This post is deliberately light on scripture references and is intended as a warm-up for Part 2. I hope you’ll consider reading it to get the whole story :)
I have faithfully (religiously) been a “tither” just about my entire life. I was taught as a young child to tithe on the money I earned for doing my chores, and as an adult I have regularly given 10% of my gross income to support the local church. As a good Christian parent I have dutifully passed this principle on to my children, too. I’ve never been reluctant in my tithes; I’ve always happily given toward what seemed to be a good cause in hopes that God would use that money for good, and I’ve unashamedly taught anybody who’d hear me out that they ought to do likewise.
Now before continuing I should pause to clarify something vitally important: I mean no disrespect toward those who still believe or even teach tithing as a Biblically mandated practice. I know this is a sensitive topic for many and I hope I’ll be able to convey my heart on the matter. None of what I’m about to say is meant as a slander to anyone; On the contrary I know firsthand that those subscribed to the tithe are doing the best they know to do and genuinely mean well, however these many wonderful and well-meaning people have bought into a long held misunderstanding. It would be neglectful of me to ignore so great a misunderstanding, but it would also be hypocritical of me to do any finger pointing on the subject toward anyone but myself. I’ve championed the teaching of tithing as much as anyone I know. To my own shame I’ve probably beaten a few people with the idea, and at the very least silently harbored judgement against the “non-tithers” in my heart… something I truly regret now.
How NOT to Give Your Money to God
Tithing is a tough thing to ask honest and open questions about. For many people it touches on a deeply held conviction and stirs some strong emotions. I hope to write a more scripturally based point-by-point piece on this topic soon, but this time around I want to try a more “let’s just think about this for a minute” sort of approach, starting with a recent survey on average church budgets in 2013. This survey breaks down with a good bit of detail exactly where the money given in good faith is actually going. You should look over the survey for yourself, but let me give you the short version:
58% of an average church’s budget goes toward personnel expenses, 18% toward facilities, utilities, maintenance, rent, etc., and 6% toward various administrative and office expenses. In other words, just over 80% of the money that’s brought into your average church goes to nothing but the building and the people that staff it. The remaining money is then primarily spent on the various programs run within its walls: programs for children and adults, fancy lighting and equipment for the music team, decorations, cash reserves, building funds, etc. All these things are focused on pleasing and impressing the people in attendance.
Less than 5% goes to any sort of missions, helping the poor, evangelism, or anything else that lends genuine aid to those truly in need.
If these numbers don’t immediately concern you then you should take some time to read this. The person who authored this piece describes it as “a compilation of the scariest, most embarrassing, most shocking statistics and information about the Church and its affairs.” It’s a bit sensational, but does a great job at quickly breaking down what really bugs me about the way the church (mis)manages it’s finances.
Being a “Good Steward” with Your Money
I’ve always confidently asserted that giving 10% of my money to the local church was the best way to obediently and faithfully manage the money that is truly God’s and not ours. God is a giver and wants us to give!
Well, yes; he is a giver and wants us to give cheerfully and generously… however blindly giving to an organization that barely spends a nickel on anything but itself hardly qualifies as good stewardship. The specific budgetary breakdown will of course fluctuate a bit from church to church, but the bottom line is the same virtually anywhere: all but a mere pittance of what’s taken in by the church is consumed and spent on itself.
If you gave hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year to a charitable organization and one day realized that less than 5 cents on every dollar was spent on anything but the charity itself, how would you respond? I’m pretty sure the response would be an easy one in any ordinary secular setting, but within Christendom this kind of thinking is set aside. It’s not just a question of what makes sense logically, but we have to do God’s will regardless of how sensible it is.
But then I also have to accept that the church spending 95% of that money on itself is God’s will.
The more I thought about this the more obvious it was that there’s just no way that could be God’s design. I just can’t buy into that anymore. I can’t imagine Jesus passing a collection plate, taking 60% for himself and his disciples, spending 20% to build a fancy temple for preaching, spending another 15% on programs to market himself and impress potential converts, and finally splitting the last 5% up to help people. I see clearly that the ministry of Jesus and his disciple’s was quite costly in terms of their time, emotions, and even their lives, but there’s no way to substantiate the idea that Jesus needed a big budget so that he or his disciples could be full-time “ministers of the gospel” with huge budgets to fuel fancy programs.
But God Commands Us To Tithe to Our Local Church!
Where do you see a tithe commanded with regard to anything other than the Old Covenant priesthood? What we call church today is solely the invention of men. Mostly these programs are run by quality people that genuinely serve God in the best way they know how, but you won’t find anything ANYWHERE in the Bible that resembles our normal Sunday routine. People are always quick to point out that this doesn’t automatically make it inherently evil, which is true, but it DOES disqualify it from laying claim as the God-ordained recipient of the Old Covenant tithe. God was EXTREMELY specific in the Old Testament on how tithes were to be given and who was to receive them. The details are so exhaustive it’s pretty tough to read them without being bored to tears. By contrast, there is almost nothing at all said of this practice in the New Testament, and certainly nothing that would connect it with our modern day churches. If we so confidently ignore most of the Old Covenant as inapplicable to us today, then what makes the tithe different?
If we really want to apply those Old Covenant principles to our modern day churches, but we don’t want to adopt the whole covenant as issued by God, then who gets to decide which parts we keep? If someone claims that their new program is the rightful recipient of the Old Covenant tithe then they should be able to clearly show where God commands such a thing. It’s not good enough to simply say “I mean well and I’m preaching the gospel, so therefore whatever God specifically laid out for Old Testament Levitical priests is now mine for the taking. God says so.”
