Once More, With Feeling, on Tithing

Russell Kelly responded via email to my last post on tithing.  He had problems with the "math question" (which I will discuss below.)  But I will reproduce his email and my response.

You have a lot of verbiage but little concrete content. I am not sure what your postilion is on tithing, but it seems we might actually agree.

The one thing we do agree on is that tithing isn’t taught in the New Testament; it’s an Old Testament concept.  That’s probably more important to me than to him.  Dr. Kelly has obviously spent a lot of time disagreeing with people who can’t differentiate between real New Testament Christianity and the synthetic Judaism that his opponents have derived from the Old.  Perhaps Dr. Kelly can’t either.  This is a common fault of American Christianity, but that’s one of those "broad issues" that Dr. Kelly doesn’t deal with.  A better source for that is "Spengler" at Asia Times Online.

Personally I tend to categorise those who try to turn Christianity into a "high-speed" form of Judaism as ignorant, which is why I don’t spend a lot of time discussing them.  Maybe someday one of them will "call my bluff," and I’ll deal with it then.

Why does the whole message I am typing not show up on your screen without being interrupted? That is weird.

That’s because the "math question" is time limited.   Since Dr. Kelly runs a static site, he’s not had to deal with comment spam, which is the rationale behind the question.  For long responses (or responses where you’re spending a lot of time thinking about what to say,) the best way is to use a word processor, then cut and paste.

What is your book?  What got you into a frenzy about book reviews?  I review pro-tithing books if that is what you want and I post Amazon.com reviews of my book on my site. What is so wrong about that?

I’ll take this to mean that Dr. Kelly has declined my challenge.

If you want a dialog I have never backed down and you are seriously underestimating my tenacity by over evaluating your own ability. You just need some way of letting others know you have replied to their post.

I’ve spent this past year in two major "dialogues:" one on this blog with Liam, a gay Californian, on the issue of same-sex civil marriage, and the other with a Salafi Muslim in Indonesia on Islam and Christianity.  I can hang tough with the best of them.  If Dr. Kelly spent more time using his talents for debates with non-Christians, we’d all be better off.

First, "tithing is a good place to start" is a product of mesmerization and people say it automatically without thinking of their false assumptions. Not everybody in the OT began their giving level at 10% –only farmers and herdsmen inside Israel did that. Therefor it was NOT a standard of giving for everybody.

Dr. Kelly just doesn’t get it–I’m not looking for a legalistic rule, I’m looking for a helpful guide.  “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” Galatians 3:24, 25.  However, just because we’ve graduated doesn’t mean we should forget everything we’ve learned.

Second, you wrote The concept of the Jerusalem church was so successful that no other church mentioned in the New Testament emulated it.  It‚s dangerous to make an argument from silence, but in this case there needs to be a good reason not to perpetuate the model that the Apostles themselves started in Jerusalem. "

Friend, that is an insane interpretation of Acts 2 and 4. Those early Christians thought that Jesus was coming back very soon. They were not told to sell all but they chose to do so and later regretted it. When the money ran out they had nothing –no homes, no businesses, no food, etc and had to beg for food through Paul for at least a decade when the famine came.  and if you read Acts 15 and 21 you will discover that they were still zealous of the law 21:20-21 and most likely still paid whatever tithe they might have to the Temple.

It’s obvious from responses like this that Dr. Kelly is an adherent of a religious system that is simply too conventional and bourgeois to grasp the basically radical, revolutionary nature of the Gospel.  The Apostles had just spent three years as Jesus disciples, and they were there when Jesus challenged the rich young ruler.  They were the leaders in this community.  Without their approval, such a radical step would not have happened.  The Apostles felt that this was the way to carry out the Lord’s commands.

In any case, where is it said that "they were not told to sell all?"  Don’t the scriptures say the following?

“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Acts 2:44-47, KJV.

To his credit, Dr. Kelly does put his finger on one "good reason" why the Jerusalem church wasn’t emulated: the issue of economic viability.  But that doesn’t give us an answer on how we must live today.

Christianity is a total commitment: life, mind, heart, soul and possessions.  Most laity have to work for a living; they give a third of their time and a larger portion of their energies into making a living.  What they give to their church and to the ministries is a part of them.  Dr. Kelly can go back and forth all he wants on whether tithing is what is needed, but given the totality of the Christian commitment, 10% is still low except for the destitute (and I dealt with that in the last post as well.)  Dr. Kelly dislikes tithing, but what does he propose for an alternative to support the work of the church?  A few pence in the offering?  Or no offering at all?

