Atheists Take Note…

Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter


This is a re-post of Dr John Dickson’s excellent challenge to Atheists to up their game in their critique of Christianity:

There is a dissonance between Christ’s “love your enemies” and Moses’ “slay the wicked”.

Atheists should drop their easily dismissed scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity, and instead quiz believers about Old Testament violence and hell, writes John Dickson.

As an intellectual movement, Christianity has a head start on atheism. So it’s only natural that believers would find some of the current arguments against God less than satisfying.

In the interests of a more robust debate this Easter, I (Dr John Dickson) want to offer my tips for atheists wanting to make a dent in the Faith. I’ve got some advice on arguments that should be dropped and some admissions about where Christians are vulnerable.

Tip #1. Dip into Christianity’s intellectual tradition

This is the 1,984th Easter since 7 April AD 30, the widely accepted date among historians for the crucifixion of Jesus (the 1,981st if you find the arguments for 3 April AD 33 persuasive). Christians have been pondering this stuff for a long time. They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith.

My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents – Pannenberg, Ward, MacIntrye, McGrath, Plantinga, Hart, Volf – popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, “Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!”

Tip #2. Notice how believers use the word ‘faith’

One of the things that becomes apparent in serious Christian literature is that no one uses ‘faith’ in the sense of believing things without reasons. That might be Richard Dawkins’ preferred definition – except when he was publicly asked by Oxford’s Professor John Lennox whether he had ‘faith’ in his lovely wife – but it is important to know that in theology ‘faith’ always means personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds. I think God is real for philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons. Only on the basis of my reasoned conviction can I then trust God – have faith in him – in the sense meant in theology.

Tip #3. Appreciate the status of 6-Day Creationism

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney’s Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn’t Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the ‘six days’ of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.

Tip #4. Repeat after me: no theologian claims a god-of-the-gaps

One slightly annoying feature of New Atheism is the constant claim that believers invoke God as an explanation of the ‘gaps’ in our knowledge of the universe: as we fill in the gaps with more science, God disappears. Even as thoughtful a man as Lawrence Kraus, a noted physicist, did this just last month on national radio following new evidence of the earliest moments of the Big Bang.

But the god-of-the-gaps is an invention of atheists. Serious theists have always welcomed explanations of the mechanics of the universe as further indications of the rational order of reality and therefore of the presence of a Mind behind reality. Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer.

Tip #5. “Atheists just go one god more” is a joke, not an argument

I wish I had a dollar for every time an atheist insisted that I am an atheist with respect to Thor, Zeus, Krishna, and so on, and that atheists just go ‘one god more’. As every trained philosopher knows, Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods. They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe. The disagreements concern how the deity has revealed itself in the world. Atheism is not just an extension of monotheism any more than celibacy is an extension of monogamy.

Tip #6. Claims that Christianity is social ‘poison’ backfire

Moving from science and philosophy to sociology, I regard New Atheism’s “religion poisons everything” argument as perhaps its greatest faux pas. Not just because it is obviously untrue but because anyone who has entertained the idea and then bumped into an actual Christian community will quickly wonder what other fabrications Hitchens and Dawkins have spun.

I don’t just mean that anyone who dips into Christian history will discover that the violence of Christendom is dwarfed by the bloodshed of non-religious and irreligious conflicts. I mean that those who find themselves, or their loved ones, in genuine need in this country are very, very likely to become the beneficiaries of direct and indirect Christian compassion. The faithful account for an inordinate amount of “volunteering hours” in Australia, they give blood at higher-than-normal rates, and 18 of the nation’s 25 largest charities are Christian organisations. This doesn’t make Christians better than atheists, but it puts the lie to the claim that they’re worse.

Tip #7. Concede that Jesus lived, then argue about the details

Nearly 10 years after Richard Dawkins says that “a serious historical case” can be made that Jesus “never lived” (even if he admits that his existence is probable). It is astonishing to me that some atheists haven’t caught up with the fact that this was always a nonsense statement. Even the man Dawkins cites at this point, GA Wells (a professor of German language, not a historian), published his own change of mind right about the time The God Delusion came out.

New Atheists should accept the academic reality that the vast majority of specialists in secular universities throughout the world consider it beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus lived, taught, gained a reputation as a healer, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and was soon heralded by his followers as the resurrected Messiah. Unless sceptics can begin their arguments from this academic baseline, they are the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise – unwilling to accept the scholarly mainstream over their metaphysical commitments.

Tip #8. Persuasion involves three factors

Aristotle was the first to point out that persuasion occurs through three factors: intellectual (logos), psychological (pathos), and social or ethical (ethos). People rarely change their minds merely on account of objective evidence. They usually need to feel the personal relevance and impact of a claim, and they also must feel that the source of the claim – whether a scientist or a priest – is trustworthy.

Christians frequently admit that their convictions developed under the influence of all three elements. When sceptics, however, insist that their unbelief is based solely on ‘evidence’, they appear one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness. They would do better to figure out how to incorporate their evidence within the broader context of its personal relevance and credibility. I think this is why Alain de Botton is a far more persuasive atheist (for thoughtful folk) than Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus. It is also why churches attract more enquirers than the local sceptics club.

