The Trouble with Tithing

“How many here believe a Christian ought to tithe?”

Every small-town pastor’s hand went up but one, which was no surprise, because we were in Texas. I could see, too, that the lone dissenter was well-known to his colleagues; he was a sort of village atheist (adjusting for the context) who could be counted on to take a poke at almost any truth held sacred by the others.

I said, “Okay, how many would say most of the members of your governing board actually tithe?”

This time the response was tepid—of three dozen pastors’ hands, two or three shot confidently skyward. Six or seven others slowly rose, and then drooped to half-staff. The rest of the pastors laughed. I said, “I wonder whether, under the circumstances, talking to most of your congregations about tithing might be counterproductive.”

Protestant clergy generally like the tithe. Think of it: median U.S. household income averages $46,000, and the average churchgoing household does even better. If a 200-household congregation tithed, its total giving would be close to a million dollars! Even the most math-challenged of us can be dazzled by the prospect of such riches.

The tithe has many advantages, especially from a clergy point of view—it is automatic, self-escalating, and does not require talking about next year’s budget. Plus—it’s an ancient tenet of our faith. Or is it?

We love to exaggerate the age of everything religious—sometimes it takes an actual historian to set us straight. James Hudnut-Beumler’s new book In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism begins to fill a serious gap in the history of American religion.

It turns out that the tithe, as a suggested giving level for church members, is a relatively young idea. Along with many other now-familiar concepts—stewardship, pledging, and the every-member canvass—tithing is a product of the nineteenth-century struggle of American Protestants to get by without tax support, and of the twentieth-century institutionalization of the complex, program-driven model of a congregation. The words tithe and steward appear in the Bible, but the church managed to overlook their fundraising potential till a group of new-world preachers and denominational executives rediscovered them between the Civil War and 1925.

I know better than to wade into the biblical debates about the tithe—whether an Old Testament injunction (unfamiliar to most Jews) applies to Christians, and if so whether churches should get the money; whether churches that are liberal on other subjects can get away with being legalistic when it comes to fundraising; and what, exactly, “tithing” means when governments and secular nonprofits do so much of the charitable work churches used to do.

I leave aside for now also the ethical questions about tithing, such as whether it is a fair way to allocate a congregation’s costs, when ten percent of a million dollars requires so much less sacrifice than the same fraction of ten thousand; whether emphasizing income lets the richest Christians off the hook because their affluence consists mostly of wealth, not income; and whether churches and their leaders are remotely competent to manage the amount of money tithing would bring in.

There is a lively conversation on all these subjects both on the religious left (mostly in the Episcopal Church, which seems to read the Bible differently depending whether it is talking about tithing or gay priests) and on the right (where my lone village atheist now seems to have more company than ever).

Today I will stay out of biblical interpretation and stick to the more practical concern I raised with the Texas pastors: does it work to advocate for tithing (or any other standard of giving) when church leaders are not following their own advice? New members, especially, want to know what the church’s actual expectations are, and won’t be fooled for long by a prefabricated standard unconnected with what other people in the congregation do.

When congregations want to increase members’ giving, it helps for the governing board to approve the “ask” not once but twice: first by voting, then by giving. In many congregations it is a refreshing shock to hear, “We are asking each of you to consider giving ______, and we would like you to know that the members of your governing board have all committed personally to say “yes” to this request.” It is worth moderating the “ask” quite a bit in order to gain the credibility that kind of leadership commitment can supply.

Many clergy try to achieve this kind of credibility by flying solo—hoping to influence others, they reveal the basis, or even the amount, of their own giving. With some people this works, but with others it can backfire badly. A tithing pastor who tries to set an example single-handed risks reinforcing what we might call “substitutionary stewardship”—the willingness of many congregants to allow the pastor to be holier than they.

The practical concern here is not with tithing per se, or with telling people about it. It is with making tithing—or any other standard of giving—the main institutional “ask” without reality-testing it against the actual behavior of the governing board and other leaders. The first time a board is asked to practice what it preaches—to give personally according to the standard they approve for others—can be a hard conversation. Board members raise all of the same objections other people do: How can I afford it? Won’t this mean I’m paying more than my fair share? Why should I give this much? What is the real basis of this “ask”?

These are great questions! Here’s another: What if it works? What would we do if our church had twice the money it has now? This is a good conversation anywhere in any congregation, but especially at the board table. Without a clear, inspiring vision that requires a lot more money, hardly anyone, even on the board, is going to tithe—at least not to your church.