Tithing – Definitions And Warnings
Tithers Offer Confused Instructions
Anti-Tithers Give None At All
Other Than Don’t Tithe
The definition of tithing is really straight forward. The word means one tenth or ten percent and it is the designated amount of one’s income dedicated for God’s purposes. A “Tither” is someone who contributes ten percent of their income to God.
But don’t let that simple definition fool you. Tithing isn’t an easy topic to dissect. Every tither agrees on the ten percent part but they don’t all agree on how to calculate it or how it should be applied. When one person says “Tithe” it can mean one thing and when another person says it, it can mean something very different and the differences are significant. Questions abound.
Tithers argue over which portion of their income should be included when calculating the tithe. Are we tithing on gross income or net? Stated more precisely, the question is “Ten percent of what?”
But the debate doesn’t stop there.
Those who say “Net” don’t agree on why it should be net instead of gross and they offer a variety of different formulas to calculate net. Some eliminate only their taxes before calculating the tithe and others eliminate more.
The same is true for gross tithers. They can’t say why it should be gross or what constitutes gross. In extreme cases the definition of “gross” expands to include things like birthday gifts and contributions to pension plans. I’ve even heard of people tithing on student loans. Obsessive!
Because the Bible never addresses these issues directly, gross tithers have to use stern looks and a demanding voice to force the issue. Emotional strong arming.
In one internet conversation a man complained that his pastor refused to accept his offering because it was calculated differently to what the pastor taught and was therefore tainted.
That mindset gives tithing a legalistic hue and it is this enforcement attitude to which many anti-tithers react.
I address the Gross vs Net issue in a separate post and, if you are wondering, I teach net. I also show that Old Testament folks weren’t required to be as exacting in the calculation as some suggest today.
But the questions don’t end there.
Traditionally, the Church is viewed not only as the primary recipient but also the only acceptable manager of all tithe money. Any portion of the tithe channeled outside the church is viewed as misallocated funds and, therefore, doesn’t qualify as tithing.
This stance is being questioned by today’s believers and one factor provoking the questions are financial downturns in the USA and throughout Europe. Individuals are feeling the pressure personally or living next door to those who do and church members are asking two questions: “Must I still tithe if my income is drastically reduced” and “Shouldn’t tithe money be used to help stave off this trend?”
Leaders stuck in the traditional mode aren’t helping. Instead of engaging the discussion, offering clear arguments for contributing to the church, and rethinking traditional methods for collecting and using tithes, they refuse to dialogue and take a demanding attitude. No humility. Another reason for the anti-tithe reaction.
The questions are endless: “What should tithe money be used for?” “Where should this money be used?” “Who should manage this money?”
All good questions. All fraught with problems. Fortunately, the Bible does address some of these questions.
The most prominent mandate of the New Testament is found in Mark 16:15:
Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.
In a word, “evangelism.” Making salvation’s message clear to every individual obviously results in a spiritual outcome but it can’t be executed without serious funding. Tithing is one way to meet that need.
But the Bible also addresses the needs of the poor. Jesus said the poor would always be with us (Matthew 26:11) – meaning this problem will never be entirely eradicated – but James said pure religion is demonstrated best by helping orphans and widows in their affliction (James 1:27) – meaning this problem can never be ignored.
A thinking person might say:
- “Well, maybe we are to help solve material problems in order to open doors for addressing spiritual needs.”
- “Maybe the financial problems in more affluent countries have sensitized believers to the plight of the desperately poor in the less privileged areas of the world.”
- “Maybe we should give sufficient time and attention to the problem to develop an effective strategy to address both needs, material and spiritual.”
- “Rather than expect the ultra wealthy to provide all the resources, maybe tithes given by all the average Janes and Joes in the world should be the primary method for funding the effort.”
Instead of sternly holding ground, church leaders should be more open to discussion. The idea that only “qualified” Christians can understand or discuss the issues is an outdated model. The Bible is no longer printed in a language only the clergy can read.
Much blood was shed fighting for the right to think for oneself and churches and those leading them should let the controlling mindset die.
But lets not get off topic. The original question hasn’t changed. Is tithing relevant? If so, where you give it and how it is invested are important questions to explore but neither has any bearing on the ten percent principle. The question is not, “Should we tithe?” but “How best can we use the tithe to satisfy biblical instruction?”
