Testing a Defense of the Tithe

Risking the wrath of many who enjoy John Piper's writings (which we often do as well), we will use his message on this subject as an example. The following points are from his sermon given September 10, 1995 as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church...

Seven Biblical Reasons to Tithe

The way I would like to handle this is to give seven summary reasons - which I will try to show from Scripture - for why I pray my sons will all give the first 10% of their income to the work of Christ, and then grow beyond that as God prospers them.

1. Tithing honors an Old Testament principle of how God provided for the ministers he called and the expenses of their ministry.

2. When we release a tenth of our income and give it over to the ministry and mission of Christ in the world, we honor the Creator rights of God who owns everything, including all our income.

3. Giving away a tenth of our income to the mission and ministry of Christ is an antidote to covetousness.

4. The fourth reason is almost the same as the last one, but not quite. When we go to the tithe and beyond, as I am suggesting we should, it puts a governor on ever-expanding spending.

5. The fifth reason for going to the tithe and beyond in our giving is that this is God's way of bringing about many good deeds for his glory.

6. The sixth reason for pressing to the tithe and beyond is that it is God's way of providing you, the tither, sufficient money for your needs.

7. Finally, in our giving we should press toward the tithe and beyond because it will prove and strengthen our faith in God promises (sic).

(John Piper, http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper95/09-10-95.htm)

As a refresher, and to practice applying the principles we've already learned, we will quickly examine the Bible passages and arguments that Piper uses in defense of his seven points.

#1. Piper states that because God gave no inheritance to the Levites, He assigned them the tithe (Numbers 18:20-21). While true, remember that the portion of the tithe shared with the Levites was only a small portion of the whole, as most of it was consumed by the giver in fellowship and shared with the poor as well as the Levites. Giving 10% of our money to the church in no way honors an Old Testament means of God providing for his ministers - this is an entirely new concept of the tithe. In fact, the new concept of the tithe removes its administration (and any possible joy of sharing) from the giver and makes it a church function and now one centered on money rather than meals.

Provision for the Levites came through a combination of many things, including a portion of mandatory offerings. Why wouldn't arbitrarily reinstating the firstfruits offering be closer to honoring an Old Testament means of providing for ministers and be just as logical? Once again, the tithe had nothing to do with money and did not provide for the Levites' "expenses." Piper also appealed to Matthew 23:23 to say that Jesus promoted the tithe, concluding "So Jesus endorses tithing." Re-read our earlier section where we covered that passage already. It is a contextual misuse of the Matthew 23:23 passage to apply it to the church. Superficially, perhaps his best argument in this section is 1 Corinthians 9:13-14...

1 Corinthians 9:13-14 Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

Piper claims that since Paul appealed to the Old Testament practice of the temple storeroom provisions being used to support the priests and Levites that it proves that a tithe should be used to support ministers in the church. Others use the same argument...

3. Tithing is God's method of supporting His ministry.

First Corinthians 9:14 says those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel "even so" as the priests of the Old Testament lived from their temple service. God gave the tithe to them (Numbers 18:21). To be "even so" today requires tithing to continue. (Emphasis in original, Should You Tithe?, http://www.believers.org)

Piper's words on this subject are; "it seems likely that tithing would have been the early Christian guideline, if not mandate." Yet it's dangerous to read too much into Paul's "In the same way." Taken to an extreme, could not everything concerning the Levites be carried forward? To do so would result in the minister's share of the tithe only being the smaller portion that was actually put in the storeroom (re-read earlier sections), and then only of the increase of crops, livestock, and fruit of the vine, and no minister would be allowed to own lands as an inheritance (even as Levites had no inheritance in the land).


This is not what Paul was saying when he said, "In the same way." In the context of the entire passage, that these two verses were pulled from, Paul was establishing that ministers of the gospel should be able to receive physical income and provision while carrying out their ministry. This is the principle whereby believers should provide for those in Christian service. Paul even points out that he did not always use this right (by his own choice, exercising his freedom). Nowhere in this passage does it establish a method for this provision, much less reestablish an Old Testament legal requirement to accomplish this. As you will see later in this work, reestablishing legal requirements, or inventing a new legal requirement, would go against the primary Biblical principles that Paul worked to establish for the church.

