Fit To Be Tithed

faith_funds_03An 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:

Tithing means:

  1. Giving 10% of gross income to God
  2. Giving 10% of net income to God
  3. Giving 10% of all we have to God
  4. Giving thanks to God for all the good things God provides

The recipient of the tithe is:

  1. God
  2. The church
  3. The needy, through work of the church
  4. The giver

The tithe is for:

  1. Supporting the work of ministry
  2. The support of the local church
  3. Doing charitable work anywhere in the world
  4. A once-a-year blow-out party

Tithing:

  1. Keeps the church’s doors open
  2. Is a spiritual discipline that helps us grow in faith
  3. Is our way of giving 10% of what God gives us back to God
  4. 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.

8 replies

  1. What a direct hit. I kept waiting each year for members of the congregation involved in Disciple Bible Study to stand up during the stewardship campaign and say, “that’s not what the Bible says.” It never happened.

    The dilemma as I see it, is that the same people who are more inspired by giving to mission (and aren’t we all) are still insistent that the local congregation exist to serve them, as you have so carefully pointed out in previous posts. So facilities and staff need to be maintained, and we still need boxes of copier paper, but we would all rather give to Nothing but Nets.

  2. This post is scary good.

    Scary – b/c I am employed by the church, and my financial stability is tied to our ability to generate funds, which we have not done as God has commanded.

    Good- b/c it is so true and shines light onto things I have never noticed before.

    Thanks for the great post.

  3. am anxiously awaiting the rest of the stewardship posts…so that I can forward them to other pastors, finance team at church, etc.

    I am so grateful for your blog ministry! Thank you Dan

  4. I agree that the tithe is greatly abused and understood. Certainly members of a church should do what they can to support the church and its various ministries.

    However, the misuse and abuse of tithing scriptures is unacceptable. Yes, the church needs money, but churchgoers should not be misled in the process.

    Many Christians don’t realize that tithing was abolished and is not part of New Testament Christianity. Tithing was replaced by GIVING.

    There needs to be more emphasis on the spiritual principle of giving and the practical principle of good financial stewardship.

    Peace & Blessings!

  5. Dan,
    I guess I see, too, how much larger the issue is than the tithe. I look at Malachi 3.6-12 and Nehemiah 13.10-13. The process is sharing for the good of the giver as well as the Levite and hungry. The tithe is brought to the storehouse, and in God’s self-giving and our own–the people eat. This, yes, is short-cut in churches, but there is a kingdom economy here–the first thing we do is see blessing, and set it apart for our good, God’s good, and the well-being of others. Of course we can enjoy the fruit of the tithe, but Nehemiah asks, ‘why is the house of God forsaken? The sharing isn’t done. I believe tithing is part of a vision of the self-giving, sharing and reciprocity of the kingdom. I teach it, and preach on it–and try to live into the fruits of the Spirit–generosity being one of them. So what a surprise: the tithe is for us, as with so much from God.

    My old testament professor, Bill Power, used to read the rich young ruler text from Mark, where Jesus says to give ALL, and the widow’s mite being given All to God, and said, ‘10% or 100%–pick your testament! It made Old Testament devotees of many of us:)
    Thanks for the articles on stewardship.

    Dan

  6. OT teachings are the history of the Jews. The New Covenant does not start with Math 1:1 but rather after the death of the Christ. Jesus was a Jew to the core, followed Jewish law and then superceded it. Freedom in Christ does not start with any following of OT history.
    Using a concordance, look up EVERY place that tithing was mentioned. You’ll find yourself arguing with most clergy of today.

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