October 27, 2020

Alms, not Tithes

The Widows Mite, Ravenna mosaic

The Widows Mite, Ravenna mosaic

I have never heard an evangelical sermon on almsgiving.

Despite countless texts in the Hebrew Bible about generosity toward the poor, the example of the first Christians, and a long tradition of the practice, especially during Lent, I have rarely heard the word mentioned in my adult life as a Christian. “Tithes and offerings,” yes of course, and many are the sermons I have heard about the generic subject of “stewardship” or “giving,” but rarely has anyone explained to me what “almsgiving” means and how it relates to other kinds of giving practices.

The other day as I sat in the sanctuary it hit me that the “Bible-believing” churches, pastors, and teachers I’ve sat under and those like me who’ve come forth trained under their direction have gotten the subject of Christian generosity and serving others with our resources all jumbled up. We don’t grasp some important distinctions when it comes to “biblical giving.”

Take the tithe, for example. I still hear people talk about it all the time. I still hear churches urge tithing as a fundamental Christian duty. Even in churches that don’t use the term or think of it as a NT concept, it seems to me that most churches have functionally taught the basic principle of the tithe.

This may surprise you, but that basic principle of tithing is not the concept of giving 10%. 10% is the amount a tithe represents, but it doesn’t describe why the Old Testament required tithing.

The fundamental point of the tithe in Israel was to maintain the theocracy. The various tithes required in the law went primarily to support the Temple, the priesthood, the government and civic institutions of the nation. There were charitable uses for tithes as well and special tithes specifically for that purpose, but always in the context of national and civic responsibility. The tithe was the taxation engine of the nation of Israel to support their life in the Promised Land.

In other words, paying your tithes in ancient Israel = paying your taxes.

The basic principle of the tithe is that it was mandated to keep the God-ordained institutions running. Of course, even the tithe was to be given out of recognition that God owned everything, that he was the true King, and that he had redeemed them and provided the Land for them. It was not simply a civic obligation. As citizens in a theocracy, giving tithes was an expression of their faith, gratitude, and love for their neighbors. I am not denying the spiritual import of the tithe. But it is important to see that the tithe was primarily the financial means of supporting Israel’s infrastructure as they lived as a nation in the Land under the Law.

That is why you will find precious little about the tithe in the New Testament for the Church of Jesus Christ. It is not because for Christians “stewardship” and “giving” changed from being something “required” to something “voluntary,” a statement which I have heard (and taught) a thousand times. Rather, it’s because there was no longer a Temple, a priesthood, or a nation to underwrite — they were all fulfilled in Christ. There is no more localized, institutionalized theocracy to maintain!

However, churches have taken this basic principle of the tithe — mandated institutional support — and transferred it to the Church (as an institution). Whether they call it “tithing” or not, whether they uphold a 10% standard or not, churches that teach that Christians are responsible to do their primary giving to “support the Church” are advocating the principle of the tithe. When ministers teach that Christians’ first giving responsibility is to “support the Church” and her ministries, they are revealing a “tithe” mentality.

And I think they are completely missing the boat when it comes to what scripture is urging us to practice.

Now, I am okay with giving to my church to support its vocational ministers (as encouraged by Paul) and to help provide a place and programs to advance the cause of Christ. I happen to think it’s a worthy cause. But I see it as more of a practical necessity than a requirement. There is no “biblical” command that Christians must underwrite buildings, organizations, various kinds of staff, or programs and projects to “build the church” or maintain it.

Indeed, I would dare to say that most of this kind of “giving” is not the kind Jesus and the apostles, or even the law and prophets are talking about at all when advocating generosity and charitable giving. “Supporting the Church” is not the NT meaning of “giving.”

widows-mite-lInstead, I would argue that exhortations and examples of Christian giving, as presented in the NT, are based on the concepts associated with almsgiving.

This is a different kind of giving. Almsgiving is not grounded in the need to support theocratic institutions, but on the specific call to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10).

When speaking of the responsibility of God’s people to practice charity and generosity to others, particularly the poor, the Talmudic Rabbis used a Hebrew word which indicates compassion for others that arises from a love of justice (צְדָקָה, ẓedakah). Greek-speaking Jews used the word ἐλεημοσύνη (mercifulness). The Jewish Encyclopedia summarizes the concept they were trying to communicate as: “charity in the spirit of uprightness or justice.” This is exactly the way Jesus talked about it too; he called it “practicing righteousness” (Matthew 6:1). When the “haves” share their abundance to help the “have nots” have peace and security, this promotes the process of turning the world rightside-up.

Thus, almsgiving takes us in a different direction than mandated institutional support. It takes us outside the realm of “paying taxes” and “supporting the enterprise” into the realm of caring for others through generosity.

And so in the NT we read of the needy man outside the Temple to whom people gave alms as they entered (Acts 3:2). We have a Gentile exemplar of almsgiving in Cornelius: “He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). When Jesus pointed out the widow who was giving her “mite,” she was putting coins in an alms-box outside the Temple, not paying her tithes. Though poor herself, she sought to help others even less well off. One of the Apostle Paul’s greatest projects was to raise alms from his Gentile churches that he might present to their poorer brethren in Palestine, not only as an act of compassionate care, but also as a sign of unity in Christ. Some of the strongest passages in the NT on the subject of generous giving grew out of this charitable effort (1Corinthians 16:1-4; 2Corinthians 8-9), and the underlying principle is that of almsgiving — caring for others through generosity.

I used to think that the primary difference between “giving” under the Old Covenant and “giving” under the New Covenant involved a law vs. grace issue. Under Moses, charitable giving was required and specified through the 10% rule. However, in Jesus I was taught that we practice “grace giving” — we give freely to others because Christ gave himself freely for us. Turns out it’s not that simple. It is not just law vs. grace, required vs. voluntary, 10% tithe vs. sacrificial giving. There is as much or more about grace and gratitude and compassion, justice, generosity and sacrificial giving in the OT as in the NT. The NT instructions about such giving, indeed, grow directly out of the OT soil of almsgiving.

Unfortunately, over the years churches and ministers and teachers have gotten it all jumbled up so that people don’t really understand the basic principles and purposes of charitable giving. As a result, the focus has been on “supporting the Church” and not on “caring for the poor.” It has been about following a principle which underlies the theocratic notion of tithing rather than on giving focused attention to caring for the needy.

Christians are not the nation of Israel any longer, and we do not have the Temple and the priesthood, theocratic institutions to maintain or civic responsibilities in the Promised Land to uphold. Therefore, we don’t tithe anymore. We are citizens in all lands, and if you pay your taxes and support good civic causes, you are already doing the equivalent of “tithing” in Israel.

And once again, I must also reiterate: if you want to support your church or Christian organization in that way, you are free to do so and it may indeed be a wise investment in the work of the Kingdom. But don’t let any preacher lay on you the responsibility to “tithe” or suggest that giving to “support the church” is a “biblical” description of what God requires. It’s not about maintaining the infrastructure and keeping the institutions of theocracy going. At the core it’s about doing what Jesus did — practicing generosity so that others might have life and have it more abundantly.

I don’t have space in this post to explore various dimensions of what it means to give alms, to practice “charity in the spirit of uprightness or justice.” Suffice it for now to say that the focus is on caring for others in genuinely compassionate and just ways and doing so with grace and generosity. This can be done through individual acts and gifts of charity or in more organized and extended ways through trustworthy organizations that exist for such a purpose.

