.

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Kelly: This is almost totally untrue when the entire scope is tithing is viewed in context. I seriously doubt that many theologians would agree with such a simple description of the use of biblical tithes. In reality the bulk of the tithe paid for salaries for temple servants who gave a tenth of their tithe to the priests as salary. The next bulk of the tithe went to feed the pilgrims at the three annual feasts. Only a small portion of the total tithe ended up for welfare purposes. The argument is ridiculous because most churches give very little of what they receive as tithes for welfare. This is especially true of conservative churches which emphasize tithing the most.

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WSJ: That percentage, say pro-tithers, can be a useful guideline for Christians today. "It's the best financial discipline I know," says Terry Parsons, stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church.

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Kelly: I expected somebody to say this. Like mindless puppets pro-tithers define the tithe as a “guideline,” “minimum starting point,” “expectation” or even “training wheels.” This false definition allows them to tell parishioners that, since NT giving expects more, all Christians should begin their giving levels at a minimum of 10%. Their assumption is wrong for two reasons: (1) not everybody in the OT were required to tithe –only farmers and herdsmen inside Israel and (2) not everybody in the OT did tithe. Actually those who earned their livelihood using their own skills such as carpenters, fishermen and tentmakers did not have any increase that was tithe-able.

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WSJ: Other faiths also urge followers to donate.

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Kelly: We are not against “donating” to help the church or the poor. We are against the teaching that everybody MUST give at least 10%. Many who do not understand our position accuse us of being against freewill giving when that is exactly what we support.

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WSJ: Muslims are obligated to give a zakat to charity, usually 2.5% of the market value of a believer's assets each year.

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Kelly: Yes and they call that 2.5% zakat a “tithe” and it is exclusive of the support of the Mosque and its religious leaders. The comparison is opposite what Christians teach. Many more liberal churches and even conservative church members wrongly equate tithing with freewill giving.

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WSJ: Most Jewish synagogues request an annual membership fee, often based on family income.

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Kelly: Yes, but Jews do not teach tithing. They say that there is no Temple or Levitical priesthood to justify tithing. And that is part of the same argument we make to pro-tithers –both the temple and the priesthood concept are now within every believer and are not the exclusive domain of church leaders.

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WSJ: Tithing ranges from a requirement to a suggestion, depending on the denomination and the church.

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Kelly: This should say from a requirement to a suggestion to “not at all” –being replaced with freewill offerings. There are many churches and major seminaries which do not teach tithing at all.  For example: Dallas, Moody, Wheaton, Talbot and Master’s Seminaries do not teach tithing but manage to survive without it.

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WSJ: Mormons must give 10% to the church or they may be barred from temples where ceremonies take place. Some evangelical Protestant churches require new members to sign covenants, promising to tithe or give generously.

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Kelly: And the trend is growing to require tithing as part of membership. It is already required in the great majority of churches to hold church office or teach Sunday School. This attitude requires even the very poorest and those with oppressive medical bills to give their first ten percent of all income to the church. That is unbiblical, manipulative and cruel. You will rarely find poor people in church leadership positions and that fact is contrary to the biblical teaching spiritual gifts. This is because the tithe has been ADDED to the biblical requirements for hold church office.

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WSJ: Those who openly refuse to tithe might be denied leadership roles or asked to leave the congregation.

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Kelly: Gross understatement. It is almost a certainty.

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WSJ: The tithe has been the Episcopal Church's "minimum standard" since 1982, although the average annual gift from its 2.3 million members in 2006 reached only $1,718, less than the 10% requirement, according to its own figures.

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Kelly: The Anglican church’s tithing laws from landowners go back many centuries beyond 1982. I think it was partially responsible for many Irish farmers migrating to the USA because they were paying tithes with food they needed for survival. They were forcing tithes from those whom the tithe is supposed to benefit.

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WSJ: For Judy Willingham, of San Antonio, 12 years of tithing came to an end earlier this year. She says she gave a tenth of her pay to Cornerstone Church because the pastor, the Rev. John C. Hagee teaches, "'If you obey God and you tithe, God will return it to you 30, 60, 100 fold.'"

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Kelly: Judy and I have corresponded many times. The context of the 30, 60, 100-fold blessing usually refers to a resulting “treasure in heaven.” And while Hagee is amassing a great fortune and a great belly, many of his followers are doing without basic necessities. What percentage of his organization’s total income actually goes back into the community to help the needy?

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WSJ: Ms. Willingham, who earns $26,000 annually as an administrative assistant, says she started to research the practice, reading criticism online and studying the Bible, and concluded that she'd been "guilted into tithing." She quit the church and hasn't found another one.

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Kelly: And many like her are turning away from Christianity and becoming atheists. Meanwhile the November issue of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Index reports that a resolution was just passed which condemns dividing the church by blogging. It limits complaints to “elected boards of trustees” and calls on bloggers who disagree with the church to repent. This quenches opposition because the “elected boards” will not allow tithing to be discussed and the Baptist Press has no place for blog discussion following is very-often pro-tithing articles.

