Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine
Rebuttal of Dr R C Sproul on Tithing
By Dr Russell Earl Kelly, August 9, 2009
Will Man Rob God?
Right Now Counts Forever
by R.C. Sproul
Noe: For John Owen, Prince of Puritans, see link at end of article.
Sproul: God answers his question, “Will man rob God?” saying, “Yet you are robbing me.” The Israelite response is: “How have we robbed you?” To which God replies, “In your tithes and contributions” (Malachi 3:8).
Kelly: Sproul’s entire presentation is built on the presumption that God commanded Gentiles and the Church to tithe. In reality the OT tithes were only commanded to food producers who lived inside Israel. Tithes could not come from one’s craft or from outside God’s holy land of Israel. And tithes were never money in the 16 texts which describe its contents. Yet money is mentioned over 40 times before true biblical tithes are mentioned in Leviticus 27.
Sproul: God announces that to withhold the full measure of the tithe that He requires from His people is to be guilty of robbing God Himself.
Kelly: In Nehemiah 10:37b-38 the people of Malachi’s time were commanded to bring the first whole tithe to the Levitical cities (not to the Temple) where the Levites and priests together received them where they lived and needed the tithes for food. Therefore Malachi 3:10 is either contradicting Nehemiah 10:37b or it has been drastically misinterpreted. Since only the Levites and priests had been commanded to bring portions of the tithes to the Temple in Nehemiah 10:37, then Malachi 3:10 must only be addressed to dishonest priests. These priests are also mentioned and cursed in Malachi 1:13-14 2:1-2; 2:17-3:5 and Nehemiah 13:5-10.
Sproul: Because of this, He pronounces a curse upon the whole nation and commands them afresh to bring to Him all of the tithe.
Kelly: In continuing the curse of the priests from 1:14 and 2:2, God only cursed “the whole nation of you –of you priests. This is consistent with the other curses and it is consistent with Neh 13:5-10. Malachi’s audience had asked God to curse them for disobedience in Nehemiah 10:29. Galatians 3:10-13 makes it clear that no Christian can be cursed unless Christ died in vain. God will not re-impose a curse upon his children which had been lifted at Calvary.
Sproul: When we think of tithing in Old Testament categories, we understand that the requirement involves returning to God the first fruits of one’s prosperity.
Kelly: Wrong. First-fruits and tithes were never the same thing in the OT. In Deuteronomy 26:1-4 firstfruits are very small token offerings which would fit into a small hand-carried basket. The first wave sheaf at Pentecost was but a single sheaf for the nation. And Nehemiah 10:35-38 makes it clear that first-fruits are not tithes. In 1st Timothy 5:8 Paul tells Christians to first buy medicine, food and essential shelter in order to avoid being worse than the heathen. It is wrong to delude poor struggling believers into giving the first of their Social Security and Medicaid checks to the church. Not even James Kennedy, Sproul’s former companion, taught that.
Sproul: We are required to give ten percent of our gross annual income or gain.
Kelly: Tithes are never called income and never came from outside Israel. Farmers and merchants must first deduct business expenses before calculating any gain. If one had to choose between giving the first to the church and buying pain killers and medicine, God is not greedy and He understands.
Sproul: If a shepherd’s flock produced ten new lambs, the requirement was that one of those lambs be offered to God. This offering is from the top.
Kelly: Read Leviticus 27:30-34. The tenth of food (not income) was the tithe. Not even the best was the tithe. “Off the top” is a reference to pagan spoils of war in Genesis 14 in Hebrews 7. It is not a reference to Leviticus 27.
Sproul: It is not an offering that is given after other expenses are met or after other taxes have been paid.
Kelly: This is manipulation to jump from legitimate tithed animals to money before any other expenses are paid. Again 1st Timothy 5:8 has precedence.
Sproul: … ninety-six percent of professing evangelical Christians regularly, systematically, habitually, and impenitently rob God of what belongs to Him.
Kelly: Sproul assumes that the 96% who are not giving 10% of their income to the church are healthy and wealthy. Perhaps if the church returned to personal evangelism and saw the world going to hell without Christ, things would change drastically. Much of the blame must fall on preachers for not inspiring and not motivated their congregations with strong solid sermons which call sin by its name.