Beyond that, the whole issue of Christian stewardship cannot be intelligently discussed without the issue of church polity and governance.  But Dr. Kelly ignored my original post’s treatment of this subject, along with many other issues related to stewardship.  It used to be that Baptists were very strong on the participation of the membership in the governance of the church, but evidently this has fallen out of fashion even with some of them.  Or perhaps he has spent so much time disputing with authoritarians that he has overlooked it.

Or perhaps it’s a matter of focus.  In the Harvard Dictionary of Music, one definition of a drone is "(a) primitive bagpipe, capable of playing only a few low tones and used to accompany other instruments or voices."   They provide a steady bass line; by themselves, however, it’s a very turgid symphony.  That’s the best way to describe Dr. Kelly’s perspective.  In the past rigid proof texting might have won the day, but today we deserve better.

Pickett’s Charge and Tithing

Russell Earl Kelly was quick to respond to my piece The Backlash Against Tithing.  But, like our Confederate ancestors at places like Gettysburg, he may have charged without properly assessing what was in front of him.

Let me start by reiterating one important point that Dr. Kelly has obviously missed: I do not say that tithing is a New Testament concept.  It isn’t.  It’s an Old Testament one.  Selling all is the standard of the New Testament, whether we’re talking about the rich young ruler or the Jerusalem church.  The fact that American churches–liberal and conservative alike–do not teach this is for two reasons:

  1. American culture is too bourgeois for selling all.  For the moment, at least.  That may not last.
  2. The concept of the Jerusalem church was so successful that no other church mentioned in the New Testament emulated it.  It’s dangerous to make an argument from silence, but in this case there needs to be a good reason not to perpetuate the model that the Apostles themselves started in Jerusalem.

That being the case, it remains to discover just what is expected of Christians relative to giving to the church.  It should be self-evident that, in the face of the high standard of the New Testament–communal living or not–10% is cheap.  Given that, I think that 10% is a reasonable starting guideline.  If you have people in the church who are too destitute to pay it, then it’s the church’s obligation to do something about that.  One of the reason why Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire after only three centuries is because it took care of its own, something churches are rediscovering in wonderful ways today.

Now to another point that he makes:

Tithing is not the magic lottery-sty [sic] not the secret to success.

This gets us into the whole issue of prosperity.  Unfortunately Dr. Kelly has chosen to engage a Palm Beacher in debate on this subject, so he’s in for a wild ride.

Prosperity is a relative term.  Since he lives in a Mega Millions state (up here, we get the Powerball numbers, too) when I think of a "magic lottery," I’m thinking big.  Given the grandiose way that prosperity resulting from giving is set forth, I’ve always felt that the resultant wealth from this should result in net worth comparable to the people I grew up with, and the influence on the society that goes with it.  With very few exceptions, that hasn’t panned out.  Part of the problem I discussed in my piece If You’re Going to Take the Land, Take It, but there are other good reasons as well.

For most Evangelical Christians, prosperity is a decidedly modest proposition–reasonable housing for the family, decent transportation and clothes, good health, etc.  That’s what’s being promised, and is usually an integral part of the "redemption and lift" theology so common today.  In addition to the lifestyle changes wrought by salvation in Jesus Christ, the financial aspects of this are twofold: supporting the work of the church (so that others can experience what you have) and not allowing the consumerist urge to overspend and go into debt to become de facto "idol worship."  The main fault with the way most churches present stewardship is they dwell on the former to the exclusion of the latter, with the result that their members are so far in debt they’re unable to give.  (I discussed the debt problem in my original post, but that’s another point that Dr. Kelly overlooked.)

Since we’re getting into depth of content issues, I need to present my challenge.

My Challenge to Dr. Kelly

I noted on his site that he likes to see his book reviewed.  The list even includes the website of my current employer.  If he wants make Positive Infinity another notch on his gun stock, my challenge is as follows:

  1. I will be glad to read and post a review of his book if and only if he commits on a public forum (his site or mine will do) that he will do the same for a book of mine, and do so by the end of this year.
  2. Once this agreement is made, we can exchange books.  His is available online; I can email him a copy of mine.  (Click here for the website for these books.)
  3. Again, before the year is out, once he has read my book, he must post a review on his site, whether he thinks the book is relevant to his idea or not.  He must do this in a place where it can be found.  In my case, I discuss just about anything, so that’s not a problem for my posting of the review of his book.
  4. This agreement must be made by the end of this month (November 2007.)

Let the games begin!