Piper's final statement on this point is as follows:

"In other words when we tithe today we honor a principle and plan of God that sustained the ministry in the Old Testament and probably sustained the New Testament ministry as well. (Piper, Ibid.)

The evidence we have already examined in Scriptures does not support this statement, both regarding his claim that the tithe sustained the Old Testament ministry and "probably" supported the New Testament church as well. The next section, which deals with church history, will also help to show that the "probably" is completely improbable.

#2. While no Scripture is used to defend this point, a couple of his opinions should be evaluated. (Though there is a Scripture verse in this point, it is not being used to support the claim being made). Piper's statements...

Giving God a tenth of our income does not deny that all our money is God's, it proves that we believe it.

I believe the tithe should be the first check we write after the income deposit is made in the bank. (Piper, Ibid.)

What Bible passage, for the New Testament church, says that giving a tenth of our income to the church proves that we believe all our money is God's? (Though Piper doesn't directly say that the giving must be to the church, he implies it throughout all points.) Again, he is not the only one teaching this:

Tithing acknowledges in a tangible way the Lord's ownership of us and all we have. It is recognition He deserves. ... Anyone who claims Jesus as their Lord and does not give Him at least ten percent of their money should face the truth: money is their Ruler, not Jesus. (Should You Tithe, http://www.believers.org)

Using an analogy, let's consider this idea in a different setting. Imagine that an employer entrusted all his finances and goods into the hands of one trusted employee. The otherwise destitute employee is overjoyed to live in the employer's home, eat of his food, and drive his car. The goal, of course, was that the employee would use them well so they would increase, plus it was the clear intent of the employer that his steward look after his own needs as well. Without a doubt the employee knows that 100% of what he has under his authority belongs to his employer. Over the years the employee started keeping about 90% of the return on every investment, justifying it through the belief that this larger share was to meet his needs. He diligently returned the approximate 10% to the employers account to be used for future investment. When questioned regarding his practice, the employee was quick to say that his return of ten percent or more shows that he acknowledges the employer's ownership of all he has.

Sounds pretty farfetched? As it would to virtually any court of law the employer would take his irresponsible employee to. Yet, this is exactly the mindset that drives the idea that tithing somehow acknowledges God's ownership of everything.

Take our analogy further. Imagine this same employee standing before the judge trying to justify what he did. "Your honor, I have proof from my employer's writings that he had this type of agreement with another employee in the past." Of course the next question would be whether or not there were any recent writings that said the same was to apply to him. With the best the employee is able to offer being a couple paragraphs that talked about the earlier arrangement, the judge subsequently finds that the employee was acting without cause.

Back to Pipers message, as we continue to evaluate the Scriptural evidence: Since we're again talking about writing a check, based on our gross income, how does this have anything to do with even the Old Testament tithe? Remember that the tithe was of the increase of only crops and livestock - money wasn't even in view. (We're beginning to sound repetitious on this!)

#3. How giving away ten percent of our income, versus using all of it for God's glory, becomes an antidote to covetousness is beyond us. But Piper says, "Tithing is one of God's great antidotes to covetousness." While he used many versus that validly say that covetousness is wrong, there are no passages that even begin to prove his point and associate the two concepts. When a person buys into a mandated percentage it really does nothing towards controlling covetousness, which is an issue of the heart (see Colossians 2:20-23 below). A person can covet just as well with the remaining 90%, if they believe that somehow the remainder belongs to them any more than the first 10% did.

Colossians 2:20-23 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

#4. While Piper provided a great example of a person who understood Christian Stewardship as a lifestyle, namely John Wesley, his attempt to use it as proof of the need to "go beyond the tithe" is invalid. Again, teaching that there is a dichotomy between what is God's and what is ours does nothing towards controlling "our natural impulse toward luxury." Coming to a right understanding of Christian Stewardship (as we will soon examine) is the only sure course.

Piper uses 2 Corinthians 9:6-8 as a "proof text" for the next three points. We will not spend much time examining it here as we do so in a following section entitled "How Should Christians Be Giving?"