Sproul: It also means that ninety-six percent of us are for this reason exposing ourselves to a divine curse upon our lives.
Kelly: This is goofy theology coming from one who should know better. Sproul, who is supposed to be Calvinist and a Predestinationist teaches that God is responsible for both justification and sanctification. If God (he teaches) wants a believer to tithe, then God will override the will and that believer will tithe! How can God allow a CURSED believer into heaven? Was that believer never saved, or did that believer fall from grace contrary to Calvinism? Sproul is inconsistent with the Bible and with his own theological hermeneutic.
Sproul: Whether this percentage is accurate, one thing is certain — it is clear that the overwhelming majority of professing evangelical Christians do not tithe. This immediately raises the question: “Why?” How is it possible that somebody who has given his life to Christ can withhold their financial gifts from Him? I have heard many excuses or explanations for this.
Kelly: Perhaps we should be asking ourselves “Why are they not giving enough?” How much pulpit-thumping solid Bible preaching is found in most churches? People put their money where their heart is. Is their heart in the right place or are the preachers somewhat to blame for inferior inspiration?
Sproul: The most common is the assertion that the tithe is part of the Old Testament law that has passed away with the coming of the New Testament.
Kelly: The preacher blames the congregation instead of accepting part of the blame himself.
Sproul: This statement is made routinely in spite of the complete lack of New Testament evidence for it. Nowhere in the New Testament does it teach us that the principle of the tithe has been abrogated.
Where in the Bible Were Tithes Abolished?
1. WHO #1: The Levitical servants to the priests who received the first whole tithe have been abolished. See Numbers 18:21-24. Modern equivalents to the Levites are unpaid ushers, deacons, choir, musicians, etc.
2. WHO #2: OT priests who received a tenth of the tithe (only 1 per cent) have been abolished. See Num 18:25-28 and Neh 10:38.
3. WHAT: The definition of tithes as only food miraculously increased by God from inside His holy land of Israel has been abolished and replaced with the false unbiblical definition of income. See Leviticus 27:30-34 and 14 other texts which describe the contents of the tithe. Yet money was common in Genesis.
4. WHERE: The destination of the OT tithes first to the Levitical cities some to the Temple has been abolished. See Neh 10:37b and Mal 3:10.
5. WHEN: The time to tithe has been abolished. The Levitical tithe was paid yearly in the Levitical cities. The second festival tithe was eaten at the three festivals. The third poor tithe was kept in the home every third year. Tithes totaled 23 1/3 per cent.
6. WHY #1: The covenant which prescribed them was abolished per Heb 8:8-13; Gal 4:21-26′ 2 Cor 3:6-10.
7. WHY #2: The “commandment” for Levites and priests to collect tithes was “annulled” per Hebrews 7:5, 12, 18.
8. WHY #3: The law which condemned believers has been rendered of no effect when the believer died in Christ per Romans 7:4. No law can tell a dead person what to do.
9. HOW #1: Jesus abolished the law of commandments contained in ordinances per Eph 2:13. Tithing was an ordinance per Num 18.
10. HOW $2: Jesus blotted out the handwriting of ordinances, per Col 2:14. Tithing was an ordinance per Num 18.
11. HOW #3: The Temple which tithes supported was abolished in AD 70. God’s temple is now within each believer per 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20.
12. HOW #4: The priesthood which was supported by tithes was abolished in AD 70. God’s priesthood is now within every believer per 1st Peter 23:9-10.
13. HOW #5: The blessings and curses of tithing as part of the whole law have been abolished per Galatians 3:10-13.
Would you continue to send money to a church after
1. The building is destroyed?
2. The preacher has been defrocked?
3. The workers have found other jobs?
4. The members have all left?
5. The land has been inhabited by non religious people?
6. The purpose for the church no longer exists?
7. You have died?
Sproul: The New Testament does teach us, however, that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant. It is a covenant that gives more blessings to us than the old covenant did. It is a covenant that with its manifold blessings imposes greater responsibilities than the Old Testament did. If anything, the structure of the new covenant requires a greater commitment to financial stewardship before God than that which was required in the old covenant.