Tip #9. Ask us about Old Testament violence

I promised to highlight vulnerabilities of the Christian Faith. Here are two.

Most thoughtful Christians find it difficult to reconcile the loving, self-sacrificial presentation of God in the New Testament with the seemingly harsh and violent portrayals of divinity in the Old Testament. I am not endorsing Richard Dawkins’ attempts in chapter 7 of The God Delusion. There he mistakenly includes stories that the Old Testament itself holds up as counter examples of true piety. But there is a dissonance between Christ’s “love your enemies” and Moses’ “slay the wicked”.

I am not sure this line of argument has the power to undo Christian convictions entirely. I, for one, feel that the lines of evidence pointing to God’s self-disclosure in Christ are so robust that I am able to ponder the inconsistencies in the Old Testament without chucking in the Faith. Still, I reckon this is one line of scrutiny Christians haven’t yet fully answered.

Tip #10. Press us on hell and judgment

Questions can also be raised about God’s fairness with the world. I don’t mean the problem of evil and suffering: philosophers seem to regard that argument as a ‘draw’. I am talking about how Christians can, on the one hand, affirm God’s costly love in Jesus Christ and, yet, on the other, maintain Christ’s equally clear message that those who refuse the Creator will face eternal judgment. If God is so eager for our friendship that he would enter our world, share our humanity, and bear our punishment on the cross, how could he feel it is appropriate to send anyone to endless judgment?

This is a peculiar problem of the Christian gospel. If God were principally holy and righteous, and only occasionally magnanimous in special circumstances, we wouldn’t be shocked by final judgment. But it is precisely because Jesus described God as a Father rushing to embrace and kiss the returning ‘prodigal’ that Christians wonder how to hold this in tension with warnings of hell and judgment.

Again, I’m not giving up on classical Christianity because of this internally generated dilemma, but I admit to feeling squeamish about it, and I secretly hope atheists in my audiences don’t think to ask me about it.


I doubt there are any strong scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity. Most of those in current circulation are nowhere near as persuasive as New Atheism imagines. Contemporary sceptics would do well to drop them. Paradoxically, I do think Christianity is vulnerable at precisely the points of its own emphases. Its insistence on love, humility, and non-violence is what makes the Old Testament seem inconsistent. Its claim that God “loves us to death” (literally) creates the dilemma of its teaching about final judgment. Pressing Christians on this inner logic of the cross of Christ will make for a very interesting debate, I am sure. Believers may have decent answers, but at least you’ll be touching a truly raw nerve of the Easter Faith.

Dr John Dickson is an author and historian, and a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

A Resurrection Poem


The stone has been rolled away,

Hell’s mouth silenced, it has no say;

Over who Christ will raise with Him,

A once dead people, now raised, to sing.


The transformation now complete,

From the head down to the feet;

The Alpha and the Omega,

Has changed everything forever.


Oh the marks of death are still there,

As a testimony to all who will see;

The nails, the spear, the thorny crown,

Not even these could keep Jesus down.


And so the confused, the broken, the weeping, the lost,

The empty, the dirty, those counting the cost;

Cast to the wind, afraid and alone,

A useless crowd, hiding at home.


The denier was there, “Peter the Great,”

The prostitute, his mum, awaiting their fate;

The door, the door, someone’s banging the door,

End of the story? But wait, there’s more….


What? He’s alive? Ridiculous. Dead men don’t rise.

Men on their cross, lifted into the skies! They die, they die, they stay dead!

They’ve stolen his body, the most obvious conclusion,

But this is resurrection morning, and no pathetic illusion.


So the denier and loved one ran to the tomb,

They went in; into the dark room;

The shroud was there, but He’s gone, He’s gone!

This is madness, are we losing our minds?


Don’t you remember, He spoke about this?

We didn’t listen, resurrection is silly, and easy to dismiss.

But Jesus said it; He’s not here, his words must be true,

And then it dawned on us, like the sun turning a dark night sky blue,

We’d been outwitted by the Saviour, as He so loved to do!


As in the first day of creation, up to today,

God has been speaking, “Let there be light!”

And to the tombstone these words were spoken,

“Let there be light,” to the hurting and broken.


This is about real life, people and sin,

And a God who loves and welcomes us in.

Easter’s been hijacked, a sloppy sentimental mush,

It’s not about chocolate, or bunnies and bunches of flowers,

It’s all about Christ, how He defeated the Powers.



Don’t get me wrong, these things are nice,

Just don’t forget who paid the price.

Bunnies and flowers?  Ah! How sweet.

But it’s hardly nails through God’s feet!

The cost of our sin, infinite indeed,

The Cross is our gateway declaring we’re free!


You see, over our hearts, lies a monstrous stone of sin,

Cry out to Jesus, to let His light in.

Confession, repentance, forgiveness, new birth.

Is ours through His death, He is redeeming the earth.



For unless there is within us that which is above us,

we shall soon yield to that which is about us.


So repent your sin and enter in.

Robes for rags, a gift of the King.

We were made for glory,

We were made to be part of God’s amazing story.


So come all you doubters and haters and loveless and lost.

The tired the weary, the broken and proud.

Sing and dance, whisper, be loud.

The stone has moved, there’s just a shroud.


