As someone who has worked in the ministry and been to seminary, I’m sometimes asked by churchgoing friends what I believe about tithing. Money in the church has always been a sensitive issue. According to Scripture, God instructs us to give. The rule of thumb from the Hebrew Bible was a tithe, or 10 percent of one’s income/harvest for the temple or storehouse (Malachi 3:10 for instance). It seems Jesus places a new and different emphasis on this commandment by commending the poor widow who gave only two mites to the Jerusalem temple, which was all she had (Mark 12 and Luke 21). Then there’s the infamous rich young ruler who is challenged to leave not a tenth of his possessions, but everything. Whereas the widow’s intentions are pure, Jesus calls out the idolatry in the young man’s heart.
If Christians are called by Christ to deny ourselves, give whenever someone asks and sacrifice unconditionally for the Kingdom of God, how does this translate to "the offering" of today’s institutional church? Are church leaders who preach about generosity and giving being honest in their teachings, or do they sometimes conveniently presuppose a degree of clarity about the tithing issue that is not so self-evident? What is the role of the congregation in holding its leadership and itself accountable with regard to charity? How much should the church be giving away in proportion to what it spends on its on logistical and family needs? Finally, are individuals always expected to give a full tithe to the church, or is it acceptable to give a percentage of this tithe to other ministries and causes as well?
Much like the vocation of Israel described in Isaiah 43 as Yahweh’s witness, Paul speaks of the Church as the body of Christ and its function to demonstrate God’s love for the world (Colossians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 5:30). Luke testifies to this as well (Acts 1:8), and Jesus tells the disciples in John that they will be known as His followers because of their love (John 13:35).
What does this love look like? It looks out for “the least of these,” and it imitates Jesus’ obedience to the point of death. If this is the primary order governing the faith community, surely the chief financial commitment on both the part of the members and the ministerial staff ought to be directed not inwardly, but toward the local and global needs of the suffering and marginalized as much as possible.
It might be that some of the questions raised above are based on a mistaken cultural viewpoint of the Church in the first place. The problem is that modern churchgoers tend to conceptualize themselves as separate from the church itself. Thus, we talk about giving to the church. This wouldn’t make very much sense if we understood ourselves instead to be part of the church. Conceived of as part of the church then—rather than us giving to the church—it is now we the church that gives to others. Thus, under this framework, it is no longer a matter of giving to the church and other causes, but of the church together as a whole, under the guidance of the Spirit, giving to other causes. This also breaks down the clergy/laity divide. In other words, it is not about congregants giving to support the ministry of pastors, but memberships taking care of pastors while the two groups give together as a unit.
Concerning how much individuals are to give, not surprisingly, the wisdom of C.S. Lewis is appropriate: “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give [like the widow] more than we can spare.” And what do we give? Not just money, but as Jesus requires, our whole selves. In order for this to happen though, money is still a critical factor, and many churches would likely have to reevaluate their outlook on what they consider to be truly necessary in terms of costs. In seasons of plenty, this task of self-examination is neglected. As a result, the recent economic crisis devastated some ministries across the country more than it probably should have.
Obviously the church requires money for basic purposes and for its own spiritual nourishment, but the biblical mandate on the body of believers, in the developed and dominant world especially, is undoubtedly one for Christ-likeness (Philippians 2) and solidarity with the poor, the orphaned, the naked and the hungry. Provided this is true, serious reconsideration of our tithing allocation becomes essential in the American evangelical world. Returning to the account of the widow in Mark’s gospel, Jesus goes on to predict the destruction of the Temple in chapter 13. This prophecy is often interpreted to promise the overthrow of any house of worship sustained by mismanagement or robbery. This is a fitting warning to those of us living in prosperity and “security” relative to those facing legitimate economic, political and religious persecution.
In sum, undisturbed affluence and comfort is inimical to the divine commonwealth exemplified by the early church. What made this group of Christ-followers in Acts so cohesive? They gave up their rights, shared with everyone in need and didn’t consider anything a possession (Acts 2). Faithful stewardship of the tithe is indispensable for discipleship and for authentic proclamation the Gospel. After all, it’s supposed to be good news for the poor (Luke 4:18). To the extent that the church in much of the so-called West holds on to its social status and maintains a safe distance from the face of the destitute other, it opposes the values of the Kingdom Jesus preached. One of the best ways to protest injustice and declare God’s reign is by practicing kenosis, or self-emptying, with our money—not by spending it on church buildings, sound equipment and ministry careerism, but by letting go of it so that “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
Bill Walker blogs at http://billwalker.wordpress.com/.