I’ll never forget the sermon: I had recently moved to Gainesville, Florida, where I was enrolled in graduate school at the University of Florida. I had only recently begun attending my church (in the Reformed tradition) and I still didn’t know a whole lot about it. It was budget season, though, and the leadership of the church had dedicated the month of September to Stewardship Emphasis Month. Each week an elder shared a brief testimony about stewardship and each sermon was focused on its importance. One sermon in particular stood out to me. It was on a section of Malachi 3 – I don’t remember the exact limits on the verses – but I remember that it definitely included verse 8:
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – your whole nation – because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into
the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.”
Will a mere mortal rob God? The pastor’s accusation was clear. We were robbing God. He went on to give clear definitions of various types of giving:
Tithes: 10% of your income (before tax). The tithe in his understanding was 100% owed to the local church (the “storehouse” of Malachi 3:8).
Offerings: Giving at your discretion above and beyond the 10% tithe. Offerings could be given to any organization.
Faith Promise Giving: An amount committed to be given at some indefinite point in the next year, committed on the trust that God will provide that amount in an unexpected and yet obvious way. Faith Promise Giving was “unrestricted” like offerings – they would be given anywhere.
Truth be told, I sometimes wish the ministries with which I have been professionally involved had such clear-cut answers about giving. In many ways, such a system makes life easier – anybody who fails to live up to the 10%-to-the-local-church bar is clearly in need of a spiritual check-up, if not spiritual discipline (itself a veiled threat in the sermon).
I start here, though, because I think this highlights one of the challenges of thinking about money. We can probably all agree that a healthy vision of stewardship is an important part of the Christian life, but we likely don’t all agree on how we should approach it.
Is 10% a hard and fast rule? If so, does 10% have to go to the local church? 10% of what? Gross income? Net income? What about people taking out student loans?
It’s important that conversations about money should be steeped in grace. This is not grace to “let us off the hook”, but grace that understands that circumstances vary and grace that trusts the hearts of our fellow believers. I do not define the tithe as rigidly going to the local church. This became most clear to me when I was involved in campus ministry – a ministry dependent upon financial support that was not itself a local congregation. At the advice of a former pastor, a portion of my giving went to support causes outside of the local church.
In many ways, churches are operating at a unique time – the local church now competes with other ministry causes in a way it has not since the institutionalization of the church. People are more transient than ever before, meaning that many have a heart and passion for supporting many different ministries. My family’s giving still includes our previous campus ministry out of a desire to support and encourage the concept of the ministry, though most of our students have long since graduated. As people move from place to place, the church does not necessarily have the trust it once did. Even when there is not deliberate mismanagement or embezzlement, there is increased desire for clear results, and I daresay there is an increasing sense that much of the money brought in by churches goes primarily to self-serving ends. While that characterization is certainly not true of all (or even most) churches, the church today must prove its trustworthiness in a way it has not needed to previously.
So where does this leave us? Is the idea of 10% giving nothing more than a pipe dream?
I don’t think it is. Others, I am sure, will extol the virtues of giving generously. There is much that could be said about how giving forms and shapes us to recognize our utter dependence upon God. Much could be said about the ways that the attitudes I described above are misguided. Perhaps the desire to see results and achievements betrays an unhealthy pragmatism. Perhaps the perception of “self-serving” expenditures by churches needs to be reshaped to understand that the worship of God is itself a worthy cause, regardless of the “tangible results.” Others can explore these topics.
To me, it seems that these are the sorts of topics that can start a healthy conversation about tithing. This is not a graceless sentiment of “Give 10% or else…” This is not a fatalistic lamentation of “Things are never going to change!” I think we need an honest conversation about what giving looks like. Those in our churches who are not giving are not doing so because they just don’t feel like it (at least, I suspect that many of them do not). I suspect that many who let the collection plate pass by without putting anything in week after week feel a twinge of guilt or shame. How can we help create space where the first question is not “Are you giving 10%?” but “What can we do to help empower you to experience this aspect of faithful living?”
I suspect that if we change the tone, that 10% tithe may be far more realistic than it seems.