We’re into week six of sermons about money at church. It turns out our pastor has almost as much to say about money as Jesus did! This week was the third on tithing. The passages were Haggai 1:9-13 and Malachi 3:10, and he did all the things that Aussie evangelicals like me would normally consider to be suspect use of the Bible: drawing one-to-one equivalency between the OT theocracy of Israel and the church today; reading the OT without reference to the NT; stating tithing is in the NT but using no verses from it.
But of course, the historical-grammatical method is not the sole standard for Bible reading or theologising. In a way, listening to our pastor is a lot like reading the early church fathers – Bible methodology aside, the theology is recognisably and robustly Christian.
Our pastor brought out four themes: stewardship, relationship, blessing and sanctification.
Your life does not belong to you, the pastor said. You are a steward of the life, talents, money and time that God has given you. You tithe because it was never your money in the first place, and was always to be used for God’s work and for his kingdom.
His illustration was of a bank. If you entrust your money to a bank, you give the money into their keeping, but the money is still yours. They can’t simply use it however they want, and if they lose it they must pay it back to you. I thought that was a neat little explanation of stewardship.
Tithing is fundamentally theocentric. It starts with knowing God, and is directed towards him. This is in stark contrast with the stereotype of the African prosperity peddler, who tells you to give money to his ministry for what you can get out of it.
So, what of blessing then? The pastor was adamant that God blesses those who tithe – with the right motive. And the right motive can never be to become richer. The right motive must be out of love for God.
There’s a level at which I guess you could still see this as manipulative: if you were tithing and not seeing blessing, perhaps you would end up asking yourself if you really love God enough, and feeling guilty about that. But the way the pastor put it, if you were asking that question, it would be wealth that was your ultimate goal and motive, not love of God.
It reminded me of when Jesus says that the one who wants to save his life must lose it. It might run something along these lines: Do you want blessing? Don’t be concerned with blessing! It’s that reverse logic of the kingdom of the crucified Life-giver. Blessing in this logic is not a bad thing, just as saving your life is not a bad thing! But blessing is found in radical re-orientation of life around God and his ways, even to the point of giving up material blessings.
His next point pushes further even away from the idea that God can be bought, or that the Christian life is transactional. He said, some people receive blessing from God and then they stop giving. To the one who gave them everything, they say, “I cannot give you anything.” But tithing is not a means to extract something from God. Actually, in this line of thinking, receiving blessing from God is a motivation to continue to tithe, because having received more, you now have more to give. Having known God’s goodness, you are all the more thankful to him.
The pastor asks, how can you come to church and have fellowship (uwasiliana) with God if you do not tithe? It’s like a strained relationship, because one person is treating the other one poorly.
The conclusion to the sermon posed a very serious question: If you don’t pay your tithe, can you say you will enter the kingdom?
This sounds transactional at first, almost like you pay your way into heaven. But the pastor tied it back to sanctification. It was like he saw it in the same category as the fruit of the Spirit – a confirming factor of salvation is that you can see God’s work in your life, changing you so that you love him more and live for yourself less. He saw tithing as evidence of love of God.
This part was covered very quietly, and given as fodder for reflection. There was no equivalency, either between tithing and salvation, or non-tithing and condemnation. But there was a serious question for self-examination, and a number of people responded and came forward for prayer.
That was how I took it, at least. I wonder how others found it. I’ve got the number of the lady who organises small groups now, so I’m hoping to join one soon. That will add a whole new dimension to my learning!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.