Have you ever wondered why so many Christians simply default to statist solutions to various social problems? This default setting is a problem in need of serious medicine. This statist line of thought sees everything else as lesser alternatives, as options not to be taken seriously. This mindset hands everything over to the statists without a fight, or even a peep of protest. Such thinking is inherently defeatist. There is no victory for Christ to be had in such a perspective, only capitulation to Caesar and—remarkably—to miserably inferior “solutions.”
This is most evident in humanist solutions to poverty, wherein Lyndon B. Johnson’s vaunted War on Poverty has only harmed those it was alleged to assist. Christians are unaware of the background for one of the Biblical tithes that addresses this social problem. They’re even less aware of the track record that the Biblical solution, funded by this tithe, had enjoyed historically. If we knew this heritage, we wouldn’t cower in the back of the bus afraid to raise the issue with the humanists now monopolizing the steering wheel.
The fact remains that God’s promise that “there shall be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4) was fulfilled in the Maccabean era, when Israel actually had so large a surplus for poverty relief that they could find no poor people upon which to bestow it. It was perhaps the first—and last—time in history that any nation had fully eradicated poverty, and it was done by following the Biblical law of the tithe. Why mess with success? But contempt for the Lawgiver has spawned every failed attempt since then to solve the problem without the tithe. Christians have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage that has gone rotten. Their own leaders have led this sorry parade away from God’s straight paths.
The Kingdom of God is financed God’s way, and it permeates society as more Christians observe to do all that their King has commanded of them. When the tithe is abandoned, it doesn’t simply disappear: the state then receives multiple tithes to build the kingdom of man in lieu of the Kingdom of God. The statist way is notoriously inefficient compared to God’s way, but that is always the price to pay for ruling in hell rather than serving in heaven: we pay more and get less. This is God’s judgment on Christians who’ve lost sight of being faithful in this realm.
What happens when Christians do pay all the tithes and do so as God’s Word specifies? The state shrinks. It shrinks because the tithe is a key element of Christian self-government. It is the God-sanctioned engine of pushing back against the state by promoting “the kingdom that cometh not by observation” (Luke 17:20). As Christian self-government grows, as the domain of godliness spreads like leaven in the dough, the coercive sector of society, the state, starts to shrink. How do you counter humanists screaming about the need for safety nets? You build better safety nets, and you do it God’s way in every respect.
While I’ve lectured on the poor tithe on many occasions (and its significance is not to be overlooked), it is worthwhile looking at the primary tithe—what R. J. Rushdoony called “the Social Tithe” to the Levites. If we get this wrong, little will work out well for our cause. If we get this right, the nations will ultimately be blessed by those who set an example of putting God’s laws back on a practical, world-changing footing.
The Social Tithe
It’s rather tragic to find Christian scholars who deny that there is any social component to the primary tithe given to the Levites. What Rushdoony finds writ large upon the face of Scripture, others assert to be completely non-existent, along with any Levites operating today. Such thinking becomes church-centered, not Kingdom-centered, in its orientation. Too much of the details of Scripture have to be glossed over or minimized to get such a narrow concept of tithing across. This approach gives away far too many points to the humanists by taking valuable tools out of the hands of Christians.
Advocates for this opposing view are in effect teaching a vast disconnect between Scripture and social financing. Where Rushdoony finds crucial guidance in Scripture, his critics find only a nebulous cipher, consequently rerouting Christian resources away from building His Kingdom (being more focused on Christ as High Priest than on God the Lawgiver, King, Judge, and Savior as Isaiah 33:22 puts it).
The Man from Baal-shalisha
The scriptures are filled with teaching that’s disruptive—disruptive, that is, if you’re committed to faulty notions about God’s Word. The passage in 2 Kings 4:42-44 describes a man who takes what was owed to the Levites and goes out of his way to instead give it to the men in Elisha’s school who were not Levites. The passage, as Franz Delitzsch points out, is designed “to show how the Lord cared for His servants, and assigned to them that which had been appropriated in the law to the Levitical priests … This account therefore furnishes fresh evidence that the godly men in Israel did not regard the worship introduced by Jeroboam (his state-church) as legitimate worship, but sought and found in the schools of the prophets a substitute for the lawful worship of God.”1
R. J. Rushdoony clarifies the issue: “When the Levites were godly, Israel paid its tithes to the Levites, but, even then, the tithe belonged to the Lord and could be given directly to the cause the tither trusted to be faithful. Thus, in a time of apostasy, a man from Baal-shalisha brought his firstfruits directly to Elisha and his followers (II Kings 4:42-44). The Levites were not an institution, they were men set apart for the Lord’s service.”2 Rushdoony’s co-author, Edward Powell, concurs that the tithe rightly went to the faithful men “rather than to the corrupt Levitical Priesthood.”3 This text, among other things,4 has angered many churchmen.
