It was the winter of 2004 when during a leadership meeting our pastor warned our church staff that if we were not tithing we would be removed from our leadership positions, no questions asked. It was explained that one could not be a devout Christian without tithing, and if one was not a devout Christian he or she had no business being in ministry. Besides, if we didn’t tithe the devil would destroy our finances, so… might as well.
Something burned within me during this meeting as it followed on the heels of many months of abuse and manipulation coming from our pulpit in the attempt to raise money. I knew our church was struggling financially and I knew the senior pastor was worried about the very future existence of our church, but this did not excuse the methods by which he was pushing the congregation to give (the details of which I will leave unsaid for now). Our church had degenerated into financial survival mode with the accompanying endless emphasis on tithes and offerings – a very familiar experience for many within the independent Charismatic church world. One was hard pressed to hear the gospel since it had to compete with the effort to raise money during every service. Either the sermon was centered on money or we had to endure 20 minute mini-sermons on the tithe prior to the main sermon. It was exhausting. We were basically open for the sake of raising money; like the televangelist who begs for money so that he can spend it buying more air time in order to beg for more money – a vicious cycle.
To make a fairly long story short, after this particular meeting I returned home and began to study what the Bible really had to say about the tithe, in addition I began to study the place of the tithe within the broader scope of church history. At the end of it all I wrote my pastor a private letter explaining my findings and why it was that I no longer believed the tithe was a Christian practice, much less a qualification for church leadership. It was at this point that my longtime friend and pastor of 15 years gave me and my wife the right foot of fellowship. Don’t mess with a man’s paycheck!
In terms of giving, my wife and I had given more to this particular church than perhaps any other church in our past; well past 10% of our income, time, and energies. We are not, nor have we ever been, anti-giving. This is an important point to emphasize as I’ve found that many conflate the idea of “tithing” with the idea of “giving” in general. One can give without believing in the tithe, in fact one is more likely to give much more than 10% if they abandon this legalistic demand. The attitude of the tithe asks, “how much do I have to give?” When the answer is “10%” then the lines are drawn, good luck talking them into 90%. The early Church, as recorded in Acts, gave ALL they had. This never would have happened if they were stuck on the tithe. At any rate, the following are some of the major points of interest that I came across during this period of searching.
1. There is no Biblical mandate for a Christian to tithe; interestingly, there is only encouragement to deny the practice.
Take for example Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” The entire 9th chapter contains Paul’s teaching on giving to the church and one would expect that if he desired to teach the tithe as a Christian practice he would have used this opportunity to do so. Instead what the reader finds is encouragement to give as one purposes in his own heart, not a pre-determined amount by a legal authority. More than that, one is not to give out of “necessity.” The tithe is not a gift that one gives casually. If one is following the prescriptions given in the Mosaic Law and by tithe enthusiast preachers, the tithe is a necessary offering if one wants to be in good standing with God, AND (adds the modern day preacher) tithing will also protect one’s ‘stuff’ from the devil; thus laying waste to Paul’s prescribed method of giving.
Consider also the only time the New Testament even mentions the tithe: the event when Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees who had tithed everything, even down to the spices in their gardens, but had forgotten the weightier matters of the law, i.e. justice, mercy and faith (Matt 23:23). When one reads these verses they’ll find that Jesus points them back to the law when referencing the tithe (“do not leave the rest undone,” meaning the requirements of the whole Law). Why? Because the tithe is part of the Old Testament law, it is not some lofty spiritual principle which begun prior to the Law, as in the case of Abraham and Melchizedek, and thus a requirement that “transcends” the Law. This is a line often toted by those who want to both instill the tithe yet avoid obeying the Law. Notice also that Jesus says in no uncertain terms that tithing does not require justice, mercy or faith – the staple virtues of the Christian life. It is a wonder that so called “word of faith” churches are often so insistent on preserving this law which does not require faith to perform, indeed even if one were to practice it to perfection as the Pharisees had.
