This is Part 3 of my Tithing and the Church project.
Gary North’s 1994 book was a wake-up call to me on this all-important subject of tithing. I had first read parts of it some 15-20 years ago when I saw the PDF edition he had posted online.
I will be honest, it was a jarring experience. (Of course, reading almost anything Gary North writes can be a jarring experience!)
It was a major course correction. Why? Because, just a few years prior, I had bought into the very appealing idea of the “sovereignty of the tither.” A lot of Christians have bought into this idea. “I control the purse strings.” I liked that. What self-respecting Christian wouldn’t? After all, as a born-again, Spirit-led, “covenant-keeping,” “Bible-believing” follower of Christ, I was therefore entitled to be the chief decision-maker as far as how to allocate “my” tithe money the way I saw fit.
What were the criteria? Only one: wherever I thought (or felt) that God’s law-word was being most faithfully practiced (or preached)–according to my humble opinion and based on my finely-tuned and unimpeachable personal-experience-based perception–by whatever church, charity or non-profit organization that I felt was worthy of my money, that is where I would send my check. (I wrote more checks in those days.)
Lo and behold, wonder of wonders, this resulted in only a fraction of my tithe going to a local church. (From time to time, this might even be the one I was attending — assuming that the pastor and his ministry were up to my lofty biblical standards!)
But more often than not, the lion’s share of my “ten percent” — or whatever New Testament percentage I deemed appropriate — went to non-church and other organizational entities which I felt were doing “the Lord’s work.” My definition of it.
However,… once I got a hold of Gary’s book — or, at least, once I got to reading the electronic, onscreen, non-physical version of the book — my tither’s sense of sovereign superiority quickly evaporated, along with the self-appointed, self-centered practice that went with it: Outcome-Based Tithe Administration.
Here, in this series, I am now giving you the same opportunity that I had 15-20 years ago: to come face to face with a digital, onscreen, non-physical version of Gary North’s trenchant and tenacious argument that, according to God’s covenant and the uniform teaching of Scripture, your tithe belongs in one storehouse: the institutional church.
Last time, I posted the Introduction to Part I of Tithing and the Church.
Today, I am posting Chapter 1: Sovereignty and the Tithe.
Here it is…
SOVEREIGNTY AND THE TITHE
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (Mal. 3:10).
One storehouse, one tithe: this is the heart of the matter. The day that covenant-keeping men multiply storehouses for God’s tithe is the day they begin to lose the blessings of God in history. Why? Because the existence of many storehouses reveals that men no longer believe that there is a single, sovereign, God-authorized collector of the tithe: the institutional church. Their tithes are broken up into a series of offerings; then these offerings are perceived as morally voluntary; then this moral voluntarism transfers visible sovereignty to the donor: he who pays the piper calls the tune.
The sovereignty of the donor over his tithe is an illusion. This form of sovereignty cannot remain with the individual. Individuals possess delegated sovereignty, but they cannot retain it if they rebel against the ultimate Sovereign, God. They refuse to tithe; then the State’s tax collector steps in and imposes compulsion. The State increasingly calls the tunes.
Voluntarism vs. Sovereignty
The modern church is consistent. It does not preach its own lawful delegated sovereignty because it does not preach the absolute sovereignty of God. It does not preach the economic mark of this delegated sovereignty – the morally mandatory tithe – because it does not preach the morally mandatory law of God. By dismissing three-quarters of the Bible as “God’s Word, emeritus,” the church has cut its own purse strings.
When the church teaches that God has no legal claims on modern man’s institutions – pluralism 1 – it places itself under another god with another law. God is presented as if He had no legal claims on modern man. “God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life” has been substituted for “God claims you, and has placed you under an eternal bond, which you have broken.” The doctrine of a claims-less God has financial consequences for the churches, just as it does for the people in them who refuse to pay: wallets with holes.
Then came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet, saying, Is it time for you, 0 ye, to dwell in your celled houses, and this house lie waste? Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes (Hag. 1:3-6).
This warning is easily dismissed today as “Old Testament stuff.” Non-judicial preaching has presented the church as a strictly voluntary institution, contractual rather than covenantal: just one more voluntary institution among many. Such preaching regards the communion table as it regards biblical law: an occasional ritual for remembrance’s sake only. The church is barely distinguished theologically from a non-profit social club. It is not perceived as sovereign.
There is very little sense of the judicial presence of God anywhere in modern church liturgy. Men may sing, ”All hail the power of Jesus’ name; let angels prostrate fall,” but neither angels nor the power of Jesus’ name are taken seriously. In liberal churches, such realities are seen, at best, as non-historical (Barthianism); at worst, as mythical (Bultmanism).
The institutional church manifests God’s moral and judicial standard for the world,2 just as Israel manifested His standard under the Mosaic covenant. This, too, is not believed by the modern church. We find that there is no sense of the judicial presence of God in the civil courtroom, the voting booth, and on inauguration day. The following phrases are mere formalities: “So help me, God” (courtroom oath), “In God we trust” (slogan on u.s. money), and “God bless you all” (tagged onto the end of televised speeches by American Presidents). Invoking God’s name has become a mere convention.