The Backlash Against Tithing

As my church’s Finance Committee chairman, the article about The Backlash Against Tithing (also here) certainly hits home.  It’s something I deal with all the time, especially at budget season.

At one time in evangelical churches, people tithed first and then gave offerings on top of that.  Today people are more likely to mentally allocate so much to the church and then shuffle around what they give to various appeals.  This can get exciting.  If, for example, one is in a capital stewardship campaign, one sees large pledges on the one side and a drop in gifts designated as tithes and other offerings on the other, which then makes meeting operating expenses a challenge.  Budgeting in this environment becomes a guessing game vis as vis the congregation, and this isn’t good for anyone.

What I think is going on is a confluence of trends in the Boomer generation.

The first is a general decline in a sense of community, which in turn leads to a decline in charitable giving.  Much of the secular charitable giving is in reality a tax collected by NGO’s (enforced by our culture) to sponsor the same kinds of projects that governments do.  If we ever get into a tax increase mode, we’ll see that decline too.

The second is the decline of participation by church members in the direction of the church.  Boomer pastors frequently have a Gothard-man, top-down idea of their role, with them casting visions (which they represent are from God) and everyone else following their "inerrant" lead.  It never occurs to anyone that true leadership in the church is tapping into the God-endowed giftedness of the congregation (a concept that the New Testament supports) that just might include some good ideas for the course of the church.  This is one reason why men in particular struggle with church: they earn the money, why can’t they have a say in how its spent?  So the giving declines.

The third follows from the second: too many churches have adopted a corporate model for ministry.  This puts church on a "services rendered" basis, which appeals to people’s consumerism but in the long run wears down the whole concept of generosity.   (BTW, don’t criticise your church for cash-generating activities like bookstores and coffee bars; if they help to support the ministry with your addiction to coffee, consider yourself doubly blessed.)

The fourth is the flip side of the third: churches don’t always run their business on a corporate model.  This is most visible in building projects.  Boomers love grandiose building projects, and, as anyone knows, building programs are both the most thrilling and most stressful times in the life of a church.  Churches need to adopt the corporate model here and look at facility utilisation on a more businesslike basis.  (And, of course, there’s the business of the rowdies trying to impress everyone…)

To try to reverse this trend, churches could start by being more transparent with their membership with how and why they allocate their funds the way they do and not be so defensive when criticism comes up.  Beyond that, churches need to recognise that stewardship is more than a code word for increased giving: it’s a two-way street.  The people of God exercise responsible stewardship by giving of the resources that God has given them and the church responds by allocating those resources in a responsible and transparent way.  The latter would also be an encouragement to the membership, since we are in a culture that encourages debt-laden indulgence.  As I always like to say, "You can’t outgive God, but you can outspend Him!"

As far as the concept of tithing itself is concerned, I said my peace back in March:

Evangelical churches have been criticised for their obsession with tithing and giving.  People say that "tithing is Old Testament."  But the above scripture (about selling all) shows what the New Testament standard might look like.  In this perspective 10% is the easy way out.

As an additional observation, the local church that’s not worth tithing to isn’t worth belonging to.

Finally, I was amused by the following line in the article:

The tithe has been the Episcopal Church’s "minimum standard" since 1982, although the average annual gift from its 2.3 million members in 2006 reached only $1,718, less than the 10% requirement, according to its own figures.

The Episcopal Church I grew up in considered it in bad taste to demand its members to tithe, although it always kept the offering plate and mite box in front of its parishioners, as I reminded everyone yesterday.   But by the time it adopted this standard, TEC had already lost many members, and necessity is the mother of invention.

The Society for a Moratorium on the Music of Marty Haugen and David Haas Has Finally Won

One of the more hilarious sites on the Web relating to Roman Catholicism is the Society for a Moratorium on the Music of Marty Haugen and David Haas, or SMMMHDH for short.  When it started, the Society made the following claim:

The Society is awaiting pontifical approval from the Holy See as a pious sodality.

It looks like the Society will get its wish after all, because the Pope is preparing to to purge the Vatican of modern music.

To be honest, I didn’t expect an occupant of the Holy See to make such a move to undo a centrepiece of the last 45 years of Roman Catholicism, any more than I expected one to be as proactive as he is looking to be in assimilating Anglo-Catholics, laity and clergy alike.  But, to steal another quote from Jethro Tull, “It was a new day yesterday/but it’s an old day now.”

