The “Temple Tax” Teaching


SOME TIME AGO, a student at Christian Life College loaned me a taped message presenting a teaching that has come to be known as the “temple tax” or “shekel and a half” teaching. This teaching may have been amended by some, but as presented on the tape it is based on several fundamental errors. Since it is my understanding that the recorded message represents the teaching in its original form, and since I do not have access to the forms into which it may have evolved, I will confine my response to the message as it is recorded.

I was struck by the error at the heart of this teaching: a bold disregard for the atoning work of Christ’s blood. There is also the claim that the law of Moses is not fulfilled in Jesus Christ and that it is still binding on the New Testament church. The teaching asserts that if we do not believe this, we are under a curse, in spite of Paul’s declaration that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13a).

The teaching on the tape is full of errors from the beginning to end. Throughout, Holy Scripture is misinterpreted, twisted, and misappropriated. A point-by-point refutation would require a response to nearly every word spoken on the tape. For the sake of brevity, I will merely summarize and briefly respond to the errors.

Error 1: The New Testament church is the building in which the saints of God met.

The first verse of Scripture appealed to is I Timothy 3:15: “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” It is claimed that this is the only place in Scripture where the church is identified as the building where the people of God assemble. But if the building is the church, the building is the pillar and ground of the truth. Grammatically, the words “pillar” and “ground” are in apposition to “church” and “House.” This means they further identify the “House” and the “church.”

The word “house” is a reference to the household or family of God. This is in exact agreement with the meaning of the word “church,” a reference to the individuals who are “called out” by God.

The Book of I Timothy was written in about 63 A.D. At this time, the church did not yet have separate buildings in which to meet regularly. Some small groups met in homes. Some met in synagogues until nearly the end of the first century. Sometimes the church (the people) met in other public or private places.

The suggestion that I Timothy 3:15 has to do with behavior in a building negates the necessity of following Paul’s ethical teaching except within the confines of that building. But Paul’s admonition to correct behavior has nothing to do with behaving a certain way while in a specific building. Instead, it identifies the family or household of God as the church of God and as the pillar and ground of the truth. His directions as to proper behavior throughout the book have to do with behavior as a member of God’s household, wherever one may be.

Error 2: The law of Moses is binding on the New Testament church.

This teaching is slipped into by quoting II Timothy 3:16: All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” No recognition is given to the fact that though all Scripture is inspired of God, it is useful for the four purposes of II Timothy 3:16 only so long as it is rightly (correctly) divided (handled or interpreted). No acknowledgment is made of Peter’s warning that unlearned and unstable people wrest (twist or pervert) the Scriptures to their own destruction (II Peter 3:16).

The fact that Judaizers (who insisted on the necessity of the law of Moses for the church) were soundly rebuked again and again in the New Testament is overlooked. This heresy was the first to challenge the good news that salvation was provided fully by the Atonement. That is, these Judaizers taught the requirements of circumcision and the keeping the law of Moses as necessary for salvation. They were wrong, and their error was rebuked throughout the New Testament. (See Acts 15:5-6, 19-20, 24, 28-29; Romans 6:14, 7:4; 8:3; 10:4; Galatians 1:6-9; 2:4, 14, 16, 19, 21; 3:1-5, 10-13, 17-19, 2425; 4:4-5, 9, 21; 5:1-4, 7-9, 12, 1415; 6:13; Colossians 2:14, 16-17; Titus 3:9; Hebrews 7:11-12, 18-19, 22; 8:6-9, 13; 9:15; 10:1; 9.) These passages of Scriptures and many
more show the temporary nature of the law of Moses. It was a law consisting of 613 commandments given exclusively to the nation of Israel for a limited period of time: until the coming of the Messiah (Galatians 3:19, 24-25). A careful reading of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews should be sufficient to show that this is true.

Error 3: The church is Israel.

The Temple tax” or “shekel and a half” teaching is based on the mistaken idea that the church is Israel, and that it is thus the recipient of all the promised blessings to Israel. This teaching blurs the distinctions between the various dispensations (or ways God has administered His affairs with differing peoples throughout human history) and confuses the covenants (of which there are eight, each with its own provisions, conditions, and recipients). Paul pointed out that there are three ethnic groups addressed in Scripture: Jews (Israel), Gentiles (unbelieving non-Jews), and the church of God (consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles). (See I Corinthians 10:32.)

