To Tithe or not to Tithe: The Moral Question
Many Protestant and evangelical churches also strongly urge or expect their members to contribute 10 percent or more of their family income annually. Freewill offerings, whether regular or periodical, are in addition to a family’s tithe.
Your correspondent, confirmed in the United Church of Canada back around 1970 but a longtime non-practitioner, was surprised to learn that tithing is also pushed by this church. Of interest is that the Catholic Church (your correspondent is married to a Catholic) doesn’t push tithing as it did in the past. However, during the Middle Ages the Catholic church in Europe collected a tax of its own, which was separate from the taxes imposed by the king; in other words, a tithe.
Some commentators on the topic of tithing have suggested that because of its traditionally large congregations, the Catholic Church didn’t need to levy a tithe. Instead, passing the collection plate at Mass is typical form, along with appeals for donations to, for example, building funds for maintenance and improvements. However, this is not the same as tithing. Take a moment to read this CNN piece on the Sunday Stickup.
So when, where and how did tithing first start?
When looking back in history the concept of what is a tithe is open to interpretation. However, the word tithe is noted specifically in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Hebrew and Greek a tithe means one tenth. Definitions and practices vary. Under Mosaic Law, it’s said that there were in effect three tithes for the Israelites: a) a levitical tithe of crops and livestock given to the Levites at various times of the year; b) an annual festival tithe; and c) a tithe paid to the poor once every three years.
The practice of giving a tenth of one’s income and/or livestock, property or crops to the church in support of the clergy and those in need took centuries to evolve. During the Middle Ages, tithes were imposed on peasants and farmers for using the Church’s land. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church had what were called tithe barns where the seeds, grains and animals collected from peasants were stored. Of course, kings and queens levied their own taxes to fund wars and to maintain the living standards of the royalty. It’s been suggested that perhaps the tithe concept was reinforced with royalty because it was easy to count on ten fingers.
Over the centuries, tithing became more focused as a practice, notably in the more conservative and fundamentalist churches. In this case church members, regardless of economic means, have been expected to contribute at least 10% of their incomes to the church. In addition to being used to pay pastor and staff salaries, overhead expenses and social programs, tithes can help fund building repairs and expansions. Indeed, one discovers on various websites the statement that tithing is giving to God. This isn’t just incorrect but a manipulation of the Bible to suit the financial aims of a particular church.
The Barna Research Group, which conducts empirical research into cultural and religious issues, reported on the large drop in tithing in the United States in the early 2000s. The Group also made the strong statement on the practice of tithing:
“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.”
Manipulating books of faith is not uncommon. Just as many Christian denominations, along with Mormons, have re-interpretated certain sections of the Bible to suit their needs on the subject of tithing, so, too, have some Muslims done the same with the Quran. No where in this book of faith does it say that women must wear hijabs, niqabs or burkas. But it’s expected in some segments of Islam. The Quran simply makes reference to women dressing “modestly.” That, in itself, is left wide open to interpretation.
The confusion in the literature on tithing, with various interpretations of history and what the practice involves today, speaks poorly on Christianity and its future efforts to both retain and attract new members. Your correspondent is curious as to what extent do practitioners feel guilty about not being able to pay 10% of their family’s annual income to their church. Some research suggests that in some Christian churches that a mere two percent of family income is given by congregational members. Here are three questions on which to reflect:
1) What percentage of people have left their churches because of not being able to afford giving 10% of their income? In particular, those churches that have a strong stand on giving 10% of income.
2) Does tithing create two classes of congregations: those who are part of the inner, select club because they contribute at or above the 10% mark, and those families who don’t have the economic means?
3) How many people have held back from attending church because they can’t afford to pay this share of their family income (e.g., young people encumbered with onerous student loan debts and parents working for minimum wage)?
In addition, how racially and ethnically mixed are the religions that practice tithing? For example, only three percent of Mormons are black, yet blacks account for 13.2% of America’s population. Latinos make up 17% of the U.S. population but a mere three percent of Mormons. And when one broadens out to view how African Americans are distributed among religions, they’re skewed into what’s called black Protestant churches; the other two Protestant categories are evangelical and mainstream.
Let’s revisit the United Church near your correspondent’s home. Right there in plain view on its website is the statement that members contribute “well over 10%” of their total income. Well, that’s a turn off to those who are working poor or financially squeezed middle class people.
Let’s consider some hypothetical examples on tithing and family income. First up is a couple with no kids who earn a combined $120,000 a year. The tithe in this case is $12,000 annually. No big deal or impact on such a couple.
Next up is a couple with three children who earn a combined $80,000 a year. Forget about a $12,000 tithe, as in example one. Here we’re talking $8,000 annually. Yet the costs of raising children are high and climbing. Don’t even think about college. Just getting them to high school graduation is expensive.
And finally there’s the case of a single parent with two children, in which the dad earns $35,000. A $3,500 a year tithe sounds paltry compared to the previous two examples. However, here the father struggles daily to meet his kids’ basic needs. Does he even have health insurance if he’s an American. Or even in Canada with its single payer, physician-specialist shortage model, does he have supplementary medical and dental insurance?
Tithing is a deeply personal experience. It involves an individual making a financial decision, based on multiple factors and unique circumstances, on how much and how often he or she can contribute to the church. Peer pressure, the perceived power from the church, guilt or any other reason should not play a role in this decision-making process. But it does, unfortunately. That’s the reality of organized religion.
Tithing at its most pernicious level excludes segments of society from a socio-economic perspective, and by association race and ethnic group. Your correspondent’s personal view is that the concept of tithing in today’s society is morally wrong. One would like to think that Jesus Christ would want people today to contribute what they can reasonably afford without feeling any guilt or peer pressure. And that they give their time, skills and effort to helping their particular church grow and remain strong, especially in its capacity to help the less fortunate and congregational members in times of emotional and spiritual need.
Take a moment to share your personal experiences and opinions on the subject of tithing.
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
— Jesus Christ
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