Anti Tithers More Confused
But, while there is a lack of clarity over what the words “Tithe” and “Tithing” mean, the issue is even less clear for anti-tithers.
The anti-tithing community is so focused on abolishing the tithe – however you define it – they never get around to teaching a clear plan for giving. The discussion is steeped in vagaries and smoked screened with word studies.
Don’t get me wrong. I love words – of any kind, wherever you find them – but doing obsessive studies on any word – autopsies – to get to the bottom of a truth is like trying to tell someone the time of day by describing how a watch works. Interesting and useful – maybe – but hardly necessary. Context, the conversation in which a word is used and how it is applied broadly is much more important.
The word “purpose” is a good example. It is a legitimate word. Paul used it in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “let each person give as he purposes in his heart” (my paraphrase). The verse is universally accepted but defined in very different ways.
Anti-tithers often invoke “purpose” as the new word on giving. Instead of an interesting perspective added to all previous teachings about giving, it becomes the replacement concept for anything said before, and once invoked each person is free to do whatever they please. Give a little, give a lot, give too much, give nothing, give whimsically and so on. Bible sense and common sense are lumped together and discarded, opening the door to a free-for-all.
The word isn’t that obscure and doesn’t stand alone. It isn’t the opposite of any word in the Old Testament and doesn’t replace the word “Tithe.” “Purpose” is the antonym of aimless, the answer to indolence and is evidenced by intentionality, focus, resolve and reliability. It doesn’t replace the tithing idea it reinforces it.
Even in the Old Testament people failed to tithe regularly and I doubt a word study on “purpose” would help. I talk more about “purpose” in another post but for now understand that “purpose” is not the antithesis of “tithe.”
One last warning.
Watch out for the “poor!”
Not poor people but the issue. The topic, the card anit-tithers play when arguments get thin and begin to unravel. According to some, the poor should not be pressured to tithe.
“Pressured to tithe?” A statement like that makes me curious.
Is it right to “pressure” people not to tithe? Is there more honor in that approach?
Is teaching a truth the same as pressuring someone to do some particular thing? And, if so, do we apply that rule to every other teaching from the Bible: witnessing, praying, being honest or diligent or charitable and more?
If I use questionable methods to pressure someone to be honest is that a good reason to encourage them to lie?
I think reasonable people would agree. No one should be pressured to do anything. But the method used to teach a thing has no bearing on the rightness or wrongness of the thing taught.
Another good question. Does a person’s circumstances dictate which truths they can ignore?
Should we encourage the poor not to pray because they are exhausted from trying to survive each day? Should we tell them not to attend church because they have limited transportation resources? Should the illiterate poor be discouraged from learning to read a Bible? Are the poor disqualified from being charitable?
Again, don’t get me wrong. Poverty is a serious matter and alleviating the causes and problems associated with it deserves every effort we can afford but that is not easily done. Anti-tithers regularly invoke the poor in their arguments but rarely give it any definition. “Poor” can refer to many different things:.
- The desperately poor in third world countries who struggle to find clean drinking water and are plagued with diseases that are easy to treat.
- Those in first world countries suffering from economic downturns beyond their control but are helped by family and friends and surrounded by options for employment.
- Those in first world countries suffering from economic downturns beyond their control and have no family or friends to lean on, who must rely on the support of charitable organizations. These are vulnerable to becoming homeless but do have options for employment.
- Those suffering from psychological problems which led to their inability to hold a job and, if not supported by family and friends, become homeless.
- Those who, through a lack of discipline, “buy” their way into a lifestyle they can’t afford and eventually bottom out losing everything.
Which “poor” are we talking about.
I’m not an expert on the causes of poverty or the solutions but it isn’t the same for everyone and no one has claimed it was caused by tithing. Therefore, withholding the tithe isn’t the best solution to the problem.
Again, I’ve said more on the poor issue in other posts but for now understand there are many poor people who tithe and wouldn’t appreciate being shamed out of doing so.
Many other posts cover philosophical issues, practical issues, history, biblical examples and more.
A general truth. Everyone desires to be a contributor. Let it be done decently and in order.