October 29, 2013

As I See It

In the particularly hot debate about cutting the United States’ budget deficit, members of congregational delegations face each other, each side wrapped in their own ideologies. One wants to make sure that programs for the poor are not going to be cut while the wealthy get tax breaks. The other sticks to its “ideological purity,” which is an “anaphylactic allergy to tax increases.”1

The search for the secret formula that will reduce the deficit and please everybody is still on, but will likely never be found. Could the reason for this stalemate be a lack of love?

Will O’Brien contrasted biblical love and political ideologies with the following words: “When we truly discover love, capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary.”

Gandhi went to the heart of the question when he said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but there is not enough for everyone’s greed.”

A Fair System?

While members of Congress argue the pros and cons of different tax rates, some of the candidates from last year’s presidential election floated the idea of doing away with the current system completely and introducing a flat tax. One candidate printed bumper stickers that read: “If 10 percent is good enough for God, then 9 percent should be just fine for the federal government!”2 Another candidate trying to outbid the 9 percent flat tax suggested 0 percent.3Arguments against a flat tax are numerous. Alan Blinder, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, says it would be a folly,4 demonstrating that in fact the rich would pay less and the poor more.

Whether we are in a “craze” for a flat tax, or that it would be a “folly” or plain “beautiful”5 to adopt, it is not the first time in history that it was thought to be the panacea for all fiscal problems.

At the turn of the twenty-first century governments in Eastern Europe such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Georgia, and Romania all adopted a flat tax, although their rates differ, from 12 to 33 percent.6 Probably influenced by their decades of Communist rule, they felt that tax should be equal for all. Interestingly, four of them—Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, and Kazakhstan—chose to set their flat rate tax at 10 percent.7

Political parties in England, Germany, and Spain are toying with the same idea. Going further back into history, we see that Sébastian Vauban in France (1633-1707) and Charlemagne (742-814) favored a common tax rate of 10 percent for everybody.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since God Himself warned the Israelites when they asked for a king: “He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants” (1 Sam. 8:15). Even before tithe was mentioned in the Bible, (Gen. 14:20), traces of evidence seem to show that a pre-Mosaic tithe system was practiced in Egypt and Babylonia. Tithe receipts in hieroglyphs and on cuneiform tablets can be seen at the British Museum8 and show that it was commonly practiced among civilized nations at the time.

Our church uses the resources it receives; butit is not dependent on them.

What is remarkable is that not a single document shows when this practice started, who decided on the amount, nor people complaining about tithe being a burden.

We may wonder how such a practice came about so early. Ellen White wrote: “The tithing system reaches back beyond the days of Moses. . . . Even as far back as the days of Adam. . . . This was continued through successive generations, and was carried out by Abraham, who gave tithes to Melchizedek, the priest of the most high God.”9 It seems that the initial principle from God was expressed as an oral tradition that was gradually adopted by neighboring nations before Moses first mentioned it in Genesis. God’s principle evolved into a system by people who worshipped heathen gods, then into a common tax system.

The Spiritual Dimension

Today’s situation could be improved if the ideologies and convictions that drive this debate were found in Christian behavior. God declared tithe holy  (Lev. 27:30-32), and that special blessings are attached to those who practice it (2 Chron. 31:5-12; Mal. 3:10).

Then how can we explain that fewer than 30 percent of Seventh-day Advent-ists return tithe?10 Is the remaining 70 percent so saturated with God’s blessings that they don’t need more?

I recently heard the expression “faithfulness ratio” used in the context of tithe, a term used by fund-raisers to explain that we can’t expect more than 30 percent of our members to be faithful in returning God’s tithe.

It was the first time I’d heard the term in the context of tithe. I shudder as I try to understand what it means. According to that concept, the widow who gave her two mites—all she had, and she was sorry to give so little—made a mistake. She could have argued that she had been saturated with bills, taxes, etc.

We often forget in this materialistic world that giving in the New Testament went beyond percentages. We read about the early church that “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” “There were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:32, 34). They could have rightly claimed saturation as well.

Did God make a mistake in deciding unilaterally that tithe would be 10 percent? Shouldn’t He have decided on a regressive tithe for the poor and a higher tithe bracket for the rich? With our Cartesian minds, that’s how we would engage God on this topic today. Some treasurer may even wish to increase tithe, just as governments raise taxes, to 12 or 13 percent to fund all their projects.

In His wisdom God decided that a flat tithe of 10 percent was fair. Who are we to argue with our Creator?

The difference between churches and governments is that the latter rely on taxes to survive. Not so in God’s church. Our church uses the resources it receives; but it is not dependent on them. God has provided for His church in the past, and He will continue to do so in the future.

We have an immense privilege to participate in His mission. If all believers returned God’s tithe, there would be plenty in His treasure house.

So Tax Universalis at 10 percent? Who cares? I want to be faithful to God’s command.

Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny Him with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.”

It’s time to put our money where our mouths are.

  1. Ruth Marcus, “No New Taxes? Not So Fast,”  in Washington Post, Nov. 18, 2011.
  2. zazzle.com/if_10_is_good_enough_for_god_bumper_sticker-128806512163986401.
  3. Rick Santorum, quoted in “The Craze for Flat Taxes,” The Economist, Oct. 29, 2011.
  4. Alan Blinder, “The Folly of the Flat Tax,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14, 2011.
  5. “Flat Is Beautiful,” The Economist, Mar. 3, 2005. 
  6. “The Case for Flat Taxes,” The Economist, Apr. 14, 2005.
  7. taxrates.cc/html/albania-tax-rates.html.
  8. Henry Landsdell, “The Sacred Tenth” (1985). 
  9. Ellen G. White, Counsels on Stewardship (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 69.
  10. The Global Tithe Index, www.aiias.edu/gti/instrument.html.