The Debate Over Tithing

Christians often point to a 10% standard for tithing. I personally think this is a great tradition to strive towards. But what does the bible specifically say about money, personal resources, and giving to the church? Does God literally command we need to have it down to an exact percentage point? You might already guess the answer to this question: It is a bit more complicated than that!

Many Old Testament characters do follow the one-tenth standard. Abram offers God a 10% of everything he owned in Genesis 14:19-20. Jacob had a similar experience in Genesis 28:20-22. Various Mosaic laws command the people to follow this “one out of ten” practice. To share just one example, Leviticus 27:30-34 talks about how every tenth animal is given to the Lord for sacrifice.

Other Old Testament passages clearly advocate a more generous way of living, however, instead of just making a 10% numbers-game. In Deuteronomy 12:5-6, God commands giving the firstborn of all livestock. This is an interesting perspective on giving to God. Perhaps we ought to remember to give first and foremost, rather than from our “leftovers!”

Perhaps most notably in Deuteronomy 26, God outlines how some tithes are used to care for widows, immigrants, and orphaned children. Some people have interpreted and applied passages like these to mean that today, we ought to be giving 10% to the church, and ideally strive to give an additional 10% to some kind of outreach organization serving the poor. So if you’re doing your math, that might mean setting the goal of living off 80% of your earnings and give away 20%.

Generous giving extends further with the early church. One of the most famous verses on giving, Acts 2:45, describes just how truly generous the early church was:

[All the believers] sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

So instead of pulling out calculators and figuring out a dollar amount, the early church simply gave to whatever need arose. It didn’t matter if someone was rich or poor, the church practiced radical generosity.

2 Corinthians 9:7 might also come to mind, too, when we consider the concept of tithing:

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Paul tasks the Corinthian church to simply give whatever God has placed on their hearts. It might be 5% or 10%. It could very well be 50% or ever 100%, depending on what God prompts you to do.

Now lets bring these theological ideas and bible passages to today.

America might be rated highly as far as charitable giving goes internationally, but if you ask me, there is a lot of room for improvement. For instance, in some higher income brackets, it is not uncommon to find people giving away less that 3% of their income to charity. Some sociologists of religion found that many Americans give away less than 1% or absolutely nothing each year. While the total amount granted may be a lot–in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually–our overall generosity is rather lacking. Even according to one study, giving rates in recent years have actually declined.

In the Arkansas Conference of the UMC, we do a practice of tithing with our church’s apportionments. 10% of what we collect for offerings goes directly to our conference, and is then distributed to missionaries, college scholarships, youth camps, struggling churches, health clinics, and so on. Hopefully church budgets grow each year, and thereby we can give even more in the future. One of the reasons why I am a Methodist in the first place is that our denomination has historically lived out this sense of generosity… We should at least “practice what we preach” to set a good example for our church members!

That 10% giving goal may be a helpful standard for you to aspire to. But making this all about numbers misses the point completely. The deeper theological significance of giving money is to remember that everything in our life belongs to God. What if we were to continually work to be more generous? What if we were to follow the example of the Acts 2 church and simply give to whatever need arises? What if we only used percentages of giving as a tool to help track how we can give even more as time progresses?

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