Matters of the Law: From Circumcision to Tithing

Dear Reggie,

I was reading through Galatians 2 recently, and I noticed how Titus refused to be circumcised so as to appease the party of the circumcision (to Paul’s approval). Yet in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul embraces a being all things to all people philosophy. So, my question is to what degree as Christians are we to embrace such a philosophy in regard to matters of the law?

In my own context, I attend a church where the vast majority (if not all) members believe in and practice tithing. Yet it is my understanding that since the tithe was part of the entire sacrificial system (whether pre-law or not), that we as Christians today are not obligated to tithe. However, since I love my brethren, and desire to minister to them, to the best of my ability, I attempt to tithe. For I know that if I did not tithe, and such was known to them, such would be a stumbling block to them, and most of them would have nothing to do with me or my ministry.

But in light of Galatians 2, I have wondered if my approach has been proper? Would I be better off not tithing, so as to display that far from the heavens being shut, and the earth being as brass, that the blessing of the Spirit rests upon me in spite of such?

God bless,

You have a very important question there.

Before coming to the question of tithing and the problem of legalism within the church, it is good to look at the word “obligation.” Obligation is not opposed to grace. During the millennium, the nation that fails to send a delegation to Jerusalem to keep the feast of tabernacles will receive no rain (Zech 14). Now that’s obligation! But responsibility has nothing to do with justification, which is a resurrection event of new creation, unconstrained by anything in man or of man. Therefore, grace is never the absence of responsibility, but rather the power to fulfill ‘all righteousness’ by a newness of spirit that works by love. This, since nothing counts except what issues out of a new creation (Gal 6:15).

Thus, Paul’s vehemence against the law is essentially directed not against the law, but against the evil presumption that anything within the natural power of man (even the best will and resolve of religious man) could procure righteousness or contribute anything towards justification. That common presumption is always and under all circumstances and dispensations, WORKS. For this cause, Paul said “to whom we gave place, no, not so much as an hour SO THAT the truth of the gospel might continue with you.” Pretty serious stuff. So serious that Paul says to Peter, “if I build again the things that I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.” Again, pretty serious implications.

But there’s an important difference between this and tithing. Typically, the evangelical is not looking to tithing for his justification, although he cannot imagine sanctification without it. It seems a small thing indeed, but once that ground has been given, it becomes quite arbitrary where the line is to be drawn. Not that a believer is trusting in himself to obtain righteousness by his commitment to giving, but when giving becomes the law of the tithe, it misses entirely the point of NT testimony of the spirit of liberty, which says giving is to be ‘without constraint’. Why without constraint? What is at stake? We mustn’t lightly yield the principle here. Why would the law of the tithe not be obligatory during this dispensation?

Indeed, the sad absence of a freedom to give and sacrifice liberally does not give evidence of the new spirit of Christian liberty, but rather hints at some kind of bondage or blockage, but this isn’t remedied by a legal return to the law of the tithe, which in principle opens the door to turning what should have been a free and unconstrained delight into a moral obligation, that if not mandatory for justification, is certainly required for blessing.

And certainly there is a blessing to the giver, and there is a godly desire to separate to the Lord a first-fruits (not as “necessity,” but as a representative token that really “all” has been given over to God). But this assumes that such giving is without a servile necessity that is “under” the law, since this would convert what should have been a delight into a mandatory obligation. Hence, something important is lost of the divine intention for this dispensation when, for example, our Presbyterian brethren make Sunday the new Christian Sabbath. By so doing, they actually embrace in principle (a divinely imposed obligation based on the perpetuity of the ten commandments) the very error that gives the Sabbatarians the strength of their argument, not for justification, of course, but as an evidence of justification. Still, even when not for life, but as evidence of new life, such obligation to the law is not God’s intention for this dispensation, which is to show His prerogative to give the promised Spirit “apart from the law,” on the basis of a living faith, even to unqualified Gentiles. And the evidence of the NT does not lead me to conclude that such Gentiles began immediately to observe the law as proof of their salvation.

So responsibility, even ‘obligation’ is not the problem in any period or dispensation, but progressive revelation necessarily brings dispensational changes suited to the purpose of that time, and there is thus a new responsibility peculiar to that particular divine trust. The test is our response to that revelation.

So, I believe to return to the law of the tithe is a slippery slope to the return to the whole law, if not for justification, for the perfecting of the Christian life. But having begun in the Spirit, we cannot hope to be perfected by laws and ordinances, not even the big ten. “For had there been ‘a’ (any) law that could have given life ….” It is a matter of dispensational propriety, because even if such ordinances were obligatory for this time, that would not in itself militate against Christian freedom. On the contrary, grace in the heart would lead the Christian to delight in those things, if that were indeed the stewardship/ requirement of this time. But as I have discussed elsewhere, God has a statement that He is making through Gentiles in this time and dispensation. When that statement is complete, I believe there will be a return to certain legal obligations in the millennium as a testimony, and the regenerate nation of the Jews will delight in responsibilities some old and some new, also as a testimony. My only point is that these are not the testimony, not the test, of this dispensation.

The question now is what is God’s intention for this time, and our responsibility to the changes that have been instituted for this time, in manifest contrast to the older dispensation. That is a real point of difference that I take with the Sabbatarians, who must impute to the ten commandments a higher sanctity than the other laws of equal perpetuity, such as circumcision for example.

But apart from all these considerations, tithing is in a category all its own. It is an emotional issue, because just in the nature of things, tithing is good business. It uses guilt (not consciously, of course) to control Christians that are not free, and that would not otherwise give. It’s smart; it’s rational; it’s natural; it works.

As to your decision, I can’t think of too many things more unsavory than having the joy and freedom of my giving to be monitored. There’s a point when accommodating someones scruples can become its own bondage, and actually is a kind of indulgence that encourages an immaturity that genders to bondage in many other areas as well. When Paul became all things, I don’t think he was talking about putting up indefinitely with a believer’s divisive errors of heart or doctrine, but rather for the sake of evangelism among the cultures there was a measure of accommodation. What is needed is sound teaching on the issue of grace and law and the dispensations. But because of the sense of threat to settled and reliable views and their safe and assured results, you can expect that such teaching will expose the teacher to the greater danger of rejection and loss. That itself should tell you something about the vested interests of the intimidating principalities over issues like this.

Yours in the Beloved, Reggie

Filed under
Church Doctrine, The Law
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