Kelly: All of this is true. However it is setting up the uninformed believer to be told a lie in order to teach tithing.
Sproul: That is to say, the starting point of Christian giving is the tithe. The tithe is not an ideal that only a few people reach but rather should be the base minimum from which we progress.
Kelly: The great lie is that the OT tithe was the starting point, the base minimum, the expectation, the training wheels and a good place to start. If this were true (and it most certainly is NOT true) then NT giving must BEGIN at 10% and go beyond that point FOR EVERYBODY. The truth is that OT tithes could only come from food producers who lived inside Israel and it could only come from God’s miraculous increase. It could not come from what man produced and it could not come from outside Israel. Therefore, since the presumption is false, then the conclusion reached by the false presumption is false also. Jesus, Peter and Paul did not qualify as tithe-payers and there is not a single biblical text to prove otherwise. Christian giving is not based on a minimum starting point. It is wholly of the free heart and is motivated by love for God and lost souls. If Christians are not giving enough (and they are not), it is because the pastors are guilty of not preaching motivating biblical sermons. The solution is not a return to legalism and tithing in the Old Covenant.
Sproul: Church history also bears witness that many in the early church did not consider the tithe as having been abrogated in the new covenant.
Kelly: This is not true. I have a shelf full of histories of the Christian Church which cover all major denominations. NONE of the church historians teach that the early church taught tithing for the first 200 years after Calvary. They all teach that early church leaders were self-employed!
Sproul: One of the earliest (turn of the second century) extrabiblical documents that survives to this day is the book of the Didache. The Didache gives practical instruction for Christian living. In the Didache, the principle of the giving of the first fruits or the tithe is mentioned as a basic responsibility for every Christian.
Kelly: Firstfruits, yes. Tithes, never. It is amazing that Sproul omitted the names of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexander and Tertullian who opposed tithing. Paragraph XI says “if he (the evangelist) asks for money he is a false prophet. Paragraph XII says that evangelists who want to stay must get a job. Paragraph XIII says to give first-fruits to the prophet or to the poor. It is shameful to ignore Paragraphs XI and XII.
Sproul: A second argument that people give to avoid the tithe is that they “cannot afford it.” What that statement really means is that they cannot pay their tithe and pay all the other expenses they have incurred.
Kelly: 1 Tim 5:8 “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” The great sin of modern man is living beyond his/her means. Most of us need to cut back and we will only do that when saving souls becomes more important than buying expensive homes, cars and toys.
Sproul: Again, in their minds the tithe is the last resort in the budget. Their giving to God is something that is at the bottom of their list of priorities. It’s a weak argument before God to say, “Lord, I didn’t tithe because I couldn’t afford it” — especially when we consider that the poorest among us has a higher standard of living than ninety-nine percent of the people who have ever walked on the face of the earth.
Kelly: Replace the word “tithe” with “give” and I will agree with you. Also, accept some of the blame as a preacher.
Sproul: There are many more excuses that people give to avoid this responsibility, yet the New Testament tells us: “Let the thief no longer steal” (Eph. 2:28a).
Kelly: And Ephesians Eph 2:14-16 says “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby.” In the OT only Hebrews were required to tithe as an ordinance/statute which they did not use to convert Gentiles. In the NT God has joined Hebrew and Gentiles, not by forcing both to keep the Law, but by breaking down the middle wall of commandments contained in ordinances which surely included tithing from Numbers 18.
Sproul: If we have been guilty of stealing from God in the past by withholding our tithe from Him, that behavior must cease immediately and give way to a resolution to begin tithing at once, no matter what it costs.
Kelly: According to Numbers 18 it cost the OT tithe-recipient land and inheritance rights. Do you own and inherit land while receiving tithes? How do you justify that? Are you a Levite or OT priest living in a Levitical city? Do you give the first whole tithe to the servants such as ushers, deacons, choir and musicians as required in Numbers 18? Do you only allow ordained preachers inside the sanctuary? Do you kill anybody who dares to worship God directly? These are all part of the same tithing statute in Numbers 18.