The Judicial Marks of Sovereignty: Oath and Sanction
The presence of a self-maledictory oath is the judicial mark of covenantal sovereignty. Only three institutions lawfully can require such an oath: church, State, and family.3 Such an oath implicitly or explicitly calls down God’s negative sanctions on the person who breaks the conditions of the oath. These sanctions are historical, although few Christians believe this, despite Paul’s warning regarding the misuse of the church covenant’s oath-renewal ceremony: the Lord’s Supper.
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge our- selves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world (I Cor. 11:27-32).
Self-judgment, institutional judgment, and God’s judgment: all take place in history. But the modern church has doubts about God’s predictable sanctions in history. Most Christians do not expect to experience God’s positive covenantal sanctions in history. The next step is obvious: to lose faith in meaningful historical progress. Here is the origin of pessimillennialism’s lack of confidence in the work of the church, the effects of the gospel, and the future of Christianity.4
Without the oath and its associated sanctions, the church is not legally distinguishable from any other oathless, voluntary institution. This skepticism regarding the church’s lawfully delegated sovereignty has spread to another covenantal, oath-bound institution: the family. Today, the oath that creates a new family is undermined by a judicial monstrosity: no-fault divorce. Only one oath-bound institution is still taken seriously, because of the sanctions attached to the oath: the State. The rise of modern statism has been accompanied by a decline of the institutional church and a decline of the family.
Which oath does God understand as central in society? The church’s oath. Why? Because only the church survives the final judgment. It alone extends into eternity (Rev. 21:1-2). Only the church has been assigned the task of baptizing whole nations in Christ’s name (Matt. 28:18-20). Baptism is a church monopoly.
Today, this view of the centrality of the church and its sacraments is not widely shared. Liberals affirm the centrality of the State. Conservatives affirm the centrality of the family. Both views are at war against the plain teaching of Jesus.
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fallon the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are ofmore value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy ofme: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matt. 10:28-37).
Family Values and God’s Sanctions
“Family values.” Everywhere we turn, we hear American conservatives proclaiming family values. Fund-raising mailing list empires have been built on family values. Politicians are supposed to profess family values, and all of them do.
But a question arises: Which kind of family values? How about Islam’s family values? How about defending chastity the Islamic way? The family gets together and executes the unmarried daughter after she has delivered the baby. Not the right approach? But these are surely family values. Are you against family values?5
We are all for family values. No doubt about it. Show me the politician who stands up and says: “Basically, I’m all for adultery and abortion.” Not many, right? But how do they vote? How do they live their lives? As people who are unafraid of God’s negative sanctions in history. And why shouldn’t they be unafraid? The modern church teaches that there are no covenantally predictable corporate sanctions in history.6
Christians have accepted this equation: original sin minus God’s historical sanctions plus God’s common grace = legitimate civil jurisprudence. All the weeping and wailing and direct-mail solicitations concerning the breakdown of family values will change nothing until Christians at last admit that their view of God’s historical sanctions is essentially the same as covenant-breaking, late-twentieth-century humanist man’s. The argument is over the degree to which the State’s negative sanctions should be allowed by modern democracies to deviate from the Old Testament’s negative sanctions. Modern man has decided: there should be very few overlapping sanctions. No-fault divorce, no-fault abortion, and no-fault adultery are basic tenets of belief on Wall Street, Main Street, and Capitol Hill: (1) “If it feels good, do it.” (2) “If it leads to morning sickness, kill it.”
Then there are the economic considerations: (1) “If it ever gets born, someone must pay for it.” (2) “If the parent can’t pay for it, the government will.” Therefore, “Balance the family budget: kill the unborn” soon becomes: “Balance the government’s budget: kill the unborn.”
The covenant-breaking State and the covenant-breaking family are common allies against the church whenever the church preaches God’s law. But the church no longer preaches God’s law. So, the covenant-breaking State and the covenant-breaking family assume that society can safely. ignore the covenant-ignoring church. Everyone ignores God’s warning:
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19)
He Who Holds the Hammer
Neither the morally mandatory tithe nor God’s negative sanctions in history: here is the message of the modern evangelical church. No mandatory tithe, reduced positive sanctions in history: this conclusion is the result of such preaching. Because the church will not impose negative sanctions.against members who refuse to tithe – the loss of voting membership7 – it finds itself less capable of bringing a crucial positive sanction in society: charity. The local church buys a debt-encumbered piece of land, builds a debt- encumbered building, and pays a debt-encumbered pastor. The moment it pays off one building, it builds another. Fund-raising in American evangelical churches today is heavily dependent on building programs. Modern churches have an edifice complex. What most do not have are charitable ministries.
There is a legitimate division of labor in society. There are many things that the church cannot do well – running a Christian school, grades K-12, comes to mind, or running a crisis pregnancy center, or running a drug-rehabilitation center (a basic need in any society where the State runs the schools). The church should support Christian agencies that can do these things well. These agencies, to the extent that they are dependent on the money provided by the churches, will then reflect the standards of the churches. Why? Because of the fear of negative sanctions: the churches’ refusal to write more checks.
