Rick Barry is Executive Director of the Center for Christian Civics. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and also currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.
“I give God 10%. Why should I give you 15?”
I have to admit that I am an avid reader of service industry horror-story blogs like Not Always Right, and I think they have helped me become a better and more considerate customer. But as a Christian, my heart sinks when I see a story on one of these blogs about ministry leaders or church groups treating their servers poorly, and even declining to tip at all. One high-profile example, which broke out of the service industry blogs and into the broader press, was of a St. Louis pastor who declined to tip, citing that a standard tip was more than a Biblical tithe. "I give God 10%," the receipt read, "why should I give you 18?"
Since today is #GivingTuesday--a day set aside by the internet to make charitable contributions in the wake of the decadence of Black Friday and Cyber Monday–it seems like as good a time as any to investigate this concept of tithing and generosity. And since high-level conversations about the shape and priorities of the next presidential administration are taking place as we speak, it makes sense to use Giving Tuesday as an excuse to think briefly about what the Bible’s standards for generosity mean for the way we conduct ourselves corporately.
Before the Tithe
In Old Testament times, God’s people were law-bound to certain economic practices and uses of their resources that limited their income even before they tithed. Perhaps the most famous of these practices is the keeping of the Sabbath. Many of us in the west, where shift work is common and one or two days off a week are standard amenities even for many non-shift-based jobs, may initially have a hard time understanding the economic implications of the Sabbath. But for one day every week, God’s people were forbidden from performing economically beneficial work. For a mostly agrarian society where salaried positions really didn’t exist, the amount of time you put into tending your fields had a direct effect on the viability of your crops and the size of your yield, or the number of days you put into laboring directly translated into the amount of money you earned. Honoring the Sabbath for ancient Israel meant deliberately foregoing some of your income.
What is perhaps most shocking to those of us who live in a society wherein economic benefit is often considered the same thing as social benefit, scripture tells us that this rule limiting Israel’s economic activity was put in place for the good of man (“the Sabbath was made for man, man was not made for the Sabbath”). Their economic sacrifices were meant to give them space to worship and tend to their relationships in focused manners. Though western culture has largely nodded toward the biblical Sabbath in the form of weekends, for most people the weekends are still a time of commerce--shopping for some, working at shops for others, and putting in the hard work of tending fields or a thousand other forms of service and labor for still others. More than that, even many who ostensibly have weekends off regularly feel pressured to check our work email, spend time doing office work at home, or tend to “side hustles” every day we aren’t in the office.
Old Testament Israelites were bound by the law to sacrifice a significant portion of their careers and economic productivity through their practice of the Sabbath. But it didn’t end there: Even as they tended and harvested their fields the other six days of the week, they were not allowed to harvest them entirely. Leviticus 19:9-10 lays out restrictions on how much economic benefit they were allowed to reap, for the sake of ensuring that they were creating opportunity for others:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
This passage specifies that leaving enough in your fields for others to glean is a requirement for the benefit of the poor and the foreigners, while other Old Testament passages add widows and orphans to this list.
So, before they even could consider what to do with the fruit of their work and productivity, Old Testament believers had to deliberately limit their productivity for the sake of their worship, for the sake of their relationships, and for the sake of those around them who were poorer or more marginalized than themselves. These laws were in place not just for the Israelites who were living in times of prosperity in their own lands, but also for Israelites who were captured and living as exiles in Babylon and in Persia.
But once you account for those sacrifices, Israelites just had to donate a tenth of their harvest or economic product and then they were good, right?
The Old Testament law actually mandated believers to tithe three times on their income: once for the sake of maintaining the temple and paying the tribe who works there; once for the annual sacrifices and feasts; and once to fund the community’s further care for the poor, the immigrant, the widow and the orphan:
“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting … For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.”
Numbers 18:21, 24
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lordyour God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do."
All in, these three tithes amounted to approximately 20-30% of an Israelite’s (already reduced) income each year.
Christian Generosity Today
Of course, how these Old Testament laws translate into the lives of Christian believers in the modern U.S. is an open question: Is the Sabbath as clear and courageous and evangelical of a statement in a society that already affirms the benefit of rest? Is there any kind of modern equivalent to gleaning in a post-industrial economy? In a representative democracy, do the social services made possible by our tax dollars serve the same function as the tithe to care for the “quartet of the vulnerable?” Christians of honest faith can disagree about the answers to these questions.
But when I hear people who claim the name of Jesus, who know God’s lavish grace, point to their tithe as the reason they don’t need to practice other generosity, I tend to think they have it wrong on two fronts:
First, “the” tithe, whichever tithe they are looking at, was only one among a constellation of procedures and strictures for generosity in the Old Testament. Those prescriptions were meant to be followed all together in a believer’s life for the sake of integrating him or her into a society in which members simultaneously declared they didn’t need to maximize their productivity and gave away a lavish portion of what they produced.
But even more than that, believers in the Christian era are called to run the race before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who, though he was rich, for our sakes became poor, that by his poverty we might become rich. He didn’t set aside a tenth of his glory, spill a tenth of his blood, sacrifice a tenth of his life, raise from a tenth of a grave. As the common modern worship song points out, he gave his everything. If we want to follow this Christ, we should begin being as ambitious about our hospitality and generosity as an athlete is about the next game or competition. Declaring that you are only “required” to give 10% is a tacit rejection of being grafted into the body of a Christ who gave 100% in his efforts to prepare a place for us and secure our access to it.
Today is Giving Tuesday. In the spirit of the day, I’d love for you to make an additional contribution to your local church, a contribution to another ministry that is tending to the needs of the poor in your town, and, yes, a contribution of $30 or more to Center for Christian Civics. (We really can't publish new articles or equip local ministries without your support.)
But this is also a blog about faith and civics, so I don’t think we should stop there. In the Old Testament, when they only had a glimpse of God’s goodness, God’s people were called to collaborate and conspire together to make his generosity and mercy felt. They were bound to a divine law that didn’t just ask them to be generous and hospitable in their personal lives--they were also called to bend the systems and processes of their social order toward mercy and hospitality, as well.
In the coming year, we will be encouraging you to begin getting involved with neighborhood groups, getting to know your local representatives and visiting the district offices of your Congressional representatives. Before you do, though, spend some time prayerfully considering what it would look like to “go public” with the Bible’s vision for holistic, ambitious mercy and generosity. What would a church community dedicated to sacrificial gratitude be like? If your neighborhood or town were in the news, what would you want the story to be about? How do you want a country that reflects your citizenship to conduct itself?
I pray that this Giving Tuesday is an opportunity not just to make a few donations, but for you and your Christian community to begin engaging in benevolent conspiracies, conspiracies to witness to Christ’s mercy and justice in your towns and states.
The Center for Christian Civics is preparing to expand our team and build new programming to help local churches around the country encourage and equip believers to carry their faith into the public square in ways that are life-giving and counter-cultural. But we can't do it without your support. Make a one-time Giving Tuesday donation today!