An interesting thing happened in the church during the twentieth century in the United States. Christian giving shifted from caring for the poor, saving lives and spreading the gospel to funding the church budget. Centuries old spiritual teachings morphed into platitudes for raising money and getting people to put more in the collection plate. Perhaps no Biblical principle has been more abused or misunderstood than the tithe.
Let’s take a little quiz to put things in perspective:
- Giving 10% of gross income to God
- Giving 10% of net income to God
- Giving 10% of all we have to God
- Giving thanks to God for all the good things God provides
The recipient of the tithe is:
- The church
- The needy, through work of the church
- The giver
The tithe is for:
- Supporting the work of ministry
- The support of the local church
- Doing charitable work anywhere in the world
- A once-a-year blow-out party
- Keeps the church’s doors open
- Is a spiritual discipline that helps us grow in faith
- Is our way of giving 10% of what God gives us back to God
- Strengthens our relationship to God, neighbor, and the community of faith
Of course, the answer to all four questions is “4.”
All other answers are constructs of the church aimed at getting people to give it their money. If you don’t believe me, read Deuteronomy 14:22-29:
Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.
Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
I always point out to United Methodists the line about turning the tithe into “whatever you wish” — including “strong drink.” It is abundantly clear that the tithe is not about the church at all — it is about God’s relationship with us people, and our relationship with each other. In the primitive and premodern age in which the Bible was written, it is clear that people needed a reminder of the providential nature and grace of God. Before the times got tough, before food got scarce, before people lived wondering where their next meal might come from, they were instructed to have an amazing party — enjoying the best of everything God gave them. The focus wasn’t really on “giving,” but on generosity. God is generous to us, we have much to be thankful for, and from our fundamental gratitude we give thanks to God and share our abundance with those in need. Cool system.
But not a system designed for a modern world. Similar stories can be told of other types of giving: alms (provision for the poor), gifts (provision for the priests and religious leaders) and offerings (communal gifts to God similar to tithes: the community feasts on the meat, while the hooves, guts, and fat makes a ‘fragrant’ offering to God). In a non-currency-based society, none of these things had much of anything to do with money. Most (and we’re talking 90% here) of the people in “Bible times” would be lucky to see 10 coins in their entire lifetime (think of the woman in the Lucan parable — losing one of ten coins would be losing a significant portion of an entire life’s savings. Think losing 10% of your pension…). When the gospels talk about Judas betraying Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” it was just that — not likely to be real coins, but merely nuggets of metal. Virtually none of the passages we equate to “money” had anything to do with currency the way we understand it. Almost every “message” we create about Mammon, talents, wealth, etc. is a complete reinterpretation aimed at using them for our own means. Even when we talk about what Wesley teaches about giving, it isn’t giving “to” the church. Wesley talked about giving to the poor. He believed the church was an agent for missional service. But even Wesley lived in a time of “disinflation” (where things cost less at his death than they had when he was born) where costs of living were amazingly low.
No, today, if we choose to continue to prop up the consumerist cultural entity we call church, we’ve got to pay for it. For us to hold onto what we have we need money for property, facilities, insurance, salaries, pensions, parking lots, pretty windows, expensive instruments, sound and lighting systems, offices and office supplies — none of which exists in any model of “church” from the Hebrew scriptures, Christian scriptures, or the first dozen centuries of early church writing. When we use the Bible to influence modern-day believers into giving money to the church, we are making it up as we go along. If more of what we received went directly into the “transformation of the world,” we wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble getting the money.
Being agents of God’s grace, light, life, providence, kindness, mercy and justice in the world emerges from a deep sense of gratitude and a commitment to generosity. Paying bills, funding budgets, meeting apportionments, and keeping the doors open touches a different source. It is harder to motivate people to buy the next ream of copy paper than it is to feed a hungry child. People are much more likely to support “Nothing but Nets” than to cough up an additional $70 bucks to pay apportionments. Yet, costs are what they are. How do we continue to fund the institution of the church so that all these other good things can actually happen. It tithing, alms-giving, offerings, and gifts aren’t about funding the local church, how do we do it?
Tomorrow I am going to look at the things we are doing that DON’t work very well, before turning Thursday to the things we have learned that do work well, to perhaps give us some necessary help to both pay the bills AND transform the world.