Monday, August 8, 2011

Spiritual DNA and Tithing

A psychiatrist once told me that it takes three generations to move out of a cult. I'm not sure if that is correct or not, but it was true in my case. My grandfather was a member of the Amish church, a cult that does not allow its members to use electricity or drive automobiles. He left that to join the Mennonite church which was a little less strict - you could drive a car, but women were expected to have long hair and wear little white caps known as "coverings". My father left the Mennonite church to join a fundamentalist church, and I have moved away from that. So there you are, three generations.

But I haven't completely escaped - there are still aspects of the fundamentalist Christian world view that permeate my spiritual DNA and are hard to break. Take the principle of tithing, which means you give a full ten percent of your gross income (for overseas readers, that means before taxes are taken out) to your local church. If you do this, God will "bless" you and your family. If you don't, God will get that ten percent one way or the other because it belongs to him and according to one well-known verse from the Old Testament you are "robbing God".  God's ways of getting his due money are numerous including job loss, ill health, wayward children, and car wrecks.

One might wonder where such a grotesque idea came from. It began in the book of Genesis, when Abraham went out with a small army to attack a king who had robbed and kidnapped his relatives. Abraham defeated the enemy king and on the way home was met by a mysterious priest called Melchizedek who blessed Abraham for his victory. Abraham responded by giving the priest ten percent of the spoils of war.

Fast forward to the end of  Leviticus, where an elaborate religious system had been established for the nation of Israel. Leviticus 27:30 says, "A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord." Since the word "tithe" by definition means ten percent, farmers were expected to donate ten percent of their grain and fruit crops to support the priests and their families. Deuteronomy 12:17 adds that the people were not simply to eat their donations at home, but were to take them to the tabernacle where they were to be shared with family, friends, and the priests. It was actually a beautiful idea. As people made their pilgrimages to the tabernacle, they took food with them to share in great communal feasts that included the entire community.

The only other reference to tithing in the entire Bible, as far as I know, is the reference in Malachi where the author warned the people that if they refused to bring this food to the temple they were in fact robbing God.

The New Testament does not mention the tithe a single time. Jesus, Paul, the other apostles and authors - not a single word. The emphasis shifted from giving an obligatory ten percent to donating what you could to help people in need.

So why did I, when I got my first real job that paid seventeen thousand dollars a year, make sure that seventeen hundred of that went to my church? Was it fear that if I didn't God would zap me one way or the other? Was it really based upon a desire to give? I'm still not sure. All I know is that it was a part of my spiritual DNA, something I felt obligated to do.

American Christianity is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and God seems to have an insatiable thrist for new buildings. Each of these buildings costs millions of dollars, to say nothing of the staff and programs required to run them. What better way to finance the entire operation than to at least once a year have a few sermons on tithing? These sermons typically dangle before the congregation both the carrot and the stick. God's blessing is waiting to be received by those who tithe, but beware if you don't.

Part of this makes sense. If you belong to a country club you are required to pay annual dues - often thousands of dollars - to keep the club in the red. If you attend a church that has buildings to maintain, staff to pay and programs to run, you should do your part in meeting expenses. I'm just not convinced that the high-pressure tithe is the way to do it.

In a very real way, the tithing principle corrupts faith. The idea behind it is that you give ten percent to God, and the rest is yours to do with as you like. A person with disposable income can pay the tithe and have money to waste with no sense of responsibility to the person sitting next to her who doesn't have money to feed her children.

Imagine, for example, that you make two hundred thousand dollars a year and want a luxury car. The principle of tithing says that you give twenty thousand to the church and God will bless you as you enjoy your car. But if you skip the tithe and purchase the car, watch out! You might not make it home from the dealership.

Aren't there other principles that make a lot more sense? If you want a nice car, why not just save your money until you have the cash to go buy it? Or if you decide you can do with a lesser car, or drive the one you have a few more years because you would like to have more money available to help others, go for it. The money you give does not need to be an obligation. I don't think that is what God intended.