He is alive. Outrageous but true,

God’s great plan to reach out to you;

We call it Gospel, because it’s good news -

Not a ruse to fill the pews – but a plan to proclaim a Man,

The Man from Heaven, God the Son, sent to save everyone!


It’s Resurrection morning, shout it out “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”

Goodbye darkness.

And . . . . . there . . . . . was . . . . . light!



(c)  Gralefrit

To Ministers & Preachers (pt2)

On October 20th 1909, P. T. Forsyth delivered an ordination address based on John 17:6,

“I manifested thy name unto the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world: Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me.“

The sermon is very short and broken down into three parts, The Property, The Gift, The Use.

We continue with part two….




“Thou Gavest Them to Me.”

Your ordination is an act and gift of God.  He is putting His people into your hands.  He does not so much give you a position as a trust.  He puts His Church in your care.

But it is also true that He entrusts this Church with you.  If they treat you ill, it will affect your whole life, and just the same if they treat you well.  A Minister is very much what his first Church makes him.  But let them remember this, that to treat you well they must treat your Gospel better than you.

Therefore it is not popularity you must think about first.  Do not crave morbidly for your people’s love.  Craving does not bring it, and often arrests it.  Do not beg for sympathy.

Think of your Church from the other point of view, as a trust from God to whom you must be faithful in it.  This flock is committed to you by God.  You do not simply take each other but, as in true marriage, God has given you to each other.  This is really a marriage ceremony.  You are being married to the Church.

This will comfort you when you are doubting if you should be at this work.  Say to yourself, “Thou hast given them to me, the responsibility is Thine.”  Da quod jubes et jube quod vis (“Give what you command, and command what you give,” St Augustine, Confessions 10.29.40).  I am not worthy.  Yes that is true, but what is that to thee, follow thou Me!

Of course you are not worthy to preach the Gospel; none of us is worthy.  But then your people are not worthy to hear it.  If it depended on worth, there would be neither preachers nor listeners.  The worth is where the power is, in Christ and God, who does not give us according to our deserts.

Lest you be overwhelmed with the greatness of your task, remember no Church is given to any man without the Saviour of the Church and of Him.  After all, it is Christ’s Church more than yours.  He is the real Pastor of every real Church, and the Bishop of its Minister.  You are but His curate.

[Next] the use of gift.


With gratitude to Jason Goroncy in his excellent book containing published and unpublished sermons by Forsyth, the one I am posting (in three parts, part one here) is previously unpublished (p.352-355), and I whole-heartedly commend the book, as I have already done in a previous post, not least for an outstanding introduction (worth the book money alone)!

Tithing Tyranny

Tithing: Sacred Obligation or Rude Word?


This is a short study on the theological and personal problems I have with the way tithing and the theatre of it is actually conducted within churches.  I’m happy to be wrong but I’m convinced the conversations needs to be a tad more urgent.
The Triumph of Ignorance
The rationale and mechanics of tithing have a long and chequered history within the church. This post will seek to explore the relationship between the biblical view of tithing, with Old and New Testament texts on the one hand, and the attitudes and assumptions that drive what Christians do in Church today as a perceived response to [most often OT] scripture on the other. Of course, what churches do today, be it tithing or indeed anything else, is shaped by a historical discourse that is often unclear and diverse as far as practise is concerned. This is the main reason why when something like tithing is challenged within a church, the first response is most likely, “But this is how we’ve always done it!” However, the word always here certainly does not refer to the Church down through the ages, from Pentecost to the present day! What it likely means is “This is my personal and limited experience of a church practise and I’ve known no other and nor do I know the historical or biblical circumstances that led to this practise.” This highlights, among other things, the importance of knowing the past, not only the immediate past through the lens of personal experience, but denominationally and more broadly, Church history in general. As Rowan Williams explains, “Good history makes us think again about the definition of things we thought we understood pretty well, because it engages not just with what is familiar but with what is strange.”

It’s My MoneyMy money
Secondly, there are many within our churches who would use the argument above but still not even give anywhere near their perceived ten percent obligation, because no-one knows, nor has the right to ask them how much they earn, how much they give away, and how they order their finances in general. In British culture, especially in churches, this is a probing question too far because “my money is my concern.” Individualism has come home to roost, even if, oxymoronically, this person wants a public display of their giving via the church collection. But what of the flip-side? What about those who do not give because they cannot afford to give? A public expression of tithing such as the plate being passed around may publically validate the one who has something to give (leading to pride), but can lead to shame and guilt for the one who does not. Furthermore, since people do make observations and judgements for good or ill, even the one who gives irregularly or the one who uses a bank transfer will be regularly seen to be not giving, and inasmuch as people should not be concerned by this, the manner of our practise is a way of approving only those who give during the public service. This inevitably can lead to superiority and pride among some, and shame and embarrassment among others. For a community of grace with a message of Good News, this will not do.

