I misspoke in chapel at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently, and it’s been torturing me. It was just one word, but that word was the very opposite of what I meant to say. I had some sort of brain freeze, and people have been most understanding, many saying that they knew what I meant, but it still drives me crazy. Odd to say, I’m now sort of happy it happened because it gives me a chance to figure out why it’s bothered me so.

My text was 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter. In my introduction, I mentioned some other topics that were relatively easy to address since they presented me no personal difficulty -- belief in biblical inerrancy, abstinence from alcohol, the practice of tithing. But consistent, comprehensive love for all was a real challenge, and I always found it embarrassing and convicting to preach on it, especially when people who knew me well were present.

In my brief reference to tithing, I expressed my joy in this custom, and I specified my preference for tithing on gross income rather than after-tax, net income. Well, that is what I intended to say. Instead, I told them I favored the tithe on net income. Maybe I was subconsciously shying away from the word "gross." Whatever it was, I said the wrong thing, and I didn’t even notice it until one of the students passing by at the back of the chapel asked me about it. My heart reaction, as Homer Simpson eloquently put it, was "Doh!"

Yes, I know that even tithing at all is a matter of controversy among evangelicals. Some say that this was an Old Testament standard, not designed for New Testament church life, but I just can’t buy it. When Abraham gave Melchizedek 10 percent of his goods in Genesis 14:20, he was honoring a pre-Mosaic criterion. I think this was archetypical and broadly biblical giving. Others argue that since the Israelite tithe supported a theocracy -- government plus church -- that tithing today, to a church separated from government, is confused. But I’m inclined to say that when Jesus commended the Pharisees for tithing in Matthew 23:23 (before blasting them for neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness), he endorsed giving to a "church" that was definitely distinct from (and even hostile toward) the state, to which they owed taxes over and above their tithes.

And yes, I’m a "storehouse" tither (see Malachi 3:10), so much so that even when things are tight at our little church, peopled largely by impoverished college students, I encourage our graduates not to send their tithes back to us but to join a church in their new location and tithe to it instead.

I know great Christians who disagree with me on some particulars, and I don’t mean to niggle over details. If you can be an anointed, "hilarious" giver (following the Greek in 2 Corinthians 9:7) on less than the "gross tithe," then God bless you. But I have a major hitch in my spirit when I do my deductions first, and I am anxious that our seminary students not cheat themselves out of the joy of giving with greater abandon than I see in the "net tithe" approach.

By my light, if we net-tithe, then we give the government the "first fruit" of our increase, and then the church gets a cut of the leftovers. But when you tithe the gross, you say, in effect, to the state, "Whatever you do, I’m giving first to the Lord, and then you can do as you wish to what remains. If that puts me in a bind, so be it, but your tax policies will not determine my manner of churchmanship."

Besides, I strongly disagree with those who want to treat taxes as a stickup, as if you were robbed on your way home with cash from your employer’s paymaster. I do agree that if, having been paid $500 in cash, you make it home with only the $100 you happened to have in your other pocket (the pocket the robber missed), then you may give, in good conscience, only $10 to the church. But the government is not a thug; it is God’s instrument, providing us necessities for life -- police protection, roads, health inspectors, etc. And even when our house does not burn, we enjoy perennial coverage by the fire department.