By Donald Mark C. Ude

LET me begin by shocking you: In the entire Gospels, there is not a single place Jesus clearly commands us to pay tithes! I shock you the more: In the only two places Jesus mentions tithes, he is discernibly cynical about it! 

Admittedly, he never tells us not to pay tithes, either. However, from the Gospels, it could be deduced that his overall attitude towards tithes is that of cynicism and ambivalence. 

I think this point is very important because it brings you (the reader) face-to-face to the fact that this whole ado about tithes is actually about something our Lord treats with so much cynicism and ambivalence. 

So, one begins to wonder why the fuss about something Christ himself didn’t consider worthy of attention. If it weren’t for ideological and financial interests, the people emphasising tithes today would have been the same people who would ask their typical question: “Where did Christ say it?”

Now, let’s check out those two places in the Gospels. (As a matter of fact, Jesus uttered the word “tithe” only three times, but one is essentially a synoptic version of the other – so we are basically left with only two). The first: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. 

It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others” (RSV. Matt 23: 23; cf. Lk 11: 42). The second: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus: ‘God I thank you that I am not like other people … I tithe a tenth of all my income.’” (Lk 18: 10-12). 

These two passages buttress my argument to the effect that Jesus’ overall disposition towards tithes is that of cynicism and ambivalence. In the first passage, Jesus clearly indicates that the concern about truth, justice, fairness, mercy, love, etc. is “weightier” than, and therefore preferable to, tithe-paying. Tithe-paying is secondary and must take a subsidiary position. 

If one must pay tithes, one must not do like Pharisees, but should first and foremost take care to fulfill those “weightier” matters. I live in Europe. The first thing that confronts me each time I step my feet on Nigeria, right from the airport, is unimaginable wickedness, extortion at every turn, bribery, lies, dishonesty, fraud, violence, brigandage, brutality, rascality, filthiest forms of indiscipline, etc. 

I think any evil that is not yet practised in Nigeria has not crossed the mind of mortals. Yet this is supposed to be a nation of ‘tithe-payers’! The second passage is placed in the context of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, where the former brags about being a tithe-payer, while the latter humbles himself before God and eventually goes home fulfilled. 

I’m aware that we Nigerians have been so ‘terrorised’ and benumbed by religion that we hardly pause to think. But I repeat the question I mooted earlier: Does it not strike you that each time Jesus mentions tithe, it is always associated with hypocrisy and Phariseeism? 

Isn’t this already a red flag vis-a-vis tithes/tithing? 

 Now, what are the “weightier” parts of the law in our Nigerian context (that your priest/pastor/GO has refused to draw your attention to)? No doubt, honesty and self-discipline with regard to money must count. You must reject bribery and corruption in your workplaces. 

It is difficult, but it is an act of faith. Nigerians like to talk of ‘challenging’ God; here is a fine opportunity to ‘challenge’ God by rejecting bribes and acting with integrity – to see if He wouldn’t bless your life! You are being told that you “rob” God when you don’t pay your tithes, but you aren’t told that you also rob your fellow humans when you pocket the funds meant for them.

 You are not told that you might be the major cause of accidents, malnutrition, infrastructural deficit and avoidable deaths in Nigeria when you steal the money meant to forestall them, using the position you occupy. 

You pay your tithes in the cities but allow your poor parents and relatives in the village to suffer – perhaps because you have been told they are witches and wizards waiting to kill your destiny. Integrity, solidarity, solicitude, self-control, faith and charity are the “weightier” part of the law that Jesus refers to. 

If you neglect them, even though you pay N1billion as tithe, you are a hypocrite and a Pharisee by Jesus’ standards!

How about the bogus relationship being established between tithing and being blessed/favoured? Now let me make this clear: One of the most blasphemous lies being peddled in the name of God in recent times is that God needs your tithes in order to bless you. 

It is blasphemy because it is an insult on the holy and unfathomably righteous God. I do think that the dynamics of God’s blessings are too complex and mysterious to be reduced to monetary handouts or ‘bribery’ given to His supposed ‘representative.’ 

It is even more scandalous and laughable to see pastors threaten people with hellfire should they not pay their tithes. Many were appalled and disappointed upon seeing a video-clip, where a general overseer threatened – and I quote – that members would “miss heaven” if they did not pay their tithes.

Another implication of our Lord’s cynical disposition towards tithes is that it should occupy little (if any) space in the preaching and sermons of all true ministers of the Word. I might even recommend that the attention given to it should not exceed a total of five minutes in an entire calendar year. 

The reason is that, if tithes were an essential element of the message of salvation our Lord Jesus came to preach, He would have surely included it in the Beatitudes or even dedicated an entire discourse to it. 

For instance, Jesus took time to teach us how to pray, how to fast and so on and so forth. But this isn’t the case with tithes; it simply didn’t worth His attention. As it were, He may have seen it as a distraction, perhaps one of those annoying traditions that could have stymied the New Message He came to proclaim.

ALSO READ: Tithe: 3 things we must consider

At this point, let us address one of the most notorious passages being cited in support of tithes – the “robbing God” mantra. Malachi 3:8-12 suggests that abdicating from tithes might be tantamount to “robbing” God. How do we interpret this? The passage specifically states: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house” (v. 10). 

As I see it, this points more to material food and less to monetary donations to seemingly insatiable and bottomless church coffers. It refers to a practice of bringing a tenth of one’s harvest to the priest/Levite who then went ahead to share it to the poor among the people of God to ensure that no one starved. 

In other words, the focus was basically on the poor, and “robbing” God in this respect is squarely robbing the poor.

