by Dominic Roser
Is tithing a duty? Many Christians don’t think so. Rather, they view the tithe as a powerful guide to help us when we’re tempted to give much less than we ought. It points us in the right direction even if we’re unsure of what the ideal percentage to give actually is. Giving What We Can uses similar reasons to justify why they use 10% for their giving pledge.
In contrast, other Christians think that giving 10% is a genuine duty. Often, the flip-side of this view is the claim that there is no duty to give more than 10%. Furthermore, it often goes along with this belief that the tithe should go fully to one’s church. It’s these beliefs that I would like to challenge in this blogpost. If our giving is capped at 10% and if it goes fully to our church, then this contradicts ideas prevalent within the effective altruism movement of using a potentially much larger fraction of our income (say, 70%) to make the world a better place.
A duty to give at least 10%?
I suggest that there is no genuine duty to give 10%. Why?
The first and most central point to note is that Paul taught us that we are no longer under the law. Therefore, thinking of the 10% as a duty seems the wrong approach to start with. Admittedly, when Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their legalism (“You give to God a tenth of herbs, like mint, dill, and cumin”; Matt 23:23), he put it this way: “you ought to have performed [these duties of the law], without neglecting the other [duties of the law].” But the emphasis in this passage is not on the first half – the duty of giving 10% of everything – but rather on the second half, namely the call to practice “judgment, mercy, and honesty”.
Secondly, the tithe plays hardly any role in the New Testament. Generously sharing one’s wealth is frequently discussed, yet it is not linked to the practice of tithing. The driving force for generously sharing one’s wealth is something different than the tithing laws, namely: that people were in need (Acts 4:34; 11:29), that giving benefits the giver (1 Tim 6:10; 2 Cor 9:6-8), that Christians were “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32), that we can prove genuine love (2 Cor 8:8), that fairness rules (2 Cor 8:13), that labour is remunerated (1 Tim 5:18), that thanks is given to God (2 Cor 9:12) – and at times, it is the plainly straightforward and simply obvious thing to do (Galatians 2:10). In contrast, the practice of tithing is not mentioned as the reason for donating money. (Note, by the way, that many Jews follow the rule of giving 10% to charity and, for them as well, this rule has no clear relationship to the tithing laws of the Torah).
No duty to give more than 10%?
Often, we feel that as long as we have given 10%, we have “paid our dues”. Some think that as clearly as there is a duty to give no less than 10%, there is also no duty to give more than 10%.
However, this is not biblically borne out. As we have just seen, the Bible often gives reasons for sharing wealth other than the tithing laws. These other reasons plausibly speak to giving more than 10%. Indeed, in some passages it seems like the idea is to go beyond 10%, for example by giving half of one’s possessions (Luke 19:8), by selling all one’s possessions (Mark 10:21), by having everything in common (Acts 2:45), by giving according to one’s means (Acts 11:29; 1 Cor 16:2), or by giving beyond one’s means (2 Cor 8:3).
What’s more, even if one were to tie one’s donation practices to the Old Testament’s tithing laws, one could still not rightfully lean back after 10%. The tithe in the Old Testament is commonly interpreted by Jewish Scholars as consisting of three tithes, though there is some disagreement on this. The first tithe supported the Levites and the Priests. The second tithe consisted of produce to be consumed in Jerusalem with the injunction to rejoice (doesn’t the idea of combining tithing and rejoicing sound reminiscent of effective altruism?!). The third tithe was for the support of the poor and the Levites. This third tithe was to be given in different years than the second tithe, so in sum, the tithes amounted to something like 20% of certain produce. Notice also that there were further subtractions from one’s income such as first fruits, heave offering, the right of the poor to glean the left-overs from one’s fields, and, importantly, the jubilee year redistributions.
Therefore, regardless of whether one considers the Old Testament tithing laws as authoritative or not, in neither case can it be argued that the Bible support complacency after 10% has been given.
Giving only to one’s church?
The Bible does not support a general rule of giving 10% to one’s church. First, the Old Testament tithing laws do not support this. As we have seen, one of the three tithes had the purpose of supporting the poor (rather than the priests and Levites). Another of the three tithes was to be consumed by the tithing person in Jerusalem. Secondly, the New Testament doesn’t support it either. The New Testament speaks of donations for the support of the poor and not only for the support of the church. Admittedly, care for the poor was often done through the church. Partly, this was because it wasn’t possible to do online transfers like we can do today. Partly, there are also reasons for helping the poor via the church that still hold today, e.g. to teach us to submit to group wisdom rather than each of us following our own preferences for charitable giving in an excessively individualist manner. Thirdly, even in the passage in which Paul calls on us to support the elders, preachers, and teachers he makes no reference to tithing (1 Tim 5:17-18).
So, by all means, support the church (both locally and globally). However, do not reduce the amount you give towards poverty relief on the basis of an imaginary duty to give 10% to your church.
The 10%-rule is a fantastic life-hack of the Christian tradition. If your giving is below 10%, use it as a rallying point for you and your community’s aspirations. I found it helpful during my student years to ensure that giving became a routine practice in my life, regardless of my financial circumstances.
However, do not use it as a tool of complacency. Western Christians in the 21st century have such incredible opportunities to support others in their flight from poverty that it would be a real shame if they were held back by the false idea of a tithing law. If you can give more than 10% – or much more – then please follow Nike instead of the Pharisees: Just do it.