“The church is always looking for money.” Am I right?

Recently, I was asked about my thoughts on tithing – which I’m defining here as the religious principle of setting aside ten percent of your productivity (i.e. most often, money) to give to the church.  If you’re a regular church-goer, you’ve probably heard sermons on this topic – probably a couple of times a year.  If you’re not a church-goer, this may be a reason why – because they’re always wanting more money.  While I don’t necessarily love to write about things like this, hopefully this will serve a couple of goals: 1. I get more writing practice in, and 2. we can look at some broader concepts here.  Plus it’s the first “10th” of 2010 – so it’s ironically fitting that a non-religious Christian would be writing about this today . . . at least in my mind.

It’s important to recognize tithing is an old concept from times when productivity was most often measured in commodities and not in profits or money or stocks.  Farmers would give a tenth of their crops to the “people of God” via the high-priests.  Ranchers would give a tenth of their calves.  This was a trend that continued across all “professions” for generations and generations.

It’s also important to remember that these people were “obligated” by law on a number of different fronts – not just giving their tithes.  There were rituals and laws and obligatory behaviors for almost everything.  They were highly regulated – throughout the Old Testament and up to Jesus appearance on the scene, which we’ll get to in a moment.  And one final point – tithing is not exclusive to the Judeo-Christian world: Babylonian texts talk about it; Sikhism talks about it; one of the five pillars of Islam is alms giving in which a fixed percentage of wealth is given to charity.

So for thousands of years people understood that they were required to give ten percent, regardless of sunshine or rain or war or drought or famine, of what they produced both for the greater good of the people and as an element of their worship.  There were punishments for not holding to this rule.  It’s easy to imagine that there was guilt and anxiety associated with this.  Like so many other things, it was “required” behavior.

The law served as an interesting construct in daily lives.  We know about the Ten Commandments – there’s a movie about that, I hear.  We know of the laws about stoning people who let their beards grow beyond 17 cubits and do not groom themselves with the brush formed of the bones of a 3 year old steer and the hair of a purple boar (fact check: this may not actually be a law, per se).  There were a lot of them, but they regulated daily life, especially when you consider the road rage of walking downwind of hundreds and thousands of people and donkeys and cattle in desert-level heat without a rest-stop in sight.  The amount of “stuff” alone would have to have been over-whelming.  You would step in “stuff”.  You would have smelled “stuff”. “Stuff” happens and so there were laws about everything, including “stuff” and the things that being surrounded by “stuff” would make you want to do to your neighbor.

Moving on.

Jesus shows up, amid a time of religiosity and occupation by a foreign army,  and sets a milestone in the course of history as it relates how people express their faith.  By this time, law was king.  Teachers had added their own interpretations of the hundreds of rules people already had to live by if they wanted to be in with God.  Systemic, punishing reprimand was the norm.  What Jesus ushered in was grace-filled, loving, thoughtful, peaceful freedom.

Essentially, His message was this – these laws were in place for a reason.  But, we’ve taken it to the extreme.  Humans (e.g. the Pharisees) have hijacked the system and made it about them and made it worse.  What God wanted to do was foster a sense of right and wrong towards each other.  What people have done is to require mindless obedience to nonsensical amendments.  It’s not about the law.  It’s about your heart.  It’s about the intentions with which you act.  It’s about the generosity of your spirit.  It’s about seeing a need and filling it.  It’s about knowing that when you do it for the prisoner or the poor or the proselytizer, you do it to me.  Not just on my behalf, but to me.  When you see the widow give what little she has out of her compassion that’s worth immeasurably more than the religious man who gives thousands of dollars out fo obligation.

As far as we know the first century church, alive the novelty of “no more rules” didn’t begin hoarding and taxing and running capital campaigns to build larger sanctuaries and nicer facilities.  Interestingly enough, they gave freely.  They sold all their belongings and gave to the poor.  All is well above 10%.  Even most is well above 10%.  When the “tenth” guideline was removed, the early church became more generous.  If we believe biblical history, we can assume this means that more people were having their basic needs met.  More widows and orphans and lepers and the unloved were being loved on.  The intention behind why the law was created had been transferred to the intentions of the hearts of individuals.  The wave of love that was unleashed must have been enormous.

What is aggravating to me is that shortly (in epic terms) after this incredible revolution our churches revert to rules that induce guilt rather than cultivating individual compassion.  Within a few hundred years, the church began instituting rules to ensure that the needs of their clergy were met.  From the earliest of days we can see how the church can ruin a good thing like a well-intending Christian.

Giving is not motivated by guilt and obligation.  It’s hand-cuffed by it.  Jesus understood this.  The early church understood this. They by-passed institutions and establishments with their administrative costs and value-adds and gave lavishly of what they had and who they were directly to those that needed. Why we believed then and believe now that an institution was necessary is evermore beyond my understanding.

If you are a part of a church community like I am, you should fund it’s operation.  You should realize that “tithing” to a church means that you’re not tithing to eradicate need in your community, to feed the widows and orphans, to clothe the naked, to visit the prisoner.  A portion decided by your leaders will be directed to ministries like these, but you are also funding the purchase of equipment, the paying of salaries, the printing of programs, the transportation of guests, etc.  If we choose big, expensive churches, with expanding campuses, high-tech production equipment, and comfortable theatre seating up-grades, we have to be prepared to pay more.  It’s like choosing a Benz over a Ford over a Kia over a Vespa.

I have been taught that we are to “tithe” to our church to meet these needs and if we are so compelled to give beyond this “tenth” to our surrounding community as we see fit.

I believe the teaching of Jesus turns this on its head.  We are to give generously and lavishly to meet the needs that we encounter – whether that’s homeless men needing food or shelter, families needing basic necessities for life at Christmas, children needing clothing, prisoners needing friends.  We are to give from our hearts, motivated by love, compassion, or whatever emotions compel us to eradicate hunger and disease and anxiety and loneliness and pain.

Our churches are best viewed as a luxury as it relates to our faith.  They are not necessary.  They are places that we choose in the same way that we shop for a vehicle.  It’s a matter of preference: do they have comfortable seats, a kicking sound system, a powerful engine, and a smooth ride?  But they have to be in our budget as well.

I will purposefully choose simplicity.  I will purposefully choose a community with lower administrative costs that echoes these thoughts – of giving lavishly from what they have as a church to meet the needs of those around them from an institutional level.  But I will not rely on them to know my heart or to act on my behalf, and I will not be handcuffed by the guilt of not meeting my 10% quota to fund the church.

There is nothing in me that wants to live restrained under the law of the Pharisees or the law of the church.  I choose to live free of the guilt of having only paid 8.2% this month and wondering if I need to make up the difference.  I choose to find and meet needs.

I choose grace.