Error 4: All Christians twenty years old and older are required by God not only to tithe, but also to give a five percent offering.

This teaching is based on a misinterpretation of Exodus 30:11-16: “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the LORD. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the LORD. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls. And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls.”

This passage is interpreted as follows:

1. The passage is binding not only for national Israel, but also for the New Testament church.

2. Obedience to the passage will guarantee freedom from communicable diseases.

3. Half a shekel is half the tithe, or five percent of one’s income.

4. Only those twenty years old and above are bound by this law. Those under twenty years old should use their money to repay their parents the cost of raising them.

5. By giving God five percent of one’s income, one’s sins are atoned for.

6. The five percent must be used only for the construction or upkeep of the church building.

This interpretation fails on every point:

1. The law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel only. (See Deuteronomy 5:3; Nehemiah 9:1314; Psalm 147:19-20.) Even then, the prophets declared that the day was coming when it would be terminated and replaced with a new covenant unlike the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. (See Jeremiah 31:31-34.) The law incorporates moral principles that predated Sinai and survive the ending of the law with the coming of the Messiah. But these moral principles are reiterated in the sections of Scripture having to do specifically with the church, which are primarily portions of the Gospels (after the rejection of Jesus by national Israel), the Book of Acts, all of the Epistles, and Revelation 1-3; 19-22. This is not to say that these sections of Scripture are the only ones the church should use. We are to study all of the Bible for the lessons to be learned. But we must remember that while all the Bible is for the church, all the Bible is not about the church. This is clear: Only Adam and Eve had a commandment not to eat of a specific tree; only Noah had a commandment to build a boat; only Abraham had a commandment to leave Ur; and only Israel received the law. The dispensation of grace (the church age) is unique to the New Testament. (See Ephesians 3: 15.)

2. Promises of healing in the new covenant are never based on money paid, but on the stripes taken by Jesus. (See Isaiah 53.) If relief from sickness is bought with money, the sacrificial, substitutionary suffering of Jesus Christ is meaningless and ineffective.

3. This is one of the chief claims and “revelations” of the teaching. The teacher claims he consulted fifteen Hebrew dictionaries to determine how much a shekel was, and he could not find out. Finally he claims to have called a Jewish rabbi who informed him that a shekel was no specific amount; it was simply five percent of one’s income, or half a tithe. But I have yet to consult a Bible reference book which does not specify the amount of the shekel. A shekel was about 224 grains, or one-half ounce. It is simply untrue that it is five percent of one’s income. The teacher also asserts that the parenthetical phrase “a shekel is twenty gerahs” is “not in the original manuscript” and that it was “added by the translators.” He further asserts that anything in parentheses in the Bible is not in the original manuscript but is added by the translators. Nothing could be further from the truth. The statement “a shekel is twenty gerahs” is in the Hebrew text; it is not added by the translators. Perhaps the teacher confused the use of parentheses with the use of italics in the King James Version. Words in italics are supplied by the translators, not words in parentheses.

It is, of course, necessary for this teacher to reject the statement identifying the value of a shekel; otherwise his entire argument collapses. He can make his case only if a shekel is no specific amount, only if it is five percent of one’s income. But, in biblical terms, a shekel is twenty gerahs (a gerah is a Babylonian measurement, just as an ounce is an English measurement). Later, under
Nehemiah, the amount to be paid by Israelite males twenty years old and above was reduced to one-third of a shekel (Nehemiah 10:32).

4. The teacher of this error has to admit that this law is binding only on those twenty years old and above. So he simply asserts, with no biblical proof and no appeal to Scripture, that those under twenty should take five percent of their income to repay their parents the cost of raising them. Since the average cost of raising a child from birth to eighteen years of age is estimated to be more than a hundred thousand dollars, those under twenty will indeed have to find top paying jobs! Actually, this erroneous interpretation entirely misses the point of the passage. An Israelite male (this passage doe, not even apply to Israelite women of the age of twenty or above was required to pay a “ransom” upon being formally enrolled among God’s people. This was not a weekly, monthly, or yearly event. It occurred only “when the sum of the children of Israel” was taken, or when the census was conducted.

