Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why I hate tithing, and what I recommend instead

You may recall that I posted a sermon a few weeks ago in which I get pretty shirty about tithing. Well, the brave folks at the Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, invited me to contribute to their stewardship materials, thus putting their money where my mouth is. I hope I helped them!

Here's what I wrote.


I hate tithing. I don’t mean that I hate to do it; I mean that I think it’s a terrible way to determine giving. It’s so mechanical! So guilt-laden, too. But all my life, I’d heard people talk about the tithe as the Biblical basis of stewardship. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I thought, “Hey, wait a minute! People keep talking about tithing as Biblical, but I’ve never actually seen any of these texts!”

I was surprised by what I discovered. Did you know that tithing only refers to agricultural products? That’s why you hear Jesus talks about the Pharisees “tithing mint and rue and herbs of all kinds” (Luke 11:42) – they were keeping to the letter of the law down to the herbs in the kitchen garden.

But looking at the New Testament, what I see as the Biblical standard of giving is not tithing, or any sort of definitive rule. Instead, I see two traits that characterize faithful giving: generosity and mission.

Generosity: Unlike tithing, which is simply a math problem, generosity is a spiritual practice. I know many generous people who are tithers, but tithing on its own is simply about a transfer of goods or money from one entity to another. Generosity, on the other hand, is the attitude in which the tithing – or any giving – is undertaken. Tithing answers the question, “Have I done enough?” Generosity answers the question, “How can I contribute as much as possible?”

Mission: One of the things that most annoys me about tithing is that it is so disconnected to what happens to the money. But what I see over and over again in the New Testament is that giving is directed to some purpose: supporting Jesus’ ministry, helping one another in the church, caring for widows and orphans, or reaching out to the church in Jerusalem.

Mission is actually the question of generosity as it is answered by a community or organization: “How can we as a group contribute as much as possible?” When we are clear about our mission, it makes it clear why we are giving and what we are giving towards. Tithing eliminates any dialogue, expecting people to shut up and give because the Bible says so. But a call for giving based on mission opens the question of what it is we hope to do together and how can we get it done.

And so I would encourage the community of the Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, to reflect on the mission of your congregation: how can we contribute? Talk about it with one another, and really come to grips with what it is you want to do together and how to accomplish that.

Then as individuals, take time to answer that same question: How can I contribute? If Incarnation has a mission that excites you that you want to support, what can you do to make that happen?

Paul, writing to the wealthy church in Corinth, challenged them to give to support the church in Jerusalem as the much poorer church in Macedonia had done. He summarized giving in a way that resonates with me, saying, “If the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has” (2 Corinthians 8:12).

I hope you are eager to see the great things you can do as the Church of the Incarnation, and I pray that you might be able to give generously to see that happen.

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