Douglas Jacoby, 2015
I enjoyed reading Randy Alcorn's The Treasure Principle. It’s light, readable, and makes many great points—especially for believers living in the affluent west.
There were many helpful things he said. For example, his question, "If I reduced income by 10%, could I still survive?" In this country (the U.S.), yes, most people would. The section about the FedEx guy was good. We are only stewards; the things the Lord entrusts to us are not ultimately ours. His challenge about our lifestyles was right on. And certainly most of us can give a lot more than we are giving.
Yet, even though I found myself in agreement with 90% of what he wrote, I had some concerns. I see two intertwining issues:
(1) Torah: Are we still bound by the OT tithing laws?
(2) Treasure: Is the tithe the key to receiving God's blessing, on this earth and afterwards?
On (1), Alcorn replies with a strong yes. He states that OT tithe was never rescinded (pp. 62-63), implying we are still bound by tithing law. Yet at times he feints, and his readers might believe he's not adamant or legalistic about the point. But what about the other laws never explicitly rescinded? The Jubilee Year, regulations concerning mildew, not harvesting fields to the edge – are we still obligated to uphold them all? What is the rule for determining which laws still apply?
Back to Randy Alcorn: "I have no problem with people who say 'we're not under the tithe,' just as long as they're not using that as justification for giving less" (66-67). Yet this is double-talk (or else sarcasm). Either we are under the tithe, or we aren't. Of course Alcorn knows we're not under law, but can't quite get himself to break from the wider Protestant donation tradition. (I mean the tradition among many evangelical denominations that preach the tithe.)
Covenant giving covenant starts with 10% (91), in Alcorn's opinion. I don't totally oppose this. When a fellow Atlantan asks me where to begin, I might well recommend 10% -- if for no other reason than that it's an easy calculation. Speaking personally, Vicki and I have never given so little as 10%, even when things were tight, and I'd be embarrassed if we weren't exemplary in this area. Yet does our typical fondness for 10% mean we have discovered some principle, or that others should follow suit?
Are we under the tithe, or not? In my paper (1992) I argue that we are not. First, the tithe applied only to the fruits of agrarian life: produce and livestock. Jews who weren't farmers or herdsmen would presumably pay nothing. And presumably the landless were also poor. It was right that the wealthy bore the financial burden, especially when so many lived at subsistence level.
Second, the frequently cited Mal 3:10 is referring not to Christian giving, but to the Jewish system. Anytime someone doing the "contribution talk" reads this passage without qualification, I cringe. It's unfair: unfair to most Americans by implying 10% is enough, unfair to those in financial straits by linking spirituality with a percentage, unfair to all by holding on to any element of Torah as a means to justification or sanctification.
10% as a starting place for the majority of citizens in wealthy countries, including the United States, works easily enough. But this could be a disastrous measure for many believers worldwide, especially those living hand to mouth. What a heavy burden we would lay on them to demand a tithe; I fear the woes of Matthew 23 might be rained down on me if I acted as though there was no difference between us and them. True, the poor widow gave all she had to live on, but the observation follows the verse about the Pharisees preying on widows' houses. The passage may be commending her, but it is condemning them.
Moreover, God's people no longer live and give in a homogeneous religious culture. Determining what sort of tithing principle applies is impossibly problematic. For example, is the tithe before tax (even where taxes might be 60%, as they were when we first lived in Sweden), or after tax? How about the unemployed? We have no clear policy here. Israel was a commonwealth under God. We are not. Determining the right percentage case by case would rival US tax law in complexity. I'm overstating, but the point should be clear.
So what should we teach, if we abandon the word "tithe"? How about "Under the new covenant there's no minimum – and no maximum, either." It would be prudent to leave it at that.
Many Christians worldwide have been led to believe that the tithe is mandatory today. Others uncritically use the word "tithe" when they mean contribution. Leaders seldom correct this. Perhaps they fear people might overreact and give less – which I doubt. Most disciples of Christ are good-hearted, and most would appreciate being trusted to decide their own level of giving.
This brings us to (2): Exactly what is the treasure principle? When Alcorn teaches that we have treasure in heaven, or that the Lord is good, and rewards faithfulness, I have no bone to pick. It's the rehabilitation of the OT tithe, and its generalization as a principle for all Christians.
Alcorn seems to believe the principle is either (a) tithing or (b) linked with tithing. Yet if he's right, isn't it odd that not even once is this old covenant law referred to in the epistles – which deal with a vast array of practical matters, including giving?
The early church did not teach tithing; this came in only with the church state (4th century), and was elevated in time (8th century) to the status of a tax.
Further, where a breadwinner giving 10% could make the difference to whether one's kids starve, should we still teach it? No. We ought to show grace. In contrast, there is no flexibility for a true commandment of God, like the prohibition of adultery. We would never "show grace" if a man really did love his neighbor's wife.
The bottom line is: If the principle isn't universal, it's not a true biblical principle at all. Although The Treasure Principle has merit, its central thesis is flawed. And, I would add, culturally skewed. Let me explain.
If Alcorn had claimed "For most citizens of wealthy nations, a 10% offering should be demanded," I would disagree with his theology and his interpretation, though not with his practical conclusion. We (Americans) probably should be giving way over 10%! But when Alcorn elevates one element of Torah to a worldwide biblical teaching – whether a law or "principle" is irrelevant – I have a problem. And you should, too.
If Alcorn renamed the book The Tithing Principle, that would be more forthcoming. Yet he presents tithing as a law: a matter of obedience, an element in the unchanging will of God; the clear teaching of scripture.
But it isn't.