Perhaps we’ll explore that further in another post. Lent is an ideal time to think about these things.

Bottom line? Jesus-shaped giving, almsgiving, is all about loving our neighbors from the heart — in practical, generous ways — because of the love and grace God has shown us, so that his righteousness and peace may fill the earth.


  1. Excellent!

    A tithe is a calculated task.

    Christians are not (or should not be) calculating givers.

    And we all know what Jesus said was ‘truly giving’…the old woman who threw into the metal horn all that she had. That’s what we all ought do…but never will.

    I guess that’s why we need a Savior. (at least one of the reasons…)

    • Calculation is not a sin. It can be a discipline, creating an intentional pattern that helps ensure consistency and quantity over time. Calculation becomes a problem when we refuse to allow exceptions, usually on the basis that we’ve done our part, but I am convinced of these three things:
      1. Those who do not commit to a specific percentage tend to give sporadically, and this generally results in far less than they might even be willing to consider.
      2. If every person in the pews who was able to do so DID commit to around 10% or something (1% if that’s genuinely all you can swing), the vast majority of congregations would have their every financial stress immediately solved. 3. A lot of people who say they cannot do this in reality could if they prioritized it.

      Giving is hard. Discipline can help. Giving from a joyful heart does not suspend the fiscal realities we all still have to contend with. If we’re not willing to commit a sustainable part of our income to the support of the Gospel (whether or not this means through your local congregation), consider what this may imply about the sincerity of belief. In other words, faith puts its money (and very life itself) where its mouth is.

    • Paul specifically taught the Corinthian church to be calculating in their giving.

    • And we all know what Jesus said was ‘truly giving’…the old woman who threw into the metal horn all that she had. That’s what we all ought do…but never will.”

      WWait wasn’t he using her as an example of the pressure and the ridiculous hardship that was put up on people to for tithing? I don’t think he was using her as an example of what everyone should do. It seems to me in the context he was saying look you guys have push this woman to give her last pennies. At least that’s my take on it.

  2. Aidan Clevinger says

    What do you think are the best practical ways to engage in almsgiving? In other words, is it best to give directly to poor people, whether through cash donations or by buying things which they need, or is it better to, for instance, give to institutions set up to help the poor? Or are there other options? Of course, I know there’s no one right answer on this: I just want to hear people’s opinions on how to do the most good possible with the money being given.

    • Your local food pantry/bank would be a good place to start. Food is about as basic a need as you can get. And if the foodbanks where you live are anything like the ones near where I live, the economy has hit them hard (both in increased demand and decreased support), and could use all the help they could get.

      • +1.

        Giving to an already-established food bank or charity is a great option. Our church runs a food pantry, which is another good way to get involved. Our church also has a Care Fund to help those in desperate need. The key to me is making sure you give to a place that has some boundaries in how it operates so that the help being given isn’t enabling poor decisions by the recipients.

        • If you give to a food pantry, give money, not food. The food pantry can purchase what they need for about 18 cents per pound as compared to a minimum 75 cents per can at the store. Our church (in a group with 14 other churches) sponsors a food pantry that is serving nearly 1500 people per month. Food donations just clog the works.

          • Excellent point!

            I wonder how many other little pieces of information like this there are. Do our efforts do more harm than good, and how can we correct these?

          • Yes, we prefer money donations to actual food, but will take either. The sad element of food donations is how often we end up with stuff past their expired date, people obviously cleaning out their pantry at home.

    • You are free…in Christ.

      Give in any manner and as often…or as little as you see fit.

    • However you choose to do it, I recommend having some $$ available for family in need (and that may be yourself, in some seasons…). See Oscars post below, read carefully what the elders/Dave Ramsey recommended: do the opposite.

    • See my comment below, but I like to give directly to those in need or to those who go direct to those in need. And while food is important, I try to focus on protection from the elements as well. If it’s cold, a blanket. Lotion year round. The basic necessities that someone from a car window would not hand out.

      Basically, the free crap you get at a hotel I imagine can go a long way with people.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      In addition to the excellent suggestions others have given, there is the good old-fashioned method of writing a check and mailing it to some suitable organization. The problem is determining which organizations are suitable. This requires a research project, but there are resources available to do this. A good place to start is to look at what percentage of funds coming in actually reach the intended recipients. This isn’t the be all and end all, but if the organization spends more on administration and fund-raising than it does on its stated purpose, then it is reasonable to wonder if its stated purpose is also its real purpose.

  3. turnsalso says

    “paying your tithes in ancient Israel = paying your taxes.”
    “mandated to keep the God-ordained institutions running.” -CM

    “The powers that be are ordained of God.” -S. Paul

    So, then, it appears that when you consider the purpose of tithing, it’s direct analogue in 21st-Century America would be filling out your 1040! I wonder, if this idea were brought up in Evangelical circles, whether we should see a sudden shift away from tithing as Christian duty.

    • turnsalso says

      ….And I just saw that CM says exactly that later in in the article. Well, at least I got the point of that observation.

    • Darcinator says

      We’re confronted with the concept that tax = tithe when Israel requested a king and was warned of the ramifications in 1st Samuel. Chapter 8 verses 14-17 state that the king will take the best of your crops, cattle, etc. (i.e. your tithe). And because “the king” gets his money first, you can conclude that “the tax” has either replaced or is the same as “the tithe”.

      1 Samuel 8: “14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks… “

    • Thus dominionism. If the church rules the government, it’s all good again.

      And calvinism, cuz why not.

      Why is it so scary to me that most’s idea of a Christian nation involves copy and pasting ancient Israel onto America?

      Welcome to Jewish America.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Because “most” see themselves on the High Priest’s Throne and all the peons TITHING TITHING TITHING to them.

        “Jewish America”?
        More like Calvin’s Geneva America or Islamic State America — “GOD HATH WILLED IT!”

      • turnsalso says

        True, I suppose there’s no “direct” analogue in every sense.

        And I also suppose that it’s so scary because of the barbarity in that ancient society. The Bible even says that one thing St. Joseph did because he was a righteous man was IGNORE the Law, which would have had him take Mary back to Joachim and Anna for the “God-ordained” honor killing after finding out she was pregnant.

  4. Duet, 14 22 “You shall surely tithe all the produce from [p]what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. 23 You shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 If the [q]distance is so great for you that you are not able to [r]bring the tithe, since the place where the Lord your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the Lord your God blesses you, 25 then you shall [s]exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. 26 You may spend the money for whatever your [t]heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your [u]heart [v]desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your [w]town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.

    28 “At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your [x]town. 29 The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the [y]orphan and the widow who are in your [z]town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.

    May God show you His love for you

    • Deut 14:26 is one of my favorite verses.

      It’s not in the fundygelical Bible, however. For reasons.

  5. Indeed, the tithe is, as Chaplain Mike correctly points out, simply the equivalent of an income tax in today’s terms. It should be ditched.

    Clearly, what is needed instead is the FairTithe. Instead of basing your contribution on what you actually earn, thereby decreasing your marginal desire to earn more and thus ditch your executive job in exasperation to go on welfare, you base it on your consumption. We Americans all know how irksome it is for the government to stick its greedly little hand into our pockets come April — much better that it stand between buyer and seller when they are conducting actual economic activity in a completely, totally free market.

