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Should we give to the church? When? How much?

by on September 22, 2009

In my Presbyterian tradition, as in many others, we typically have a “stewardship” season that culminates on a particular Sunday on which the congregation submits prayerfully discerned pledges of financial support for the upcoming year’s ministry. The goal is that 100% of the members will pledge 10% of their income. That doesn’t happen. But should it?

The Christian practice of the “tithe” (10%) finds some precedence in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the guidance there is inconsistent. Generally speaking, tithing is offered upon perishable items like food. It is voluntary. In limited instances, it is exchangeable for money to support the work of the Temple and (not “or”, probably “as”) benevolences to servants, orphans, widows and foreigners.

The Christian Scriptures don’t clarify things much. Jesus himself is suspect of the tithe. He excoriates the religious leaders of his day for tithing while neglecting the greater demands of social justice. The tithe, it seems, allows people to delude themselves regarding their faithfulness; “I tithe, that’s enough.”

In contrast, Jesus praises the widow who gives all she has, though it is a miniscule amount in comparison to others. The important criterion for Jesus is not quantity but quality. What the poor give is of higher quality and deserves praise because when the poor give, they give a greater percentage of what they have. The poor don’t have enough to calculate a tithe and thus satisfy a minimum requirement. They give what they have, and then do without.

Paul appears to have a practice of collecting financial gifts and sending them to Jerusalem for the poor. His standard is twofold, neither of which is a tithe: gratitude for being able to participate in God’s Kingdom, and whatever is in keeping with one’s income. So the gift answers the questions, “How grateful am I? What am I doing with what God entrusted me?”

In Acts, those who have give for the sake of those who do not have. And more, the givers do not offer out of their surplus, they sell what they have to support the poor.

In sum, the Christian mindset, according to the Newer Testament, is one of sacrificial generosity to the end that no one suffers want. In other words, Christian giving emulates Christ who gave what he had for the benefit of others.

For these biblical reasons, tithing doesn’t become a Christian expectation in the West until the 6th century. Christendom, the wedding of church and state, makes it the norm. Under the auspices of state sponsorship, in order to support the institutional church, a tax of sorts—the tithe—is levied upon the people.

What should we do today? Christendom is passing, but we still have the institutional church to support. In addition to helping the poor, we support buildings and salaries, like mine and my staff. We don’t meet in people’s homes, and ministers don’t rely on food offerings to support our families while we provide liturgical leadership.

The passing of Christendom aside, ours is a consumer and a professional culture. It is consistent with our contemporary context that people in the pews “pay” for the expert “services” provided by the church staff: leadership, stewardship of the building, education, and facility in helping the needy.

But with the passing of Christendom, and especially as our economic conditions worsen, I believe the church needs to emphasize mission more, and maintenance less. In other words, we need to give more financially, not to maintain our buildings and salaries, but to help more people.

I believe stewardship seasons and pledge Sundays and tithing are insufficient mechanisms for equipping the church for mission. They may be responsible means for managing the church as an institution with buildings and paid staff. But I believe they risk bankrupting us spiritually.

God doesn’t want us to limit our stewardship emphasis to a season or a Sunday. And God doesn’t want us to dedicate a prescribed percentage of our income to the mission of the church. God wants us to be good and faithful stewards every day, and with 100% of our income. And regularly, for Christians on Sundays, God wants us to offer ourselves anew in service to God’s Kingdom.

Today we do that through the church during worship and when we financially support its mission. God calls us all to do this. We discern, week by week, how much to support this mission. It can’t be prescribed. It isn’t a duty we fulfill, or an offering of our surplus. It is instead our real time response to people’s real needs, out of our gratitude, and in proportion to what we have. It is the routine re-spiritualization of our church and our economy and our lives.

I think this is why Jesus forbids the swearing of oaths among his followers. To promise, swear, or pledge is to presume upon the future, a prerogative which belongs only to God. This prohibition applies first to other financial obligations before it does to the church. Imagine if you hadn’t signed your name on the credit card receipt, pledging to make the payment in the future. You’d have more cash on hand to help others in need.

Jesus wants his followers to trust God for the future, and to be faithful to God in the future. Part of that faithfulness is the ability to give when there is need, not being bound by previous pledges.

Is pledging to the church the exception? Paul seems to encourage the pre-meditated setting aside of a sum for the collection he will take to the poor. He assumes a weekly cycle, almost certainly tied to the liturgical rhythm of the Christian community. But it also allows people to reflect weekly upon their gratitude and their opportunity to give.

By contrast, most churches doing a pledge drive work in a yearly cycle. We then develop a budget based on what people have promised to give. We’re then bound by that budget and cannot respond to needs as they arise without asking for extraordinary giving by the congregation. We’ve also subordinated the mission of the church to the likes and dislikes of the congregation rather than to the Spirit’s leading. And we’re setting people up for a violation of Christ’s commandment in such cases that, when people don’t like the direction we’re going as a church, they withhold their pledges or leave altogether.

Isn’t there a better way? I don’t have an answer to the questions I’m raising. But I’d like to propose a change in the way the church manages its finances. Let us once again dedicate ourselves first to Christ’s mission, i.e., to helping others. Let us be responsive to needs as they arise. Let us regularly invite our congregations to support the mission first, and then subordinate the maintenance of the church to that mission. Let us invite our congregations to contribute to a budget that reflects our prayerful discernment of what God is calling us to do, not minister under a budget restricted by their pledges. Let us give our congregations an opportunity to gratefully participate in the Kingdom of God.

In the words of Hebrews 13:15-16, Through Christ, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Let us not neglect to do good and to share what we have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

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