The Burning Bush: Is the Ten Percent Tithe a Thing of the Past?

This month in the “Burning Bush”, two Rupert’s Landers share their opinions about the traditional tithe. We hear first from Sheila Welbergen, a parishioner at St. Luke’s, Winnipeg, and then from Tony Harwood-Jones, a retired priest.

Sheila Welbergen writes that the traditional tithe should be reconsidered.
We try to be fiscally responsible for ourselves, our city, our province, and the Church, from parish upwards. At the parish level, it is getting harder. Older buildings, declining numbers, people feeling the squeeze from grocery prices to taxation.  It is no single problem with no single solution.
Unfortunately, the first cry when the parish discusses income and expenses is, “Give us more money. Adjust your automated giving upward. We have handy charts which assess how much you should give according to your particular income.” Lost in all the handwringing over budgets is the small phrase, “All things come of thee, and of thine own do we give thee.”  This includes ourselves, our souls, and our bodies… our works as well as our money. Money does not come first. It is the heart which gives the money.
Tithing is an Old Testament concept, a requirement of the Law whereby the Israelites were to give 10 percent of the crops they grew and of the livestock they raised to the tabernacle or temple, i.e. to the Lord. “If that tithe was too heavy, because of the journey, you may exchange it for silver” (Deuteronomy 14:24). “First fruits of the corn… they brought a tithe of everything” (2 Chronicles 31:5). These are two examples of Old Testament laws often taken out of context. Since not many of us have crops and livestock, it was a handy segue to “10 percent of your income.”

offering_plate
Photo: William Wiggins

The New Testament speaks of the importance of giving. It nowhere commands, or even recommends, a legalistic tithe system. And nowhere is a percentage of income designated, but gifts are to be “in keeping with income” (1 Corinthians 16:2). That suggestion is swept away by the flow charts — which are probably not made by those on pensions or minimum wage. What happens when giving is equated with the collection plate? For one thing, Consecration Sunday becomes, “how much can we expect in the coming year to balance the budget” Sunday.
We may think of talents as something we can do, sing, embroider, or bake, but Gallup analytics defines it this way: “Talents are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behaviour which can be productively applied.” That focusses on what we think and feel, and how we behave as Christians. When we concentrate only on money we could write a cheque and discharge our obligation to tithe, but that is not the whole picture.
In most parishes, people give generously of their time, visiting the sick and the shut-in, cooking breakfast for the hungry and homeless, gathering clothes for the (nearly) naked.   They teach children and young people, provide music for worship, prepare and clean the church, and take part in worship in innumerable ways. Their talents flow outward from the church doors as they give witness to their faith in love and gratitude to the God who gives all things. Our obligation and pleasure is to give God ourselves, because He gave us himself. Money is important, yes, but not above giving ourselves.
Tony Harwood-Jones writes in favour of the traditional tithe.
There is really only one argument to be had among Christians about the tithe, and that is whether the full 10% should go only to the institutional Church or whether it might be divided up between various charities. The actual number, that controversial 10 percent, is not really negotiable.
Jesus actually taught that 10 percent is just the beginning, a base or starting point for human generosity. On at least two occasions he criticized Pharisees who tithe, one who lacked humility (Luke 18:9-14) and others for not caring about justice and faith (Matthew 23:23). In both cases Jesus didn’t tell these people that tithing was wrong; he just said that they shouldn’t stop with tithing (in Matthew 23:23, Jesus says that the Pharisees must practice justice and faith, “without neglecting” the tithe). Tithe, of course, but then get on with the real heavy lifting of a godly life.
However, if we were to push Jesus about the percent, we’d find that the people he commends most loudly were a rich fellow who gave away 50 percent (Luke 19:8-9) and an impoverished woman who gave all her money (i.e.100 percent) to the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-43). There was also the rich person who Jesus instructed to give away 100 percent of his wealth in order to obtain “eternal life” (Matthew 19:21 and Luke 18:22). So for the Christian, 10 percent is something of a minimum.
Of course, the 10 percent figure predates Jesus by a thousand years, and comes from the Hebrew Torah. There we find that it is only part of what is expected of a citizen in that ancient society. Modern opponents of the tithe often suggest that in those days the tithe was the equivalent of modern taxes, paying for civic services. But this is not actually true. The tithe was entirely for the priests and the temple cult (see, for example, Numbers 18:21), while additional and quite different support was expected for the king (the “state” of that day).
Others suggest that because the tithe originates in the Old Testament, it is superseded by the Gospel. But wait a minute! The law that says, “you must love your neighbour as yourself” is also an Old Testament Law, and no one would suggest that it has been superseded.
Think of it this way: we know that we ought to love our neighbour, but sometimes we don’t, or at least we don’t do it very well. This doesn’t mean that the commandment is wrong. We even believe that the Lord forgives us for our failure to love others, but we are still obliged to try. It is the same with the commandment to tithe; we may not do it, and we may be forgiven for failing to do it, but we are still obliged to try.
So the only argument we should have is about where our tithe should go; should all of it go to the Church? Or, should some go to the Church and some to charities that feed the hungry and bring about fairness and justice in the world? I suggest this: give your tithe to God’s work. Where you give it will be a strong indicator of your real religion.

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