Book Review: Tithing and Dominion (R J Rushdoony and Edward Powell)

I decided some time last year to embark on a more thorough explanation of the issue of giving / tithing and Christians. While I know there are some people who aren’t even sure why I’d bother looking into the issue (“Doesn’t the New Testament do away with all of that?”), I have a few questions I still want answered:

a)      For many centuries, tithing has been an accepted practice – so what’s the thinking behind it? An unnecessary habit that people didn’t get out of? Or because they believe the Bible teaches it? In other words, is it just something superseded or something still binding?

b)      Does tithing / giving just have to go to your local church? Or can you send it to other Christian ministries? What about organisations that might be doing God’s work? (e.g. Social ministries?) What would a tithe look like in today’s day and age?

I plan to read a few books on the topic over the coming months, so this book is merely just a starting point, but I wanted to start with it, because I knew the authors were coming from a point of view of: a) Tithes are still due to be paid. b) But not necessarily to your local church.

This book is aimed at anyone who calls themselves a Christian and wants to know what God wants them to do with their money. It’s pretty short and easy to read, with Rushdoony providing the first few chapters and the last chapter which provide a theological background to tithing, and Powell providing the middle chapters that look in-depth into all the tithes (yes, there was more than one in the Old Testament) and offerings in ancient Israel.

Some of the material is really interesting. Rushdoony argues the case that a tithe (or any tax, for that matter) was required by the person who ruled over you. If a king charged you a tax, it was because they were laying claim to your possessions. If the Government taxes you, then they are laying claim to your possessions. Also, the body that decides who is deserving of money and who is not, is wielding the right to decide right and wrong. So what does it mean, in today’s day and age, when governements demand so much money? What does it also mean when Christians aren’t sure if God requires any money of them? Are we losing sight of God’s claims over our lives?

Meanwhile, Powell’s chapters on the tithes in Israel are some of the best explanations I’ve heard for what God would have been planning with those particular tithes and the consequences they would have had socially. Powell breaks the tithe into three tithes, which may or may not be correct. But there do seem to be different instructions for tithes in various parts of the Pentateuch, which would indicate that they were going to different places at different times.

The one we know the best, Powell calls the Social Tithe. This was the one paid to the Levites. However, Powell insists that far from being just something paid to maintain worship services, it was a tithe used to further any Christian work that was used to further install the Lordship of God over every area of life. So this might include Christian education, it might include music ministry – all of which were things the Levites did. Most controversially, Powell uses the examples in the Bible where there weren’t Levites around and the tithe went to someone else to argue that this means the tithe doesn’t exclusively have to go to the church. It could be used on other organisations that are furthering God’s kingdom. I’m still not entirely sure or convinced, and want to read more on the other side of this question.

The other two tithes are also interesting. The second is the Rejoicing Tithe, which families spent on themselves in Jerusalem. They could spend it on whatever they want to make them happy, but they were to celebrate these happy things by reminding themselves that God blessed them. This, of all chapters in the book, is the one that most interested me, because it’s so foreign to my experience in the West. It seems that for Israelites, material spending (say, buying a bunch of food for a big feast) was tied up in their rejoicing to God. And they were commanded to do it every year, so it was like fun and rejoicing became compulsory.

Compare this with Christians nowadays. We still spend money on ourselves for fun stuff (our iPods, DVDs, and nice restaurant dinners), but it now has no connection with what Christ has done for us. In fact, we’re likely to hear the message coming from church that to spend money on ourselves like that is selfish and it’s much better to give it away – as if poverty is the better answer. I’m thinking – I wonder what it would be like to recover a Biblical understanding of compulsory fun and rejoicing? So instead of just going out for dinner at a restaurant, we did so and celebrated all that God had done for us? Imagine that when we brought that new iPad home, we celebrated the creativity that God had given man and that He’d provided for us enough money for us to be able to enjoy those sorts of things? Somehow it seems like we’d end up with less people either spending and feeling guilty or people being miserly and thinking this was more Godly.