5. The claim that the regular payment of five percent of one’s income is an atonement for sin is the most reprehensible aspect of this teaching. Sins are atoned for only by the blood of Jesus. (See Hebrews 10:1-18.)

6. The teacher declares that, in every case, one hundred percent of the tithe should go to support the pastor. After the tithe, every believer is required to give an additional five percent of his income exclusively for constructing or maintaining the church building. But there is no correlation at all between the Old Testament Tabernacle or Temple and the church building used by Christians. In the new covenant, the believers themselves are the temple of God. ( See I Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19-20.) There is simply no relationship between the half a shekel paid occasionally by Israelite males twenty years of age and above for “the service of the tabernacle” and the maintenance of buildings used as meeting places for Christians.

Error 5: The blessings of the Palestinian covenant are for the church.

Before revealing the requirements for the blessing, the teacher spends a great deal of time reading through and commenting on the blessings of the Palestinian covenant as listed in Deuteronomy 28. He fails to point out that this is a conditional covenant, pending Israel’s perfect obedience to all the commandments of Moses (Deuteronomy 28:1, 58) and specifically pertaining to their life in the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 28:8). A careful reading of Deuteronomy 27-30, the entire passage concerning this covenant, will conclusively prove that it was given to Israel, that it was in addition to the covenant God made with them at Sinai (Deuteronomy 29:1), that it was conditioned upon obedience to the law of Moses, and that it was intended to govern their national life as they dwelt in the promised land (Deuteronomy 30:20). It has nothing to do with the New Testament church. If, as the “temple tax” teaching suggests, the church is Israel and heir to the Palestinian covenant, then the church would need to set about occupying the land presently held by the nation of Israel, as well as the additional lands promised to them.

Error 6: An equation of the blessings of God with financial prosperity, appealing to the sinful instinct of greed.

Laced throughout this teaching is the promise of the reward of great financial prosperity to all those who, in addition to paying their tithe, give an additional five percent of their income to cover the operating costs of the local church building. (Nothing is said about where the funds will come from for supporting missionary activity, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, etc.) Many allusions are made to those who have followed this plan whose businesses have increased three hundred percent and so forth. But nowhere does the New Testament equate financial prosperity with spiritual blessings. (See Philippians 4:11-13.)

Paul was certainly a man of faith. His trust was in God and He was obedient to God. Yet he found the Christian life to offer a variety of experiences. There were times he was hungry and had to do without. There were times he was full. But–whatever his circumstance–he was able to endure through the strength of Christ. If the “temple tax” teaching were true, Paul would certainly have known about it and practiced it, in which case he would never have experienced hunger (Deuteronomy 28:5). Promises such as those found in Romans 8:35-39 would be needless and meaningless if the “temple tax” teaching, with its attendant promises of prosperity, plenty, and protection were true.

Error 7: The use of manipulative scare tactics.

At the very beginning of the taped teaching, before any explanation of the “temple tax” teaching and before any attempt to prove it from Scripture, the teacher suggests that if the people are
going to hear what he says and not do it, it would be better for them to go ahead and leave the building first. For if they hear it, he claims, and do not do it, things will go worse for them from that time on. No recognition is made that the teacher might be wrong, or that the people should prove all things and hold fast to what is good (I Thessalonians 5:21). Instead, examples are offered of businessmen who have accepted the teaching whose businesses then succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and of a businessman who rejected the teaching only to have his business fail.

This is reminiscent of the tactics of chain letters, which promise blessings for those who keep up the chain and misfortune on those who break it.

But even this part of the teaching is inconsistent, for if the “temple tax” teaching is true, if God requires an additional five percent to maintain the local church building, if it is indeed an atonement for sin, every Christian must adhere to it or endanger his relationship with God. It is nonsensical for the teacher to suggest the people would be better off to leave and never hear it, for ignorance is
no excuse.

The “temple tax” or “shekel and a half” teaching is a dangerous error that Bible-believing and God-fearing people should reject.