I’m currently reading another Christian Smith/Michael Emerson book called Passing the Plate, which examines Christian giving from a sociological perspective. Toward the beginning of the book, they explain that they are talking about “tithing” a lot because a 10% tithe is what most churches and denominations say they believe is appropriate. I initially read this very skeptically. Tithing for Jews was about the tribes with land supporting the priests who didn’t have any, as well as others who would otherwise be impoverished. While people must donate for any non-profit to survive, tithing per se did not necessarily seem to be something which translated seamlessly into a modern Christian context. And even if it did in large part, I felt sure most of the mainline denominations more in touch with social justice would not advocate that everyone tithe. The appendix of the book, however, proved me very wrong. It contains statements about giving from various churches, and I learned that many denominations which I thought recognized the importance of social justice still expect tithing of all Christians.
For the moment we can set aside the question of whether we should be talking about “tithing” per se to begin with and accept that many people use the tithe language and 10% as a standard anyway. And if we accept tithing, I would strongly argue that tithing is not for everyone. More than that, I would argue that we need to be extremely clear in articulating (in sermons, Sunday school, books, conversations, etc.) that tithing is not for everyone.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on who should be tithing. I don’t know what people honestly expect. Do they think that ALL people should be giving 10%? I do know that the Republicans in North Carolina just changed the state income tax to be a flat rate which will raise the tax on the poor and middle class and lower the tax on the wealthy. I don’t know if there are some in the church that would say a regressive system of giving is ideal for the church, but I certainly think that sounds upside down from Jesus’s ethics.
Growing up, I knew people who pressured their children into tithing their allowances. These grew up into teenagers and college students who tithed their part-time earnings and then (ideally) into tithing adults. I have some issues with the particular ways in which children are often given little choice about their religious practices, but beyond that issue, I think this is a narrative coming from an extremely privileged perspective. It assumes that these kids can tithe from their jobs at Chick-fil-a because they have parents to support them through college and that they will get a well-paid full-time job after college. It is an ideal that isn’t working out for many in our economy, even those who come from wealthier families.
Now I recognize that most 16-year-olds aren’t saving for college in a disciplined fashion, and many college students have no sense of what they might need to have savings for after graduation. However, I don’t think that changes the fact that in principle it seems wrong to encourage kids with nothing to their name to give so much of their meager earnings away. From my perspective, those who are still finishing their education and do not have a full-time job are not people we need to be encouraging to tithe. We should be encouraging them to save. This doesn’t mean we can’t teach about generosity or social justice. However, there are many ways they can contribute positively to the world around them without tithing—volunteering, picking a major that will allow them to help people, etc. The same goes for retired people without any income besides social security or whose entire income is eaten up by living expenses such as medical care. This doesn’t mean they can’t ever give anything monetarily, either. I just question a high giving threshold like tithing being applied to those who don’t really have anything and who are likely to encounter financial difficulties in the near future and thus potentially become a burden on others. If the Apostle Paul tells us to take care of own own families, is there a good reason for us to hinder those who are already dependent on us from better caring for themselves?
Moving even further from this “ideal” narrative of tithing are those who find themselves without an income or with very little income. One of these groups is students living off of student loans, perhaps with meager work study earnings, or perhaps without. Student loan money is meant to go towards tuition, fees, books, and living expenses for students. I have never heard anyone in a position of authority at a church assuring students that while they are accumulating students loans that they shouldn’t be tithing. I think this is something we need to be saying—if your current expenses are being covered by loans you should absolutely not be tithing from your part-time job, much less your loans themselves. Similarly, if we are compassionate, those working to pay off high-interest debt from credit cards should not be tithing, in my opinion. I know many evangelicals who aren’t nuts about credit cards (often after listening to Dave Ramsey). If we’re going to treat credits card debt as the exploitation it is, we need to allow people to pay off their debts as quickly as possible, without pressure to tithe. Hopefully for most people that is only a few months. Even debts with little or no interest should potentially be taken into consideration. I don’t want to take money from a cancer patient who is going to be paying medical bills for years, and I want them to know I don’t expect that of them.
And those who are unemployed or who rely on public assistance to get by? We have absolutely no business asking them to tithe. These are the people we should be helping. I think many of them give with good hearts, but it is exploitative, in my mind, for us to talk about tithing without making this exemption very clear. I have heard many pastors say, “If you are not a member here, don’t feel obligated to give.” I have never in my life heard a pastor say, “If you are looking for work, don’t give right now–we want you to wait until you have a job, which will hopefully be in the next month, but we know could be much longer. God forbid we eat away at what little savings you may have during this vulnerable time for you!” I’ve never heard anyone teach in church, “Please don’t feel like you need to give if you are on food stamps or Medicaid!” “Please don’t give if you participate in WIC!” For Pete’s sake, these are the people we should be assisting with the money we’re gathering. What sense does it make to take from them?
This is still only looking at a Western context. What about those living on under $1 a day? Do we really think God wants them to give 10% of that? That is ludicrous and disgusting.
I think God only smiles on those who wish to give despite having little. But I think he scowls at us who continue to make these people feel this is what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s time to move beyond, “If you’re not a member.” It’s time to add nuance to our discussions of tithing by letting others know that we will not unjustly ask them to give at a level incompatible with financial position. And hopefully this only increases the sense of responsibility felt by those who are in a better position to give.