Finally, there is the poor tithe. This chapter is probably one of the best, because Powell gives a really good insight into how Israel would have gone about dealing with poverty in their area. For instance, the Poor Tithe was only paid every three years to those in need, and meant that far from being a bunch of cash that poor people could go off and blow on whatever they wanted, would have been something they would have had to use carefully – after all, if you’re  going to wait three years till your next handout, you want to manage your money carefully. Thus, Powell explains, it was structured in such a way that it didn’t make the poor dependent on handouts – rather it gave them a leg-up at a time of need, but required them to grow in the necessary disciplines of looking after their money and being frugal that would set the up for a better situation in the future. (The book also looks at the interest-free loans for the poor and gleaning, which were the other ways God commanded the Israelites to look after their poor.)

However, despite all this detail, the book suffers from three major shortcomings for me.

1) There’s only one chapter dealing with people who believe tithing is no longer applicable and this is a very short one by Rushdoony up the front, where he says that anyone who believes tithing is not in is basically a dispensationalist. I don’t think this is quite fair because, for instance, many Reformed / Presbyterian folk believe in baptism being a replacement for circumcision, which is a change from the Old Testament, but they certainly wouldn’t classify themselves as dispensationalists. So to just simply brush off the non-tithers with this sweeping statement seemed a bit harsh, and didn’t really feel like it was dealing with the issue. So for that reason, I certainly can’t recommend this book as a one-stop resource on tithing, though it certainly is worth reading.

2) Despite Powell and Rushdoony’s insistence that Christians who don’t pay the tithe are robbing God – I find the examples of how this might work in a modern context a bit vague. I would have liked to see them go into more detail on what this might look like in our non-Israel context. I felt like I got plenty of broad principles, but it was up to me to apply them, and I’m not sure entirely what that might look like. I think this would be especially important for churches, because considering that most tithe money goes to churches nowadays – what are they to spend it on? Just running the building, and paying the minister? Or are there other areas that should be supported?

3) Finally, the writing style of these two guys is bound to irritate modern readers. First of all, they take no prisoners. There is no soft intro for anyone who might be unsure about the issue. They’re right about tithing, and you’re completely wrong if you disagree. Granted, this was written in the 70s, and we’re certainly softer in our approach to theological writing today, but I think it would get many people offside to start with. Finally, Rushdoony, who I understand wrote all his books longhand and then had them typed up – is brief and to the point – so much so, that you often have to read his paragraphs a couple of times to get what he was saying, because he’s crammed so much into very concise sentences. By contrast, Powell is overly verbose, often saying the same thing in about three or four different ways.

But this aside, I think this was a really interesting read, and certainly I have gained the best understanding of tithing in Old Testament Israel that I’ve ever had. If anyone says to me that the Old Testament was lax, with God only requiring people to give 10% and letting them do what they wanted with the other 90% (as opposed to some new command in the New Testament that commands us to give heaps and heaps), I’ll be able to explain that God’s requirements for giving and generosity were not any less in the Old Testament than they are now.

I look forward to further exploration of the issue.

3 ½ out of 5.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Tithing and Dominion (R J Rushdoony and Edward Powell)

  1. Your quote, “I’ll be able to explain that God’s requirements for giving and generosity were not any less in the Old Testament then they are now”

    That statement sums up a majority of misunderstanding. Many people believe God raised the stakes in the New Testament. I can’t tell you how many times i have to waste my words just explaining why this belief is wrong. I’m not trying to explain rocket science to people.

    Because Jesus reiterated “do not hate” instead of murder in the New Testament doesn’t mean he was raising the stakes. They act like eternal laws of justice, mercy, faith, and love were dormant until Jesus appeared and he awakened them.

    People see only what they want to.

    – jared

  2. Thanks for the review. I have not read this particular book yet but I thought I’d drop a line to say that Rushdoony has covered your first two points on the list of shortcomings elsewhere.:) His “Institutes of Biblical Law” is a very in-depth and thoughtful treatment of the OT law as it applied in Israel. I do not always agree with him on which laws were altered/done away with by the New Covenant, and which were not, but he generally does an excellent job of discussing this aspect as well. His passages on baptism and communion as the signs of the New Covenant were, in my humble opinion, brilliant.

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