    Granted, such a sudden change might affect families with lots of children considerably, but they’re the ones taking up all the church’s resources, after all. So in the end that’s only fair. Or don’t we want our churches to reflect the deepest sources of justice: namely, the voluntary and fair contractual exchange between two adults conducting economic activity between themselves in a free open market subject to the bare minimum of goverment oversight in the form of contract and property law enforcement?

    Now, what’s all this almsgiving stuff about? I’m not seeing it. Maybe some of the unpaid interns at the Cato Institute could study the idea.

    • turnsalso says

      Splendid sermon this morning, Rev’d Trump!

    • And your point in relation to Christian almsgiving is…what? A sarcastic political statement? In plain language, what is your point?

      • Oscar, sorry if I offended — I’ve always thought of the concept of a “FairTithe” as an amusing one. Perhaps it’s not so much at 5:44 am PT!

        My plain-language point vis-a-vis almsgiving would be this: Income does matter. You can’t give alms without having income to give, whereas the FairTax perspective in the political world is apparently that income somehow shouldn’t matter and that we should rather base our contributions on what we spend (an idea that just seems strange to me from a libertarian point of view.)

        I worry (perhaps unnecessarily) that such thinking would infect almsgiving too. If I shouldn’t pay more for new prisons just because I have a high income, why should I give more alms?

        Now if one wants to argue that high income taxes (and a Californian like you would know) hurt almsgiving, that’s fine — I just find the FairTax solution to be an odd one. Pax and pax.

    • Terrific satire there Trevis! I’m assuming it was satire. Admittedly I am rather naïve. I’m still waiting for the Koch bros to sell all they have and give it to the poor. I’m concerned about ole Creflo though. he really does need that plane. In the church I grew up in the tithes were viewed less like taxes than like union dues!

      • Everyone reacts differently to satire, Stephen — and, yes, it was satire. Mr. Dollar here in town has been much in the news lately with his plane.

        But at the end of the day, there’s still a mirror in my bathroom that I stare into every morning. And I have to ask myself what I’m doing for “the least of these,” and I know it’s far, far less than many others on this thread.

        • You know the most disturbing passage for me in the NT is Matthew 25. The not so subtle hint that maybe just maybe it’s not correct doctrine that’s most important. I was raised in a “doctrine over everything” church. If you didn’t cross every “t” and dot every “I” it didn’t matter how you acted. I don’t want to set off the “faith only” crowd but I don’t see how you can interpret the passage except to say that in some way the fate of my immortal soul depends on how I treat other people.

          Faith vs Works. The old argument. Maybe wisdom lies in being somewhere in the middle of that argument and hoping neither side ever wins. Maybe it’s one of those arguments that is essential to have but equally essential never to resolve.

          • Yep never was much good at dotting every “i”.

          • Maybe wisdom lies in not trying to make every text harmonize, trusting Christ for our salvation, and treating our fellow human beings like they carry the image of God (Jesus Christ) within them.

  6. ‘But don’t let any preacher lay on you the responsibility to “tithe” or suggest that giving to “support the church” is a “biblical” description of what God requires.’

    At which point the concept of church “membership” shriveled up and died.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      Eh? I’m not seeing this. I have been a member of one church or another all my life. I have rarely heard the word “tithe” applied to supporting the church, and even less often in a literal 10% sense, and never as a requirement for membership. There have been discussions of the practical necessity of having funds to keep the heat on, but that is not quite the same discussion. But then, I have never belonged to an Evangelical church, so my experiences and expectations are different.

      • Sorry, I woke up in a snarky mood this morning. There has only been one church that I have associated with that had held to membership status within a local church, and there was an undercurrent that if you showed up that tithing was a minimum expectation, and if you became a member that was carved in stone.

        When I hear evangelicals teach on membership there is generally the idea that even if it isn’t a percentage (though it seems to be) you are signing a contract to a financial commitment.

        Just my perception though, could be misreading the attitude.

    • Congregationalism! Be born into the system, you never have to leave…or attend.

  7. A lot of good points here. I think there is fear in some pastors that if we don’t push the notion of a tithe then people won’t give to the church, and then there goes the church and their jobs. And of course that also goes back to seeing the church too much as a building and an organization rather than the body of Christ. A lot of churches however do a lot of charitable giving, have food banks, clothes closets, help on light bills and things like that, and the church members know it and that is part of what they are giving to. The church is also seen by some (at least within evangelical circles) as a missions hub, so to give to the church is to give to missions. But far too much money is spent on buildings and staff, especially the buildings. The New Testament does teach in a couple of places that we are to take care of those who minister to us (1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5), although they are compared to an ox treading grain rather than a priest in the temple.
    As far as talking about giving alms, I think one reason you don’t hear much about it is that it is an old word that nobody uses anymore. Alms giving is giving to the poor, and at least in the circles I run in that is called charity or benevolence or just plain old giving to the poor. Nobody uses the word Alms. I grew up reading the NIV. The word alms doesn’t even appear. I looked it up in the KJV and it appears in 13 verses divided up between Matthew, Luke, and Acts. It is not that giving to the poor is never taught, it is that no one uses the word alms.
    My one big disagreement with the article is that paying your taxes is not exactly equivalent to paying a tithe. The tithe went mainly to support the Temple system, which was a place of worship and atonement as well as administration, which the government is not and should not be. I think this is why many people mistakenly compare the church building to the Temple, since it is the place the go to worship.

    • The word “alms” is not the issue. I have an idea more sermons are being preached these days about true charitable giving — giving to help those in need — but I can’t recall one in the 25+ years in which I was a pastor.

    • And with regard to tithes = taxes, there cannot be exact equivalence because we do not live in a theocracy. However, the point remains – the Israelites supported their government through tithes. We do so through taxes.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And with regard to tithes = taxes, there cannot be exact equivalence because we do not live in a theocracy.

        To which the Dominionists & Reconstructionists would add “..yet.”

        • That’s the scary thing.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And a Theocracy has to have The Anointed on top holding the whip through Divine Right.

            Absolute Power plus Utter Righteousness is a very bad combination.

  8. Our church buildings essentially become our house and it seems without having to think about it approximately two thirds goes to maintaining it and providing for it. The other third goes to provide for others not as fortunate. It has the pattern of the Duet tithe. God places a value on our time in tithing the only true thing we have to give here since it is all His and by the way disappearing. The only thing the tithe did was provide the avenue for Him to celebrate with us His love for us. Mostly the law has to do with love fulfilled in Christ. Malachi said you rob God. How do you rob God of what he already has if it isn’t time and attention He was desiring.

    We are free in the law of Liberty knowing it was fulfilled and given to us in grace. Love acts and in doing so wants to provide for those and gives from the heart. This goes beyond tithing. Tithing to receive more is ridiculous and has nothing to do with love. God gave us all in love and wants to spend time with us and even says it impossible to spend time with Him and not be blessed. Jesus chased them out of the Temple because they took the area design for others to spend time with God and this is why He called them thieves not because of there money changing which was an essential part of the activities. It was where they were doing it.

    Dwell on it and see the Fathers heart for you. Same today as then. You think He wants us to enjoy His presence as much as He enjoys ours.

    • w, Before I met my wife, she was an evangelical who tithed more than 10%. When on a number of different occasions she ran into severe financial problems due to having significant health issues and having no health insurance, and was unable to pay her bills, including rent, the only help she got from several churches she had been a member of was that she needed to give even more, and God would take care of her.

