Can We Make Tithing Less Taxing? (Part 1)
By Ken Sloane
Okay, that title is technically not a question someone asked; it is my invention. It does let me touch on multiple questions that people typically ask me about tithing in the church. I like the juxtaposition of tithing and taxing because I often hear tithing explained in a way that makes it seem more of a “God tax” than anything else. So even if it takes us a couple of months, let’s unpack tithing and explore some of the questions.
Which questions do I hear more than others?
Net or Gross?
At the time the Torah that is, the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures was introduced to the ancient Israelites, payroll deduction was not really a thing. So in my opinion, this is a relatively modern concern and needs to be approached with modern reasoning.
"Are we supposed to tithe ten percent of our gross income or our net income?"
It’s not hard to imagine why the biblical texts are not specific on this one: At the time the Torah (that is, the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) was introduced to the ancient Israelites, payroll deduction was not really a thing. So in my opinion, this is a relatively modern concern and needs to be approached with modern reasoning.
Most of the folks I read or talk to who are well versed in this area say that we should leave this up to the donor. My guess is that 99 percent of churches would be overjoyed if most of their members started tithing on their net pay.
While tithing is discussed in the Old Testament, its mention in the New Testament is sparse. In the gospels, it is mentioned in a not-so-good context – those like the Pharisees who want to flaunt their piety in giving yet don’t seem to have generous, compassionate spirits. Later references in the New Testament only focus back on Old Testament narratives.
Some have made a case that the original purpose of tithing was about taking care of the poor, not about supporting a religious institution. I think leaders in the church need to be sensitive to this. Some would argue that in our modern day, we look to our government (and fund through our taxes) to take greater responsibility for caring for the poor. (I can you hear you out there; let’s not debate this one here – that’s why God created Twitter and Facebook!)
Does the Bible say all my tithe needs to go to my local church exclusively?
I haven’t been able to find biblical references which are that specific. Again, my feeling is if people are tithing and are giving to their church and to other work that they believe honors God, they will still be counted among the most generous givers in the church.
Related to this is my opinion that one of our roles in stewardship is to help grow generous disciples. That does challenge us to go beyond generous local church financial contributions. Our goal should be to have a generous spirit that is reflected in every aspect of our lives.
If people don’t tithe, what is the best way to lead them to become tithers?
Avoid using guilt, duty, or obligation to motivate people to tithe. A congregation of joyful givers is much more apt to attract and grow generous disciples than a congregation of grudging, guilt-ridden givers will ever be. I remember as a child hearing my pastor say, “I don’t want you to give until it hurts; I want you to give until it feels good.”
Start by introducing the concept of “first fruits” giving. Challenge people to give to God first, whatever amount they give. When our gifts to God come after everything else is paid out, it is tough for us to be as generous as we would like. When we set aside our donation before we do anything else, it is much easier to see and consider how richly God has blessed us.
As best you can, affirm the gifts people make and encourage them to grow as they become more aware of the joy of giving and the bounty of God’s blessing. When we give people the opportunity to look at their current giving as a percentage of their income and then invite them to step up a percent at a time, we are building a mindset that discipleship is a process of growing and not a finish line we can cross.
Stay tuned for Part 2 coming next month, when I share an actual, verbatim conversation from a church member about withholding their tithe.