Tithing and Alms: Itís not About Money
"The Angel Raphael ...exhorts us to give alms freely and generously, saying to us: Prayer is good with fasting and almsgiving; for alms delivereth from death, and the same purgeth away sins (Tobit. 12:8-9). He shows us that prayer and fasting are not enough, and that they are to be assisted by almsgiving; that supplication avails little to obtain what we ask, unless joined to good works and acts of mercy. The Angel reveals... that our requests become efficacious through almsgiving, that our life shall be delivered from dangers by almsgiving that our soul shall be delivered from death through almsgiving." (Hieromartyr Cyprian of Carthage, +258 A.D.)
I have never met a person who tithes and was not on fire for the Lord.
If you don't tithe, you may not really trust God. Or, put another way: if you don't trust God with your wallet, do you really trust Him with anything else? Tithing is a faith issue, a spiritual issue. It is not a money issue. If you are on fire and seek to love God and serve Him with all your heart, mind and soul, you will tithe. Tithing will flow from within you. You will not see it as giving ten percent of your money to the Church. Tithing is returning to the Lord what is His. Does not God own the cattle on a thousand hills, or every beast in the forest? (Ps 50:10) Is it not God who puts the breath in your lungs? (Gn 2:7) Does He not clothe the lilies of the field (Mi 6:28) and know the number of hairs on your head? (Mt 10:30) Can your money save your soul? Tithing is the voluntary return of ten percent of your income to the Lordís storehouse, the Church.
Tithing can be likened to taking the spiritual temperature of the soul. If a person tithes with a pure heart, he is putting his trust in God. The same can be said for the local Church. If it is resistant to tithing, there is a good chance it is resistant to going outside and sharing the Good News. The people have not put all their trust in God. Often they have put their faith in fundraisers instead. Tithing is an issue of faith and trust. Tithing is evangelical!
There are those "I-believe-in-God-and-go-to-church-every-Sunday-and-do-this-and-that-for-the-church" people who do not tithe and will resist it. They argue that it is part of the Old Testament law, not a New Testament requirement', that it is Protestant, not Orthodox; that it is legalistic, etc. For these people the question really comes down to an issue of Lordship. Who is their Lord, Christ or themselves? Do they have dominion (authority, control, stewardship) over Godís creation? (Gen 1:26) Orthodoxy is a complete commitment. We owe our whole life and our whole being to God. Tithing is returning far less to God than He has to given us. I have never heard arguments against tithing from truly evangelical, zealous, Orthodox Christians. Orthodoxy is a 100% faith. God lets us off easy at 10%.
Talk Is Cheap
Often, a local church community needs to follow the lead of its pastor to begin tithing in earnest. However necessary it is to preach about tithing, more than sermons are needed. People must see tithing in action. First the priest, and then the lay leadership must model tithing. The parish council must tithe. There must be no doubt where they stand on the question. When the priest does not tithe, he is robbing the souls he has been entrusted with of the opportunity to tithe. He lacks credibility, and even burdens his people when he urges them to trust God. The Desert Fathers used to say that preaching such virtues without practicing them is like throwing stones down from the top of a tower.
It takes time for a community to learn to tithe. One sermon or workshop is not enough to create a tithing community. The people must first be prepared to receive this message. They must be convinced of Christ's Lordship in their lives, that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6). With this conviction comes Christ like living and the fullness of the Orthodox way of life.
Tithing And The Eucharistic Life
The whole man is involved in the spiritual life. We Orthodox speak of having a sacramental world-view, one that takes into account the place of the body as well as the soul and spirit. Just as fasting provides a way to sanctify our eating, so our money (and all it represents) is sanctified through tithing. Madison Avenue might tell us we are consumers; but the Church has baptized us and made us stewards. Tithing is a reminder that we are born to a higher calling than to "shop till we drop." There, is an intimate connection between the Eucharist and tithing (see Gen. 14:18-20). Tithing is a mystical, sacramental act, for our attitude toward giving reveals the attitude of our soul. Conversely, if we change the attitude of the soul, then we change the attitude toward giving. Our fallen nature is to be self-centered; we need to understand this first if we can ever hope to do something about it for our salvation. Tithing is a tool that helps us to shift our attitude from seeing our self as Lord to a confession of Christ as Lord.
Beginning To Tithe
It is difficult for first time tithers to tithe. According to experts incremental growth from percentage giving to the (10%) tithe rarely works. It may work for some Orthodox though, because Orthodoxy is highly disciplined. The most effective way to quit smoking or alcohol addiction is to go cold turkey. The same may be true with tithing. New tithers have to step out in faith, out of their comfort zone. The priest has to hold their hands; loving and encouraging them. After the initial stages, success will help to build upon success. I have found over and over again that beginning to tithe causes significant spiritual growth for the new tither. This is what lies behind the saying, "Once a tither, always a tither".