Personally, although I have been away of having to listen to modern Catholic music for a long time, I think it’s unfair to characterise all post-Vatican II Catholic music as awful.  For a long time I have promoted one album of it which I think is anything but, namely Roger Smith’s Who Shall Spread the Good News.  There is a lot of great early post-Vatican II Catholic music at The Ancient Star Song; for those who have never heard it, you can decide for yourself.

A good deal of the problem, though, has been Gresham’s Law at work in Catholic churches regarding music.  The Smith album, for example, never got traction at the parish level.  Oregon Catholic Press has been a major culprit in this, aided and abetted by the dearth of good musicians at the parish level.  The result is that a lot of the good music was driven out, replaced by the kind of music the Society gags on.  (Some of the same process took place in Contemporary Christian music, which is why the music blogs for CCM generally stop in the early 1980’s.)

Update (March 2016): This piece still gets visited after all of these years.  The “sodality” has disappeared from the web, and I’ve cleaned up the other links as well.  Since this was posted I’ve put up a great deal more “Old Folk Mass” music, which you can find here.

Next Time, Try SSH of an ISO

Chances are, most of you have no idea what the title of this posting means.  But a few people in the United Kingdom (may not be united for much longer) need to learn that meaning quickly when moving their CD-ROM’s around, as now they have lost two of them with the confidential data of half the families living in the country.

CD’s are so commonplace that it’s really arresting to think about the magnitude of a disaster that involves losing two of them.  The production of these two CD’s themselves, including the labour taken to burn them, couldn’t be more than a few quid.  (That’s pounds sterling, for those on this side of the Atlantic.)  The technology itself, although a wonder, is a quarter of a century old, and has long been surpassed by DVD (single and dual layer,) Blu-Ray and the like.

More specific to the current discussion, however, is the method of transfer.  Most of our computers (especially if you’re using Windows) have all kinds of anti-virus, anti-spam, firewalls and the like for virtual security.  The one thing that many people overlook is the physical security of the equipment and data.  We worry about hackers all the time, but when so much data can be put on such antiquated media and tossed about, we need to take a look at that too.  (Just think of the damage that could have been done with a 4 GB flash drive…)

One way to do the fateful transfer that is now roiling the Brown government would be to have condensed the data onto one or more .iso disk image files, encrypting and protecting them all this while, then uploading them using SSH (secure shell)  to either the destination target or to a common data transfer location.  At least the loss would have had some kind of trace.

None of this is very exotic, and there’s doubtless proprietary solutions that would do better.  (On the other hand, maybe not…)  But then we run into the next problem: the computer literacy of the bureaucrats, which may not be the highest either.  Compounding this problem is the fact that Windows, unlike Unix based systems (Mac OS X, Linux, Free BSD, etc.,) doesn’t have a straightforward method of mounting and viewing disk image files.

In a world where so much data can be transferred with such ease–physical and virtual–it pays to stay vigilant.

Some Things Look Great on Paper. And Then…

Zack has an interesting response to my posting More on the Fairness of God, both on this blog and on his own Mutantcheez.  Let me respond in turn to a couple of his comments.

Paul goes on to talk in the letter about how Abraham is considered righteous based on his faith in God, and this was said of Abraham before he received the covenant of circumcision, before he received the law, and before the gospel message. And though he is unaware of the gospel message, he is still called righteous by scripture. It seems to me that the Bible is pretty clear that the qualifications for righteousness, and therefore salvation, is faith in God. I’m not entirely sure, but it seems to me that from your blog, you would disagree (please let me know if this is true or not) because Jesus declares that there is no way to Father but through him.

I really don’t disagree with this point.  Paul specifically tells us that Abraham was justified by his faith.  Abraham obeyed God and responded according to the Covenant God offered him.  Jesus Christ had not come into the world at that point.  Or, to put it another way, Abraham became God’s friend under the dispensation in force at the time.

One of the things that bothers me about current Christian thinking is that Christians are having a harder and harder time understanding that God’s revelation to the Jews was a progressive one.  We are so obsessed with the absolute truth content of the Bible and the Jewish roots of our faith that we have lost sight of the fact that the entire process the Jews went through was a) educational and b) a stepwise progression to the final revelation in Jesus Christ.

Then he gets things to the present day:

I tend to believe that Scripture seems to affirm that a person can have a faith like Abraham’s and still be credited with righteousness even though he/she lives chronologically after the coming of Christ. I imagine this faith would be infinitely harder, as that person would have virtually no special revelation of who God is (not to mention i couldn’t even fathom how to explain to you what this faith would look like), yet as Abraham demonstrates, it is possible. Jesus himself says to Thomas, blessed are they who have not seen and still believe, and this seems to me to be more evidence that a saving faith in God is still possible without being specifically aware of the gospel message.