The point to be made is that we are personally responsible for assuring the tithe goes to the Lord, to those who will use it faithfully. “God holds the tither personally responsible for how, and to whom, he administers the Lord’s taxes … God lays the burden of responsibility for the proper administration of His taxes upon those who are to pay them.”5 Tithes “are not for the support and furtherance of any ungodly men and their institutions.”6 Checking your brain at the door and giving the tithe to the local church surely has convenience in its favor, but the man from Baal-shalisha did the inconvenient thing, and God miraculously multiplied his loaves and corn so they’d actually feed a hundred men. You can draw your own conclusions.
Where are the Levites?
Those who reject Rushdoony’s view of the tithe often assert that there are no more Levites, and even when they were around, they provided no social functions.7 Yet God’s prophets saw this very differently. Jeremiah 33:22 foresees a day when sons for David and sons for Levi would be numbered as the sands of the sea: their numbers would be multiplied beyond measure, not reduced to zero. God affirms this to be as certain as His Own covenant with the day and the night (Jer. 33:20-21).
The accession of the Gentiles into Israel under the New Covenant is asserted in Isaiah 66:21, where God says of the Gentiles, “And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the Lord.” Gentile believers become Levites, and the mode is interesting. Isaiah had before said of the “sons of strangers” and even of the “eunuchs” that take hold of His covenant that “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters” (Isa. 56:5)—yet only Levites and priests could take up residence in God’s house like that.8
Just as he is a true Jew who is one inwardly, so too now is one a Levite who is one inwardly, one who serves the Lord (Isa. 56:6). The Levitical functions still exist but are distributed among the people of the New Covenant. If God can raise up sons for Abraham from mere stones, then He can raise up Levites from Gentiles (and the prophets predicted this to be the case).
The Social Tithe: Real or Imaginary?
Those who say there is no such thing9 as the Social Tithe as described by Rushdoony and Powell (and by later scholars like Dr. Joseph Boot) give us little to use against statist social financing. Dr. Gary North has always said “you can’t fight something with nothing,” but the absence of the Social Tithe gives us nothing to fight with. We’ll return to this problem momentarily.
Edward Powell twice provides a list of Levitical functions,10 pointing out that Israel didn’t properly have a secular-sacred divide: all of life was religious. As Powell put it, “No area was to be exempt from the work of the Levites, because no area of life was to be separated from the Law of God.”11 Powell and Rushdoony describe a harmoniously entwined set of financial provisions in the Word of God. No tithe is any more or less important than the others: they form an indivisible whole operating together alongside the poll tax12 that funds civil government.13 Together, these constitute God’s program for taking government back from every form of statism—and when faithfully observed by the Lord’s people, they will transform the world.
The Call for Transformation
In April 2021, Andrea Schwartz posted an Out of the Question podcast with Valeria Ramirez on the translation of Rushdoony’s works for Latin America. It is noteworthy that Ramirez has drawn attention (via translation) to a key text in Rushdoony’s Tithing and Dominion. This one thought puts everything in a nutshell: “We can't wait for taxes to drop. We must start now, not only to tithe, but to start Christian reconstruction with our tithe, to restore the necessary social functions as Christian action.”14 Ramirez is focused on getting the right medicine to her audiences. She sees tithing’s importance for Latin America. Can we say the same for North America?
