Above the clouds

I had a chance encounter, on a flight from Lagos to Calabar last Saturday, that really got me thinking about the nature of God and the current state of the church, versus what I consider to be true spirituality.

As usual, I was more concerned about having enough legroom than assessing who my companions were. Legroom assured, I didn’t mind that I was wedged between two passengers and I was more than grateful that the man at the window was half the size of the one by the aisle. I settled in, buckled up and we took off. As the plane climbed the skies, the man with the slight frame turned, smiled and asked me an unusual question – well, unusual compared to the routine pleasantries people exchange in mid-air.

“Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what are you doing to prepare for when Jesus comes?” Perhaps it was the look on my face that caused him to stammer slightly, “A-a-are you a Christian? Ah, yes, well, I mean, Jesus is coming soon and we should all be preparing.”

I paused and weighed him up. He seemed harmless, so I thought that this might be the perfect way to pass the next hour, especially since my iPad was still in my bag overhead. “Well, let’s see,” I said, trying not to sound too casual, while hoping he wouldn’t judge my meagre efforts too harshly. “I’m trying to live my best life, helping and supporting others and trying to follow my purpose. I try not to focus on my mistakes – since I will always make them – and just ask for forgiveness and keep trying to be better than I was the day before.”

As I steeled myself for a stern reproach, he nodded thoughtfully and probed further. “Which church do you attend?” I told him where, while issuing a disclaimer. “I’m not the most regular attendee; in fact, I’m not very ‘churchy’ at all.” This sparked the most interesting debate I’ve had for some time.

We talked about why I didn’t think much of many denominations in Nigeria and elsewhere – the preoccupation with money, the arrogance of many pastors and the lack of true service to the flock. This led to a discussion on tithing and my opposition to the practice when it is forced on church members as a ‘Christian duty’. As I began to warm up, I referred to ‘some pastors’ and he stopped me in my tracks. “I’m a pastor,” he said gently, tugging at his collar for me to get a good look.

I paused and gulped, but it was too late; I had to continue. “Oh good, I would love to know what a pastor thinks of what I’m about to say.” Naturally, he believed in tithing and had the Bible verses to back it up. “There’s only one problem with that,” I said. “All of those laws were for the Jews. Tithing was not part of Jesus’s message or his philosophy. The only reference to tithing that Jesus makes is a disparaging one.” 

Like all pastors, he was familiar with Malachi 3: 8-10, which begins with, “Will a man rob God?” and ends with the promise to “open the windows of heaven” with the rewards of tithing. However, like most believers, he had no idea who Malachi was and what all four chapters were about. However, I did. So, I told him that the prophet was sent by God to tell the Jews to return to the ways of Moses: to bring their best animals for sacrifice, follow the strict code for diet and hygiene, and support the Levites (priests) with tithes because they were forbidden to work. And, he cursed them for having married foreign wives and having children who did not speak their native tongue.

Then I asked why I’d never heard any pastor quote the law of tithing, which gives quite specific instructions on who should pay, how it is collected and how it should be spent – on widows, orphans and the poor. For some reason, they don’t seem too keen to repeat the part which says that if you can’t make it to the temple in Jerusalem, you should bring all the food together, with beer and wine, and have a party. And here’s the really bad news – the priests are supposed to get the annual tithe every third year.

My point in all of this was, “Can you be a Christian and select only the Mosaic laws which appear to support your fundraising activities, while conveniently discarding the rest as being part of a redundant ‘old covenant’?”  And more importantly, “How does this help anyone to figure out what they should be doing to live their best life?” 

The man of the cloth appeared deep in thought, before he said, “I think there’s a reason why we had this conversation today. I’ve learned something by listening to you, instead of preaching to you.” And with that, we rounded out the rest of the flight, agreeing that if pastors, or indeed anyone, are fulfilling their purpose and bringing value to the lives of others, they shouldn’t have to compel anyone to support them financially. People will do it gladly. 

As we glided over Calabar, I thought about all the charities, foundations and churches that exist primarily to serve mankind, through poverty, war, famine and flood. Then I remembered all the slick, white-suited pastors I had seen or met, seemingly oblivious to the needs of the poor people they keep urging to give more and more – in offerings, tithes, ‘first fruits’, ‘seed-sowing’ and the purchase of ‘healing’ oils, ‘holy’ water and ‘blessed’ handkerchiefs. 

Finally, I thought of the bodyguards, private planes and palatial homes; the rewards of preaching the gospel of a man who walked everywhere, had no permanent home and borrowed a donkey once to make a short journey. I wondered what he would make of it all. If he ever makes it back, perhaps we could discuss it in a cramped economy cabin, somewhere above the clouds.