So why do I still feel the need to tithe? Remember what I said about your spiritual DNA, those principles you inherited from your childhood that are extemely difficult to erase or overcome? I'm still not sure that God is not out to get me if I don't put ten percent of this month's income in the offering plate next week.


aemish said...

I could never in good conscience give money to a church. Moreover my attempts at preventing my duped Catholic mother from doing the same have as yet been unsuccessful...

Me: 85% of dioceses report embezzlement.

Mom: [pretending I haven't already told her this 99x before] Golly gee.. is it really that high?

Me: Ya. It is. I think you know that. And excuse me but the pope lives in a castle is bejeweled from pointy pageant hat down to $640 red loafered toes and when not being chauffered around his own personal kingdom is flown from place to place in style with his servants in a private jet. I really don't think he needs any more of your money!

Mom: Oh, my, gotta run. Love you sweetie but I'm late for church...

Honestly. Parents these days. :p

Xrysostom said...

A friend suggested that I read your post. I agree with your comments on tithing but can understand how difficult it is to change the habits of a lifetime, particularly those reinforced by our roots. With that in mind, I thought you might appreciate reading How Should I Tithe? and Designating One's Tithe from my Ask the Pastor archives.

Susanne said...

Really enjoyed this! I can relate to you quite a bit about the DNA thing! My pastor doesn't preach on tithing. He says God loves a cheerful giver (as Paul notes) so if you are holding on so tightly to your money and don't want to give, don't.

I don't give to my church. Without even preaching on giving, those people give and the church has probably double what is budgeted.

Rather I look for other ministries that are important to me most of which help people overseas. I don't want to build more churches here, but would rather feed a family or help persecuted Christians in other parts of the world who need legal help because they are on the wrong side of the governmental policies or are the "wrong" religion.

Thank you for sharing this!

Quotable Quotes: said...

Aemish and Susanne,
Thanks as always for comments from two of my most perceptive readers!

Quotable Quotes: said...

Thanks for your comment and the links. It's good to know there are pastors (probably thousands more than I realize) who don't push the Old Testament tithe to pressure church members today.

Anonymous said...

It's quite hard to give cheerfully with a hatchet hanging over your head. That's why I pay my tithes directly into the hands of those who need it... Sometimes more, sometimes less than the pre requisite 10%. I understand churches need revenue to carry out the good work, but when quite a bit of the money is squandered (I won't say embezzled) giving directly to those in need seems to be a better idea. For me at least.

aemish said...

Danka, QQ :D

Cyril Lucar said...

I guess I want to pitch out a dissenting view here and just note a few things.

First, a disclaimer. I am an evangelical pastor. In our denomination pastors have their salaries approved by local bodies so even though pastors of wealthy churches make more than pastors of poor churches, the difference is not that large. I am one of the lowest paid pastors in my presbytery, but I'm certainly not going hungry. But I, and many of my fellow pastors make less than public schools teachers with comparable education and experience. And I've also been told that I talk less about giving than most pastors.

Second, tithing is clearly taught in the New Testament. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for tithing their spices while neglecting justice and mercy and then tells them that they should pay attention to those things without neglecting the tithe, (Matt 23:23). In other places Jesus explicitly affirms that he is not abrogating all of OT law and that people should follow the Pharisee's teaching without imitating their behavior, Matt 5:17-19; Matt 23:2-3). These commandments exist in the context where the church is told to take care of widows and orphans and take up collections for the hungry. Tithing is not discussed over and over again because it was in the DNA of their culture.

The point with tithing is that God owns everything and we are simply stewards of his gifts (whether money, time, etc). Jesus teaches on this a great deal and and uses money as a concrete way to illustrate less concrete truths, Matt 25:14-30, et al. There is no more effective way for us to break the hold wealth has on us than by giving it away. Unlike Islam, part of the point of the Gospel is dispelling the ultimacy of this world.

