Here a family sets aside 10 percent of its income for others. Its origins are in the Jewish Tzedakah obligation. Applied to Christianity, some congregations make tithing a requirement for membership, with the money going straight to the church. In others it’s a suggested guideline. Some draw a distinction between “tithes and gifts,” with the latter being anything over the first 10 percent.
The term itself comes down to us from an old English term meaning a “tenth.”
In the Bible, Moses adapted this already ancient method of supporting a priesthood as well as the poor. “The tithe was instituted early in Israel’s history. It was to serve as a constant reminder that the land this nomad people had was a gift given to each of the families from the owner and Lord of the land,” Roman Catholic Father Haughey explains: “The first way each family acknowledged Yahweh’s gift and ownership was to give to Yahweh the first fruits of the fields they had sown. . . . The first fruits of the field were prime and, like the firstborn, they were to be dedicated to God out of gratitude for all the bounty that would follow. This surrender to God of the first fruits was one small part of a total world-view, a view of everything as coming from God who had liberated a whole people from the Egypt of oppression and brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Over time, however, the practice shifted from its earth-conscious origins. The feasting and celebration that accompanied the first fruits of the season gave way to a Temple worship and its host of priests; the oil, wine, and grain used to pay the tithe were replaced by money, and the tithe became a kind of tax.
“Interestingly, however, every third year this tithe was not to be brought to Jerusalem but given to the local alien, widow, and orphan,” Haughey points out. “These last mentioned . . . were also the recipients of alms.”
Tithing arises in an understanding that your wealth is ultimately not your own. Thus, in paying a tithe, you pass along, in the manner of a gift, a symbolic recognition that you owe everything to a much larger entity. It becomes a way of “rendering unto God” rather than unto Caesar.
While the poor were not exempted from the duty to tithe, they were spared by some bottom limits. A household that owned nine sheep, for instance, would owe nothing, as far as their sheep tithe went.
While Quakers traditionally believed that the new covenant made through Jesus freed one from the previous law of Moses, they became convinced that in this new relationship one was instead expected to make everything one possessed available to God’s service when needed — as the intense persecution and subsequent suffering of early Friends demonstrate. One Quaker criticism of tithing, then, is that it lets believers off too lightly!
Curiously, in working from a Roman Catholic perspective, Haughey arrives at a similar conclusion. Before he unveils that position, however, he critiques the current basis of giving: “My observation of the Catholic community now is that it has developed the bad habit of connecting its collections merely with paying its bills. But this means that parishioners are asked to give to the church for the same reason they pay their bills at home: namely, there are bills to pay. The greater the bills the more the parishioners are pressed to give. The fewer the bills the less they are pressed to give. But this is an inadequate way of proceeding because it is unfree, crisis-oriented, and without a spiritual rationale. Tithing comes from a different ethos; it is a different calculus, one we need to understand.”
Where strict tithing is practiced, a congregation of 10 families can support a pastor at their median level of income. With a few more members, they can afford a house of worship. A few more, and they have a church bus or open a own day care center or alternative school. Through tithing, they become empowered as a community.
Shortly after an acquaintance joined a small congregation that required its members to tithe, she announced she was buying a house.
“How can you afford it?”
“It’s funny,” she replied. “When you tithe, you really do have more money.”
Another friend wrote: “Without bringing a spread sheet into our correspondence, let me say that whenever I give radically to the Lord’s work, I always seem to get back more than I know what to do with.” He then added: “I have this penchant for living austerely” – despite his taste for good art, good wine, good music.
As Haughey observes: “The great value of the 10 percent is that it can mutely teach where the remaining 90 percent comes from.”
When individuals and families initially examine this concept, they frequently ask whether the 10 percent is to be calculated from pretax income or what’s left. And then the question turns to whether they should give all of it to their congregation, as in the example we’ve just seen, or to split it among charitable causes.
Remarkably, Haughey’s insights on tithing came only after the first edition of The Holy Use of Money, my suggested further reading for this section. “Tithing is old hat in fundamentalist and evangelical circles,” he admits. “If we are going to concern ourselves with the holy use of money then the question that naturally arises is whether tithing is what we are talking about. If that’s all there were to it, this volume could have been a pamphlet.”
He then presents a Roman Catholic development: “Pastoral guides are recommending that 5 percent be given to the needy, to charities, or to the local or international poor. The other 5 percent should be given to the Church. Sometimes the whole tithe is given to the Church and it in turn distributes a share to the poor. Thousands of Roman Catholic parishes are beginning to preach about and administer this way of educating parishioners in the holy use of money.”
Even if we do not endorse the practice, we can ask what’s behind the concept.
Do tithing and other ways of giving work on behalf of the giver as well?
What guidelines for giving do I apply in my own budget? How would I feel giving more? With or without it, how can I best integrate worship and my life? My deepest values and my goals?
Do you know how others in your congregation “make their living”? Do you know what others are donating?