57 thoughts on “Above the clouds

  1. I was captivated by your story, possibly because of its subject matter. I found myself wishing I was the person speaking to that pastor and that I had as much knowledge of tithing as you have. Well done sir you have probably changed his life and that of the many people who attend his church.

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  2. Gripping article Mike. Expertly presented. It was noble of the pastor to respect your views and not try to inundate or pressure you with his.

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  3. Yes Mike, I do not know if you have a Christian belief or not but you seem to have a great understanding of the bible. It is a pity there are so many Charlatans calling themselves follower of God. Not that I am saying that about the priest you were talking with because I do not know him. Anyway keep the knowledge flowing. I strongly believe knowledge should be shared. Far too many ignorance going around.

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  4. Hey Michael, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece…serious food for thought, and I agree with just about every point you made. Conversation with  a stranger on a long flight can truly be rewarding conversationally, spiritually and sometimes nothing too deep but just two passing strangers sharing pleasantries. This has encouraged me to write about an experience i had several years ago on a flight from Kingston/Miami/Atlanta. Regards, Clover Batts (Ma)

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  5. Another thoughtful and well written piece. I attend church regularly, but lack the bible knowledge you display. My primary desire is to keep my live in balance and Sundays break the cycle of thoughts words and deeds that if left unchecked would destroy the things that are important to me. I don’t tithe but I believe in giving time and resources to improving God’s people.

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    1. Thanks for this great feedback Adolph. We’re very similar in our spiritual aims. My tip is to take any Bible passage used in church and go home and read the whole chapter to get more context – it really helps. Also, the Bible app allows you to search any topic and get all the relevant verses – that’s how I found out that Jesus did not encourage tithing! He encouraged what you already practice.

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  6. Again…. another fantastic read Michael.
    Even I did not know the full enchilada about tithing and I must say it has provoked some deep thinking within me. May I also say that it was a healthy coincidence that the Pax you spoke to was a man of the cloth and for some odd reason was reasonable enough to entertain your position, for I have met a few who would not budge in their ways while they hastily point fingers of blasphemy on you. I look forward to your next piece.

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    1. Ah, my brother, I’ve met a few of those too. The ones who say, “Who are you to argue with God?” when you disagree with their position. I’m glad you’re enjoying reading as much as I’m enjoying writing. Thanks for your support!

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  7. Michael that was a very interesting piece. Well, I ‘ll like you to know that your meeting with the pastor was not by chance but ordained by God. God used you to give him the right understanding of what scripture says about an aspect of his life that he needs to change. You can also see that this purpose was achieved, he got the message. Tnk God.

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    1. I’m glad you’re liking it! I guess nothing is really a coincidence. Interestingly, I told him that I had nothing against a church that used voluntary tithing, as long as there was full accountability for how the money was used. The same applies to any organisation that has membership fees. I just hate the deception.

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    2. Very apt but I must caution He will definitely be back like a thief in the night and many who preached and wrought miracles in His name will be surprised.
      However we must be able to mine the rich treasure trough of Gods principles locked in the Old Testament not just the new. Appreciating we have been challenged to exceed the
      Righteousness of the law by the grace now afforded us by Christ through the Holy Spirit. So let us keep our hearts yielded to His guidance to do His will to serve and please Him through those around us in need not just His church with our substance. At the end of the day if the enemy uses corrupt pastors to discourage a lifestyle of worship and giving then we have also failed Him as His children

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I enjoyed this Michael. And what a beautiful opportunity to share. I’m glad you took the opportunity to engage him. And I’m glad he listened and learned. I think Jesus would probably have spent that entire conversation grinning broadly at both of you.

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  9. Very poignant read Michael. The ‘preachee’ became the ‘preacher’. I often wonder with the number of churches we have, why are things the way they are?. It’s almost like the number of churches is directly proportional to the ills of the society.

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    1. Wow, that’s an interesting perspective. I have to admit that I do wonder why so many churches are needed in the same locations. Similarly, I wonder how the ‘prosperity gospel’ thrives while the people remain poor. Thanks for sharing!

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  10. Good one Mike, l’m not suprised at the ignorance of most christians who massage the ego of arrogant pastors with their hard earned income in the name of tithe. Its unique the way you tampered with the main pillar of the “business” but you were lucky that this “investor” allowed you go free even at close range. Please next time, choose the venue carefully before you attempt to administer the bitter pill.
    Good work, keep it up

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  11. Thought provoking read. It will be more rewarding for many Christians to make efforts to examine verses in a historic & socio-cultural context. My understanding has been that selected verses & messages supporting them go to build faith, hope & strives to lay grounds for good living. However, where members understand the historic import of Biblical stories, they can conveniently transport /incorporate teachings received in a more practical way. I enjoyed the article. Keep it up Sir.