Third, the tithe forces us to confront our individualism and learn to live as a community. Just like in a marriage where we struggle with different ideas and priorities, in the church local and corporate we acknowledge that there is a degree of listening, compromise and submission in learning to live as a body, not just a collection of monads who show up to sing and listen to a talk. And frankly, while I don't have the money to buy a new wheelchair or pay for a burial, WE do, together. And we collect that money in advance.

Fourth, and I really am sorry this is so long, the idea that evangelical churches spend less outside of the church than in (buildings and salaries) is a myth. The largest churches spend the highest percentage on outside concerns. We spend 5% on the poor in our midst, 15% on our community and the mission of Christ in the world, and 15% on direct ministry costs. The rest goes to building and salaries and other like costs. But since we use our building and staff for outside concerns, even that is not just all on ourselves. One of our larger churches in the area spends 51% on outside ministries alone.

This doesn't mean that there aren't some terribly selfish churches and that there's nothing to confront in the church, it just means that there's another side to the story. Our congregation has had an incident of misappropriation in our 20 years, but it was not large and we set up more accountability and transparency to deal with it. There isn't a corporation that is free from that. As a matter of fact, that's part of the worldliness that tithing is meant to confront in the first place.

aemish said...

>>There is no more effective way for us to break the hold wealth has on us than by giving it away. Unlike Islam, part of the point of the Gospel is dispelling the ultimacy of this world.<<

**This is me doing a Scooby Doo Huuurrhhh??**

I'd thank you to expand on this potentially-interpreted non-thought.

Cyril Lucar said...


Thanks for asking. My desire to be concise, at which I certainly failed, obscured my clarity.

The Christian Gospel is that the Kingdom of God has broken into this world with a new reality that is redeeming and transforming people as they enter and learn to live in the light of the truth of Jesus Christ. But this is not the end of the story. Christ is returning to inaugurate a new reality which is described as a "New Heaven and a New Earth" where every thing is fully restored and the experience of God is "face to face." For a Christian to greatest reward and hope is in God himself. We long to be like him and know him and see his Kingdom come.

The opposite of this is called "worldliness," which is living as if this world and our experience here is ultimate. All Christians struggle with worldliness. We elevate the gifts of God (such as food, clothing, sex, etc) above God himself as if these things are more ultimately satisfying. There is always a tension in the Christian life between accepting and appreciating God's gifts and denying our flesh to reinforce to remind ourselves that we don't just love God for his gifts. The things of this world will pass away. We live as strangers and sojourners.

Money is one of our most concrete connections to this world. Jesus doesn't talk about money as evil, but it is dangerous for us. The more we have, the more dangerous it is. When we give and cultivate giving that is both cheerful and obedient we lessen the hold money, and therefore worldliness, has on us. The same can be said for food, sex, sleep, desire for acclaim and other things, but tithing is what we're talking about here.

Islam is at best a terrible distortion of Christian truth and at its worst the spirit of the evil one. Islam replaces an invitation to heart obedience with sometimes brutal compulsion. But even worse it gives ultimacy and spiritual justification to the basest human desires. Instead of the experience of God himself, the Muslim looks forward to an eternity of deflowering virgins. Instead of self denial, it elevates brutal imposition of will. I am told to love my wife as Christ loved the church, as Muslim is told to beat his wife if she doesn't submit. I'm told to turn the other cheek at offense, the Muslim is encouraged to smite the unbeliever. The blogger Hesperado has pointed out that the promise of Allah looks a great deal like the language of Satan in the Temptation of Christ.

By now some are thinking, "Why did you encourage him?" So I will stop.

aemish said...

Cyril, while I appreciate the spirit of your candor it is embarrassingly plain you have been severely misinediopinionated to the point of detriment of [what I perceive as] obvious human truth.

Bzzzzzz. Do over.

Cyril Lucar said...


Thanks again for your response. Neither I nor Google know what misinediopinionated means. But even if I did, I'm not confident I would be able to follow your comment. But perhaps that was your point.


aemish said...

Perhaps :)

Happy Ramadan.