Today’s paper points to a historic low in tithing among Americans, which should come as no surprise to anyone who plays a role in trying to balance church budgets these days. Programs are being cut, mission offerings sliced, and staff positions pared away because the money that used to fund them just isn’t there any more.
The recession plays a role, but by no means the only one. The once-common practice of tithing is fading away, and sometimes with the encouragement of church leaders who fear that an emphasis on giving will chase away present or prospective members.
A survey of “evangelical leaders” by the National Association of Evangelicals recently found that 58 percent of the respondents don’t believe the Bible requires tithing, though 95 percent of them claimed to do so, and virtually all of them believe that God calls Christians to be generous.
It’s widely known and often reported that Mormons tithe at a much higher rate than either conservative or mainline Christian groups: the Pew Forum on Relgion and Public Life reported in January that 79 percent of Mormons tithe (yes, including Mitt Romney, which means millions every year). But, there’s a very good reason for that: Mormons are required to tithe in order to participate in temple rituals and remain in the good graces of the institution.
For the most part, neither Protestants nor Catholics believe tithing is a requirement of faith. Protestants in particular put a lot of trust in the New Testament teaching that salvation comes through the grace of God, not by human works — though it’s also believed that those who are saved by grace should show evidence of their faith through good works, including generosity.
The notion of tithing comes from the Hebrew Bible, which describes a fairly complex system of tithes and offerings to be given in support of the temple and the poor. The Hebrew word translated as “tithe” literally means “tenth,” which gave rise to the idea that believers should contribute a tenth of their income to God’s work, starting with one’s local church.
I’ve never believed that tithing is essential for salvation, nor do I believe Christians should tithe as a downpayment on greater blessings in return (as many teach, based on Malachi 3:10). But I still believe that tithing plays a very important role in the living out our faith. Tithing shouldn’t be thought of as a legalistic requirement for church participation, otherwise, we might as well be selling indulgences, charging set fees to remain in good standing with the church. Nor should it be taught as a ticket to greater riches, which is all about selfishness and greed, the antithesis of the gospel.
Still, it seems obvious that those who participate in and benefit from a church ought to support it.
As for the amount, I always thought ten percent is a good place to start. Jesus’ teaching, and examples we find in the early church, suggest we should be willing to give everything for the sake of the kingdom — that makes ten percent seem a bit chintzy. Even so, most people can’t give ten percent without feeling it, without adjusting their budgets to do so.
Pastors and other church leaders should never be embarrassed about preaching or teaching on the subject of stewardship. One doesn’t have to appeal to a legalistic tithe in order to demonstrate the importance of generosity and the common sense reality that churches and their ministries cannot survive if their members don’t support them.
If our faith really matters to us, we won’t tithe because we have to, but because we want to.
[Image is from tithingdebate.com, an interesting site that argues against required tithing and asks for donations to get the “freeing” message out.]