As a kid, I was taught to tithe my allowance; and the habit of giving 10% has stuck with me for all these years. But when the church teaches tithing, are we teaching a truly fair practice for our contemporary setting?
Our ancestors in faith established a generous practice of tithing the products of their mostly agricultural labor. Instructions for “tithing” are not entirely consistent in the Torah, with different schedules for different kinds of giving (e.g. Deuteronomy 26:1-15, where tithing is only required every third year, but “first fruits” giving is an annual harvest practice). As the tradition evolved over many generations, Jesus’s own religious kin understood tithing to be a regular habit of the faithful (e.g. Luke 18:11-12).
Many Christians have inherited an ancient understanding that ten percent is the biblical level for consistent generosity, and integral to the faithful disciple’s participation in church life. But it’s worth considering that the economy our ancestors imagined is not the economy we have inherited – and thus tithing is a regressive teaching that the church should retire.
Instructions from the Torah concerning generosity were based on a headcount of Jacob’s sons’ tribes, and an anticipated, proportional allotment of land for each. In the “promised land,” each family would have the same capacity for economic success: a proportionate share of acreage on which to grow crops or raise livestock, according to family size. And so each family should allocate a uniform percentage of the return on their labor. Each family’s 10% was for the upkeep of the Levitical priests, the orphans, the widows, and the non-citizens, none of whom would have an allotment of their own.
We live in a world now, however, with radically disparate “allotments” for families in different circumstances. The wealth gap is growing; the minimum wage hasn’t been raised in 14 years; workers in the “gig economy” toil as contractors for low wages without a safety net. My spouse and I, each of us having jobs for 30+ years that require advanced degrees, make far more money than the one-income Uber driver who sings and prays next to us on Sundays.
Our tithe, I’m saying, costs my family far less than some of our siblings’ tithes. 10% of an income that places us solidly in the upper-middle-class (and globally, historically, among the wealthiest people on the planet) simply doesn’t take from us what 10% costs a household where low-wage workers are hoping for an extra shift this weekend so they can afford that necessary car repair or prescription refill.
In an economy like the one we’re living in, we should not assume that “tithing” a literal 10% of one’s income is a fair measure of the grateful generosity God asks of us. It’s as if the church employs a “flat tax,” a regressive suggestion for reforming the U.S. tax code that pops up every few years. People understand why that’s not fair to low-income workers and their families; why do many in the church still use a “flat tithe” teaching around financial generosity?
Indeed, there are justice-minded organizations all around us using sliding scales to collect fees. Take, for example, the Hearts and Hands Health Collective in Victoria, British Columbia. They use the Green Bottle method for helping clients determine their level of payment for services. This method, developed by Alexis J. Cunningfolk, is a social-justice based sliding scale method based on what kind of life one can afford with one’s resources – which of course varies depending on family size – more like the Deuteronomic apportionment of land to each familial tribe than we might have imagined! Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a financial therapist, has a helpful blog post about different types of sliding scales, including the Green Bottle method.
The church, similarly, can help people grow into an understanding of their financial circumstances that leaves the regressive practice of tithing behind. Instead, we can encourage an understanding of generosity that asks a much higher percentage from the wealthiest members of the community, those who enjoy comfort, leisure, and economic security; and trusts the low-income siblings among us to find generosity at a lower percentage point – perhaps even developing an imagining that there are (metaphorical? literal?) widows, orphans, and aliens in our churches who have no allotment and therefore are not expected to share. This is the fairness our ancestors in faith envisioned in the Torah, and a practice we can revive in recognition of the injustice baked into our present economic system. As we step carefully into each other’s financial realities, let us bring another kind of generosity: a clear-eyed and compassionate understanding of the differing circumstances that call some of us to give more than a tithe, and some to give less than a tithe, all of us sharing in the gift of generosity that comes from the Spirit.