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WSJ: Steve Sorensen, director of pastoral ministries at Cornerstone, says the church requires its paid and volunteer leaders to tithe, and teaches new members to do so, although it doesn't make them show proof of income.

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Kelly: This is contrary to the Bible. The Bible nowhere lists tithe-paying as a mandatory qualification for church leaders or church members. Yet there are many suffering today because they do without pain medication in order to tithe.

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WSJ: "When you tithe, God makes promises to us, that he ... is not going to let anything bad or destructive come about," says Mr. Sorensen [for John Hagee]. For those who don't tithe, he says the Lord "is not obligated to do those things for you."

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Kelly: This is nonsense. Who can forget that Jesus himself suffered greatly?  Who can forget the suffering of King David, Stephen, James and Paul? Who can forget that all but one of the apostles died as martyrs? Who can forget the millions of martyrs over the centuries who have suffered for their faith? Did they suffer because they failed to tithe?

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WSJ: The Megachurch Effect

Resistance to tithing has been increasing steadily in recent years, as more churchgoers have questioned the way their churches spend money. Like other philanthropists today, religious givers want to see exactly how their donations are being used. In some cases, the growth of megachurches, some with expensive worship centers equipped with coffee bars and widescreen TVs, have turned people off of tithing. And those who object are finding like-minded souls on the Web in theological forums.

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Kelly: Thank God for the Internet.  The are thousands of blog sites which oppose tithing and its opponents, like myself, are very “in your face.” Why? We believe in our cause and we believe we are right. While I have seen many change their position and agree with us, I have not seen a single person who was trying to decide opt for the tithing position. The pro-tithers always lose the blog arguments if they stay on long enough. If it is their site they eventually will shut down the thread of discussion. Since the Christian media will not allow us a hearing, the Internet is a real blessing. People like Judy who could not get straight answers from her church did get straight answers from friends on the Internet.

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WSJ: Many churchgoers also balk at the idea that a certain amount of money will ensure salvation.

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Kelly: If tithing is so important, then those denominations pushing it should go ahead and put in writing that it is a requirement for salvation.

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WSJ: They see tithing and say, "no, that's not the way God works," says James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt University's divinity school and author of the recent book "In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar," a history of Protestant fund raising.

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Kelly: I brought this book to the attention of the WSJ.  It is a hard read and full of data that does not interest me. However in its pages are a few gold nuggets. I am especially thankful for its discussion of the debates held in the 1870s which are also discussed by Dr. David Croteau. The purpose was to find a new way to support churches since the government had stopped and selling pews was not working. A minority of the essays suggested tithing but it became acceptable during the following 20 years. The book PROVES that most Protestant churches in the USA did not teach tithing prior to the 1870s.

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WSJ: John Magrino, a New Jersey lawyer, says he regularly donated money during the weekly collection at his Catholic church, but tithing was a different story. "It's my money to do with what I want," says Mr. Magrino, 39, a father of two. He says he felt guilty when the pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Suffern, N.Y., started giving sermons about tithing and putting reminders in the church bulletin: "That was the message I got from tithing: Make it hurt...if it hurts, then you get the spiritual renewal." Msgr. Joseph Giandurco, now the pastor at Sacred Heart, says he doesn't ask for tithes, partly because he sensed his congregants disliked it.

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Kelly:  While most Roman Catholic reference books I have read do not teach tithing, there are several church orders which do. The idea is gaining though.

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WSJ: Some Baptist churches are trying to encourage tithing by accepting credit-card payments and automatic deductions from checking accounts. Two years ago, the Rev. Marty Baker, pastor of Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Ga., created the "giving kiosk" machine that allows congregants to donate at the church from their bank cards. He and his wife launched SecureGive, a for-profit company, which has placed 50 kiosks in churches. He says the machines can help track which families are giving the most.

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Kelly: This means that pastors can give preferential treatment to those who give the most. Nothing new. However it is contrary to what is taught in James, chapter two, about being a respecter of persons and giving the rich the best seats.

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WSJ: In Gainesville, Ga., Crown Financial Ministries offers training courses to people who then teach churchgoers around the country about how they can save, budget and get out of debt -- while still giving 10% of their earnings to the church. "When they obey His word, that is to give, God creates opportunities supernaturally for them to save more and spend less," says the Rev. Rob Peters, who began offering Crown classes at First Baptist at Weston in Weston, Fla., five years ago. He says giving to the church rose 31% the first year the classes were taught compared with the year before.

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Kelly: So the end does justify the means. Crown Industries, begun by the deceased Larry Burkett, does the dirty work of many denominations, especially Southern Baptists. Like the Baptist Press, they will not enter into dialog with me or other anti-tithe teachers. Their literature and the tracts found in many churches are proof-text insults which can be easily refuted by any ordinary church member with just a little study into the tithing issue.