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    1. Thanks for this detailed response. It’s the sort of reaction I was hoping for when writing the article. I agree – these verses only makes sense when you can use them to build a better life for yourself and your family, and a kinder society for the good of all.

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  12. You made some good points Mike. Churches tend to focus on what they can get than focus on the importance of God’s instructions and his words. But nothing is wrong with a pastor being blessed living in a mansion. You make the contrast about Jesus living and a pastor. (God blessed men in the bible like, Job, where he had thousands of animals. That shows how wealthy he was). A pastor can also be a business man (having a company) while running his ministry. The problem comes in when a pastor takes the church money or persuade people to give money to build a mansion or drive in luxury vehicles. God wants us to be successful and to have the best in life.

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    1. Very well said, D. I’m all for living well but not at the expense of poor people trying to get by, living hand to mouth. I admire the pastors who are best-selling authors and film producers, making money from people who pay for their products happily. Very different to making people believe that God wants 10% of their income.

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    1. Hahaha. Funny guy! Truth is, I almost always do on short internal flights. Business is two or three times the price for little extra value. But long haul with long legs? That’s a different matter! Never mind my flying habits, feedback please…

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  13. Very well written!!!!! Takes me to a conversation I had this afternoon on marriage…. maybe you can help. The question is… what really do we define as marriage? No where in the bible did it say you must go to church or court to get married. But a union between a man and woman can only be called marriage otherwise the ceremony can be deemed null and void if unconsumated. So does marriage really mean the act of consummating a relationship between a man and woman, whether or not u perform church, mosque, court or traditional ceremonies? And does adultery mean a consummated relationship with a woman that has already consummated a relationship with another man? Look forward to your thoughts on this!!!!!!

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    1. Wow. Sounds like a blogpost all on its own! Suffice to say that this is another area that the church is less than honest about. The Old Testament is full of polygamy and God appeared to have no problem with it. His favourite son David had more wives and concubines than he could count but God only got upset with him when he took another man’s wife. Jesus, the head of the Christian faith, never condemned the practice either. Nowhere in the Bible does it say a man should have one wife. Nowhere. I believe it’s a function of where you live – if the law and the common societal practice dictates one wife, then so be it. ‘Render unto Caesar’ and all that…

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  14. Nice article Michael. Compelling read. Didn’t know that much about tithing. Am going to do some reading of the Book to catch up. Thoroughly educated

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  15. Hi Michael. I somehow came across your blog and found it quite articulate and interesting.
    My response is quite lengthy but very straight-to-the-point, even on the marriage query.
    How would you suggest I respond?
    Thanks in advance.

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  16. Hey Michael. Very interesting read.as some one who typically does not feel like conversing on a flight I do believe this condo may have sparked my interest. The details about tithing was more detail than I ever knew and I have a passionate opinion about ministers who preach but do not practice what they do preach…that one is for face to b face convo. Thank you my friend your writing is book worthy…think about that

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  17. I’d like to share my thoughts on some issues raised here starting with the controversial issue of tithing.

    Before addressing tithing in the New Testament, let us first look at the objective of tithing. In Mal3:10, God says ‘…that there may be meat in mine house.’ God’s house here referred to a communal place of worship (temple) and the aim was to ensure that there was provision, not for God Himself (Ps50:13-14), but for his housekeepers.
    Who are these housekeepers? Nehemiah 10:37-39 (and Heb7:5)clearly states that these are the priests and Levites, not widows/orphans/poor/needy. Our modern day priests and Levites are full-time Ministers and Pastors who have no secular job/work to depend on for sustenance so are fed from the provision of the house of God. Please note that the tribe of Levi were solely called to serve God in His house, therefore they had no inheritance as other tribes of Israel: Deu 18:1-8 (this passage also states that they are due first fruits). Neh10:39 ends by stating that ‘…and we will not forsake the house of our God.’ A subtle but emphatic advice.
    In the New Testament, Jesus never discouraged tithe giving. As a matter of fact, he encouraged it. Let us study Luke11:42 closely to hear Jesus criticism of the Pharisees ‘But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.’
    Kindly note the last sentence. He admonished that both tithes as well as judgement and love of God must be carried out, not one or the other. Matt23:23 repeats this criticism.
    Jesus didnt abolish tithing. He himself stated in Matt5:17-18 that He didnt come to abolish the law but to fulfil it, and that no detail of the law will pass unfulfilled until the end of time.
    Hope this sheds some light that tithing is not just for the Old Testament.
    This leads me to the next response.