rude wordRude Word
Thirdly, if tithing is a rude word for many Christians, either because they dislike the practise, think it unbiblical or they do tithe but do not discuss their finances under the rubric of individualism, then it is certainly a rude word among those whom the church is trying to reach. If the church exists for mission, to reach the lost in our communities, then the church needs to respond to the common, even if ill-thought out charge that “the church is always after our money.” For some this is a major stumbling block to faith, even if it is used as an excuse to come to faith. This point is a major concern for me because this is by far the majority view within my wider family members who are non¬-Christian. That the church is full of hypocrites and always after money is in fact a true observation. But so is the world outside the church and yet they choose to remain there. Thus the real issue as ever, is about faith in Christ: people will not come to faith in Christ, and so smoke-screen objections are found, even if on one level they are true. These objections may be true but they are also contradictory. It is true because somehow Western culture has imbibed a collective historical memory that remembers the financial abuses of church history (people may not know of Martin Luther, the Reformation and ‘faith alone’, but they sure know that money was involved even if they have never heard of indulgencies), not to mention the headline and money-grabbing antics of some recent and present day tele-evangelists.

Therefore, the church should continue to examine the what and why of tithing, so that this objection among those the church is trying to reach can be removed, or at least made less central in our gathered worship services, and therefore less offensive to a church-suspicious culture and more biblical to the faith community. What I mean by the often perceived narrow evangelical claim of being “more biblical” is allowing room for scripture to speak coherently and authoritatively into the present post-Christendom context, in other words, this is not about proof-texting! That money is required for the church structures is a given, and may be part of the tension and compromise that weakens my argument. What I would endeavour to see, is a broadening of what a tithe is, so that people who serve the church in time and energy and resources also recognise this service as their tithe contribution. That the ten percent discussion is a mean-spirited place to start when in fact we keep ninety percent and most church folk live extremely well off, coupled with the stark poverty of the Two-Thirds world is a glaring, if not down-right sinful omission.

The Christian research organisation Empty Tomb has some sobering statistics. Chief among them were the findings based on one-third of U.S. churches: “Giving to churches declined to 2.4 percent of a donor’s income, lower than during the years of the Great Depression; in addition, $172 billion could be available if church members tithed ten percent.” This not only reveals the failure of Christians and the tithing system in churches, but the hypocrisy that the average amount of those who do tithe is a quarter of the minimum they would argue for from scripture.

Looking at ScriptureBIBLE PIC
We shall now briefly turn to scripture, since the debate over tithing lies in part under the issue of the relationship between the OT tithing stipulations and Christian practise today. That is why Stuart Murray can affirm that tithing is indeed biblical before raising the objection, “… but is it Christian?” This is because many advocates of tithing are far too Old Testament dependent in support of their view. This would typically involve Abraham tithing to Melchizedek in Genesis 14:17-20 (pre-Law); Mosaic Law (Exodus-Deuteronomy); and Malachi’s scathing criticism of the post-Exilic community who were “robbing God” (Mal 3:8-12).
Yet when one turns to the New Testament, we find only three passages that directly reference the tithe, Matt 23:23 [cf. Luke 11:42]; Luke 18:9-14; Heb 7:1-10. Simple exegesis of these passages leads to two observations. First, none of these passages have tithing as their primary subject. If a subject is mentioned in a passage this does not mean it is the primary subject of the text. Distinction must be made between primary and secondary subjects, because the goal of interpreting these texts is to look for authorial intent. Thus the primary meaning(s) needs to be the focus of interpretation, and though secondary meanings can be identified, should not be the focus of interpretation. This leads to the theological parameter of doctrine building. If a text has a secondary meaning that appears to support a certain doctrine, a text should be located that has as its primary meaning that doctrine. Then the secondary meaning can be used to validate the text that has the doctrine as its primary meaning.

Second, none of these NT passages command tithing for Christians. Commanding tithing and mentioning tithing are not the same thing, and neither is the command for ancient Israel to tithe an automatic command for Christians. What is at stake are basic principles of biblical hermeneutics in how Christians make use of OT texts today.

Pre-Law Tithe
The Hebrew word for “tithe” is maaser, which means “a tenth part.” This is where the claim by Christians comes from that ten percent is the standard, despite the Mosaic Law averaging in real terms approximately twenty-thirty percent! However, the first time tithe is mentioned in scripture is Genesis 14:17-20 with Abraham and Melchizedek.

The mysterious figure of Melchizedek has intrigued every generation of Bible reader. The text says he was a priest [of God Most High] and the king of Salem. Whilst the Messianic Psalm 110:4 makes reference to him, by the time we get to Hebrews 7, the Christological dimensions of Melchizedek are more explicit even if he himself remains elusive. Murray is perhaps a little too dismissive in referring to later references as being “best understood as a creative interpretation of the story” , but what he rightly argues against, is the dubious basis of using this story to get Christians to tithe.

Interestingly, the mission to rescue Lot who had fallen captive to the victorious alliance of kings, was so successful that Abraham ended up with all their spoils of war too! Thus the defeated king of Sodom returns to the victorious Abraham (a brave move by any estimation) because he thought Abraham was going to keep it all. There are two notes of observation. First, that the king of Sodom confronts Abraham without anything to offer him suggests the king of Sodom may still be aggressive and displeased. Second, by contrast, the king of Salem (lit. “peace”) appears with bread and wine. While one king came empty handed, which is culturally dishonouring and potentially aggressive, the other came in peace and greatly honoured Abraham. Thus in this context, in the presence of a priest-king, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything, which, according to Hebrews 7:4, was the spoils of war, though in the Genesis account, it could be interpreted to mean everything of his own wealth including the spoils.