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WSJ: When he objected to his church's instructions to tithe, Kirk Cesaretti took it up with the church leaders. In response, he received a letter from the pastor and elders of Hydesville Community Church in Hydesville, Calif. "At this time, we believe your concerns do not warrant any change in our church policy or positions," the letter read.

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Kelly: This scenario is repeated almost daily somewhere in Christian countries. I have been treated as if I did not exist in church after church when they learn of my position on tithing.  Unlike the Bereans in the book of Acts there is little openness in most churches. The doctrine is rigid and no change or discussion concerning change is allowed. If you do not agree, the door swings both directions.

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WSJ: The letter closed with a verse from Hebrews 13:17: "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls; as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."

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Kelly: Hebrews 13:17 is discussing order in the church. We are told elsewhere “Let everything be done decently and in order.” The text could not possibly be interpreted as a prohibition to question doctrine because the entire book of Hebrews is an attempt to CHANGE the prevailing doctrine of church leaders drastically. This is also true of almost every other epistle found in the New Testament! Early church leaders were the administrators, or presidents, and not  the theologians. Gifts of the Spirit resided in individual church members and was not exclusive in the leadership. The idea of a monarchial bishop was centuries away. The individual believer has to give account of himself/herself before God and not the administrator.

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WJ: Mr. Cesaretti, an engineer in Fortuna, Calif., says he took the letter to mean he was no longer welcome at the church. Hydesville's senior pastor, Michael Delamarian III, says he believes "the more you give the more you're going to be blessed." He says he did not bar Mr. Cesaretti from the church.

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Kelly: I have been an Internet friend of Kirk’s for many years and have shared his frustration.

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WSJ: Anti-Tithing in the Classroom.

The anti-tithing movement has found support in some unlikely places: theologically conservative divinity schools and church pulpits. At Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., Professor Andreas Kostenberger challenges tithing in classes on the New Testament. He teaches that if you add up all taxes paid by the ancient Israelites, they exceed 10%, and that in the New Testament there's no percentage rule. He says pastors perpetuate the 10% figure out of "pragmatism, tradition and ignorance, quite frankly."

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Kelly: Thank God for Dr. Kostenberger.  Dr. David Black at SEBTS also has a web site article which promotes freewill giving. It is my hope to see tithing brought completely out of the closet and into the light through public discussion. Give both sides a chance to be heard. Kostenberger and Black have both had articles on my web site for several years. Dr. David Croteau, a SEBTS graduate and good friend who did his PH. D. dissertation on tithing, co-authored one of Kostenberger’s articles.

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WSJ: After 25 years leading Union Missionary Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Ohio, the Rev. Bob Barbour stopped preaching about tithing a few years ago. He now promotes what he calls "grace giving" -- a voluntary, unspecified amount -- because, he says, it squares better with Scripture. The church still receives enough to cover expenses, he says. And if it falls short, so be it: "You can't beat people over the heads."

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Kelly:  Barbour is not the only one either. There are many like him who have e-mailed me and thanked me for my book and web site on the issue. A good Internet friend who had been a member of Barbour’s church gave me his name and I got his permission before forwarding it to the WSJ. “Thank you” Robert for standing up for the truth.

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WSJ: During a staff discussion two years ago about the $2.8 million annual budget, the pastor, the Rev. Mark Engel, said that he expected employees to give 10% of their gross income to the church and to teach congregants to do the same. The denomination, an offshoot of the Quaker faith, has long urged members to tithe.

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Kelly: It does not seem to matter that the founder of Quakers actually opposed tithing as a Christian doctrine. Again the Bible does not include tithing in its qualifications for church officers or church members. Otherwise man of the poorest in society would not have been accepted by Jesus.

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WSJ: Employee Kevin Rohr earned $32,400 a year organizing activities for young adults, and had a wife and four children to support. He told the pastor in a letter that Christians are not required to tithe. Within months, he quit his job. Mr. Engel declined to discuss the details of Mr. Rohr's employment, but said, "The expectation is that every member of the staff should fulfill the commitment they made to preach and practice the doctrines" of the denomination.

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Kelly: At least he said “doctrines of the denomination” rather than “of the Bible.”

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WSJ:  Mr. Rohr, 35, is now supporting his family by driving trucks. He says he still believes what he wrote to Mr. Engel: "All decisions to give and how much to give are between the believer and their God, not meant to be used as stumbling blocks or judgments against others."

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Kelly: Kevin has also been an Internet friend of mine for several years. Being called of God to preach I am confident that he will eventually reach the place where God wants him to be.

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WSJ:  Write to Suzanne Sataline at suzanne.sataline@wsj.com

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Kelly: Please do and encourage her to delve even more deeply into this false doctrine called tithing. I would appreciate your e-mails also.

 

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