How Evangelical Christians Do Money: On Tithing

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Ester: Good morning! We’re going to talk about TITHING. Are you excited? I’m excited.

Tara Leigh: I’m excited too! I love talking about this.

Ester: Let’s start with the basics. What is tithing and how long have you been doing it?

Tara Leigh: Tithing is a Biblical practice which has its origin in ancient Judaism. In short, it’s giving a percentage of your overall income, usually a minimum of 10%, to your local church as a demonstration of gratitude and trust in God’s provision. I remember tithing as a child, with money my parents gave me, but in my adult life, it wasn’t something I started practicing consistently until 2009.

Ester: For a secular audience, particularly a perennially cash-strapped one, the obvious question is WHY. So let’s get that part out of the way. Why do you give 10% of your money away? What do you get out of it? Emotionally / practically / spiritually?

Tara Leigh: For me to explain this clearly, it may help to draw a parallel to marriage. Many things you do for your spouse are not transactional; they’re simple ways to show you trust and love that person. The heart of tithing is not focused on what I can get out of it. However, I do actually get benefits. I get a deeper, more enriched relationship with God by demonstrating my love and trust for Him.

Scripture’s model of giving 10% off the top of your income is much like the Sabbath principle of resting for one day each week. Both of these principles say, “I trust that God can and will provide for me in what is left.” He doesn’t need my money. The church will continue to exist without my measly portion of income. But my heart needs to give it, to help me grow deeper in trust, and to extricate myself from the clutches of greed and vanity that pull at me. I like nice things. I like new things. Tithing helps refocus me on things that matter, instead of those fleeting joys that will end up in a yard sale someday. In short, it demonstrates my faith while refocusing my desires around things that deepen my relationship with God.

Ester: There is so much loveliness in what you have just said but before we address it further, perhaps now might be a good time to step back a little. Can you tell us about yourself? It seems clear that God plays a crucial role in your life. Do you identify as an Evangelical Christian? Or is that label not as useful to you as it is to the mainstream media?

Tara Leigh: There’s definitely a lot of baggage that comes with that label, but we’re not all the stuff of bad press. It’s an accurate term for me, as far as the denotative meaning is concerned. I grew up in a traditional Christian home, and I became a Christian myself when I was a child. Many people are skeptical of a young conversion, and I understand that concern, but my faith has continued to deepen over the years.

Ester: Did/do your parents and older role models tithe? Did you grow up with this as the status quo? And did religion interact with money in other key, influential ways while you were growing up?

Tara Leigh: My parents did and do still model this. In addition to tithing, they are generous, giving additional portions to missionaries, to those in need, to other organizations.

Ester: As the youngest of six, did you ever feel at all resentful — did you not get something you needed or wanted because so much money went to religious causes? That would have been a totally normal response and yet I can understand how it may have felt, or still does feel, very fraught …

Tara Leigh: My parents modeled a love for God and a love for our church, far more than a love for possessions. I always had richer tastes than they could provide for, and I remember once throwing a tantrum over a purple leather jacket they couldn’t afford to buy me when I was in 6th grade. Ultimately though, I never would’ve questioned why God got the money first. He wasn’t my enemy, taking things that should’ve been mine. I knew He was my ultimately my Father, my provider. It wasn’t a competition.

Ester: That’s right, Satan was your enemy: the one planting the desire for the sinful purple leather jacket in your mind. :) Except, seriously, did you view it that way?

Tara Leigh: This may be going a little deeper than intended, but I’ll do my best to sum it up. I have a few enemies, things that pull at my allegiance to my primary relationship with God. The biggest of those enemies is myself, or my “flesh,” as Scripture calls it. That is way to reference my wants and my desires. Not all desires are sinful. Purple leather jackets aren’t inherently sinful. This one was pretty rad. :) It just wasn’t in the budget. And since Christians don’t believe God owns only that 10% — in fact, He owns 100% — then it’s wise to keep a budget to make sure we use Someone else’s money wisely.

Ester: Got it. So how do you decide which extravagances — or even which spending choices — fall closer to the sinful side? Anything indulgent? Make-up? Travel? How do you decide which purchases would make your provider proud, and is that how you strive to make day-to-day choices? And isn’t that maybe a little exhausting?

Tara Leigh: I can see how it might sound exhausting, but it’s a simple habit born out of relationship. For example, when someone invites you to dinner on Friday at 6:00, you do a quick mental reference of your schedule, your husband’s schedule, your daughter’s nap and feeding schedule, then maybe you cross-reference quickly with your husband before saying yes. Right? That kind of structural cross-referencing is how this works as well.

