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.

If we start trimming the amount we pay for such necessities from our titheable income, then we can very easily slip into deducting our water and electric bills, car insurance, and medical co-payments from our total. We can find ourselves treating God as if he were the IRS. Hoarding every receipt, searching out every loophole, we surrender as little as we can to the Lord through his church.

Of course, I believe in giving beyond the tithe. It really gets fun then. But I’m not sure how you have much spiritual fun at all unless you tithe the gross. Look, it’s astonishing that God would stipulate so modest an amount. Cult leaders regularly demand the automatic surrender of all earthly goods to the master or bhagwan or whomever, thus casting devotees into forced communal living. The Judeo-Christian model puts much higher value on personal property and undergirds it with the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not steal." Of course, believers are called to be earnest stewards of the 90 percent left them by the tithe, but the discretion God gives us is dizzying. And it’s amazing how a churchgoer happily will toss a 15 percent tip to the employee at Starbuck’s, but begrudge 10 percent to the One whose "service" is life itself.

As I looked out over those graduate students in Alumni Chapel, I remembered my earliest days in graduate school at Vanderbilt. Thanks to a National Defense Education Act fellowship, I had a stipend of $200 per month. My rent was $135 a month, and I could eat on about a dollar a day (when a can of soup was 17 cents). My VW bug took a little gas, and there were books to buy, though at only about $10 a pop. Things were tight, but it was such a joy to put that $20 check in my church envelope each month. I don’t remember whether the $200 was taxable or not. It wouldn’t have mattered. When you’re having fun, you don’t notice.

So I was miserable when I discovered I’d commended "net tithing." How many students had I nudged toward the gloom of sharp-penciled accountancy? The only comfort I find is in the conviction that the Lord allowed that gaffe as a prompt for this column.


Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist. Send comments to: m.coppenger@comcast.net.

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