In a recent article, John Ortberg said: "Tithing is a bad ceiling but an excellent floor." In fact, I've heard many pastors say that while they can't prove that tithing is mandated for Christians, or that while they (only) think it is (they are a little unsure), it's still "a good place to start". First, why would they claim it's a good place to start? Second, is it really a good place to start? This second question digs in to why this really can be an important issue in the life of church members.
1) WHY THE CLAIM?
Two main reasons come to mind. First, they misunderstand tithing in the Mosaic Law and think that it was 10% of income. We never see any example of a person commanded to give 10% of their regular income nor any example of someone doing that. Neither Abraham, Jacob, Old Testament Jews, or Jews in the New Testament are described this way. The literature between the Old and New Testament don't describe Jews tithing in this way and Josephus (late 1st century) doesn't describe Jews tithing in this way. Second, some have recognized that Jews never gave 10% of income, but when they get to the New Testament, they appear to be "mesmerized" by the English dictionary definition of the word "tithe" being "10%". They seem to just fail to connect the dots.
2) IS 10% A GOOD PLACE TO START?
Here are my reasons for YES:
- easy to calculate
- not unreasonable for most
- sounds biblical
- if every Christian did it, the financial needs of the church would be easily met
Here are my reasons for NO:
- It is unfair. If Bob the Christian makes 1 million dollars a year and Joe the Christian makes $20,000 a year, giving 10% is financially easy for Bob, but brutally difficult for Joe. After giving 10%, Bob still has $900,000 to live and Joe only has $18,000. Joe's gift would be very generous and sacrificial; Bob's gift would sound very generous to our ears, but wouldn't be sacrificial in comparison.
- It is unreasonable for some. There are some people who have no business giving 10% of their income. Whether it's unforeseen medical bills, a tragic accident, or a job loss, we have a huge percentage of Christians in significant debt today (sometimes they are in debt because of foolishness and/or materialism, of course). I've heard pastors say that if you give 10% regularly, then God will take care of you financially. That is true for some, but for others, people I've know who have given far beyond 10%, some have ended up filing for bankruptcy! All the while praising God for "taking care of them"! I've heard many pastors say "You can't out give God," but I've actually seen people who gave so foolishly that they DID out give God. I know that sounds so offensive to many, but God has given us a brain between our ears and He expects us to use it. When you keep giving 10%, or 12%, or 14% while sinking deeper and deeper in to debt, something needs to change! This is not an isolated issue, either. Simply search online for stories about people going bankrupt who were tithing ... you find a lot of stories. You'll even get to read about the government writing and changing laws about tithing while filing for bankruptcy. The problem has become so widespread that the federal government has needed to get involved.
- While the word "tithe" means "10%," and while the word "tithe" is used many times in Scripture, is does not logically follow that Christians are required to give "10% of income." There are many things in Scripture both described in stories and prescribed/commanded in the Mosaic Law that do not directly apply to Christians: the Levirate Law, circumcision, Saturday sabbath keeping, etc. What we do not see in Scripture is any pattern of giving 10% of regular income on a regular basis. In fact, we don't see even one story of this.
- While tithing sounds and even feels so pragmatic, while it seems that the church would have so much money if only people tithed, that is not a good reason to require it or even strongly recommend it as a place to start.
- Saying that 10% is a good place to start ends up robbing people. We have two groups that get robbed: 1) The poor are fleeced of money they need for food and shelter. 10% is too high of a burden for some. I could paint this picture in pages upon pages, but I'll spare you. Let me simply say: even the Old Testament law had a lower requirement for giving for those who were poor: if you were not a land owner, you did not pay anything in tithes. 2) The rich are robbed of the blessings they could have by following the New Testament principles for giving. Someone making 1, 5, or 10 million dollars a year should never think that he has satisfied some biblical mandate or concept by giving 10%. In fact, when I've had the privilege to teach New Testament principles in local churches, I'll hear a story about someone making a modest income (less than $100,000 a year) deciding to up their giving to 30% or more! The "10% of income" concept, even when presented as a starting point, becomes a bullhorn that tells the wealthy "don't worry about giving much beyond 10%, you've met the requirement!" Again, this becomes the mindset EVEN WHEN THE PASTOR SAYS IT'S THE "floor of giving" (a concept I disagree with).
Therefore, for some, it is not an excellent floor. Now recognize this: I'm not saying that God wants you to give less then 10%, regardless of your financial situation. He may want you to step out in faith and trust Him. However, He also may want you to learn to be wise and cut back on your giving. Each situation is different, but following the New Testament principles of giving will lead to truly generous, sacrificial, and joyous giving. 10% shouldn't be considered the floor NOR the ceiling.