Churches today write checks mainly to bankers. The bankers have the negative sanction: no payment, no church building. They, not the churches, “hold the hammer.” Then the local government finds that it can disrupt the flow of funds by revoking a church’s property tax exemption. There are now two hammers. Then the Federal government threatens to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status. There are now three hammers.
Where is the churches’ hammer? In heaven. But churches insist that God does not bring predictable negative sanctions in history. His hammer is exclusively post-historical, they preach. In short, the church offers no threat of a hammer in the modern world, which does not acknowledge God or eternity. Or, as a pair of famous political theorists have put it:
And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go (Ex. 5:2).
Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? (Dan. 3:15).
He who holds the largest hammer gets paid first. The church preaches that it holds no earthly hammer at all. The church therefore gets the leftovers: after personal and family taxes; after personal and family debt payments; and after food, clothing, college expenses, and entertainment.
If Not Tithes, Then Offerings
The church, burdened with debt, denying its possession of meaningful sanctions, comes to its members and pleads: “Do what the Spirit leads you to do.” But what the Spirit apparently leads them to do is less – far, far less – than He required from God’s Old Covenant people. There is no denomination in the United States that collects anything approaching half a tithe from its members.
Old Covenant people were spiritual children, we are assured. This is why God gave them so many laws. He told them exactly what not to do. But we are adults. No one tells us what to do or not to do (not counting the State, of course). We must respond as adults do. We must sacrifice. That we sacrifice economically at less than half of the required rate of sacrifice of Old Covenant children is of course beside the point. After all, they were a rural, tribal people. We are urban globalists, about to enter a stupendous New World Order. Should we expect the laws of such a primitive people to serve us well today? Of course not. We’re all adults here. Taxpaying adults. The church deserves ten percent of our income? Primitive! Childish!
What should we give the local church? Not tithes and offerings, surely. Just offerings. The size of these offerings is exclusively our decision. So is the recipient. Sovereignty belongs to us. We the people impose the sanctions around here (not counting the State, of course). We the people giveth, and we also taketh away. Blessed be the name of the people. We administer the oath. We baptize the church. Shape up, church!
So, the church’s officers come before the people mainly as representatives of the people. They beg in the name of God, but collect in the name of the. people. They are then sent back to God, offerings in hand. There is hierarchy here: the people tell the church, as God’s agent, what they are willing to pay.
Modern Christians come before God and remind Him: “Not a cent more, mind You! You should be grateful for whatever You get. Don’t pull any of that fire and brimstone rhetoric on us! That’s Old Testament stuff. We don’t take kindly to it. We can walk across the street and join another church, You know. It needs our money. It will be glad to get us. This is a buyers’ market, Old Fellow. We can shop around. This is a free market system. We’re price sensitive. We’ll take the best package deal offered by one of Your churches. There are so few of us these days. It’s a declining market. This makes us valued customers.”
(People ask me: What does it matter which eschatology a person holds? I will tell you. Postmillennialists are not persuaded that the present “down market” in the number of converts is permanent; pessimiIIennialists are persuaded. This means that their eschatology reinforces “buyers’ market” mentality. It also affects their churches’ discipline: gutting it.)
There was a time, three centuries ago, when Christians believed that there are only three ways out of the church: death, excommunication, and letter of transfer. They no longer do. Excommunication is old fashioned. Letters of transfer only carry weight when receiving churches sanction them, rejecting the visitors’ request for membership, if only for the sake of creating respect for their own letters of transfer. But in a buyers’ market for voluntary donations, churches are rarely choosy. They have become beggars. Beggars can’t be choosers.
The churches no longer hold the hammer. They dropped it over a century ago. Why? Because they applied the philosophy of nominalism to the church itself: a world of contracts, not binding covenants under God. When Holy Communion became in most Protestants’ thinking a mere memorial, the church covenant became a contract in their thinking.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is no longer taken seriously. While the following development may not be predictable in every instance, it is familiar enough to be considered highly probable. When weekly communion goes to monthly communion, and monthly communion goes to quarterly communion, and grape juice is substituted for wine, tithes become offerings. Nominalism undermines tithing because nominalism undermines men’s fear of church sanctions: faith in God’s predictable covenantal sanctions in history whenever church and State fail to enforce His law by means of the law’s mandated sanctions.
When the churches stopped preaching the mandatory tithe, the State adapted the idea and multiplied by four: taxes.
1. Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).
2. Gary North, Healer of the Nations: Biblical Blueprints for International Relations (Ft. Worth, Texas: Dominion Press, 1987), Introduction.
3. Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant (2nd ed.; Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), ch. 4.
4. Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Chris- tian Economics, 1990), chaps. 3, 4, 7, 8, 9.
5. In November, 1993, a new movie was released: Addams Family Values. The Addams family is a comedy family of bizarre sadists and masochists.
6. North, Millennialism and Social Theory, ch. 7.
7. See Chapter 3.
Next time: Chapter 2, Authority and the Tithe