Christians of all types have attempted to come up with a solution to this problem, and many of these solutions have theoretical beauty.  But they hit a few roadblocks on the way to reality.

In this case, most other thought systems–religious and otherwise–aren’t "faith based" in their method of "justification."  (What justification means depends upon the goal of the religion or system of thought, and that widely varies.)  They’re based on works.  You pick it–Islam, Masonry, Marxism, humanism, even the new atheism–all of these and other systems insist on their adherents doing good things to justify themselves.  They all start with a kernel of faith of some kind (I know the atheists will hate me for saying this, but they hate me anyway) but then the works take over.

And that leads to the next problem–what works are acceptable?  As an example, one of the pillars of Islam is the haj, the trip to Mecca.  They believe this is good.  For the environmentalist, however, all this does is add to global warming.  That kind of problem is why works salvation doesn’t cut it.

God, in his sovereignty, may have a plan to include some of those who don’t know Jesus Christ explicitly.  But I think that the terms and conditions of this are unknowable in this life.  That’s why I avoid speculation on it. That’s why it’s important to put Jesus Christ first.

Goats Get Grade Of A-Plus

The city of Chattanooga, TN, has engaged the services of goats to clean up kudzu, and the goats get a grade of A-Plus.

Too bad the politicians can’t manage the same thing…

The problem here is that the goats are doing what they do best: eating everything that’s in front of them.  When the politicians do what they do best, we have corruption, graft, patronage, nepotism, favouritism and the like.

Why are the ratings of the President and Congress so low?  Because we’re basing our judgement on what we want out of them, not on what they do best.

If They Can’t Speak English, It’s the Employer’s Call

John Fund’s piece on the efforts by some House Democrats to force organisations like the Salvation Army to hire people who can’t speak English (or won’t do so all the time on the job) is a good reason why I have lost faith in the whole "anti-discrimination" portion of our laws.

Having run a business, I think it’s the employer’s prerogative to hire whom they see as the most fit for the job intended.  That includes the Salvation Army.  On the other hand, I think that employers who make employment choices for reasons other than performance will pay for their decisions.

As an example, in the late 1960’s my father opened a fabrication shop in West Palm Beach.  Part of his workforce were two Cubans, one who spoke no English and one who acted as an interpreter.  (It was a small shop.)  Needless to say, Spanish was spoken on the job, although my father wasn’t known for his progressive views.

But the work got done.  The one who spoke no English was a veterinarian in Cuba, but couldn’t pass the State of Florida’s exam to practice his profession.  For us he did spray painting and, as painters are wont to do, painted just about everything possible.  His work was good.

Above: a sample of his work, painted and ready to be loaded for shipment.  Behind the crane is the UPS facility.  Unfortunately our painter’s enthusiasm for his work didn’t consider the direction of the wind, so from time to time the cars and vans parked at UPS got an unwelcome paint job.

An employer that wants to get the job done will work with situations such as this, and rest assured they do it every day.  Even churches are getting in on the act.  My church has two greeters whose command of English isn’t the best, but they’re great Christian people, they’re friendly and they look sharp.

It’s time to let employers make their own choices–and suffer the consequences when they hire people unwisely who won’t do the work.

Falling off the fence

One of my father’s consistent gripes about the Episcopal Church–a gripe usually made specifically about our Rector at Bethesda–is that its ministers rode the fence too hard, never took a stand on anything, etc.  That "strategy" (if it can be dignified by that name) lost TEC many members, but it also won it a few who didn’t like a religion which took too many definite stands (or thought they were above such things.)

Unfortunately the chickens have come home to roost for Rowan Williams, as Andrew Brown tells us in "Falling off the fence."  He is in a position where he has a chasm too deep for bridge piers and too wide for a single span.  Fence riding was a loser from the start and now alienates more people on both sides than it attracts.

At this point clarity would be his best bet.  Unfortunately for reasserters, the only open clarity CoE can have in the immediate future is broad-based reappraising.  That’s because the British government, irrespective of how the establishment issue works itself out, will not tolerate a church that does not meet its ideas of inclusion, especially one as large and well propertied as CoE.  Evangelicals in CoE can protest all they want but this is the present reality in the UK.  (Tolerating mosques with a different idea is, of course, another matter altogether.)

The Global South may want an orthodox Anglican Communion, but it would be simpler if they would put together an Anglican Communion without the CoE and move on.