In 14:21-24, Abraham outlines to the king of Sodom the oath that he would not keep the spoils of war, so he only insisted on taking what his men had eaten, the rest he gave back to the king. The “rest” after the ten percent to Melchizedek is ninety percent to the king of Sodom. Thus Abraham gave away 100 percent of the goods. Melchizedek had blessed Abraham because God had given him the victory in battle. Abraham had made a “spoils of war vow” that was typical of ancient Near East practise. So the specific context of war and the following conversation with the king of Sodom, within the wider context of the common practise of tithing among cultures, make the case for a Christian to tithe on this basis rather weak.


So allowing for contextual hermeneutics to be a guide, we can say that this single act of Abraham tithing was directly connected to his vow to God that he would not keep any of the spoils (even though the lingering question remains: What would Abraham have done with the ninety percent had the king of Sodom not bravely confronted him – perhaps given all to Melchizedek?). Nowhere is there evidence that Abraham was commanded to tithe nor that he consistently tithed, but there is wider evidence to suggest he was simply following cultural tithing norms, even if this account is not part of Abraham’s daily practise. Finally, Abraham does not seem to be under compulsion to give, but only in faithful response to God in the oath, and even then, the tithe does not come from his own wealth (capital), but plunder (income). Murray’s attitude towards those who use this passage as a Christian tithing rule is scathing and sarcastic, “If Abraham’s tithing is any kind of model for Christians, it provides support only for occasional tithes of unusual sources of income. Perhaps a Christian who wins the lottery, a bingo jackpot or a battle with the Inland Revenue might consider tithing this.”beyondtithing

This example from Genesis 14 is important for those wanting to validate tithing in the traditional sense within churches because it is, they rightly point out, pre-Mosaic Law, i.e. it was a voluntary and free-will tithe, much like churches often encourage today. But given the sketchy details, the cultural norms, the subsidiary nature of tithing within the story compared to the main point: God is with Abraham to protect and provide, and irregularity of tithing recorded in Genesis generally, the use of this text to justify tithing is on precarious hermeneutical ground.

Tithe in Mosaic Law
There are three major passages that deal with tithing (Lev 27:30-33; Num 18:20-28; Deut 14:22-29). Each one is designed to function in ancient agricultural Israel, and also contains important information for understanding the applicability of the tithe to Christians. Despite this, there is considerable scholarly debate about the description and amount of tithes as well as the items liable to tithe. This centres on discussions of JEDP theory and the law of abrogation whereby the latter replaces the former. The complexity of this debate and space prevents further comment although it is an important factor. However, we now turn briefly to the Mosaic Law .

Leviticus 27:30-33
It may be because the surrounding cultures practised tithing that Israel too were instructed in this practise within a legal framework, and not the ad hoc manner of Abraham’s recorded practise. However, the legal framework was within the wider context of God’s unique covenant with Israel, a covenant which if broken, would result in Israelite expulsion from the land. Thus the agricultural nature of the tithe was rooted in the land and specifically given over as “holy to the Lord”, (a phrase that makes it unclear what happened to the tithe or where it went). The connection with land in OT law has serious hermeneutical implications for its applicability to Christians. As with other OT motifs, such as the exodus, manna, water, shepherd, priesthood, etc., land too is a type, a shadow, as Hebrews explains. Among other things, what this can mean hermeneutically, is that the tithe as relating to Israel must be contextually understood, and not simplistically applied to present day Christian living, otherwise it is legitimate to ask why Christians today “wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together” (Deut 22:11), when the Law clearly forbids it!

This first reference to tithing in Lev 27:30 is a general introduction to the tithe outlined elsewhere in the Law, and details are found in other references already cited that relate to the recipients (priests and Levites), quantity, quality and regularity of the tithe, as well as festivals and monetary allowances made for various reasons. Tithes were anything but one-dimensional. Their multifarious expression were always in connection to the increase from the land, an obvious point in an agricultural society. The Mosaic Law never directed Israelites to give of their increase, because it specified particular products, not all, and they were always connected to the land. This is one reason why in the first century, as Grant suggests, artisans, fishermen, and tradesmen did not pay tithes on their income, and importantly, Diaspora Jews did not pay tithes on anything, as well as priests and the poor, who owned neither land nor animals, also being exempt from tithes.

The Prophets – Malachi 3:8-12

Quite possibly the most quoted verse by Christians in favour of tithing. However, there are six hermeneutical questions to ask of this text. What is the purpose of these verses in Malachi’s wider context? What do “offerings” refer to? To what does the “storehouse” refer? Is the “testing” universal? What is the promised reward? Are Christians robbing God if they fail to tithe?

Malachi is a post-exilic prophet who is calling the children of the returnees back to covenant faithfulness. These verses on tithing are closely related to what preceded it because the issue of God’s divine recompense within history is addressed. So Malachi explains why the only reason Israel had not been completely destroyed was due to God’s unchanging faithfulness to his covenant promises (3:6). This second generation remnant community were complaining about God’s apparent injustice (2:17). They had not stopped to consider that his patience in withholding destruction from others was the very thing that had also saved them from destruction. What Malachi does do is call them to repentance rather than criticise God for being patient with others (3:7b). Malachi’s essential message is thus the same as the centuries old prophetic message in general: Return to God and he will return to you.