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    1. Ah, Chris, the standard response! Tithing was Jewish law and Jesus was operating in that context, and as usual, he was criticising the priest’s focus on law-keeping, rather than mercy and justice. He couldn’t suggest breaking the law, because that would have had serious consequences. I’m sure you are aware of how many times the priests tried to catch him out.

      Advocates of modern tithing conveniently ignore many other aspects of that law because they are not practical or even desirable. We do not have a society where one-twelfth of the population is required BY LAW to keep the fires burning in the temple. In fact, Jesus freed us from the obligation of going to a central temple and now we can worship anywhere we choose.

      If you are going to suggest that we should live our lives according to ancient Jewish laws, then let it be all of the law. Let us take heed of Malachi’s message, which was that the Jews should return to STRICT ADHERENCE to the law, rather than the piecemeal observance he was sent to discourage. You can’t pick and choose from a message that says, “Don’t pick and choose.”

      You can’t discard the burning of sacrifices but keep tithing, the chief means of supplying the animals to be burned and the sustenance of the priests who had dedicated their lives to keeping those fires burning. We should ban Christians from marrying ‘foreigners’.

      Sounds ridiculous? It is.

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  18. Care for Modern Pastors:
    Jesus was always catered for wherever He went and never lacked. A good example of this was found in Luke8:2-3. If a Minister/Pastor or MP (for short) has truly been called by God to serve him, there will always be provision for the vision. Any MP who needs to coerce his/her flock to give has not been called by God or has lost his/her vision.
    Any true MP has the ‘Word of God.’ This Word is backed up by power as Jesus said in John6:63 that it is Spirit and life, not mere utterances. This Word is what convicts the flock to give & make vows, not sweet persuasions or fiery threats from the pulpit.
    MPs should not lack basic needs in life and should even have more than necessary. This is because, in the Old Testament, they were in charge of cities of refuge (Joshua20) where offenders ran to and where taken care of. This can also include the poor/needy etc but do note that they are also our responsibility too.
    Some MPs are millionaires and still diligently serve God and their society while others live flamboyant lifestyles and do not use their provisions for God’s work. It is not in our place to judge them (1Chron16:22). God will judge them just like Eli & his sons were judged.
    Please let us not slander all MPs based on the actions of a few. We should be careful and diligent in finding a true and right place of worship where we will receive ‘the Word’ from a true MP. The Holy Spirit can show you a true place of worship if you seek Him (I might treat this later).

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  19. On the marriage query:
    The first polygamist in the bible was Lamech (Gen4:19-24) who became a murderer. However, Jesus came to restore our relationship with God and this involves every area of our life including marriage.
    David, Solomon etc became polygamists too but Jesus came to set the record straight.
    Jesus addressed polygamy in Mark10:6-9 were He pointed out that God who was the originator of marriage created the institution for one man and one woman in the presence of God. Else we would have Eve and another lady or gentleman, wouldn’t we?
    Whenever man deviates from God’s original plan, there is always a price to pay, at times quite a costly one.
    If we want our marriages to succeed & be fulfilling, we need to go back to God’s blueprint of marriage-companionship in God’s presence. Without doing this, its like using a new complex tool without making reference to its manual. Ps11:3 finally asks ‘If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?’

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    1. Interesting response, Chris. However, it’s always important to set the context correctly. He was not addressing the question of polygamy at all, but rather divorce. Polygamy was an accepted practice at the time and not prohibited by the law. The question was about whether you should ‘put away’ your wife. The answer Jesus gave could apply to as many wives as you might have.

      I’m glad you mention David and Solomon, whose numbers of wives are mentioned as evidence of how wealthy and blessed they were. David was God’s favourite son, according to the Bible, and it was only when he took someone else’s wife that he incurred the wrath of God.

      Another faithful servant was Jacob, who married his two first cousins, both sisters, within a week of each other. None of this was unusual at the time and perfectly within ‘the law’. Although Jacob was tricked into marrying the elder Leah and didn’t really like her, he didn’t ‘put her away’ and marry Rachel because that would have required divorce, something Jesus later discouraged. If he had, that would have been what Jesus considered to be adultery. However, Jacob was more concerned about not offending his uncle and getting the girl he really wanted. Like I said, context is important.

      Why pretend that marriage in that ancient patriarchal society is the same as we have now? We have simply adapted some of the practices. For example, when a father gives his daughter’s hand in marriage nowadays, it’s purely ceremonial. Back then, she didn’t have a choice – if your father agreed to give you away, you had to go. There was no wedding ceremony, just a celebratory feast. Consummation was the defining factor – ‘he went in to her’ and that was that, Jacob was married.

