Rethinking the Practice of Tithing; 3rd Year Reflection
This reflection was written for Dr. Kevin Jung’s History of Theological Ethics class.
In today’s church world, churches often pressure all parishioners, rich or poor, to donate that magical 10%. “God wants you to tithe ten percent of your money to your church… this is what it means to be a Christian, this is what it means to honor God…” etc, etc. We then use that money to pay the mortgage on church buildings, pay personnel salary, and usually fund missional projects. We buy state of the art sound equipment, comfortable seating, stage lighting, cute graphic design work, and we keep the sanctuary at 72 degrees year round… the list goes on.
I have recently discovered that this looks provocatively different than what tithing and church expenditures looked like in the early church. Tithing, it seems, comes from the theocratic Old Testament law, but is absent from the New Testament and early church. So allow me to quote two of our earliest Christian texts on the subject.
Mere decades after the completion of New Testament scriptures, in 155 AD, Justin Martyr wrote: “Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to. What is collected… takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among [us], and, briefly, [protect] all those in need.”
Similarly, in 197 AD, the church father Tertullian wrote, “On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts… are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons…”
I have four observations I think we should pay attention to, though perhaps not necessarily emulate. In the early Christian church:
- no one was compelled to donate money.
- only those who had wealth donated money.
- each gave the amount that they saw fit—there was no compulsory percentage.
- all of the funds went to helping the poor. None was used for church buildings, ministers’ salaries etc.
It seems we have neither authority from the New Testament nor authority from the early church to justify our current model of tithing, then.
Times of course, have changed quite a bit since the first century. I really do believe that paying ministers’ salaries is very good for the health of the Church and indeed the world (so says the future minister). Additionally, I think some church buildings are absolutely necessary. The Church needs sanctuaries to offer a place of worship, and they need offices and facilities for children and so on. But I think many churches need to critically assess how they can simplify edificial needs, as well as more creatively use the facilities they do have for more benevolent work (e g, housing the homeless at night in their sanctuary or fellowship hall).
“All the believers were together and shared all things in common” Acts 2.44
What if, instead of preaching at people to tithe, we simply were honest and straightforward with our congregations about how much money we needed to operate, and what missional projects we could accomplish if people could give ‘X’ amount of dollars? What if we used inspiration instead of coercion, and challenged believers to truly share all things in common, rather than ten percent?
When I look at the New Testament, when I look at the early Church, I am confronted by the need for the post-modern Church to seriously rethink its approach to money: how it is preached, how it is collected, how it is disseminated. My conjecture is this: let us call tithing bankrupt and listen carefully to the voices of our church fathers, for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the Church.