Now comes the tithing text. Earlier God had singled out the issue of blemished (poor) sacrifices (1:6-14), but here tithing is chosen. The people were violating the covenant by refusing to pay tithes, and as such, under Deuteronomic law, were liable to the curses (Deut 28:15-19). Thus, their obedience would bring astonishing material blessing, as the law also says (Deut 28:1-14).

It is precisely because this has a definite historical context that interpretation must be precise and not careless. There are four comments on this. First, “storehouse” (v.10) does not refer to local churches, but an actual storehouse used for storing actual grain and livestock within the temple complex (cf. 2 Chron 31:10-12). Second, that the “windows of heaven would be opened” is a promise of rain to water the land, and in an agricultural society, this was the source of life. Preachers of the “prosperity gospel” regularly use this passage in the context of getting their audience to give [to them], as a way of promising rich material reward in return. This is not what the promise means. Third, God would prevent “the devourer”, which at this time was a euphemism for the locust, the most devastating event for any pre-industrial agricultural society. Fourth, the vines would bear fruit, a reference to crop abundance. All four points are intimately related to an agricultural society and Israel’s inheritance in the land determined by covenant loyalty, as Smith comments, “It may be that this passage in Malachi should be understood as a one-time, special act on God’s part to renew the fires of faith in an age of scepticism and indifference. If so, then this is not an open-ended promise to bless in a material way anyone and everyone who tithes his possessions.”

The issue at this point is not that tithing is wrong per se, but that it is wrong to justify tithing as a Christian from the OT in the way that it is often justified. From our examples, we can see that tithing is the act of giving out of every ten items produced from the land (crops and fruit) or cattle. These laws only applied to Israel and never referred to earned income. This leads us to the NT and one of three passages that directly refer to tithing.

Tithing in Matthew 23:23
Jesus here does not condemn tithing, but clearly considers it a less central aspect of the Mosaic Law, so although it was still part of the law, Jesus in no way abrogates it. The hermeneutical question at hand is this: what is the main point of the verse? It is not tithing, as much as it is not about herbs and spices. As already mentioned, the primary force of this passage is about justice, mercy and faithfulness being much more important as a response to God than mere legal observance. Yet even this does not negate the requirement to tithe, because Jesus does affirm that all these things should still be done (tithing the herbs) without neglecting the others (justice, etc.), because tithing was part of the Temple system, a central part of Judaism, without which the worshipping life of Jews could not continue. Thus he does not condemn tithing, but a wrong attitude and/or motive of those who tithe.

The reason this verse should not be used to support tithing today is because this was directed to Pharisees under the old covenant. A controlling interpretive principle is helpful: description in the gospels does not equal prescription. And not just the gospels, but in all of scripture, otherwise one could get the distinct impression that when reading Judges, God approves all that happens, but that is not the case at all!

It is this dearth of primary NT sources that make the case for tithing today weak. This is compounded by the way the tithe as an OT motif is fulfilled in the NT in three ways. First, the Levitical tithe was to support the priesthood. Whilst clergy may consider themselves in this line of ministry, the NT does affirm the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:9). The second point is that of inheritance to the land. By contrast, the NT frames inheritance in terms of a future guarantee of salvation (Eph 1:14) and not land. Third, the tithe operated to keep the temple functions going. Christ’s death has done away with the need for repeated sacrifices, so the temple is redundant on that basis. Furthermore, Paul refers to believers in the plural and singular as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19). As Murray says, “[tithing] is not a fundamental principle that can or should be transferred from its OT context into the experience of Christians and churches today.” He goes on to say that while this cannot be justified (hermeneutically), it does not mean Christians do not have a great responsibility to give to the needy; respond to social injustice; share resources; or care for those with spiritual oversight. This means that the justification and mechanics of how we do this will look not only radically different from the accepted norms today, but will also be closer to the dynamic and radical nature of God’s Kingdom.

The modern emphasis on tithing is little over 100 years old. Tithing was barely mentioned in the pre-Constantine era, and when reference was made, like the NT, it was as a secondary issue. Murray argues this may well be because the early church was simply not interested in it, rather than the silence implying complete acceptance. Clement of Alexandria (150-215); Augustine (354-430) and Jerome (437-420) did (among others), in one way or another, advocate tithing. However, Clement also concluded that the sabbatical year and jubilee laws also applied! Augustine believed all Christians should give everything away, but a tithe was a compromise, even though he complained not enough was being tithed, as did Jerome.

Aquinas (1225-75) declared tithes were no longer a command and that is was not a moral precept to be obeyed. Martin Luther (1483-1546) has had views difficult to interpret, but he did state that all the Mosaic laws given to Israel were not binding on Christians. The two controlling factors for him were whether it was in accordance with natural law and the NT. Similarly and more radically, sixteenth century Anabaptists called for tithing to be abolished, insisting the NT taught nothing about tithing and that ministers should be supported by the congregation they serve.