#5. The heart of Piper's argument in this point is the statement "Excess money is for good deeds." Again, it must be emphasized that we need to skip the dichotomy. The truth of Scriptures is that all we have and all we are must be for good deeds! Consider&ldots;

Ephesians 2:10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Hosts of other passages that say much of the same include; Matthew 5:14-16; Colossians 1:10; Titus 2:7, 14; Titus 3:8, 14; Hebrews 13:20-21)

Rather than Piper's statement that we need to "go to the tithe and beyond," Scriptures simply teaches that Christians are beyond the tithe.

#6. Claiming that Paul, in 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, was restating Malachi 3:10, Piper then spends much of this point trying to apply that Old Testament passage to the church. For the record, the two referenced passages, plus surrounding verses for context, are as follows.

Malachi 3:10-11 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty.

2 Corinthians 9:5-8 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. 6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

Malachi was talking about needed obedience to the Law, for those under the Law, especially by the priests (re-read the earlier section on Malachi). God had promised to bless Israel, but they had forsaken Him and cast aside the blessing. God was promising to restore that blessing if they would repent and be obedient to the Law.

In contrast, under the New Covenant where believers have been set free from the Law through the finished work of Christ, 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, by the context of the verses preceding it, is speaking about generous, freely committed, giving and the need to honor any commitments made of the giver's free choice

Piper also arbitrarily ties Luke 6:38 to Malachi and the tithe.

Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

While there is no question that there is a blessing in doing good, which includes generous giving, the tithe is a completely different topic. Yet here, Piper echoes the popular claim that a person should test God in tithing. It is dangerous business putting God to the test unless He has specifically commanded it of us (See Psalms 78:41, Matthew 4:7, Luke 4:12). Where we end up in Piper's teaching is with a mild form of the prosperity gospel, because this "is God's way of providing you, the tither, sufficient money for your needs." Simply put this is telling people that they have to earn God's blessing and daily provision, claiming that if you tithe God is sure to give more money in return. Piper does emphasize that this won't make you rich&ldots; remember this is the mild form of the prosperity gospel! Again, what makes the mild form logically more consistent than the extreme forms? Another example:

"God is a promise keeper," he said in an interview. "He says if you give [to] me, try me and see if I won't open a window from heaven and pour you out a blessing. I'm going to bless your health, family finances and future." (Rev. C. Matthew Hudson Jr., pastor at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, from the article Tithing Rewards Both Spiritual and Financial, Washington Post, April 15, 2006; Page A01)

Returning to Piper's usage of Luke 6:38; this one verse was extracted from its context in Luke. Before continuing with his additional points, it is necessary to examine the entire passage.

Luke 6:32-38 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 37 "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

This whole passage is on love. Jesus was illustrating that a believer will act out of love. When we show mercy and forgiveness in everything, including with material goods, God gives us more and more ability to act in love! That's what we want "pressed down, shaken together and running over", the ability to love more and more in everything we do. This is far better than desiring any increase in some earthly bank account!

#7. Pressing "towards the tithe and beyond" will never prove and strengthen our faith in God's promises, as Piper claims. Placing people in bondage to a newly created system of giving ten percent of all your money to the church accomplishes nothing towards proving one's faith. Following God's Word is proof of one's faith and love.

John 14:15 "If you love me, you will obey what I command.

Though Piper uses Hebrews 13:5 in this point, a verse which warns us to be "free from the love of money", mandatorily giving away ten percent does nothing towards freeing a person from the love of money. Studying, believing, and putting into practice the principles of Christian Stewardship that God has given to the church - which deals with all that we are and have - is the sure cure for a love of money. If we don't deal with the big picture, it's just as easy to have a love for the remaining ninety percent even if we buy into a new law to tithe. Worse still, with many versions of instruction on tithing, the tither can believe that their ninety percent share will get bigger because they're taught that God will reward them financially for tithing. We would argue that this concept actually encourages a love of money.

In conclusion, John Piper's teaching and defense of the tithe is a traditional view of modern tithing that is unsupported by a totality of Scriptures. He is not the first, nor likely the last.