Are we to believe that just anybody at all can gather people to meet in a fashion of their own choosing and then tell those people that God commands them to give 10% of their income to the organizer? What if you started a small meeting in your home of ten people? Would you then be right in claiming that God’s divine decree was that you get a tithe from all your members’ income? Where is there ANYTHING at all in scripture that permits us to import things that are specific to the Old Covenant into the programs of our own invention? If we are to do such a thing then why is it ok to take only those parts of God’s program we find most beneficial and leave out the rest? Worst of all: after we’ve invented our choice blend of the Old Covenant with our own ideas, why is it ok to take God’s name in vain by claiming he invented it and that he commands his people to support it?
Well, it’s not ok at all, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. After having made our strange blends of Old Covenant and modern programs we try to use verses like Malachi 3:8-10 to tell people they are robbing God by not giving to the storehouse. Somehow for most of my life it escaped me how absurd it is to try and apply this verse to our church programs… In what conceivable way does a modern day church resemble a storehouse? What are we storing and for whom? What sort of storehouse would spend 95% of the donations entrusted to it on paid staff, marketing, and weekly meetings while ignoring the scores of genuinely needy people outside it’s doors? This verse is utterly meaningless when applied to the idea of God requiring you to give a tenth of your income to a local church. If anything it would be better applied to your local help center for low income families.
There’s a Better Way
I’d like to propose an alternative: take the money you’d normally give to your church and devote it to your neighbor instead. What if the thousands or millions of dollars an average church spent on itself each year went instead to spreading the love of Christ in a way that tangibly touched people’s lives? What would happen? What if YOU took it on yourself to give directly to meet people’s needs? What if you personally expressed the love of Christ toward the people God has put in YOUR life in a way you KNOW would be most meaningful? Sure you could abdicate this to an organization to do on your behalf, but in what way is this possibly better? You know the needs of these people better than any organization on Earth. God has uniquely enabled YOU to minister to them in a way that no organization ever could.
What if you paid to replace your neighbor’s broken water pump? What if you picked up the grocery bill once a week for the stranger behind you in the checkout line? What if you helped your friend cover their rent this month and refused to let them pay you back? What if literally 100% of everything you devoted to the work of God actually went to the work of God instead of the overhead of a program? What kind of opportunities might that open for you to share the gospel with people after tangibly and personally demonstrating the love of Christ?
But Giving is to Be Done AFTER Tithing!
I’ve always believed that giving in this way is something to be done as an “offering”; that it is given above, beyond, and in addition to my tithe. I must first pay the money that I owe to the church and then optionally give to those around me if I have anything leftover and am feeling generous. In other words: not giving my money to a church’s programs and paid staff is robbing God of something I am REQUIRED to give, but then showing charity is OPTIONAL and only to be done only after I’ve paid my dues to God via the church? If almost none of my tithe is to be applied to true ministry (loving those in need), and furthermore if such ministry is only accomplished optionally by some other monies, then what in the world is my tithe even for? This is terribly backward. Doesn’t the word say:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
And then there’s the time Jesus warns us that when we don’t tend to those in need we aren’t tending to HIM (Matthew 25:31-46), and that his response will be to banish us from his presence for eternity! Jesus places a pretty high premium on caring for those in need. Downgrading the care of your neighbor to “extra credit” done only AFTER taking care of fancy buildings and the people that run them is a terrible perversion of what the Bible teaches. Where is any such thing actually taught in scripture? Where on earth did we get this idea?
The exact opposite is true; give generously to your neighbor FIRST. Don’t you dare send them away hungry and hurting because you’ve given all your money to a church and have nothing left. If you genuinely believe that giving your money to any such program is good stewardship, either because your particular church is an anomaly that gives a majority of it’s resources to those in need (or it simply doesn’t bother you that 95% of your money is going nowhere but to the program and it’s organizers), then do as you see fit, but you should do this AFTER serving those God has sent to you for help.
Not Under Compulsion
I want to reiterate what I said to begin with: none of this is written as a slander against those that call for a tithe. I have only the deepest respect for men who have devoted their lives to the spread of God’s word, most of whom believe and teach the tithe, but I do want to bring to light a terrible misunderstanding by which I myself was once deceived. I’m not looking for a way to evade giving that which God may require, but the Bible simply does not teach any such thing. I am compelled to properly understand what the Word of God has to say about how to steward the resources he has placed in my care. Blindly handing 95% of it to be squandered on programs seems not only to be terrible stewardship on my part, but also does very little to accomplish any of the things that God expressly desires.
If you genuinely believe in an organization, whether a church, a radio broadcast, a soup kitchen, a missionary, or anything or anyone else, I encourage you to give to it often and generously. Help those in need, and set money aside regularly to do so; only be sure and give cheerfully and not under compulsion. Be freed to give to any person or group in the way you feel would best minister the love and grace of God. God puts people in your path and wants you to help them; don’t ever let someone tell you that you must give to your church first and only help those people if there’s anything left over. Give what you can when you can, but not at the expense of those around you in need and certainly not at the expense of your own family’s needs. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim 5:8)
My hope in writing this is to see God’s people freed to show his generous love in a personal one-on-one way that could never be accomplished by any organization, no matter how well intended it is. I deeply regret ever having said anything that brought condemnation on anyone as though they were a second-class Christian for not paying their tithe, and I don’t want to see anybody wrestle with that kind of false guilt.
Don’t ever give because you’re told that you are obligated by God… his people should give readily and joyfully as an extension of the great gift they have received! Give to those in need because God has given you a great abundance from which to give.