      Our modern laws are different and conform to the ‘one wife, one husband’ principle. But we shouldn’t try to revise history or whitewash the common practices of Biblical times. Our job is to interpret and apply to our everyday lives.

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  20. On being a Christian:
    When the Pastor started a conversation with you, Michael, I guess he was politely trying to find out if you had a relationship with Jesus.
    Who really is a Christian?
    If I were to fill a form stating it or were to verbally tell you that I was one, does that make me one?
    I believe a Christian is one who studies and follows the life of Christ and believes Jesus is the son of God who came to reconcile man with His maker through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The easiest way to know a Christian is by his/her lifestyle. That is why the disciples were first called ‘Christians’ in Antioch cos people could see ‘Christ in them.’
    Nowadays people call themselves Christians and carry out lip-service due to family, society, peer pressures etc and do not follow the teachings of Christ sincerely. People prefer being ‘Christians of convenience’ rather than true disciples.
    Doing good works and ticking all the moral boxes doesnt make you a Christian.
    John3:16-18 clearly states the criteria of being a Christian.
    A Christian is also one who doesn’t use logic or reason to explain the bible or life. He/she lives a life based on revelation (Matt 6:6) which only comes from a relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is a life of faith not proof.
    Does every Christian live like this? I dont think so.
    That its why Jesus states in Matt7:21 that not all Christians are ‘true Christians.’
    Therefore let’s not believe that the action of a professed Christian is always representative of Christ always.
    True Christians are always ‘a work in progress’ (Isaiah64:8).

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  21. This topic is very deep! It’s one my friend and I recently, passionately debated, but I think like with many other doctrines in Christianity, there are blurred lines in the Bible that still leave room for personal interpretation based on understanding and faith levels. Fantastic piece, Michael….as always 🙂

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    1. Thanks you very much! Not blurred at all for me. For those people who argue passionately ‘for’, I don’t understand why they ignore the other parts of the same law they advocate. And for those of us ‘against’, it doesn’t stop us from giving any amount to support a church or cause we believe in. Thanks for your support. M xx

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  22. Chris, If you read Matthew 5:31-32. You would find that Jesus said a man may only divorce his wife if she has committed adultery. It never said a man may not marry any other woman while still married to his wife.

    My take on this is for you to marry a woman she must be a virgin once you have consumated the relationship then you are married with or without a church, court or traditional ceremony. And that woman stays married to you, if you set her aside for any reason other than infidelity then you cause her to commit adultery.

    Going by this context a man can marry as many women as he wishes as long as they are virgins and he cannot set any one of them aside.

    If you think deeply about this you realise that even the church ceremony uniting a woman that is a non virgin to a man is an act of adultery going by Jesus’ teaching.

    Think about this before replying. If you as a lady or a man realise that you would be married by virtue of consummating a relationship with a man as a virgin, I’m sure more girls would wait till their “wedding ceremony night” and most guys would wait also because the sin is not in the act of a man consumating a relationship with a virgin. The sin, “adultery” comes when you set her aside for no just cause. Even the 10 commandments talked of adultery not fornication as there is nothing like fornication even if the parties involved are single.

    Food for thought!!!!!!!!!!!

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  23. The message is so very well delivered Michael. I wish to liken you to Evangelist Reinhard Bonnke (founder of Christ for all nations outreach) who will deliver a sermon without mentioning denominations but concentrate on the word, thus, some form of self evaluation required after listening. My orthodox church besides constantly preaching God’s word also connect with the needy very well. Tithing is not emphasised but I pay (though not very consistent) through a collection box kept in the Chapel. I do this cheerfully desiring that such money should be judiciously used to propagate God’s purpose on earth.

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  24. Hi Mochael. Your response to the Pastor was very good. In as much as I do not agree with all your comments. I strongly believe that most Pastors use the bible for raising personal funds. This is currently what happens in most Churches (God forgive me). In summary, we need to genuinely prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ.

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  25. Exactly as you have written Michael. At a very young age, the history of tithing was told to me and my siblings. That has been my very reason not to pay tithe, even in midst of intense words from the pulpit. The pastors of this day uses a portion of the scriptures to woo their gullible members. Until Christian understand the three dispensation of God worship, thier plight ignorance of Christian worship endures

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    1. Hi Abigail. You were quite privileged to get that teaching early on; most people only hear their pastor using selected verses to solicit funds. If someone decides that they want to give 10, 20 or even 50 percent of their income to their church, they should be free to do so. However, they shouldn’t be told that God requires them to do so.

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