      She gave even more on several occasions, with the result that she nearly became homeless. After a while she realized, and accepted against her own desperate wishes, that she was being given bad advice, advice that was no help at all; she cut back on her giving, and departed the evangelical world for a mainline church. That’s where I met her. We are still paying debts that she acquired during that period in her life.

      • That’s sad, the VERY least we should be doing is taking care of our brothers and sisters in need.

        • And when we don’t , what kind of commercial for the gospel is that ?? Captain Obvious here…. anybody else have the pleasure of cleaning up after THAT mess, ??

          Yet we know that Jesus was so unlike and against the “institution at all costs” way of thinking.

          • I came across an article one time about a church that essentially took the “take a penny leave a penny” approach to the offering plate. Where you were just as welcome to take money from the plate if you needed it, as you were to give money. If I recall correctly, the only issue they ever had was that people would occasionally take checks that they were obviously unable to cash. Seems like a cool concept.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Because her TITHE TITHE TITHE flowed directly to the pockets of the ManaGAWD and Elders.

        Of course they’d high-pre$$ure her to GIVE MORE GIVE MORE GIVE MORE.

        Did they threaten her with God’s Curse if she didn’t pay Protection?

        • As a single, divorced young woman they already treated her as cursed, and contagious….

      • Yeah, Robert I agree with you. I heard our one elder get up before offering once and say he would rather people keep their money and learn to tithe first then only to give a little. I was so put off. It made me sick to my stomach and I thought what a horrible thing to say. If my son who thinks 20 dollars is a lot gave it that day and heard that he would have thought how worthless it was and guilt and condemnation would have been his master. I thought if he gave 20 dollars out of his heart it meant more than all the tithing in the world. Love is what enables the heart of the giver. I have collected as an usher and I always ask for blessing especially to those who can’t give yet and I expect love through the Father to be that blessing. Anything I can give I ask for it to be credited to those and I ask to fill the gap for them. How many times has it been for me. Tithing preached like that elder is horrible and has nothing to do with love or what God had intended. He wanted us to celebrate our gain with Him and enable others to do the same.

  9. Thanks for this Post Chap Mike; may the Kingdom of God , and friendship to all the nations increase: this post should help.

  10. Excellent critique of the evangelical concept of tithing. I think the idea that the focus of Christian giving should be primarily helping those in need is true.

    But I wonder if those immense and much-admired European cathedrals would ever have been built if the focus of Christian giving at the time was on helping those in need? Seems the Church down through the ages has had its priorities, and focus, wrong; evangelical tithing is just the latest incarnation of this phenomenon.

    • And, yes, I’m aware that Judas was among those who criticized the woman who poured the jar of expensive perfume on Jesus, while Jesus himself lauded her. But notice: this was a lavish gift given by the woman to Jesus in his person, not a lavish gift to the Temple Building Fund. If human beings in general, and Christians in a special sense, carry the image of God (that is, the image of Jesus Christ), and are temples of the Holy Spirit, then the giving of lavish gifts to persons is giving to Christ. I’m not so sure about giving to building funds; that has to be assessed on a case by case basis, answering this question: does this project honor the presence of Jesus Christ in the world by serving his people and humanity?

      • And, yes, I’m also aware that the idea that giving to persons is giving to Christ can be abused and exploited. I know how gurus and TV evangelists often take advantage of just this idea. It’s complicated, ain’t it?

        Giving that serves and enhances the humanity of persons, whether they are Christian or not, is Godly giving; giving that neglects and diminishes the humanity of persons, whether they are Christians or not, is not. Still too vague and broad, but the best I can do….

  11. I have a family member whose former business was in trouble and failing fast. He had gotten behind in his taxes and was under confiscation by both state AND federal court orders, so anything he put in the bank was immediately confiscated. As a result, any funds he collected in the form of checks was directly cashed so that he could pay the essential bills and provide food for his family. Needless to say, tithing was NOT on that list.

    Because of his dire financial state some of the “elders” of his church paid him a visit for “counseling” purposes. Their verdict? That he was in this problem because he had stopped tithing! Their solution was simple: START tithing again BEFORE he was to pay bills OR FEED HIS FAMILY!

    Of course, these men were upper middle class business men (the evangelical version of pharisees, in SOME circles) and they did not offer ANY financial help, or even food for his home. Just the advice to resume tithing.

    I used this example in Sunday School one morning just to sound out how people felt, and to my utter amazement they ALL believed that they were required to pay tithe BEFORE providing for their family. I was speechless. And this type of reasoning (always the Malachi reference) is pervasive in church circles.

    As I was discussing the tithe paradigm with my pastor, unrelated to my S.S. incident, I mentioned that Jews no longer tithe because there is no Temple complex. His reply disappointed me: “The Jews will do anything in order to get out of God’s requirements” Not only was this an unthinking, and possibly ignorant reply, but it was also vaguely anti-Semitic. His views are not uncommon, though, and this is one reason why, even though I have been attending this church for 14 years as a member, and teaching Sunday School for the past 10 years, I do not really feel a part of the enterprise. If my wife, who feels the same as I, and I stopped attending tomorrow we would not really miss it.

    Hence, the evangelical wilderness…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Well, in Tithing the money flows to the preacher-man and those Elders(TM). Of course they’d pressure him to TITHE TITHE TITHE.

      Remember Creflo Dollar? TITHE TITHE TITHE so *I* can get a new Gulfstream 650!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      P.S. Didn’t CM say Tithing was to support the Theocracy?
      Theocracy as in MenaGAWD?

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “…this type of reasoning (always the Malachi reference) is pervasive in church circles.”

      Perhaps Evangelical church circles. I have never heard it in Lutheran (either liberal or conservative) churches, and would be shocked (as in “time to leave: RIGHT NOW!”) were I to.

      • You know, it only now occurs to me that during my brief stay in the Methodist and Lutheran mainline (about 10 years now) I have not heard a sermon that sounds anything like the evangelical sermons I used to hear regularly about tithing. Plenty of sermons on money and charity and justice: but not tithes.

        The sermons I used to hear on tithing had 10 percent set as the minimum requirement. Of course, if you were dedicated or doing well, then you were not “really” giving until you surpassed 10 percent. Notably, I heard this less often from my local church and a lot more from: (1) Christian radio, (2) home school or Christian publishing curricula on money management; (3) any source that preached heavily about “life principles” based heavily on Old Testament texts about godly communities and blessings/curses. My local church had plenty of families who were not giving 10 percent and I don’t think they were pressured directly to hit the bar. But you couldn’t have missed the message coming from the radio and print sources.

        • turnsalso says

          My favorite was the anecdote about the wonderful, righteous man who gave ninety percent of his income to the Church, and lived on the other ten… Just give us more money, and God will take care of you. And if you ever ask us for financial help, better make sure you’re a relative or friend of the board members, because otherwise you’re getting nothing, swindler!

    • Sheesh. I’ve been around similar stories and expressions. They can’t see it.

      Last year and a half, putting myself first is something I’ve been having to learn after a lifetime of the opposite. I’m naturally a giver, guess that’s one of my love languages, and I’ve hurt myself at times because of it. Giving your way into debt.

      Family/self first, then tithe.


