Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine

Review of Pagan Christianity, Frank Viola and George Barna

Review by Russell Earl Kelly, PHD

August 5, 2009

The material in the book is not new. It has been known by anybody who has studied the history of the Christian church from almost all reputable church historians from almost all denominations.

Since my expertise is in the doctrine of tithing, I will focus on that one chapter in pages 171 to 186.

Page 171 begins with a quotation from Philip Schaff. I highly recommend his Volume 2, History of the Christian Church which covers AD100-325. This is the period during which most of the early church flourished without the doctrine of tithing.

Page 172 is correct when it says “The tithe belongs to ancient Israel. It was essentially their income tax. Never do you find first century Christians tithing in the New Testament [after Calvary].”

Page 173 correctly points out that there were actually three different religious tithes expected in the Old Testament which totaled 23 1/3rd per cent for food producers who lived inside Israel. It is not mentioned, however, that the first Levitical tithe went to the Levite servants to the priests and not to the priests. They, in turn, gave a tithe of the tithe to the priests (1%). Neither is it mentioned that those Levites and priests who received the tithe were not allowed to own or inherit property. I agree with the comment “With the death of Jesus all ceremonial codes that belonged to the Jew were nailed to Christ’s cross and buried, never to be used again to condemn us.”

Page 174 quotes from 2nd Corinthians 8 and 9 and concludes “When it comes to financial stewardship we see the first century saints giving cheerfully according to their ability –not dutifully out of a command.” In discussing Abraham, we are told that (1) Abraham gave voluntarily, (2) only from spoils of war, (3) not of his own property and (4) only once recorded. I go further and point out that the text does not say that Abraham gave voluntarily because he most likely was expected to obey a well-known custom of tithing spoils of war to his local priest king.

Page 175 discusses Malachi 3 which was only “directed to ancient Israel while they were under the Mosaic Law. Like everybody else, Viola and Barna conclude that all Israel was guilty of robbing God. I disagree because (1) the context of Malachi 1:13, 14; 2:1-2; 17 and 3:1-5, (2) the Levitical cites, (3) the context of the 24 courses and (4) Nehemiah 10:37b must be included in any discussion of Malachi. I understand Malachi to be cursing dishonest priests for stealing part of the tithe from the Levites as seen in Nehemiah 13:5-10.

Page 176 discusses Cyprian in the middle of the third century in his (failed) attempt to teach tithing. To this I add that the communion meal was slowly evolving into the sacrifice of the mass and the church elder was slowly evolving into a priest who offered sacrifice. An inversely proportional doctrine was evolving as the priesthood of the believers is being replaced by the sacrificial priest who appears like that of Aaron and “deserves” the tithe.

Page 177 is important because it points out that the tithe in Europe began as a secular fife of the secular landlords and ended up being a religious fife of food from those who worked land owned by the Roman Catholic Church. To this I add that the Jews left farming and settled in the banking industry because tithes were only food from church-owned lands.

Page 178 says “Yet the obligatory practice of tithing is as much alive today as it was when it was legally binding. … In fact in many churches if you are not a tither you will be barred from holding a ministry position.” It is actually much more than this and is getter even worse. In most churches today you cannot even hold a church office or teach Sunday School if you do not tithe. Some even require the tithe for membership. This is a disgrace and is completely unbiblical. The qualifications for church officers in Timothy and Titus do not include the ability to give a certain percentage of one’s income. Since the spiritual gifts are distributed to all church members by the Holy Spirit, even the poorest who are burdened with medical, food and shelter expenses should be allowed to work in the church as officers and teachers.

Page 179 is the best new thought for me. “Under the Old Testament system tithing was good news for the poor. However in our day mandatory tithing equals oppression to the poor. Not a few Christians have been thrown into deeper poverty because they have felt obligated to give beyond their means.” To me this makes the very use of the word “tithe” a horrible scam. The blessings of Malachi 3:10 have not worked for the millions in ghettos who have been giving the first of their meager means to the church for generations. To compound this sin, the tithe is never equal to firstfruits in God’s Word. First Timothy 5:8 commands poor believers to first care for their medical needs and essential food and shelter.

Page 180 discusses clergy salary. “In fact the clergy salary runs against the grain of the entire New Covenant. Elders in the first century were not salaried. They were men with an earthly vocation. They gave to the flock rather than taking from it. … Giving a salary to pastors elevates them above the rest of God’s people. It creates a clerical caste that turns the living body of Christ into a business. Since the pastor and his staff are compensated for their ministry, they are the paid professionals.” Viola (and Barna?) may be more correct than I on this point. I personally think that the Bible neither endorses nor denies full time paid ministry. It is quiet on the subject. My major complaint is “do not support a paid ministry using the false doctrine of New Covenant tithing.”

Page 181 says “Paying a pastor makes him a man pleaser. It makes him the slave of men.” Earlier they wrote “When the church functions as she should a professional clergy becomes unnecessary. Suddenly the thought ‘This is the job of the preacher’ looks heretical.” My only comment here involves training. It seems to me that somebody needs to know biblical Greek and study hermeneutics. Otherwise there would be an infinite number of different theologies. The early church almost disappeared in the second century because of competition until it unified to some degree.

Conclusion: I very highly recommend this book and the chapter on tithing. May God bless Frank Viola and George Barna for standing up.

Russell Earl Kelly, PHD