To Tithe or Not To Tithe: That is Not the Question

Props to Call & Response blog for calling our attention to the new National Association of Evangelicals survey on tithing.

As reported by CNN, the survey shows a 42/58 split of evangelical leaders against regarding tithing as a biblical requirement.

The most insightful comment in the CNN piece comes from Purdue University sociology professor Dan Olson, who notes that the survey results may be more a referendum on the survey question’s phrasing (i.e., what does it mean for tithing to be “required”? Required for what?) than an indication that attitudes are changing about tithing.

“Most of those leaders would probably say, ‘you really ought to tithe, but the term ‘requires’ gets at a theological point,” he said.

I like that point a whole lot better than Olson’s next point.

“Most Christians would say the laws of the Old Testament are not what save you – you’re supposed to be giving out of a spirit of freedom, not because you’re bound to laws,” he said.

That’s a dichotomy (giving because one is “bound to laws”–ostensibly, laws like tithing–versus giving out of a “spirit of freedom”) that may prove unhelpful in promoting greater maturity in Christian giving.

That’s because it’s a dichotomy that continues to permit us American Christians to duck–as a matter of theological principle, no less–serious questions related to how we’re spending our money, like:

Does the “spirit of freedom” really prompt us to spend on average 98% of our money on ourselves?

We repudiate–with moral indignation, even–discussion of questions like this on the grounds that giving is not a salvation question, so putting parameters around our giving (e.g., through promotion of practices like tithing) must be a repudiation of salvation by grace.

But what if the question were not “Is tithing required?” but rather “What are the practices related to giving that have generally accompanied Christians’ growth to fullness in Christ?”

That shift in inquiry would likely reveal two things:

  1. Most of us American Christians aren’t much interested in growing to fullness in Christ as a practical matter–great when it happens, but hardly normative and certainly not required. Our focus is more on getting in–to heaven, of course–and any question or practice that causes us to stray away from that issue is regarded as suspect–works righteousness leavening the flaky golden loaf of salvation-as-free-gift.
  2. Most of us American Christians see growth in generosity as a spontaneous act of Transformation From Above, born in golden moments of great serendipity (the Christian equivalent of Random Acts of Jaw-Dropping Kindness, where the opportunity to give is so God-ordained that even we spoiled, selfish American Christians don’t usually fail to see it), as opposed to something we are responsible to plan ahead of time and that we can get better at by following practices that more mature saints than us have undertaken across the ages .

This revised question also presupposes that there are indeed discernible, generalizable practices (i.e., “rules” or “laws” in the sense of “ways of life,” not in the sense of “things you need to do to get saved”) related to giving that do actually consistently accompany growth to Christlikeness.

Put differently, spontaneity in giving–a commitment to avoiding patterns or disciplined rules for the regular charitable disposition of one’s finances–is, um, less likely to lead to fullness in Christ than is following disciplined patterns and rules.

This is not to say that all disciplined patterns and rules lead to fullness in Christ. Some don’t. Some really do lead to insularity, legalism, and self-righteousness.

But that does not make spontaneity (giving out of a “spirit of freedom”) an unassailable good or even a recommended practice for giving. We’d contend (in fact, we did in this seven-post series) that spontaneity and a lack of rules and disciplines of giving enslave us again to the very things from which Christ came to set us free.

So the question ought not to be whether tithing is required but whether it is a practice that typically accompanies growth to fullness in Christ–and, if so, whether there are elements related to that practice that are more or less helpful (i.e., more likely to produce Christlikeness than crotchety legalism).

Wouldn’t it be interesting, for example, to see a study on whether giving away a greater percentage of one’s income was correlated with other evidences of fullness in Christ?

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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4 Responses to To Tithe or Not To Tithe: That is Not the Question

  1. Theresa says:

    T) I don’t claim 2 understand yr words at all, (as u no!), bt aren’t Christians meant 2 make up their own minds about giving and give cheerfully whilst not under compulsion. Therefore wivout rules n discipline? Just a thought. T*

    Rev Foley) Why do we ask whether tithing is required? Because we’re not actually interested in becoming like Christ

    T) Isn’t it through questioning that one finds their way to becoming like Christ? Surely it doesn’t just happen? Or does it?



  2. rickelblog says:

    Of course, then there is the not oft quoted passage from Matthew 25
    41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ NIV

    We’re not even talking about tithing here, but something beyond that basic form of giving. Seems rather extreme in today’s world view, does it not? What do you suppose Jesus meant?

    • EFoley says:

      Great comment, Tim. I become more and more convinced that truly radical Christianity simply means hearing the word and doing it, by the grace of God!

  3. EFoley says:

    Hi Theresa!

    I can’t quite claim to understand your words here either, so please forgive me if I’m not quite answering the right question. What I would suggest is that there is a real serious difference between compulsion and discipline. Let me give you an analogy. If I say that I am going to the gym to exercise under compulsion, it means I’m being forced to exercise. That may help my body, but it’s sure not going to help my spirit. But having a disciplined approach to exercise is going to be necessary for me to grow in body and spirit. If I just show up at the gym and exercise without discipline, I will end up sticking with the exercises I like and which don’t stretch me. And that’s not going to bring me any growth.

    Hope that helps. Let me know if I’ve missed what you were asking, though.

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