  12. Just wondering if this connection is true:

    Once you see ekklesia as PRIMARILY the local church, and not other forms of church (both informal and universal), then it seems you scramble to support that “institution”. The push for local church (which I’m not against when balanced by the church universal) seems to demand a support system.

    Is the empahasis on local church the fuel behind the engine of the tithe machine ?? Just wondering….

    • I think that the word church is kind of a stumbling block in this question. Think about it this way, if I were to say that a lack of funds was going to kill the ekklesia, that would be a fairly ridiculous statement (at least to me), but if we use the word church, which is the word we use to translate the same concept, then we have to think about it. Well if we didn’t have money how would we pay for the building, or pay staff, etc. When you are no longer able to do those things, does the church die?

    • Christiane says

      better to see the ‘local’ ecclessia and the universal Church as one and the same . . . the Church is the Church or it isn’t . . . our human foibles have injured it and scarred it, and attempted to co-opt it for our own purposes, but we still have not been able to tear apart the seamless robe that is the Body of Christ

      ‘separated’ in our human ways from one another, yes . . . but still spiritually united in Him who called us out

  13. I’ll likely be the minuscule minority here, but I don’t have a problem with tithing. I actually find a bit of joy in worshipping God by giving back to Him a portion of what He’s given me. That can take many forms, for sure, but I do like the general idea of 10%.

    • As I said in the post 10% (or any %) is not the issue. We are free to organize and structure our giving in any way we might think best.

      • Agreed. And like many Christian “duties”, just because I feel led to do something doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. My convictions won’t be your convictions, and for someone to foist their convictions upon another person can be unhealthy.

        Good topic and discussion.

        • Perhaps a complementary point would be to say that giving to a church can be a good and productive. If one believes there should be a church with buildings, services, ministers, or social ministries, then someone has to pay for the roof and the electric bill.

          However, the central point to the assertion I just made is that believers should want to support (and be) God’s work in the world. Provided that institutional churches are playing an important role in this calling, they are worthy of support. They do not have the right to expect support, just because the exist and call themselves churches. They of course exist for their members and for the world, and not for themselves.

          • +1.

            Your last point gets to stewardship. If you feel the church/institution is being a good steward of what God has given them, then it might be good to support it. If you sense they aren’t being good stewards, then a decision needs to be made whether to support or not, or for how long.

          • This is a good point, and why I said in the post that I continue to support our local congregation financially.

            It must be said, however, although what churches do can’t be strictly quantified by measures of efficiency, that local congregations are often not very good at using money optimally to help those in need. If churches were judged by the same standard as charities when it comes to administrative costs vs. money that actually goes to helping people, I think we’d be shocked at how poorly we would rank.

          • Replying to Mike here, but can’t nest another level deep.

            Our churches are not solely charities like those you refer to. Charities are evaluated on fundraising versus administration versus program spending. For churches, everything to do with Sunday services would be counted as program spending. Almost the entire pastoral staff would end up in program spending. The facilities cost would end up in program spending. It is likely that only the bookkeepers would end up in administration. They aren’t where most church funds go – if they are paid at all. The method used for evaluating charities is better than doing nothing, but not a lot better. And it is essentially meaningless for small organizations because they don’t have staff specialized in the different areas, so they can make up whatever split they want. Most churches are too small to have separate groups for fundraising versus admin versus program.

            • I agree with you, it’s not a close comparison. But having been a pastor in smaller churches in particular, I can tell you of my own discomfort in realizing that such a high percentage of our budget was going to pay staff salary and benefits. With that and facility costs, there was rarely enough to do much in the way of helping others, even in our own congregation. I’m not saying the regular ministry of the church in providing a home for people to come worship, learn, and practice community was worthless, but I often felt we were missing out on something close to Jesus’ heart when we weren’t able to be responsive to the needy in our midst and in our neighborhood.

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The reason you hear preaching on Tithing instead of Almsgiving is that in Tithing the money flows directly to the preacher-man.

  15. OldProphet says

    Time for Imonks lone Evangelical to speak. On this issue, for sure Evangelicalism is a Fail! The consistent teaching is, the tithe is 10%. Some pastors argue on the gross, some on the net income. The phrase that you lack income because you don’t tithe is a sine qua na of almost every church I’ve attended. I’ve never ever heard a sermon on the giving of alms. Most pastors know that if it w is left up to their people to give what they felt convicted to give, then their churches would go broke and they would be out of a job. This is based on over 30 years as an Evangelical.

    • I appreciate your comment, OP, but you’re hardly iMonks only evangelical.

    • Basically it’s “tithe, but you should do so generously and with a good spirit”…to which I reply that if I’m in a bad mood then you’re not getting anything til I’m in a good mood.

      Side topic – why is it such a big deal to some churches to make mention of getting a tax deductible slip for all tithing? As if that is a perk?

      • OldProphet says

        Because, Stuart, you know how many churches would cease to exist if their 501C3 exemption would be revoked? What’s that scripture about Caesar anyway???

        • Is this the time to point out that churches SHOULD have their automatic 501C3 exemption revoked?

          • OldProphet says

            Actually, Stephen, is it time for a discussion about whether churches should not receive 1). 501C3 benefits, 2)Tax breaks for pastors, I.e.double mortgage deductions, and 3) individual tax deductions for some types of ministries. Then, we would really see the hearts of those who give. I’m pretty sure Old Testament tithers didn’t get tax breaks

          • Replying to Old Prophet here.

            We don’t have a lot of data on taxes in Old Testament Israel. The Samuel quote someone posted in the thread suggests that the tax under the pre-exilic monarchy was a tithe, which suggests a relationship but doesn’t clearly show one. Then my knowledge goes blank until the Roman period. Certainly the OT texts don’t spend time dwelling on the obligation of God’s faithful to pay taxes to the state.

            In the Roman period, Jews “enjoyed” the chance to pay both the taxes imposed by the Romans and also the temple tax. High taxes was a major source of social tension, and the horrible Roman collection methods were a source of social unrest, some of which is recorded in the scriptures as banditry and some of which is recorded as the dislike of tax collectors. Not having a great administrative machinery, I believe that at the time Jesus was walking the earth, the Roman tax collection method was to let people bid for the privilege of collecting taxes, and then squeeze the inhabitants of their district for as much as they could get, keeping any excess or paying any shortfall. Later they changed that to centrally imposing tax amounts by cities/districts and requiring the local notables to collect in on the empire’s behalf.

            When the Romans destroyed the second temple in AD 70, they replaced the temple tax with the Fiscus Judaicus. Nominally equal per capita, it was really higher. The Temple Tax was paid by free males 20-50. The Fiscus Judaicus was paid by children through at least age 61, men and women, slave and free. Thus in at least some sense Roman Jews did get a tax deduction for paying their Temple tax.

    • Most pastors know that if it w is left up to their people to give what they felt convicted to give, then their churches would go broke and they would be out of a job.

      Am I alone in thinking that that might not be a *bad* thing?

    • “Most pastors know that if it w is left up to their people to give what they felt convicted to give, then their churches would go broke and they would be out of a job.”

      This is basically because we don’t know how to structure churches efficiently, and we’re in love with the idea of a “church’ as a franchised business that owns a building, pays a staff, etc. Cause that’s what keeps families away from home feeling warm and cozy, and makes you look legit to the watching public. But when money is handled as if the Kingdom were the way Jesus actually describes it, with the priorities he displays and teaches, you don’t have these problems. Thus in Jesus-lite churches, you’re forced to resort to browbeating and inventing rules out of the Old Testament to find a way to meet obligations.

