There has been a lot said and written about tithing in the church today. Some pastors adhere to the Old Testament standard of giving 10% to the “storehouse” which is often code for the local church, while at the same time, many well-known preachers such as Walter Elwell, John MacArthur, J Vernon McGee, Charles Swindoll and Merrill Ungeran, have come out ostensibly against tithing a standard of 10%. Which is right?
Pro-tithe teachers want their parishioners to think that the church has always tithed. Actually the Catholic Church admits that it was not until AD777 before it could legally collect tithes from church land it owned. And it was not until after the 1870s before most non-state churches in the USA began teaching tithing. It is a relatively new doctrine to enter the mainstream North American church. Anti-tithe advocates do not set a percentage for giving. Some should give more than 10% and others less.
It may be the most sacred of sacred cows in the church, but even so it begs the question, is God requiring us to give 10% of our income to the church or is it a principle of faith to give any undefined amount as long as one is being led by God?
Personally, when looking beyond the Old Testament, I find it doctrinally challenging to defend the biblical requirement to tithe 10% on earnings. Perhaps that is due to the fact that the word tithe only appears in the NT twice as a type of religious behavior exercised by the Pharisees. In 2008 Barna Research did a study on tithing in which they wrote, “Strangely, tithing is a Jewish practice, not a Christian principle espoused in the New Testament. The idea of a tithe – which literally means one-tenth or the tenth part – originated as the tax that Israelites paid from the produce of the land to support the priestly tribe (the Levites), to fund Jewish religious festivals, and to help the poor. The ministry of Jesus Christ, however, brought an end to adherence to many of the ceremonial codes that were fundamental to the Jewish faith. Tithing was such a casualty. Since the first-century, Christians have believed in generous giving, but have not been under any obligation to contribute a specific percentage of their income.”
Despite the vigorous defense of tithing doctrines by many church leaders today, few of the staunchest of tithing advocates can explain the mixed messages they send their church members when preaching a “legal” 10% requirement on tithe while at the same time advocating a softer, more spiritual “walk by faith” doctrine in every other area of the church-goer’s life. The culmination of this seemingly split personality on doctrine amounts to an inconsistency that promotes an Old Testament standard for giving and a New Testament standard for living. Is this by Godly design that we should embrace the New Covenant for walking with God on all matters except tithing? The church has never been shy to say that God speaks to us in our life, yet are we to believe that God never allows less than a 10th of our income and rarely asks for more?
It’s hardly a new revelation to recognize that people give less as a percentage of the total of those who attend church than ever before. Moreover, less people do all their giving at their local church as well, and that perhaps is causing more pastors concern. Barna agrees, “The percentage of born again adults who gave any money to churches dropped to its lowest level this decade (76%). In addition, the money donated by born agains to churches as a proportion of all of the money born agains gave away has also dropped precipitously. During the first five years of the decade, an average of 84 cents out of every dollar donated by born again adults went to churches. In the past three years, though, the proportion has declined to just 76 cents out of every donated dollar.
So why are churches getting a smaller piece of the giving pie? Barna has an answer for this as well saying, “millions of people [are] shifting their allegiance to different forms of church experience, and a more participatory society altering how people interact and serve others, many Christians are now giving their money to different types of organizations instead of a church. They attend conventional churches less often. They are expanding their circle of Christian relationships beyond local church boundaries. And they are investing greater amounts of their time and money in service organizations that are not connected with a conventional church.” Pastors should take note.
This change in behavior is what gave rise to para-church organizations. Para-church organizations were born out of necessity of the body to expand and address the call to things beyond the usual church mission. Interestingly enough, the Israelites were supposed to set aside the tithe for the Levites, the group in the bible that pastors seem to most often associate with so-called para-church organizations of today. Yet, here we see in the scripture in Num. 18:21 it reads, “I gave to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance to return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting.” This tithe wasn’t going to the priests, the ones whom pastors associate themselves with today, but to the Levites (the para-church ministries).
All too many church-goers are becoming disenfranchised in church and lack connectedness with the church template that always seems to revolve around the promotion of a single pastor personality, larger staffs, and the usual construction of bigger buildings where the primary goal is centered on keeping people at all cost so that church growth is maintained. “If this transition in the perceptions and giving behavior of born again adults continues to accelerate,” said Barna, “the service functions of conventional churches will be redefined within the next eight to ten years, and conventional churches will have to adopt new ways of assisting people in need.
What Barna essentially describes is a serious threat to the church where free market principles meet the church, thereby putting pressure on churches to evolve their focus, not so much out of calling but as a means of survival due to financial bondage to maintain the status quo. In this type of environment, if pastors allow themselves to be sucked into it, churches are in competition for both members and dollars now because they haven’t listened, involved others, or expanded their visions beyond the typical local church mission. If churches don’t break with the usual template to address what people feel called to be involved with, and if they don’t wake up to realize that centering everything around new buildings and larger congregations, they will only push their congregations further toward a fragmentation of their giving and their own extinction.
Christians are fully aware of the pressure that some pastors are under because it comes across in their messages. But putting pressure on the church will only exacerbate the problem and further alienate their people. Pastors need to embrace the same faith walk that they teach their members which accepts that God has everything in control and their best interest in mind. This means they must stop hounding the church with messages about how much people should give and focus more on the principles of giving instead. As they do, they too will learn to accept that what God orders he pays for without artificial pressures and guilt trips coming from them (who are supposed to be nurturers). Everyone, even the church, must embrace the fact that the NT covenant is one that involves the leading of the Holy Spirit where it is certainly true that if God told the pastor that he wants you to give 10%, doesn’t it make sense that he would tell you too?