2. The regulation of the tithe as described in the Mosaic Law is impossible for a Christian to keep.
There is only one source of teaching by which one can accurately follow the tithe, i.e. that which is given in the Old Testament, again, it is not taught in the New Testament. If one desires to keep the tithe according to the Biblical teaching one will quickly discover that the tithe is governed by two major qualifications; qualifications which are not open to any living Christian today: (1) the tithe must be agricultural produce or livestock grown or raised within the land of Israel, (2) the tithe is to be given by a Jewish believer to the Levites for their inheritance, since the tribe of Levi was denied a land inheritance. As such, the tithe was a requirement for Jewish land owners within Israel; it was an offering of food, not money; and it was given to Levites (and eventually to the priests). For someone to perform the Biblical tithe today would require them to not only to become Jewish, but to be a landowner in Israel and to give their tithe to a group of priests who no longer exist. In reality, these requirements restricted Christ Himself from tithing since He was a carpenter, and the Apostles since none of them were farmers, but I digress.
3. As a matter of historical record, the tithe is almost non-existent in the Church for its first 800 years.
The tithe officially makes its way into the Western Church during the reign of Charlemagne (9th century), Europe’s first king. Prior to Charlemagne, the tithe had seen some sporadic practice throughout the Church in different regions, but as a fully embraced doctrine, the tithe first appears as a mandatory tax enacted by Charlemagne upon all his subjects, Christian or not, payable to the Church in Rome.
4. Holy Tradition and the writings of the Church Fathers are almost completely silent on the tithe.
I am not a patristic scholar by any means, but from my personal reading of the Church Fathers (I follow a daily regimen of readings from the Prologue of Ohrid and the Orthodox Philokalia and have studied certain Church figures in greater depth) I have discovered shockingly little coverage of the subject, much less, any teachings on the tithe as a mandatory Christian doctrine. There is however a major exception which I believe deserves notice – the Didache. The Didache is one of the earliest known documents which outlines, something like, a rule of faith for the Church. One finds the mention of the tithe in section 13, it reads: “…So, too, with your money, and your clothing, and all your possessions; take a tithe of them in whatever way you think best, and make a gift of it, as the commandment bids you.”
This short verse gives ample credence that the tithe was on the conscience of at least some Christians in the early centuries of the Church. To what degree the author of the Didache believed the tithe was a doctrine for the Church to be followed in a Judaic-wise fashion is up for considerable debate. One will find that tithe preachers will almost never refer to the Didache as a reference for historical validation, and the reason for this is manifold. To a large degree such preachers are altogether ignorant that such a text even exists. Many who do know of its existence couldn’t care less due to the fact that it is not contained within the Scripture (a rejection based on a Zwinglian-tempered doctrine of Sola Scriptura). For others it is roundly ignored since it contains many harsh rebukes of money hungry ministers. Take for example section 12 which says, “An apostle at his departure should accept nothing but as much provisions as will last him to his next night’s lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet” (if this line was believed by every Christian today televangelists would disappear tomorrow), or this line from the same section, “If any prophet, speaking in the spirit, says, ‘Give me money,’ do not listen to him.”
All that said one should follow the Didache’s closing admonition, “In your prayers, your almsgiving, and everything you do, be guided by what you read in the Gospel of our Lord.” If the Gospel instructs one to tithe, then one should tithe. However, this is not the case. From an Orthodox point of view, if Holy Tradition teaches one to tithe then one should tithe. But as already mentioned, Holy Tradition is almost completely silent on the issue. Instead, a Christian should rise above mechanical giving – giving grudgingly or of necessity, as Paul says – and give as he or she purposes in his or her heart. As Christians we should give out of a divine sense of “justice, mercy and faith” as our Savior taught us. Such giving will not only involve one’s finances but will bring him or her into a full-orbed life of giving – cheerful giving – which delights the heart of the Father.
In closing I would like to note that these observations are my own and are not in any way the official stance within the Orthodox Church. One is free to take it or leave it. To my knowledge there is no dogmatic teaching on the tithe within Orthodoxy. There are many within the Church who believe the tithe is in fact a Christian practice and many who do not. I respect both opinions and I respect even more that the tithe has never been of serious concern within the Orthodox Church for the last 20 centuries. The treatment of the tithe within Orthodoxy, or the lack thereof, is in itself a stark rebuke to the obsession many modern ministers have with the tithe as a sort of “guaranteed paycheck.” Thank you for reading.