No, it’s not a Pyramid scheme . . . or is it?

by thebibleprof

Most people know about pyramid schemes. No, not the schemes which built the original pyramids in Egypt—back in the day (that is, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, around 2500 B.C., way before even the time of Abraham (see Gen 12:10-20), let alone Moses (see Exodus chapter 2 and following). No, the pyramid schemes I am thinking about are the network marketing schemes where someone sells a product, and the profit goes to him or her, plus somebody else (in the “upline”), and often somebody else above that second person—sometimes to five or even more levels. People make money off of those who they (or their “downline”) have previously recruited to do the work, and often the money can be quite lucrative indeed. Many people on the bottom, few at the top—whence the phrase “pyramid scheme.”

Now, some people in the church have called their current system of tithing as a pyramid scheme—and they have a point. Church members pay ten percent of their income to the local church (often, and in my view, mistakenly labeled the “storehouse”—see my first tithing blogpost on “robbing God”), and the local pastor or minister pays ten percent of his or her tithe to the district officials, and the district pays ten percent to the national headquarters, etc. Again, this quickly adds up to quite a hefty sum, at least for those who are at the top. Yes, a pyramid scheme (I remember a prominent official in the church I was attending, in a moment of unguarded candor in the pulpit, admitting just as much).

Now, is there any biblical warrant for such a practice? Not really, in my opinion, but there does seem to be somewhat of a parallel in the familiar tithing text found in Numbers 18:20-28 where the Levites (the Israelite religious officials serving in the Tabernacle under the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who himself was a Levite [that is, from the tribe of Levi]) would receive a tithe from the other tribes, and they in turn would pay a tithe on that tithe to the priests, or at least to Aaron the priest (see v. 28). The repeated rationale here is that neither the Levites nor the priest(s) have any land of their own, whence no harvest (this tithe is akin to the “storehouse tithe” of the book of Deuteronomy where in the third year, the widow, the orphan, the alien [non-native], and the Levite are to receive a tithe from the people of Israel—again, consult the “robbing God” blogpost for details). Hence, the double-level, tithe-of-a-tithe, procedure, which probably helped lead to the “pyramid scheme” of tithing found in some church denominations today. Another text, found in the last chapter of the book of Leviticus, which deals with 120% redemption of vows, also alludes in passing to tithing “to the Lord” (see vv. 30-33, again this tithe would presumably go to the priests). And, to be fair, the priests were also given portions of some of the meat offerings brought by the people to the Tabernacle, and later the Temple (see, for example, Lev 6:26; 7:6, 28-36; etc.; for a notorious example of the priestly abuse of this procedure, see 1 Sam 2:12-17). (I wonder what a modern priest or pastor or rabbi would do if a parishioner brought him or her a nice portion of a T-bone steak or ribeye in gratitude for a great homily or sermon or Torah meditation?)

So, no real pyramid schemes in the Bible. Just some well-deserved food offerings for some landless clergy (and their equally deserving assistants). Yet again, evidence for the practicality of the Bible. When one recalls the rarity of meat in the diet of the average Israelite (probably only several times a year), one can certainly sympathize with the priests sometimes enjoying a share of the barbecue after it was roasted on the altar. (The “every tenth animal” procedure in Lev 27:32-33 indicates that tithes of flocks and herds, as well as the more familiar fruit and grain, were sometimes given as well, at least according to the priestly materials found in the Torah.)

And once again, in the early church, no system of tithing—just lavish generosity—was ever effected. But God’s religious workers were still to be supported—for in both in the Old and New Testaments we are reminded, “Do not muzzle the ox when it is treading out the grain” (see Deut 25:4; 1 Timothy 5:18; and is it just me, or is Paul having some fun in the Timothy passage with his comparison of God’s workers to oxen?). Surely, the laborer is indeed worthy of his (or her) hire (1 Tim 5:18b; see also Luke 10:7 for Jesus’ very similar words on the subject).