Sproul: It’s an interesting phenomenon in the life of the church, that people who in 1960 gave a dollar to the offering plate every week, still give that same dollar today. Everything else in their living costs has been adjusted to inflation except their giving. We also have to remind ourselves that if we give gifts to God, we cannot call them tithes if these gifts fall beneath the level of ten percent.
Kelly: You cannot legitimately call them tithes even if they are ten per cent. True biblical tithes were always only food from inside Israel. Although money was very common even in Genesis, money is never included in 16 texts which describe the contents of the tithe for over 1500 years from Leviticus to Luke. Does that not make you wonder even a little that your definition of a biblical tithe is wrong?
Sproul: One of the sad realities of failure to tithe is that in so doing we not only are guilty of robbing God, but we also rob ourselves of the joy of giving and of the blessings that follow from it. I have yet to meet a person who tithes who has expressed to me regret for being one who tithes. On the contrary, I hear from them not a sense of judgment towards those who don’t give but rather a sense of compassion toward them. Frequently, I hear tithers saying, “People who don’t tithe just don’t know what they’re missing.”
Kelly: And how many tens of thousands of faithful tithers and lottery players in the ghettos are still dirt-poor and uneducated while their preachers live higher lifestyles? Why don’t we hear from these?
Sproul: It is a cliché and a truism that you can’t out-give God. That statement has become a cliché because it is so true.
Kelly: Tithe-teachers are full of clichés which are not biblical: minimum, expectation, beginning point, good place to start, training wheels. None of these are biblical because there was no minimum beginning point except for food producers who lived inside Israel. Tithing is a scam and a sham.
Sproul: In the text in Malachi, we find something exceedingly rare coming from the lips of God. Here God challenges His people to put Him to a test: “Put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (3:10).
Kelly: This is poor hermeneutics. The law was an indivisible whole and the whole law was a test –not merely tithing. Obey ALL to be blessed; break ONE to be cursed. Malachi’s audience asked God to curse them for breaking any part of His law in Nehemiah 10:29 and they are reminded again of this in Malachi 4:4. Galatians 3:10-13 clearly replaces Malachi 3:10-12 for Hebrews. It is impossible to expect God to bless you because of obedience to one part of His Old Covenant law when you are breaking hundreds of other parts.
Sproul: Have you put God to that test? Have you tried Him to see if He will not open heaven itself and empty His own treasuries upon you? We need to stop robbing Him and thus receive from Him the blessing that He promises.
Kelly: God cannot and does not bless New Covenant believers because of a conditional promise made to Old Covenant Israel. It is absurd to say that God will bless you for obedience to only one command out of over 600.
Sproul: Dr. R.C. Sproul is founder and president of Ligonier Ministries and senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, Florida, and he is author of the book Faith Alone.
Kelly: Dr. Russell Earl Kelly is the author of Should the Church Teach Tithing? A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine. Faith alone should mean faith alone and not faith plus works. What happened to Sproul’s sermons about justification by faith and the imputed righteousness of the believer? When he is not discussing tithing, he is teaching that believers stand before God in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ as holy, perfect and sinless. However, while discussing tithing he depicts the believer who does not tithe as being under a curse. He is guilty of the sin Paul rebuked in Galatians 3:1-5 and 1:8-9. He is teaching that we are saved by grace through faith alone but we are kept saved by works of the law. By adding works back into the law he himself falls under the personal curse Paul invokes in Galatians 1:8-9.
Sproul: For more than thirty years, Dr. R.C. Sproul has thoroughly and concisely analyzed weighty theological, philosophical, and biblical topics in Right Now Counts Forever, drawing out practical applications for the Christian in his own engaging style.
Kelly: Sproul has left the roots of his own hermeneutics and theology when he adds tithing back into the grace and faith of the New Covenant. I challenge him to a full-scale debate on the subject.
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
JOHN OWEN, FAMOUS CALVINIST APOLOGIST, DID NOT TEACH TITHING