Not while Tithing and Dominion remains Chalcedon’s worst-selling book, we can’t.15
Rushdoony’s explanations need to take center stage so that we can grasp how crucial this issue actually is:
The tithe has a major social function which needs restoring. It is futile to rail against statism if we have no alternative to the state assumption of social responsibilities. The Christian who tithes, and sees that his tithe goes to godly causes, is engaged in true social reconstruction. By his tithe money and his activity he makes possible the development of Christian churches, schools, colleges, welfare agencies, and other necessary social functions. The negativists, who have merely campaigned against statism, have steadily lost ground since 1950.16
Rushdoony elsewhere points out that “the tithe made a free society possible … Consider the resources for Christian reconstruction if only 25 families tithed faithfully! Socialism grows as Christian independence declines.”17 This follows because “the tithe is thus the financial basis of reconstruction … The tithe can recreate the necessary Christian institutions.”18 But most interesting is how tithing shifts the balance of economic power in our social order:
The tithe restores power to the little man. Today, it is the rich man who dominates most causes; his money counts; he can donate a hundred thousand or a million and make his influence felt. But a thousand little men who tithe can far outweigh the rich man. They can keep a Christian cause from being dominated by a handful. Tithing is the way for the little man to have power with God’s blessing.19
Rushdoony points out that the tithe agencies of New England were attacked between 1800 and 1860, and their demise paved the way for the rise of socialism to fill the growing void ever since. You can’t fight something with nothing, and the socialists knew this when they targeted tithing.
There are those in the current generation who’ve caught the vision, grasping the value of God’s tithes, who teach and labor to apply them as outlined above. Chris Zimmerman20 and Matthew McKay Belleville21 are among these men, and more are joining their ranks as Christians weigh the alternatives presented to them.
At stake is the question, How should we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness? We can either strive to recover what was lost (in light of the powerful history of the tithe as Rushdoony teaches it) or we substitute something more toothless, ineffective, and convenient: the status quo.
The right course is to arise and build, using God’s tithes in God’s way to do so.
1. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982 reprint), vol. 3, p. 316. Peter Leithart quotes from Delitzsch’s earlier discussion at page 311, note 1, to the effect that “the prophets supplied the pious in that kingdom with a substitute for the missing Levitical priesthood.” Cf. Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p. 189. However, the Levitical priesthood wasn’t missing, it was present but corrupt and thus disqualified from receiving what the Law specified was its due.
2. R. J. Rushdoony and E. A. Powell, Tithing and Dominion (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979), p. 30.
3. ibid, p. 68. Dr. Gary North floats a dismissive critique of Powell rather than confronting Powell’s arguments in Gary North, The Covenantal Tithe (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2011), p. 67, notes 4 & 5 (note 5 points to alleged rebuttals of Powell in Dr. North’s Tithing and the Church, which also fails to discuss 2 Kings 4 but does fixate at length on Rushdoony’s allegedly faulty ecclesiology). Dr. North’s The Covenantal Tithe contains many powerful truths that are exceptionally well-expressed but is marred by errors made in the effort to promote its anti-Rushdoony views. To tie tithing solely to the priesthood, he says “Abram paid a tithe to Melchizidek, for Melchizidek was the priest of Salem” (p. 93) but Melchizidek is never called a priest of Salem in either Testament: he is always the king of Salem (first) and priest of the most high God (second), cf. Gen. 14:18 and Heb. 7:1. This order (king first, priest second) is maintained in Zech. 6:13 as well concerning the Christ.
4. The other issue is how the tithe should be divided. Based on Numbers 18 and Nehemiah 10:38, institutional worship receives only 10% of the Levitical tithe, while 90% of it went to the decentralized Levitical functions.
5. ibid, p. 69. Powell supports this position with expositions of Phil. 4:15-19 and 1 Cor. 16:1-4.
6. ibid, p. 68-69.
7. “There are no Levites: a tribe set aside to defend the temple from trespassing and to sacrifice animals to placate God’s wrath.” North, The Covenantal Tithe, p. 104.
8. Eunuchs are addressed in Isaiah 56:5 but the promise is immediately extended to the sons of the stranger (Gentiles) in verse 6: “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant.”
9. North, The Covenantal Tithe, p. 67—“There was never such a thing as a ‘Social Tithe.’”
10. Rushdoony, op. cit., p. 103, 109. Some critics have disputed elements in the list, but assertion is not proof: one must take each scripture citation that Powell has enumerated and provide a plausible alternate exegesis. Rushdoony’s expositions in his Pentateuch commentaries cover a number of these same scriptures.
11. ibid, p. 109.
14. The original appears on page 10 of Tithing and Dominion; Ramirez here provides English that has been translated back from the target language, which explains the slight difference in wording.
16. Rushdoony, op. cit., pp. 8-9.
17. ibid, p. 4.
19. ibid, p. 5.
21. Belleville’s study notes on tithing are currently in the process of completion—a study I look forward to reading.