Tithing must be preached with love. Timing is critical. Any preaching on tithing must build upon an already-existing foundation of commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church. People who have "seen the true Light, received the Heavenly Spirit, and found the true faith" will give up many things in order to keep them. Those who are not so committed may just see another person with his hand out when the pastor begins to preach about tithing. A priest should never preach money, only Christ. If the priest preaches money, people will wonder who is the Lord of the community - God or mammon. Still, the priest must at some point also preach an uncomfortable reality: if you are not tithing, you are robbing God. (Mal. 3:8-10)
People do not go to a supermarket just to leave their money at the register. When people go to the supermarket, they leave with groceries. Likewise, we should not ask people to tithe without giving them some nourishment in return, How can people be expected to tithe if they are not being fed and nurtured? The body of Christ must be fed. The people want to be nourished and nurtured. We do not pay the check in a restaurant if we do not receive our food, and we are reluctant to pay if the meal was of a poor quality and disappointing. We do not give money to things we do not like. Likewise, we naturally will not want to tithe if we are not being fed spiritually. This, however, does not mean that priests should simply cater to the desires of the people - the spiritual world has its junk food, too!
It is said that over ninety percent of our waking time is spent either earning or spending money, and yet most people have not been educated as to how to spend their money wisely. Too many people suffer from spending more than they have. The Church has responsibilities to teach in this area. One effective solution to this problem is for the Church to offer financial management classes for the community. This will increase their trust in God and make them better stewards.
Tithing and Our Children
If tithing is a fundamental part of the Christian way of life, as we believe, then it must find a place in our children's education. Children can be taught tithing from an early age. Tithing can and should be taught in church school, but needs to be modeled at home. In addition to their own example, parents can help by giving their children allowances in denominations that allow for an easy calculation of the tithe. For example, a weekly allowance of one dollar can be divided as three quarters, two dimes and a nickel. The parents should assist their children in placing the tithe in the tithe envelope. It is much easier for young children to learn to tithe than it is to re-educate adults who are constantly fighting the old man within.
"The truth bids us long for our Heavenly home, and to tread under foot the desires of the body, to turn from the glory of this world, not to desire what is another's, to be generous with -what is ours. Let each one then reflect within himself whether this voice of God has become loud in the ear of his own heart, and then he will know that he belongs to God." (St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, +604 A.D.)
The fathers of the Church often speak of almsgiving, comparing it to one of the strands of a three-ply rope. These three strands, woven together in the ascetical life of an Orthodox Christian, are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are the themes of Great Lent as well. The rope is weak and may break if the three are not properly interwoven or if one of the strands is absent. Seen in this way, almsgiving covers what we might speak of more generally as financial stewardship, i.e.: tithing and all forms of gift-giving. For our purposes, almsgiving is defined as gift-giving over and above the ten percent tithe. St. Paul the Apostle collected alms for the financially poor Christians in the church of Jerusalem. (2 Cor. 9). This is the only type of fundraising that is blessed in the Scriptures.
Offerings are also in addition to the tithe. Offerings beyond the amount of our tithe, for instance the donation of money or a liturgical vessel, are often made by people in thanksgiving to God for many of the blessings they have received or in memory of departed loved ones.
Fundraising and Dues
A front-page article in the local newspaper stirred a lot of conversation in our community. The subject of the article was "Contemporary Worship." Many were shocked to learn that there is a movement in nondenominational, evangelical America to bring rock-n-roll into worship to make it more attractive. This aim of this movement is to make worship more appealing and thereby to attract greater numbers of people. Two observations we can make are:
- such "contemporary worship" is not Biblical and has never been part of the Christian tradition; and
- this form of worship is a type of outreach that lowers the bar or standard God placed the bar at a certain level, and the Church and its worship exist to help people rise to that level.
The same is true with stewardship. God has placed the bar at a certain level with tithing. To support the church through fundraising instead of tithing is to lower the bar. We must see where the bar is placed and rise to it.
We Orthodox are often grimly amused at the liturgical and dogmatic innovations of other Christian groups. We have to admit, however, that we easily accept very un-Orthodox things in the area of stewardship and parish management that we would never accept in the areas of parish worship or interior decoration. Can we imagine St. John Chrysostom concluding one of his sermons with an invitation "to support the pastry sale that the sisterhood is hosting to pay for the olive oil bill" at Hagia Sophia? Or can we imagine St. John of Kronstadt reminding his parishioners to buy tickets to the raffle/ dinner-dance/Las Vegas night in the parish hall? Of course not.