      I’ve wondered for awhile now, if a church went broke and couldn’t continue to function as the church, was it really a church after all? Does the New Testament EVER lever the success or ability of a church on the money it brings in? I don’t think so…

  16. And of course, when the subject of almsgiving to the poor comes up, people bring up the subject “But are they the WORTHY poor?” They get up in a dither on whether they are worthy of our help, which is a concept I don’t find in the Bible anywhere. After all, what would happen if God waited until we were “worthy” before He extended His mercy to us. We’d be waiting forever!

    • Great sidebar: what if we choose to be RIDICULOUSLY,, SHAMELESSLY generous with those who won’t be the wisest stewards in the world with what we give them ?? Maybe pure grace and the tithe machine are not a good mix…..

    • “And of course, when the subject of almsgiving to the poor comes up, people bring up the subject “But are they the WORTHY poor?”

      The poor are unwashed! Therefore, let us buy new partitions for the church basement.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And the largest and most expensive mansion in the state for the Pastor.
        (And don’t forget that Gulfstream 650!)

      • When I was in college (circa late ’80s) my dad almost left a church because the pastor wanted to use the “deacon’s fund” (do they still exist?) to help a man in the community who had AIDS pay for medicine. Many in the church were against it, and the pastor finally caved and stopped giving him money from the church. I’m not making that up.

    • “But are they the WORTHY poor?”

      This would need a few posts to unpack.

      Kind of like everyone talking about “welfare queens”…

      Guess what? We don’t get to decide if they are worthy or not.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        If I’m the one in need, it’s WORTHY.
        If you are, it’s not.

        Even Ayn Rand “mooched” Social Security and Medicare in her later years, “taking” instead of “making”. Which does fit with her philosophy and cult of Utter Selfishness.

        • “Which does fit with her philosophy and cult of Utter Selfishness.”

          It was to her benefit to take money from the weak-willed sheep.

  17. Ronald Avra says

    Good post; good discussion

  18. CM, your mention of ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’ reminded me of something (only a slight hijack, but I believe it addresses the core concern). A few years ago our pastor and I were teaching the Sermon on the Mount and he was teaching about almsgiving. I was curious so I did some research on the word ‘almsgiving’ (Greek ‘eleemosune’). Bultmann (in Kittel’s) notes that the LXX often translates the Hebrew ‘tsedekah’ (‘righteousness’) as ‘eleemosune’ (‘benevolent action’, ‘almsgiving’) especially in relation to God’s ‘tsedekah’. Thus, according to Bultmann, ‘”tsedekah” has not only the sense of “righteousness” as the conduct corresponding to the norm of right, but also of “benevolent activity,” and that Greek speaking Jews used ‘dikaiosune’ (‘righteousness’) in this sense as well, both of human action, and particularly of God’s character.

    This points to two things (IMHO). First, almsgiving (benevolent acts) is a reflection of God’s character, which is why it is encouraged. God is generous and acts benevolently, even toward the undeserving, so his children should as well. Second, it shows that for many (if not most) Jews in ancient times God’s ‘righteousness’ was probably not his absolute standard revealed in the Law that all must live up to in order to be saved (classical Protestant understanding of ‘Law’ and ‘righteousness’), but rather a reference to his benevolent (might I even say ‘gracious’) and merciful activity toward his people. Thus, when Paul speaks of God’s righteousness (for example in Romans), could he not be using the word in the same way? For example, he is not ashamed of the Gospel, for it reveals God’s ‘benevolent [saving] action’ toward people (Rom 1:16-17). (This word also is used to translated ‘hesed’ – God’s covenant faithfulness to his people.) And, to bring this back to the point of the post – if this is God’s disposition toward people, should we not have that same disposition? (and occasionally I probably do 🙂 )

    • Before we were married my wife went on a trip to Israel with one of our OT professors. She was approached by a child who asked for money. She spared what she had on her. The child’s response: “Thank you for your tsedekah.”

    • Thanks for this insight, Greg. Very helpful.

  19. I’ve recently, in the past few months, started doing what you’d call almsgiving. A friend of mine who has a burden for the homeless having had a homeless stint herself gives out little bags of items to homeless people she meets each day, bags filled with things like blankets, gloves, tooth brushes, gift cards, lotion, whatever. I’ve been sending her supplies of things to put in those bags, and it’s awesome hearing her stories of people being grateful by them.

    I’m not comfortable tithing to a church anymore. But there are many ways of serving and supporting and almsgiving.

  20. YES, this!! I, like CM, grew up in and was educated in “Bible-believing” churches and schools, and the only concept of “justice” and “righteousness” was God’s holy standard that none of us live up to, so we all deserve hell (“justice”), but wait, Jesus took our place and meets that holy standard for us (“righteousness,” or “right-living” as I heard a jillion times). The first time I ever heard or read about this meaning that you are talking about, that what God means by “righteousness” is “acting benevolently,” I was completely blown away. I had never heard that taught. I like this new understanding way better, and it makes more sense in looking at the rest of scripture, but alas, it is hard to unlearn the old teachings of justice and worthiness, but I’m getting there.

  21. Sean O Riain says

    Nothing enlightening here….

    While reading the post I scanned my memory to think of a time when I heard the message of almsgiving… It never happened at Church, but there was a time….

    In the classic Disney’s Robinhood, “Alms, alms for the poor” is the only time, other than this post, that I recall ever hearing anyone speak of almsgiving. So there is wisdom in a cartoon about a fox dressed up as man who shoots a bow and steals from the rich to give to the poor.

    Great post and good discussion here…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “If you were to stay silent, even the stones (or cartoon foxes) would cry out!”

    • So there is wisdom in a cartoon about a fox dressed up as man who shoots a bow and steals from the rich to give to the poor.

      Which is really just godless socialism, I was taught multiple times.

      Don’t you love when people take something you love and rip it apart to show you how evil it is?

      From a certain point of view. (“oh, the Force is just antichristian demonic paganism…”)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        From a certain point of view. (“oh, the Force is just antichristian demonic paganism…”)


      • Sean O Riain says

        To me evil is always about intention. If I choose not to see the evil in it, then it holds no power over me.

        But… yes people do a phenomenal job of shredding that which is loved.

    • turnsalso says

      “Praise the Lord and pass the tax rebate!!!” –ibid.

  22. Thanks for this post. I asked for topics like it earlier when we had the day to suggest topics for the year.

    One factoid I read in January, and haven’t yet confirmed, is that tithing did not become a major topic of Christian teaching until 1874. (Or roughly, my memory might be off a couple decades.) Does anyone know a good study of the history of such teaching I could double-check this in?

    I was alerted to the issue by Justo Gonzalez’s book “Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money”. (I highly recommend it. The first third is economic history to set context, the rest of the book is history of Christian teaching.) I doublechecked his many quotations against the fathers and found them accurate. Then I read some more, building a library of quotations. Then I classified it topically. Tithing was less than 1%. Stewardship was less than 2%. The number one topic, far and away, was Almsgiving and its sub-topics. Even the sub-topic “Almsgiving will not impoverish your heirs” was more frequent than tithing.

    This shocked me, and has led me to do much rethinking, without coming to any solid conclusions yet. But my wife and I have added a “nudge” budget line item for responding to the Lords prompts.