Concluding Comments: Between A Rock and A Hard Place
Right up to the present day, scholars and church leaders are divided on this issue. As stated earlier, what is the response to be of a minister in a church that carries all the uncritical hermeneutics into the way the finances (tithes?) are gathered? This may well be a compromise I live with, in the light of ministering within an established church. Murray’s excellent “what if?” section where he outlines a creative alternative is a superb place to start when the church is new and tithing and giving and stewardship can be taught well from the start without any historical expectations, be they good or bad. But even so, the list is theoretical brilliance, but realistically, for me, a greater burden than continuing with the old, bad, unchristian way of resourcing the Church for ministry and mission. He does not offer solutions for ministers in my position right now, only an ideal to work towards that would involve nothing short of a major paradigm shift in the life of the church, and yet I’m still convinced he is correct!

Nevertheless, many churches have considered how the offering is collected and like me, have found a plate or bag to be an theplateembarrassment. Rather than abolish tithing then, the churches have changed the point of collection, so that the embarrassment of the plate is removed from such a prominent place in the service, to a fixed point somewhere in the church. Anyone committed to giving simply places the gift in the box before or after the service. This removes awkwardness, and the pomp and ceremony that devalues (it seems to me), a gathered worship time. This could be a reasonable starting place for a church that would struggle to contemplate the radical nature of Murray’s suggestions.

However, what does need to happen is good teaching about stewardship, generosity and sacrifice within a NT framework. It would have to expose present day idols such as consumerism, individualism and secularism that promote greed and more greed for its own sake. The Director for the Centre for Biblical Stewardship Scott Preissler makes a frightening prediction if the way the church gives is not changed, he says,
“If you gave away one million dollars a day it would take more than 27,000 years to give away just ten trillion dollars. Yet that is not even close to the amount that will pass from older generous generations to younger materialistically minded youth in the next twenty years. The transfer will happen either responsibly or irresponsibly. The bottom line is that wealth planners reliably predict that forty trillion dollars in family estate transfers will pass from those giving ten percent to non-tithers, who are mostly non-givers, as quickly as within the next twenty years.”trillion

This is a sobering thought to any who consider the future of church life. The only way to respond is surely to prepare the church today with good bible teaching, sound doctrine and a Christ-like generosity that models to a selfish world the goodness of a giving & generous God. It may be that as this wealth transfers and churches and denominations go into financial meltdown, the shape and focus of the church will become more defined and intentional. In a rapidly changing cultural context, the church needs bold imagination not just for mission, but in every aspect of its life, and that includes how the finances are raised and used. So we affirm that tithing, as it is practised by many churches today, is not a sacred obligation, and therefore, should be radically re-evaluated with an urgency that understands both the biblical text and the coming future wealth transfer.



Croteau, D., Perspectives on Tithing, (Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2011)

Fee, G., and Stewart, D., How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, (Grand Rapids: Scripture Union, 1999)

Hartley, J., Genesis, (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003)

Murray, S., Beyond Tithing, (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2000)

Smith, R., Micah-Malachi, WBC (Waco: Word, 1984)

Williams, R., Why Study The Past?, (London: DLT, 2005)
Internet: [accessed April 15th 2011]

(c) Gralefrit (usual rules apply)



Glimpsing Glory Through Palm Sunday Sentimentalism

Mark 11:1-11

Palm Sunday

In this well known passage read out all over the world this Palm Sunday,

we catch a glimpse of a good and bad glory, a great biblical scene that is too often distorted by sentimentalism and likewise dismissed as a rather nice picture: the baby in the manger has grown up to be a rather good donkey rider!

But does it mean something else?  It does.  Thank God….

So, Jesus is riding on a donkey, into a frenzied religious city,

that is about to begin the most passionate religious festival – The Passover.

What could possibly go wrong?

The sun is shining (as usual).

The people are praising (fundamentalists)!

The disciples are happy (though confused).

The religious leaders are indignant (though worried).

The Roman guards are amused at these crazy Jews (as usual)!

What could possibly go wrong?


There are two things (for now), to notice about ‘glory’:

1. This act of Jesus is a fulfilment of prophecy (Zech 9:9)

- a peaceable king riding on a donkey.

- a demonstration of what this King is like.

- this scene is Heaven’s King lighting the fuse that will blow apart how we

understand the very meaning of glory.

2. Then there is the adulation/hysteria of the crowds

- worldly ambition.

- king-making religious nationalism.

- this is a demonstration of what people are like.

- this is earth’s subjects proving that we don’t understand glory all that well.


So what do we have?

The glory of fulfilment of prophecy being enacted

V’s            The glory of a religiously excited crowd

that just one week later would swap their ‘Hosannas’ for ‘Crucify’.


And the great and terrible and biblical and salvation saturated irony is this:

The fullest and final and most glorious expression

of the glory of God

is seen not in the smiling worshipping crowds (as they thought),

but in the willing surrender, the sacrifice,

of this donkey riding Jesus one week,

and as He hangs on a Cross the next.

This is the supreme manifestation of the Glory of God.

The glory we like, the glory we seek,

the praise and worship, the sunshine, the niceness of a donkey ride,

is blown apart by this new meaning of Glory:


So a church can ride all the donkeys it wants.

It can sing all the Hosannas it wants.