As Orthodox we would never change our worship and doctrine, so let us not lower the bar either on the holy work of stewardship. Let us seek the Narrow Way. In many parishes this will mean a whole new way of thinking, one that can only be instituted gradually. Extensive fundraising makes newcomers to the faith question whether the Orthodox follow the biblical mandates of stewardship. I know of a specific parish in a fast growing area that practiced tithing and was doing fine meeting its obligations. There was a change in priests and the new priest allowed fundraising. In just a few short years overall income dropped and the priest left because they could no longer pay him. In ten plus years the church has yet to recover, and yet it has great demographics.
Tithing takes its power from the mystical, sacramental nature of giving, and this is just why fundraising can be a kind of robbery. This may seem pretty abstract, but when lived out, the results can be very concrete indeed. An example: It is unhealthy for a church to have fundraisers to meet week-to-week operating expenses. Fundraising sends the wrong message to outsiders and to members as well. It says that the members themselves do not value the life of the, Church enough to support it for itself, at least not without a pancake breakfast or a chance at winning a pair of vacation tickets thrown in for good measure. If even the members value the Church so little, why should an outsider value it at all?
Fundraising may be acceptable for charitable works. St. Paul, however, did not advise the young churches to have a Bingo night, a bake sale, or an ethnic festival to feed the poor in Jerusalem. As alms he said to put something aside at the first of the week (1 Cor. 16:2) We are to tithe, give alms, and even give from our savings to build the church temple (1 Chr. 29:1-9). This is very different from fundraising.
Why Not A Dues System?
After what has been said above, it should seem obvious that a dues system brings with it many problems. Dues paying is associated with a whole mentality that is non-productive and self-centered. A person joins a group (whether this is a Toastmaster's International, a country club, a time-share on a beach house, or a church), pays his dues, and rightfully expects that his dues pay for a certain number of rights and privileges. As long as he keeps current with his dues, he is a "member in good standingĒ The only good standing membership in heaven, however, is a "broken and contrite heart" that God does not despise. What is the primary difference between dues paying and tithing? A club member pays dues in order to get the "rights and privileges" his dues pay for; a Christian returns the tithe, in gratitude, to God for what God has freely given him.
There are historical reasons for why many of our parishes have been legally organized along the lines of a dues paying club. But this understanding brings with it several unhealthy and unchristian attitudes. Where, for instance, do the Gospels teach us about rights and privileges? And who besides perhaps the Mother of God or the Apostles can really be thought of as "members in good standing" of the Church?
In short, clubs have dues, not churches. The concept of a dues system is antithetical to the Gospel. By itself, this fact should be enough to abolish a parish dues system.
Confidentiality and Practical Concerns
Because money issues are sensitive, church leaders must keep confidential who gives what. Discussing such matters divides a church community and is only from Satan. Avarice may keep people from tithing at all, but vainglory can be the motive behind what looks like charitable giving. "Do your good works in secret", says the Lord. Even the manner in which we collect tithes can help or hinder our efforts: Boxed envelope systems are good mainly for collecting dust: people misplace or forget that they have them. Tithe envelopes mailed monthly are effective because they remind the faithful of the tithe. A priest may congratulate someone for giving above the tithe to the Church, but never thank them. How can you thank someone for being obedient to the Holy Spirit? Praise can lead people into various temptations. In this regard, the recently reposed Elder Cleopa of Romania used to assign almsgiving as a spiritual discipline, but more frequently to the poor (for whom it was a real sacrifice) than to the rich, who could easily donate large sums. The priest must be alert: are parishioners giving in order to hear the thank you or because God put the call to give in their heart? Either way, the priest must find the proper way to encourage and affirm his people for doing God's work and taking part in His ministry.
We see in the Old Testament that when Israel withdrew from God and stopped tithing, they lost their blessings. God through the prophet Malachi even declared that the people were robbing God when they withheld tithes! (Mal 3:8-11) It was not their own money that they withheld from God, but God's in the first place. St. John Chrysostom, in talking about how Israel gave tithes says "if there was a danger then (i.e. at that time) in omitting tithes, how great it must be now.Ē Responding to a situation where there was a lack of tithing, St. John reminds us that, as the New Israel, we have a greater responsibility to tithe! (St. John Chrysostom Homily IV, on Ephesians 2:1 ft)
Tithing is returning to God's storehouse what belongs to Him. Tithing supports the work of bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Tithing invests in the eternal. It is not optional; it is integral to the Orthodox way of life. Tithing churches are driven, not by finances, but by the Gospel. Failure to teach or to encourage people to tithe robs them of the opportunity to trust God with their finances. In so doing, it robs them also of the single greatest tool against the materialism that is the major religious idol of our day. Through tithing, the almighty dollar becomes an instrument we use for worship, rather than an object of worship. We rich Christians should remember that most of Jesus' parables have to do with riches and the proper use of them.