I sat through a very polite discussion on tithing, screened this evening with mainly Pacific Island Christians participating. In Pasifika congregations tithing tends to be the norm, and then there often are further financial obligations laid on (mainly poor) members. In one Auckland Tongan church the pastor has just handed down instructions that each family is expected to donate a thousand dollars to a special cause. To then fail to do so would be to lose face. In a number of churches the weekly offering is read out in services. Not the total, but what each family gave that week. Not even my former affiliation, which had honed tithing to an art form, approached that degree of brutal, manipulative crassness.
It wasn't too much of a surprise to hear the same sad old proof texts trotted out, especially Malachi 3:8-12. One woman actually asked a Palangi pastor on the show whether she would go to hell if she failed to tithe!
It continues to amaze me that this discussion is relevant in the twenty-first century. We know that the Malachi text is talking about the Jerusalem Temple with its grain silos. We know that tithing never meant "ten percent" in a culture that knew nothing of decimal points. We know that tithing was on the agricultural increase, not on paychecks (which didn't exist then.) We know that Jews outside Palestine were under no obligation to tithe - and in fact were not permitted to tithe as such. We know that Jews today do not tithe, as there is no temple and therefore no legitimate place to tithe.
Pastors who preach rigorous tithing today are either ignorant or deceitful. There isn't much middle ground between those two options. It simply isn't possible to tithe biblically today. Talk of a "tithing principle" is complete nonsense. You could argue, based on the fact that income generated outside Palestine was not tithable, that the "principle" then determines that today no foreign investments are tithable. Frankly, I've yet to see a tithe-farmer teach that, but why not?
(Coincidentally, today a work colleague remarked that she was amazed when attending a wedding recently, to discover that the church had a prominently displayed eftpos terminal installed. She was so surprised in fact, that she took a photograph!)
Perhaps the saddest part of the program was when a Pasifika Labour MP suggested that, faced with the thousand dollar ultimatum from the pastor mentioned above, anyone unable to comply should simply go to the Big Man, cap in hand, and plead their extenuating circumstances. This amounts to abject grovelling, reinforcing the imaginary power of the pastor. Bad advice. Better solution, find somewhere else to go. That may not be so easy when your family and cultural ties are invested heavily in a particular church. Even better solution, laugh openly at the suggestion, ignore it, and encourage others to treat it with the disdain it deserves.
The only power totalitarian preachers have is that power that is given to them by people who abdicate their personal responsibility and autonomy. That's easier to appreciate in an individualistic, Western worldview, though it might also blind us to the strong features of Pasifika culture. However, if nothing else it's good to see these issues being addressed. As one participant observed, if God blesses the faithful tither, Pasifika New Zealanders should be the most affluent section of our society, not among the poorest! Hopefully this kind of dialogue is a harbinger of change.