Therefore, the ugly scenario in Nigerian churches where so-called ‘top’ tithe-payers owe their workers but are quick to impress the pastor/priest with their tithes is actually tantamount to “robbing” God. This is the true interpretation of that passage! The average Nigerian priest/pastor/GO isn’t worried about this and is even scared to say it the way I do because they fear it might come with dire financial implications. 

Meanwhile, they are the same that would be quick to ask “Is it in the Bible?” if monetary tithing weren’t in their favour.  Once again, I make bold to say that the form of tithing that is OT-supported is tithing in kind and not by cash. 

Well, I do not think this is a big issue because a few things have to change with time, otherwise Christianity becomes mere casuistry. I only brought it up to expose the hypocrisy of those who are quick to ask “is it in the Bible?” when it serves their interest.

The mention of priests/Levites calls to mind what I consider an important dimension of the debate on tithes – namely, the question of who a priest really is in ourpresent context. 

The Bible recounts that Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Gen 14:18-20; Heb. 7: 1-2). That passage is a bit shrouded in mystery, given that it is merely mentioned in passing. 

Since there is hardly any further clue, its interpretation becomes a lot more complicated. Yet I suspect it must have been the practice in ancient Mesopotamia that a tenth of one’s harvest, including war booties (in Abraham’s case), was given to such an exalted priest-king figure. 

This practice was then appropriated by Judaism when it became systematised as a religion, probably facilitated by the institutionalisation of the Levitical priesthood. 

 Now, let’s return to the question: who is a priest (who should receive tithes) in our contemporary context? Does it include the young pastor who was fired – and so ‘de-ordained’ – by his bishop some months ago because he wasn’t ‘doing well’ (‘doing well’ in this case being nothing but making much more money for his church)? 

If this is so, then priesthood would be no less than a precarious and temporary position where the priest/pastor could be ‘un-priested’ according to the whims and caprices of his bishop. 

Does it include the young man who, having failed in all previous endeavors,worst of all in academics, decided to convert a warehouse near Onitsha Main Market to a church to hoodwink unsuspecting traders? 

Does it include the young man from a neighboring village to mine who, for no fault of his (i.e., given the general unemployment in the country), began to feel ‘called’; and so, submitted himself after some weeks of training to be ordained by a self-acclaimed bishop who pays himN30k per month to lead a branch of his church?

Should we focus onthe priest/pastor/venerable of more traditional churches that have existed for a couple of centuries? Or should we limit the term ‘priest’ to the Church that has had an unbroken chain of succession from the Seat of St. Peter, spanning over 2 millennia, and possessing a self-understanding of the priesthood the considers it an indelible character, quite immune to the vicissitudes of life? 

Dear reader, your guess is as good as mine. But irrespective of what you consider priesthood and who you consider your priest, the point is that tithe is epiphenomenal (i.e. of little importance) to Christianity. Indeed, for Christ, the “weightier” part of the law is summed up in the four-letter word, LOVE.

What is more, the key significance of the Melchizedek imagery for our purposes, as invoked in the Letter to the Hebrews, is that Christ is our eternal High Priest, who has offered the one single efficacious Sacrifice for our sins. The import is that you don’t need to pay tithes to be blessed by God. 

The one single Sacrifice – Christ – is enough blessing for you. I’m aware Nigerians are crazy about ‘favors’; then know it today that Christ and Christ alone is your Favor! And, certainly, you will not “miss heaven” if you don’t pay your tithes, quite contrary to the GO’s threat I referred to above.

I wish to remain true to my promise not to interfere with your decision and to even suggest ways in which one could be supportive to the church outside the ‘tithe’ framework. In a place like Germany, where I spend most of my Summers, there is an organized system whereby willing members part with some portion of their monthly incomes for the support of the Church. 

The priest/pastor does not even know how it is administered; all he knows is that he receives his salaries promptly, the church is well-maintained, the secretary, cook (if he has any) and other functionaries are paid.Well, our people may not be as disciplined and advanced as Germans –and, if you think about it, it’s all a symptom of a culture whereby the priest/pastor wants to control everything. 

Yet something could still be done.

 For instance, Nigerians are some of the most generous people I have seen on the planet when it comes to giving to the church. Therefore, occasional but prudent fundraising, offering and free-will donations could be organized to address specific needs. 

As has been established earlier, the poor is the ‘God’ that is being directly robbed in matters of tithes. Hence, beyond being used for the normal functioning of the Church, such fundraising, offering, and donations should also benefit the poor. Nigeria is not in short supply of the poor. If the singer,Davido, could put up a well-organized nation-wide outreach to the poor, the Church could do even better. 

We can begin with our immediate neighborhoods, the hospitals and orphanages nearby.The New testament is replete with examples where Christians made collections for the poor.There are examples where richer churches contributed to poorer ones. We find a good example in Rom. 15: 28 (also see 2 Cor. 9: 6-10). 

In fact, if one reads the Letter to the Romans properly, it becomes clear that the letter was primarily occasioned by such instances of richer churches contributing to help poorer ones (see Rom. 15:28). 

The early Church demonstrated so much solidarity that there “was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). This is the true meaning of tithe! We should therefore put an end to the culture wherein tithes are collected from poor members to erect universities and institutions that are not accessible to the children of the same poor tithe-payers.

“But the hour is coming,” says Jesus, “when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4.23). If you want to really serve God in “spirit and truth,” devoid of hypocrisy, you must choose today if tithing would play any role in this regard. You may also opt for more robust ways of being supportive to the church and the poor. 

TITHES: TO PAY or NOT TO PAY? That’s the question. Dear Christian, the choice is yours.

*Dr. Ude, FWO Research Fellow, KU Leuven, Belgium, wrote via: [email protected][email protected]

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