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By PHILIP GAILEY, Editor of Editorials
Published December 9, 2007
Consider the choices of two churchgoing Christians. One tithes, giving 10 percent of his gross income to the church and another 3 percent to charity. The other gives 3 percent to the church and contributes 10 percent to charities that feed the hungry, clothe the ragged and shelter the homeless.
Both believe they are doing God's will, but contrary to what most pastors preach, I believe the one who puts charity ahead of the church in his giving comes closer to the teachings of Jesus. That's my opinion, not a judgment. The church is where we worship God; the world outside is where we must do his work. The human needs of a community are just as important, maybe even more so, than the spiritual needs of church members. I recognize that some tithers also give generously to charities. However, many people have to make choices about where to put their money.
There are those who tithe and those who don't. And that's the way it should be. It should be the individual's choice. Tithing should not be a requirement or a pressure point on church-goers, especially on those who are struggling to make ends meet for their own families.
This view will not sit well with many pastors and denominations. They preach tithing from the pulpit, as if it were a toll booth on the road to salvation. Some churches require their employees, even those who barely make a living wage, to tithe, and others try to make church members who don't feel guilty. This borders on extortion.
No wonder, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, there is a growing backlash against tithing in churches across the country, and not just in the evangelical megachurches whose charismatic pastors depend on generous giving to fund their extravagant lifestyles.
"Opponents of tithing say it is a misreading of the Bible, a practice created by man, not God," the Journal reported. "They say they should be free to donate whatever amount they choose, and they are arguing with pastors, writing letters and quitting congregations in protest. In response, some pastors have changed their teaching and rejected what has been a favored form of fundraising for decades."
Most churches are holding firm on tithing despite the protests. Some require new members to sign covenants, promising to tithe or give generously. And those congregants who refuse to tithe are being denied leadership roles and, in some cases, asked to leave the church. Then there are churches that try to embarrass non-tithers by publicly recognizing, in church bulletins or at Sunday morning services, those who have pledged to tithe.
At the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., professor Andreas Kostenberger challenges tithing in his classes on the New Testament. There is no 10 percent rule in the New Testament, he told the Journal, adding that pastors perpetuate tithing out of "pragmatism, tradition and ignorance, quite frankly."
Even the income taxes levied by the government seem fairer than tithing, which is based on gross income. The government at least allows for exemptions and deductions and taxes you on your "adjusted" net income. If that's good enough for Caesar, then why shouldn't that be the standard for tithing?
I don't understand why pastors would even raise the subject of tithing with congregants they know to be on the edge financially. Take the example cited by the Journal: Kevin Rohr earned $34,200 a year organizing youth activities at his Ohio church where tithing is emphasized to all and required of church employees. Struggling to support his wife and four children on his income, Rohr told his pastor in a letter that he believes Christians are not required to tithe. His letter was treated as heresy by church leaders, and soon afterward, he left the church and is now driving a truck to support his family.
Churches, of course, have expenses, including salaries for the pastor and church employees. They also are involved in some charitable programs, often taking up special collections for them. If you are curious about how your church is spending its money, you should ask to see the books for an accounting. Accept nothing on faith.
Some church members, meanwhile, are using their checkbooks as an instrument of protest. For example, earlier this year a new rector arrived at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg and, before taking the pulpit for his first sermon, summarily fired the church organist, an accomplished musician who had been a pillar of the church for 22 years. The rector didn't even know the organist and never bothered to meet with him. He gave no public explanation for his action, leaving the impression that the organist was fired for cause.
Some church members thought what the rector did was un-Christian and the way he did it reprehensible, but the controversy soon quieted down as Episcopalians went back to being Episcopalians. One longtime St. Thomas member, however, found a way to express her outrage. She reduced her annual gift to the church to $52, one dollar a week. Imagine if a hundred other members had followed her lead.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified December 10, 2007, 07:49:18]