On “Tithing”

By | November 16, 2011

It’s “stewardship season” in most churches – the time of year when churches communicate openly about their financial needs to the congregation, often soliciting pledges of regular giving from their members so as to budget appropriately for the coming year. At The Upper Room this Sunday, we’ll have an all-church meeting where we’ll talk about the vision for the future of the church, including our decreasing grant funding and our (challenging but attainable) goal of reaching $53,000 in tithes and offerings in 2012.  So we’re participating in the festivities of “stewardship season”, but I think there are deeper issues beneath the surface that need to be addressed, in our church and in all churches.  Stewardship is not a season.  It’s not something we only practice part of the year.  Faithful stewardship is about what we do with all the resources God has entrusted to us all the time. And while this particular conversation needs to be had this Sunday, we run the risk of an impoverished understanding of stewardship if we only talk about it this Sunday and only use typical churchy language.  In fact, I think the language we use often gets in the way of faithful stewardship.  We have to change the way we talk about money.

Take for instance the word “tithing”. Churches like to encourage tithing, defining it usually as the giving of ten-percent of one’s gross (pre-tax) income to the ministry of the church. The idea comes from several Old Testament passages. Leviticus 27:30-33 says that a tenth of the fruit of the land is to be “holy to the Lord”.   Numbers 26:12 says that a tithe collected every three years went “to feed the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow”.  So the principle is often applied to the present-day life of the Church: a tenth of the income of the Church’s membership should be holy to the Lord, and should thus provide for the paid ministers of the church (Levites) and the mission budget (foreigners, widows and orphans).

But it’s not that simple. Consider these words from Richard Foster about why the New Testament actually never speaks of tithing as a practice in the early Church:

“The tithe simply is not a sufficiently radical concept to embody the carefree unconcern for possessions that marks life in the kingdom of God.  Jesus Christ is the Lord of all our goods, not just 10 percent.  It is quite possible to obey the law of the tithe without ever dealing with our mammon lust. . . . Perhaps the tithe can be a beginning way to acknowledge God as the owner of all things, but it is only a beginning and not an ending” (Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World – Revised and Updated [HarperOne 2005] pages 58-59).

If Jesus is Lord of everything – the One who already owns everything we have in our possession and the One whom we can trust to provide everything we truly need – then ten percent seems like a paltry amount to give back. It’s a starting place, a beginning, as Foster suggests.  But on the other hand, when we really look at our finances and where our money goes, ten percent starts to seem like an incredibly high amount to give.  For most of us, it seems like it’s always getting more difficult to make ends meet.

Again, tithing isn’t simple. Consider also the issue of “split-tithing”, an increasingly common practice in my generation in which people give away (at least) ten-percent of their income to “Kingdom-work”, but only a portion of that ten-percent ends up going to the local church.  I understand this concept well.  In fact (I confess) it’s what Eileen and I still practice.  The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it runs the risk of thinking that the local congregation isn’t really “the Church”.  But the truth is the local congregation really is the Church and its mission is just as valuable as feeding orphans overseas. Both are worthy of our giving because both are ministries of Jesus Christ.

So where do we begin this stewardship season? Maybe by asking Jesus what we need to do to grow in our discipleship.  As his constant push against the legalism of the Pharisees in the Gospels shows, Jesus is less concerned with whether we give 10 percent and more concerned with whether He is master of our life, or if we bow to money (Matthew 7:24).  So how is Jesus calling you to show that He’s master of your life? Maybe by giving more to the church this year, taking a step towards tithing if you haven’t before.  Maybe Jesus would just as soon ask you to sponsor a child through World Vision or support an overseas missionary or a local campus minister.  Or maybe Jesus wants you to “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).  He didn’t just say that to the Rich Young Ruler; He also said it to all his disciples (see Luke 12:33).  The question is which step is necessary for you to grow in your discipleship.

So if you’re in Upper Room,  you’ll receive a commitment card which we’re asking you to fill out and return to the church.  And on it there will be a line with the following options which could be checked: “□ This is a step towards tithing. □  This is my tithe.  □ This commitment goes beyond tithing.” Whichever box you check, know that it’s not about “measuring-up” to human standards of giving; it’s about making a tangible commitment to grow in your discipleship this year.  Know that there’s no shame in a step towards tithing, committing to tithe is not fulfilling a law, and going beyond tithing is no reason to be proud. Make the commitment that will go deeper than the surface of the words and transform your discipleship.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12:32-34 TNIV -