  23. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The central difference is this:
    Alms are given to the poor and needy.
    Tithes are given to the Preacher-Man.

    • OldProphet says

      HUG, have you been watching old Gene Scott reruns again? Worse yet, has Charles Fines been watching them with you? LOL

      • Had to go to Wikipedia for that one, OP. Somehow I missed it. I did catch Herbert W. Armstrong along the Way.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        No, can’t find any vintage Gene Scott reruns anywhere. Nothing can match the Eighties when I lived in Garden Grove and Gene Scott had a 24-hour cable channel. Now that guy was a character; I used to keep the Gene Scott Channel on as background.

        And He of the Funny Hats was open about it.
        WHO TO? ME.

        • OldProphet says

          Hey, HUG. Scott’s on YouTube. He so rocked, whether you liked him or not. I watched him all the time. Even that song he played over and over,”I want to know”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I was kind of partial to his infamous “Kill some piss-ants for Jesus” myself.

  24. Robert and Oscar’s cringe-worthy stories highlight how problematic some church’s teachings on money can be. These sound like two cases where the message that tithing is a solemn obligation (however problematic that idea is) or praise for liberality with possessions has given way to another (too common) teaching – The real root of all financial problems is that you are failing to place your obligation to God at the center of your financial planning. It is therefore unthinkable to scale back your contribution, and you should consider giving even more. To do this, is to make God even less important in your life. You want God to bless you, do you not?

    That message is manipulative, and it seems to suggest that the more financial trouble you experience, the more urgent your obligations are. This increases the pressure on people who are most in need of relief.
    Where, I wonder, is the sense of obligation a ministry that expects regular giving – even sacrificial giving – has towards its members? I’m wondering if anyone has examples of churches handling these issues well. Admittedly it is tricky territory.

    I used to go to a small E. Free church (formerly Baptist) that had an elder’s fund. This was specifically to help with emergencies of church members. I think the elders or the elders + deacons controlled the fund, and would come to someone privately and offer help. I don’t know how often or under what circumstances this happened. At one point, our furnace failed in the middle of a New England winter, and one of the elders approached my dad to ask if the church could help. He said no. This strikes me as an approach that lacks all the advantages of a systematic approach, but it certainly would work in cases where fairly sensible leaders knew the membership well.

    • Years ago my wife and I had recently joined an American Baptist church (a good church!). We were young and didn’t have insurance and my wife had to have surgery for an acute condition (not life-threatening but very painful). Before we had gotten the hospital bill, the pastor came by our house one day and gave us an envelop and left. It was from the deacons’ fund (benevolence). When we opened it our hearts were broken – it contained 10 $100 bills. Needless to say, that has always been a church we hold dear and still keep in touch with some members, over 25 years later.

      Nobody said how foolish we were not to have insurance (though we probably should have had it) and nobody offered to help us get our finances in order. Nobody told us this wouldn’t have happened had we been tithing (though we gave what we could). They just saw a need and helped in a big way.

      • I’ve had the same experience, Greg. You could ask Chaplain Mike about it — it was when he was our pastor.

    • “has given way to another (too common) teaching – The real root of all financial problems is that you are failing to place your obligation to God at the center of your financial planning. It is therefore unthinkable to scale back your contribution, and you should consider giving even more. To do this, is to make God even less important in your life. You want God to bless you, do you not?” I can’t recall ever hearing that teaching preached, but I’ve certainly read similar – and not in the writings of prosperity gospel preachers. I expect it shows up there too, because they fit together. Both are wrong.

      Our church is imperfect in both teaching about tithing and in the obligation to members. While imperfect, they are also far from the worst. Leadership teaches tithing and that it should go to the local church. But they also make a point of only letting the senior pastor know the cash flow, not who is providing it. We don’t do pledge cards. On meeting the needs of our members, that is not institutionalized. For example, when the 2008 crisis happened, my wife and I asked who was needy in the congregation, and there wasn’t a known answer or anyone in the small staff paying attention. (We don’t have a building, I think our paid staff is about the equivalent of three full time employees.) But we regularly do congregational offerings (not funneled through the church) for major needs (examples are a family just about bankrupt and the breadwinner in the hospital, or someone who needs to retire college debt before becoming a missionary) or some smaller needs from smaller groups than the entire congregation. We hear from the pulpit stories of giving within the congregation. And there is a ministry to new moms that provides a dinner every other day for about six weeks after coming home from the the hospital).

  25. The real root of all financial problems is that you are failing to place your obligation to God at the center of your financial planning. It is therefore unthinkable to scale back your contribution, and you should consider giving even more. To do this, is to make God even less important in your life. You want God to bless you, do you not?

    Just want to point out the lack of the name or teachings of Jesus in this. Putting him back into the filter really mucks things up. And we all assume by “God” we mean the same thing.

    It really is an insidious teaching, isn’t it?

  26. My church history includes being in leadership in three different churches since the mid-1990s, all of which suffered crises. The first one split in a nasty way, the second one was a plant that lasted 18 months, the third did alright for a while but staff issues and subsequent membership loss eventually did it in. The first two were in the UMC; the third was a 15-year-old independent church with loose SBC affiliation.

    I’ve been sans church since the last one died, and fairly content with this situation. This has given me a lot of time to think about the financial support I offered these institutions during “my tithing years.” The other day I made a list of things I’d regretted giving to, and things I was glad I’d supported.

    Side by side, the lists are complete opposites. I don’t regret for a moment the almsgiving—which 100% comprised the “glad” list. Things like supporting education and healthcare in Africa, local homeless and poverty ministries, work for people in crisis, human rights issues, and so on. The “regrets” list is 100% church institutional giving, often at the “special request” of the pastor or a big campaign we were on at the time. Building funds, getting one of the plants out of “trouble” with the landlord (the pastor had signed a terrible lease), paying into a special fund—twice—to bring on new staff the church could not otherwise afford… who then ended up becoming big problems… the list goes on. All money down the drain in the end.

    What did the church/pastor exert the “tithe” pressure for? Why, the institutional needs, of course. Not the almsgiving. I haven’t tithed since then, and now give all my alms and time to the other causes. It’s a much better use.

    • One of my past clashes with our church board was over a “miracle” plea to the congregation for a fairly insignificant amount to keep the church out of the red because our attendance had dropped and we were failing to keep up with the bills. Gosh, was that awkward.

    • Perhaps you are practicing at least part of what Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity,” and perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe the world and the Church both need more of it.

  27. Very timely post for me since I have been rethinking our giving and, more specifically, the impact of our giving. A big portion of what we give goes to the church and a big portion of that goes to support the infrastructure. Granted, our church is generous with the funds it is given and cares well for the least and lost among us but still, there is no getting around the fact that in the current paradigm it takes money to “keep the lights on”; I know what we give helps to do exactly that. I’m not very familiar with the mainline world–how do churches in the those traditions “keep the lights on” if not through the offerings given by their local bodies?

    • Just to reiterate, there is nothing wrong in giving to an organization to “help keep the lights on” if you believe it is a worthy organization. As I said in the post, these are practical necessities. If we see the church as a family, these are the mundane responsibilities that come with maintaining a household of faith. There is in fact some obligation to do so if I have committed myself to that local congregation. I don’t call that “charitable giving” any longer (even if I do get a tax deduction for it). It’s just part of my natural duty to support my extended family of faith.

