This series of posts is dedicated to (re)considering basics of Christian faith, and today we examine one regularly misconstrued topic: tithing.
The Church persistently preaches that Christians must tithe, meaning give 10% of their income to the local church. Of course, there’s a whole sub-genre on whether or not 10% means from net or gross pay. Churches tend to push gross.
And lest we think this is a minor concern, churches often organize around this compulsory practice. I’ve been on staff at churches, in fact, that would not allow churchgoers into leadership positions until they tithed, even though other less concrete aspects of their lives were not as unequivocally scrutinized.
So the question I want to consider is whether or not tithing is a prescribed Christian practice, especially within the contemporary Church context where tithing (or at least giving of some sort) is the one message that is preached every single week during the offering portion of the service. In what follows, I will suggest that tithing is actually not a Christian prescription. But before we delete our online giving profiles, we’ll also discover that Jesus’ actual invitation is much more profound and “costly.”
Jesus’ Words on Tithing
With so much discussion in church about tithing, I thought it would be wise to enumerate the many biblical passages where Jesus specifically addresses tithing.
It is these (tithing) you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.Matthew 23:23
We’ve now covered every time Jesus mentions tithing. Okay, yes, technically he also mentioned tithing in Luke 11:42, but that passage is essentially a word-for-word copy of this verse.
Surely Paul required his constituents to tithe, though, right? Oddly enough, Paul doesn’t seem interested in the whole tithing thing either. Indeed, tithing a rigid, set, predetermined, isolated amount didn’t fit with Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit or the community that embodied the Spirit, which is often referred to as the Church.
Let’s return for a moment to Jesus’ passing soundbite on tithing –– a soundbite that still gets played in churches weekly –– to see if Jesus’ point was even about money in the first place.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!Matthew 23:23-24
It is fascinating to step back and discover that Jesus describes religious people who tithe as hypocrites, not because their giving was fundamentally wrong but rather because Jesus’ call is to physical justice and not financial compulsion.
As it currently stands, the call to tithing is a call to impersonal uniformity: if you’re rich or poor –– but let’s be honest, the requirement that “even if you’re poor you must still give in faith” is most often evoked –– you should tithe because the Bible tells us that we must. Tithing, furthermore, is restricted to the local church, meaning if you give generously to other needs (i.e., nonprofits) or others in need (i.e., neighbors), those expenditures do not count toward this biblical obligation. Keep that in mind the next time you consider helping out a neighbor in need!
But where is that in the early church?
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.Acts 2:43-47
This passage directly follows Pentecost, where the Spirit stirred people’s hearts, leading to the Church, which is described here. Acts 4:32-37 repeats this everything-in-common financial system, adding that this new way of spending resulted in “not a needy person among them.”
Need within the Church is antithetical to the community formed by the Holy Spirit in Acts. Jesus’ words “championing” tithing were really about how unjust arbitrarily tithing is while actual needs in the community persist.
Who else has heard ad nauseam that you can’t out-give God? That God will give you more if you’ll trust God more (i.e., give more money)?
But God is not a transactional deity, willing to give us more money if only we’ll give more to our church. If that were the case then what would our giving really even be? It wouldn’t be generous or sacrificial but rather personally beneficial, promising great dividends for our short-term investment.
Jesus also didn’t say that everyone should tithe 10%, and he definitely didn’t say those in need should tithe on faith, knowing that God will give them a great monetary return as a reward. No, Jesus said that tithing isn’t the point – justice, mercy, and faith are.
The early Church embodied that call, sharing their finances with those in need. And let’s not miss this: Acts 2 & 4 say that those in the community who owned land and houses –– or the wealthier believers –– sold them so that there would be no needy among them. The text does not say, “and even those in great need contributed their fair share into the system…I mean, the poor really should pay in…are wealthier Christians just supposed to give those lazy poor people their hard earned money?!”
Jesus’ invitation to a life of freedom is not built on “fairness,” whatever that might even mean. Rather, Jesus says that the power of the Church is that believers no longer cling to their possession but instead freely give to those in need resulting in a community without need.
There’s a problem with this proposal, of course, and every pastor and church administrator knows it: budgeting. How can a church pay the bills without a steady flow of cash? If we abandon the strict 10% rule then how will churches survive?
This is a real problem, one that I struggled with as a pastor. And since I’m no longer leading a church, I recognize that it’s much easier for me to say these words now than before.
Nevertheless, I’m convinced that giving a flat 10% is not inspiring. Christians want to participate in something bigger than themselves –– we want to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” meaning we want to experience God’s redemptive work in the world.
Statistics show that the average Christian gives 2.5% of their income to their church. More telling, though, families that make $75k and over only give 1%. There’s a clear disconnect between the Holy Spirit empowered early church and our modern construction regarding giving.
Perhaps it’s time to abandon the idea of tithing and instead replace it with participatory giving, where Christians understand the needs of their church family and neighborhood, resulting in people “[selling] their possessions and goods and [distributing] the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Two benefits would follow. First, we get to actually learn about the needs inside and outside our church. How many of us can say with any amount of confidence what concrete needs exist around us? How many of our churches have clearly outlined the practical ways we are working to solve those problems?
Second, we are liberated from the artificial mandate to tithe, freeing us to focus on the weightier things: justice and mercy and faith.
Actual needs inspire giving, not misinterpreted arbitrary mandates.
In the simple but profound words of Jesus:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Matthew 6:19-21
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