The wise thing to do when I acknowledge God owns 100% of my money is to work out a budget, give the tithe percentage to my church first, then apportion the rest to housing, food, automotive, giving, etc. Most people have a percentage built in for general purchases. I call mine “fun.” That money can go wherever I want it to, as long as it serves the greater purpose of serving my relationship. If my budget allows me to go to a nice dinner and have a steak and a glass of wine, I can. If my budget allows for a fancy vacation, I can take it. Scripture never tells me not to enjoy what God has given me. It just tells me to use it wisely.

Ester: Do you do this accounting, budgeting, and tithing on a monthly basis? As a singer-songwriter, your income must fluctuate pretty wildly.

Tara Leigh: Yes. Wildly indeed. :) A monthly basis seems to work best for me. Some people do it weekly. Nothing is specified in scripture, and paychecks come at different times, so I think the timing of the principle is fairly flexible.

Ester: So you render unto God that which is God’s. How do you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s? And: do you tithe on the pre-tax income, or do you tithe post-tax?

Tara Leigh: I pay annual taxes, though some people on budgets prefer to pay quarterly. A portion of my budget is dedicated to saving for that. The standard for tithing is that it is of your “first fruits,” which most people understand as your gross, so I tithe pre-tax.

Ester: Okay but. You know “first fruits” referred to the Temple, and to a priestly class that no longer exists? It seems kind of strange to me to continue that tradition now that it’s so divorced from its original context. It’s like leaving the corners of your fields unreaped so that the poor can come and glean from them, or something, which is also a commandment but not one that — as far as I’ve heard — anyone follows. You know? Why did tithing carry over and not so many other of the 613 mitzvot (Old Testament positive and negative commandments, the thou shalts and thou shalt nots)?

Tara Leigh: In short, Christ is identified as the “fulfillment of the law” (Matthew 5, Romans 10). The ritual and purification laws are no longer required, since He fulfilled them. In fulfilling the law, however, He didn’t abolish the moral and spiritual principles of the law. In short, that’s why things like the 10 Commandments are still absolutes in the Christian faith, but they’re also guiding principles in most people’s lives outside the Church. For instance, that’s why we all know instinctively that lying and stealing are wrong, because they’re principles; yet no one thinks twice about wearing a poly-cotton blend, because that is a purification law.

Ester: Or handling a pigskin football, or not forcing a victim to marry her rapist.

Tara Leigh: Sheesh! Yes. But the culture in those days was ROUGH, and that was actually a law given in favor of protecting the women.

Ester: Yes, yes. Back to tithing. Do most people in your community tithe? And do you think anyone tithes “wrong” — for example, how do you feel about televangelists?

Tara Leigh: I love this question. Most people in my community do tithe — from those who make very little to those who are multi-millionaires. As with almost anything, there’s a way to do it wrong, but the motivation behind even our so-called “good” actions also matters.

I’ll draw the marriage parallel again. If you wash the dishes in hopes that your husband is going to mow the lawn, and you keep washing dishes and he keeps not mowing the lawn, then it’s clear that your actions are transactional. That’s not giving, that’s bartering. It breeds entitlement in you, instead of growing you in generosity.

When televangelists ask people to send in “seed money” to “reap a twenty-fold harvest” (or whatever language they’re using lately), it’s wrong on both ends. The televangelist is abusing scripture for his own gain, while taking advantage of people who A) likely don’t know their Bible, and are B) likely giving only as a means to get. The tithe is supposed to go to your local church, not some guy on TV. If you want to “give” to that guy, fine (though I wouldn’t). But that’s not your tithe, which is what God’s promise of provision is attached to (Malachi 3). That promise of provision, attached to the command to tithe, is the only time in Scripture where God says to test Him (Malachi 3).

Ester: What if you don’t like your local church, or you don’t think they’re handling their money well? Do you ever feel like a shareholder, since you contribute so much of your income to them, and think maybe you should get some input into how the funds are spent? Is that a sense of entitlement that one must fight, or a good gut feeling that one is a member of the wrong congregation?

Tara Leigh: You nailed it with that last part of the question. I’m grateful to be a member of a church whose financial practices I trust. Jesus talked about money frequently (which is interesting since He never benefitted from any of that talk, as a rabbi who was unaffiliated with the Temple). He talks about wise ways to use it, and I think it’s wise to consider how a church stewards their money before joining it.

Ester: Good advice all around, in fact! Any last words to our mostly-secular but respectful audience of people who care about using money wisely?

Tara Leigh: Yes! Money is not the root of all evil. The most frequently misquoted scripture on money is 1 Timothy. It says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” People often leave off the “love” part. Money is a gift from God to be used for God’s purposes. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It’s a principle that applies whether you’re a Christian or not: heart follows treasure. Our wallets indicate our allegiance.