It can clap and cheer and celebrate this humble Jesus.

Unless we follow Jesus and pick up our cross.

Unless we follow the Crucified donkey-riding God-Man,

through suffering – to glory,

through trial and persecution – to glory,

through despair and brokenness – to glory,

through worship – to glory,

and everything else in between, whether you eat or drink,

or whatever you do,

do it all to the glory of God.

A glory defined not by our own imaginations and desires,

but shaped and re-defined by God’s Word

and God’s Son,

and lived out in glorious technicolour by God’s people,

the Church!


In this way, in this redefinition of what we thought we understood,

As Eugene Peterson says,

“Jesus takes the brightest word in our vocabulary (glory), and plunges it into the darkest pit of experience, violence and excruciating death. Everything we ever thought about glory has to be re-learned, re-cast. Dictionary definitions won’t help. We have entered a mystery.”


It is when we look at Jesus, as we see again and again in the Gospels,

How the Man on the Donkey really was God on a chariot,

How the Cross really was His throne,

How in His death, we live,

And how when we live in Christ,

through our suffering and decaying bodies,

we glorify God.

“Lord, I just wanna….”

just-do-itSo I came home at the end of just another extraordinary day, and locked the front door, shouting “Hi” to anyone in the house.

My wife shouted back “Just a minute,” and something about bathing the baby, so I just put the kettle on and went and found my teenage lad.  “Hi son*, I just wanna ask you how your day was and what you’re up to now!”

“Just fine,” he said, “and I’m just doing some homework right now.  I’ve just need another few minutes then I’m done.  Can I just have an hour on the X-Box when I’ve finished?”

“That’s just fine son, just make sure you only have an hour and no more.  I just don’t want mum breathing down my neck on this one right?  We boys have just gotta stick together.”

Then my wife calls from upstairs.  “I’ll just be down in a minute!”  “Don’t worry babes” (my totally original name for her) I shout back, “I’ll just come up and help out after I’ve just made a cup of tea.  Do you want a cuppa?”

“Yes please, just a small cup, I’ve had quite a lot today!”

So I make the tea, we have dinner, the baby goes to bed . . . . eventually, my teenage lad has sixty one minutes on the computer (just to show me who’s boss), and I just take the dogs out for a thirty minute stroll!  Then I spend thirty minutes checking emails for earth shattering news and scanning the latest cliches on Facebook, and then I just begin to pray:

“Lord, I just wanna thank you for just who You are.  I’m just so grateful for my family, what a gift they are to me.  And Lord, I just pray your richest blessings in Christ that one day, we will just know our Bibles so well and have a proper biblically informed vocabulary, that we just no longer need to use the word ‘just’ every time we speak to each other, or even when we just pray to You.  Lord, the word ‘just’ is only a minute degree better than the word ‘nice’.  Please deliver us.  In Jesus’ Just Name.  Amen”

* not his real name.




To Ministers & Preachers (pt1)

On October 20th 1909, P. T. Forsyth delivered an ordination address based on John 17:6,

I manifested thy name unto the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world: Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me.

The sermon is very short and broken down into three parts, The Property, The Gift, The Use.

jason-goroncy-2013Below is part one (The Property), and over Easter I will blog the other two parts.  With gratitude to Jason Goroncy in his excellent book containing published and unpublished sermons by Forsyth, the one I am posting is a previously unpublished one (p.352-355), and I whole-heartedly commend the book, as I have already done in a previous post, not least for an outstanding introduction (worth the book money alone)!


forsyth on wallEnough of Gralefrit!  Here’s Forsyth….

‘Thine They Were.’

These are God’s people.  Christ’s people, not yours.  You say they are “my people!”  Yes, but only because they are the people of God.

To begin with, they cost Him more than they will ever cost you.  If ever they are trying, and if ever they tax your patience, remember that.  And if ever you feel unequal to your task, remember that they are more His than yours, because they cost Him more.  Your Church . . . . is the Church of the living God, bought by Christ’s most precious blood.

You will see then that the Church is composed of those who are His people in a very different sense than, for instance, “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1).  The Spirit of the Lord fills and moves His creation, but what made the Church, and fills and moves it, is His Holy Spirit, something far more intimate to God than the power and order of creation, something dearer, something greater.

All men are God’s as part of His creation; they are His offspring.  But there is something greater, diviner, than humanity; it is the Church of God.  The Church of God is the finest product of humanity; it is the greatest thing in the universe.  And this is so because it was produced by God in His Son and Holy Spirit.

The Church is His own as no nation is, no society, no family.  The Church is His as His Son is His – His in His Son.  He is not as a part of creation, but as a new creation in Jesus Christ.  If in Love He created the world, in much more love did He create the Church.  It was in might and beauty He created the world; it was in Holy love He created the Church.  It is His as nothing else in the world is.  It is the Church of His Son, and His Son is more to Him than all the world.

I speak of the Church of course, as God sees it; God who sees the end from the beginning.  You also must learn to see your Church like that; not as a man sees it but as God redeemed it, and as God trusts it, and bears with it, and feeds it, and serves it, and waits for it while it grows to the mature man in Jesus Christ.

I have spoken of the property.  I now come to speak of the gift….