      In this post I am trying to correct a serious imbalance that has greatly impoverished the priority of genuine charitable giving by followers of Christ.

      • Got it, thanks Chaplain Mike. I’m still curious about how mainlines and other traditions support local churches; does all funding for the local body come from within that body or is there some support from the larger organization, i.e. in the PCUSA does money flow from the larger presbyter to a smaller body? My question really has more to do with pragmatics though that was probably not clear in my original comment.

        • In the UMC, the flow goes both ways. There is an “apportionment” paid by the local congregation to the judicatory, which goes to support the annual conference (regional body) and the UMC as a whole. The amount owed primarily is based on size of the church. Many churches do not pay their full apportionment and there is a lot of pressure from the regional body to do so.

          When smaller churches get into financial trouble because of drops in attendance, then the flow often reverses a bit and the larger body helps keep them afloat (albeit with diminished resources). So for example, they may no longer get a full-time pastor and may share one with another similarly situated church. This is known as a “two-point charge.” (There can be three-point, four-point, etc. charges for the really small churches.

          Also, in the UMC, like some other mainlines and the RCC, the local congregation does not own its church building or property. It holds the assets “in trust” for the larger body. If the church dies, all the assets revert to the UMC. Lots of people in local UMCs don’t realize this; they think they own their church.

        • In the Episcopal Church USA, the congregations support the parish, and a certain percentage of what is given in each parish goes to diocesan support; because the Episcopal Church has a long history in the U.S., with many wealthy members down through the decades, many parishes have benefited from bequests and other funds set up for them by wealthy members now deceased. However, these kinds of resources are now thin to non-existent in many parishes that have depended on them, and with membership down, the gleanings are getting mighty thin.

          Sometimes the diocese will help a parish in need, if it meets certain criteria and submits to diocesan oversight of the parish budget. Remember, though, that the dioceses and national organization of the church depend on the giving of the parishes for their continued existence. If the parishes didn’t give, the dioceses and national organization would go away.

          When a group wants to start a new congregation but they lack the resources to be an independent parish, a “mission” congregation may be set up under certain criteria, which would involve significant assistance from the diocese (which really means significant assistance from other parishes in the diocese), along with close supervision by the diocese. I don’t know how many new “mission” churches are actually set up these days, given the paucity of financial resources the ECUSA has to work with, and the struggle of so many parishes just to remain solvent.

          Anyway, that’s my understanding of how it works in the ECUSA. If anything I said is incorrect, I’m happy to be corrected.

      • CM, in my post a bit back, I want to make sure I did not leave the impression that I am against contributing to keeping the lights on. Of course that needs to be done. What happened in the churches I was part of was hasty and foolish gambits by senior pastors to “build it and they will come.” These may have seemed to the pastors like stepping out in faith or something at the time, but in retrospect it was just attempts at foolhardy personal kingdom building.

        As in, “I’ve been pastor here for 10 years, and God’s told me he wants to bless (me) us by growing (my) our congregation (just like my friend’s church two towns over, with whom I must keep up). So let’s step out in faith…”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          That’s how my RCC diocese got its new cathedral.
          Bought the real estate assets of the first mega in the county (Crystal Cathedral) at the bankruptcy sale.

  28. Thanks for this, Mike. Very thought-provoking. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say this before!

  29. Paul taught that Christians have a responsibility to financially or materially support those who serve them spiritually. While the need to give alms is real, I’m afraid people will use this article to excuse self absorbed people to neglect their local churches. It would be nice if this article had been a bit more balanced in its presentation, and recognized the importance and value of the local church in our giving. Some of the anti church comments that have been posted seem to warrant my concern.

    • I think I answered your objection in the post itself and made myself even more clear in the comments. As for other commenters, I can’t speak for them. But I tried to balance my pov more than you suggest.

    • I 100% agree with Chaplain Mike here. Marshall, it would be helpful if you were more specific.

  30. But I see it as more of a practical necessity than a requirement.

    Yes indeed. But let’s not underestimate the necessity of that practical.

    don’t let any preacher lay on you the responsibility to “tithe” or suggest that giving to “support the church” is a “biblical” description of what God requires.

    Ridiculous. Of course God requires us to support the ministers he sends us. And there was a common purse in the early church for the sake of benevolence. These two things ought not to be separated, and our teaching ought to support them. We express love and generosity by caring for one another, both those who minister the Word among us, and those among us in need. This is a part of the work of the church, and it must be “supported.”

    At the core it’s about doing what Jesus did — practicing generosity so that others might have life and have it more abundantly.

    By giving his LIFE that we might have forgiveness, life and salvation. When we support the church, we are contributing to the cause of bringing this message to our community and the nations. The Gospel is the source of hte abundant life that Jesus offers. He does not offer us material sustenance, even though he encourages us to offer that to others. We absolutely must give, and give generously, to this cause if we believe in it. “Supporting the church” is not the same as “financially enabling the corrupt bureaucracy of the institution.” We owe support to our minister, and the debt of love to care for those in our spiritual family. This is fully congruent with the teaching and example of Jesus, who said both “render to Caesar” and “render to God.” Almsgiving/tithing are not mutually exclusive, and both ought to be encouraged, even though there are no NT demands or specific prescriptions for it. We are called to be generous and allow our faith to direct the management of our resources in love.

    And FWIW, even in NT times, the synagogue practice was (post-theocracy) that a new synagogue could be formed in a new community whenever they had a total of 10 men (heads of household) present. Because thereby if every man gave a tenth, they could afford to support a Rabbi. It’s just common sense practicality.

    I get why most pastors preach poorly on this issue, fear drives them to cajole their coffers full. But there’s plenty of blame to go around on this issue. Faithful givers in the congregation are seldom the majority of those who claim allegiance. There is nothing wrong with encouraging our people to put their money where their mouth is, because doing so is a fruitful spiritual discipline that causes us to learn to live BELOW our means, which is a practice that can enable even greater generosity. Practical and necessary, indeed.

  31. It’s always seemed to me that what Jesus says about tithing is somewhat dismissive. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42) Yeah, yeah, nothing wrong with tithing, just remember justice and mercy and love are more important.

    I do agree with some other commenters that this article could be taken as an excuse not to support the very good work that one’s church and pastors might be doing. On the other hand, it does seem many churches have been awfully quick to jump on the “you must give God (=us) 10%”. Even the Episcopal Church, which I belong to, which normally says “we take the Bible seriously but not literally,” can turn pretty literalist come pledge time.

    • Actually I take it as saying that we need to be more discerning and thoughtful in how we support the church financially as opposed to just following tradition

  32. In our parish (RC) we have been asked to consider raising our offering (NOT tithe!) because the increase in foot traffic for the food pantry as well as the social outreach program (bill paying of the last resort, food for summers and weekends for kids who rely on school meals, and the water project for our ‘twin’ parish in Haiti). I can get behind this rubber-meeting-the-road use of what we share in our offering.

    And back a bit to middle age cathedrals, I would add that these public spaces, open to all of the faithful (ie, everyone who was not an known apostate or heretic!) were the only source of beauty, awe, and “perfection” in what was otherwise a short and unpleasant life. Most of the poor contributed labor, not money….they had none of the latter. And, of course, volumes have been written about the interplay between Church and State in this period of European history, so the secular and sacred got mixed pretty well above a certain station in life….