About – and Hopefully Beyond – Tithing

In Uncategorized on February 3, 2011 at 6:53 pm


Submitted By: Mother Beth Maynard

Gentry’s Note: Mother Beth is an Episcopal priest and dear friend who, along with her husband Mark Dirksen, leads a community focused on formation and prayer on Beverly’s Mill Street. Last week I asked her if there is a biblical reason that Christians should tithe a whole 10% of their income to the church and then tack on justice or poverty related giving on top of that figure. While deeply dedicated to the mission of the church, my family really wants to make a significant impact on the lives of the poor throughout the world and we simply cannot do that in a substantial way without reallocating some of our giving. This is Mother Beth’s gracious response.

Thanks for asking me to expand a little on my comments about tithing. I’ve been tithing for about 25 years and think it’s a magnificent spiritual practice, but since I come from a denominational tradition where a 10% tithe is official policy but rarely taught or practiced, I expect that the standpoint from which I think about tithing overall is rather different than that of many of your readers. The reasoning that I’d use to talk about where the 10% goes wasn’t forged in dialogue with evangelicals who have a long background of teaching about tithing to a local church, but with people who are exclaiming, “You’re telling me the Bible says we should do WHAT?!” With that caveat, here are a few of the questions from which I’d approach that issue:

1) I’d want to be asking the kind of questions anyone asks about applying Biblical instructions in a different cultural context. If Scripture says not to covet your neighbor’s ox, we can all appropriately translate that principle pretty quick to not coveting her Lexus.  But is the social service/political/economic matrix we are in really so similar to OT society that “give to the Temple” is transparently translatable to “give to a local congregation of your choice?”  Does a local PCUSA or Baptist church and its leaders play anything like the same role in the lives of Americans (and our experienced globalized world) that the Temple did in Israel?

2) The spiritual disciplines in general are behaviors that we freely and grace-fully commit to engage in and which God uses to form us as disciples, but which do not earn merit. Where is the actual ascetical fulcrum that functions in the spiritual discipline of tithing: in the exterior result of where the money ends up, or in the formational effect of the commitment on us? Which of these two foci more closely echoes the NT way of talking about spirituality?

3) What would be the effect of keeping in mind that the NT seems to presume that the work of the Spirit in us will lead us delightedly and freely to surpass the demands of OT ethical instructions?  What kind of conversations would we be having if we couldn’t wait to joyously pass along 45% of our income, instead of bean-counting what we can get away with on the 10% we’re determined not to have to exceed?

4) A more pragmatic question: Surveys on US giving show that most people donate far, far less than 10% of their income. To change this, we need to invite them into a vision of the joy of opening your hands, living from abundance/trust instead of scarcity/control, and discovering the faithfulness of God when you share your resources. How effective in helping those people actually grow is the strategy of beginning with hard and fast rules as to what they should be doing with the 10% they aren’t giving before they are allowed to support anything else they care about?  Might this not be especially dicey in a culture where a common assumption is that “all the church wants is your money”?

5) This has aspects of a couple of the previous ones in it, and is a bit flip; but as I quipped to you earlier, it’s tough for me to imagine Jesus saying “Hey! Don’t you give that starving guy any wheat unless you can prove to me you’ve already given 10% of your harvest to the Temple!”

There are other questions I could ask as well, but those would be the ones that first come to mind. It seems to me that the central message that is appropriate for the majority of Americans is: HEY, WE’RE RICH! LET’S GIVE MONEY AWAY! GLORY TO GOD! GIVE A LOT!  IT’S AN AWESOME WAY TO LIVE!  When all Christians are thoroughly infamous for acting like that, then we can probably justify spending time on hashing over various details of our ecstatically generous world-changing prodigality.


  1. You are missing the point about tithing by ignoring its biblical definition and purpose.

    The true holy biblical tithe was always only food from inside God’s holy land which He miraculously increased. Tithes could not come from what man increased, from Gentiles or from outside Israel. Period. While money was very common even in Genesis and essential for sanctuary worship, vows and poll taxes, money were never a tithed item.

    Tithing was only a minimum starting-point standard for food producers who lived inside Israel.

    Since both the O.T. Temple and priesthood have been replaced by believer-priests, we should find our New Covenant giving principles in the Word beyond Calvary to the Church.

    That means that our giving should be: freewill, generous, SACRIFICIAL, joyful and motivated by love for God and others. For many that means more than ten per cent and, for others, it might mean less. 2 Cor 8:12-15

    I wrote my PHD thesis on tithing and urge you to look into the doctrine more closely.

    Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
    Acworth, Ga, USA

    • Hi Russell, thanks for comment. I had never known there was a distinction between the tithe of produce and the temple giving. Really interesting.

      I also appreciate your focus on sacrificial giving and your helpful pointer to 2 Cor 8. I have always taught sacrificial giving as the proper template and have never thought of or urged the practice of the tithe in a legalistic way. The focus of my question to Mother Beth was whether or not it was appropriate for a Christian who is a part of a believing community to designate a substantial portion of their sacrificial giving to organizations and initiatives that are having a measurable impact upon the lives of the global poor. I long to honor the confessing community of which I am a part while also making a substantial impact on the lives of the “least of these” both through donating to evangelical poverty initiatives and excellent NGOs like Partners in Health that are truly making a difference.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  2. It is the business of the church to care for the poor and increase social justice. Therefore, are giving to these causes not giving to the cause of the church, or the church in itself? Is the church not a body of believers; not a building, place or non-profit incorporated organization in city X? If this is true, then why do I have to give to my local church? If I give to a church, or a faith based organization in Africa, is this not giving “The Church” – the worldwide body of believers?

    • James – I completely agree that the church is not a building or a nonprofit organization but a community of people committed to embodying Jesus, welcoming God’s Kingdom and longing for justice. For that reason, of course giving to poverty and justice initiatives around the world can be gifts given unto God.

      That being said, if we are members or regular participants in local christian communities we do have some responsibility to support the mission of those local expressions of Christ’s body. Although we might like for it to be otherwise, preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments and, especially, addressing the substantial needs of our local communities costs money. We need to bear some responsibility for those costs while simultaneously investing our resources in the global mission of the church and other movements for justice worldwide.

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