 

Author and musician Tara-Leigh Cobble is a conference keynote speaker, worship leader, and singer-songwriter who has spent the past decade touring internationally.

Ester is a loving skeptic who spent 13 years in a Jewish Day School. 

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22 Comments / Post A Comment

OllyOlly (#669)

When I got my first job my dad mentioned that I should consider tithing. I gave 10% of my income to my church all through high school. Then I went to college and stopped believing in god.

I still think the principle is important. I need to get in a better habit of donating.

Kthompson (#1,858)

I really appreciate this. As someone raised Presbyterian, then a longtime atheist, and now a budding Buddhist, the concept of tithing was always puzzling to me. Were Christians trying to buy God’s favor? Seems historically that was somewhat the case. But I really appreciate what Tara says about freely giving away money in order to lessen the evils of greed and stinginess. Buddhism has very similar principles about being generous and living simply on little, so when she said that, it really resonated with me.

Still, I always hear George Carlin’s routine about God and money when people start talking about religion and cash:

“But God loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more.”

But that’s probably more of an indictment of organized and corrupt churches, not on an individual level. I felt like I could relate with Tara about what she gets personally, and when she says you should be wise with your money. That means being involved in the organization that you’re giving it to, and I respect that. But I’m still a little skeptical about there being a set number. Why not leave it up to the individual? That part kind of bothers me.

Allison (#4,509)

@Kthompson yeah, I’ve got major issues with organize religion/religious institutions, but I get the idea of doing with less/giving it away so as to combat dragonesque money hoarding tendencies.

I just tend to give to places like Planned Parenthood and RAINN.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Kthompson In my mind tithing was more to directly support the church itself and the people who work for it (like, 10% of 100 families’ income would cover the building and minister and support staff?), rather than an indulgence.

nell (#4,295)

Wowww I really liked this. I have some trouble with the “money is a gift from God” thing, just like I really side-eye televangelists who preach all that “God wants you to be rich” stuff… But I really do like the concept of tithing as it pertains to making giving a part of your life and budget, whether you give it to a church or another organization that you believe in. As I get older and make enough money to give some away, I believe more and more in that last part of what Tara said– our wallets indicate our allegiance. How you choose to spend your disposable income really does say something about you and how you choose to live your life, and I think building some structured giving into your budget is a great idea. (I try to make charitable donations on a somewhat regular basis but I just became a scheduled donor for the first time — a recurring monthly donation to Planned Parenthood in the same amount that my birth control would cost if I didn’t have insurance.)

andnowlights (#2,902)

Thank you so much for doing this interview, Tara Leigh. You come across so gracious and genuine (and if you’re the commentor I think you are, you are always the same in your comments and it always makes me happy to see your tithing check in on Mondays). Tithing is something my husband and I need to do and this reminded me of WHY we should tithe, especially since he’s ordained! We struggle with finding a church that we trust financially, though, since we have some different opinions on international missions than most mainline churches.

I guess I never realized the Billfold was mostly secular since we’re mostly here to talk about money. Go figure. Really glad most people on the Billfold are respectful most of the time!

@andnowlights FWIW, I think of the ‘Fold as a secular space in that it has no official religion; but it’s by no means anti-religion and I really hope everyone across the spectrum feels welcome. That’s the goal, and if it’s not met, it means we’re doing something wrong.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Ester Bloom For the most part, both people who comment on articles and the contributors at the Billfold are really good about being respectful of any religious belief (or lack thereof)! I think the use of “mostly-secular but respectful” is accurate, but I had never thought about The Billfold as being labeled as anything other than personal finance, so it threw me a bit! :)

erinep (#4,236)

@andnowlights I don’t think she’s the commenter you’re thinking of?

Stina (#686)

@erinep @andnowlights ” I don’t think she’s the commenter you’re thinking of?” Me maybe? Though at least one other person is a regular tither but I am not Tara because 1. No one would ever pay to hear me perform music and 2. I am not an evangelical.

But Tara does sound like a lovely person and while I’m here why not throw in my 2 cents?

So to me tithing is part giving money in exchange for services because I receive a lot from my pastor/our music director/church secretary. I also feel that our church as a whole does good work and I’d like to see that continue. I know that our pastor gives defacto mental health counseling to those that are either too poor and/or too embarrassed to seek out a therapist. As a church we do not set an amount and we actively discourage people who cannot afford to give from giving money.

Tithing is also a calling and admittedly I don’t do 10% pre-tax but more than 10% take home. I also consider charitable donations as part of the figure but not political contributions or things where I get a good as well (like GS cookies).

There is a saying “We do not give offerings that cost us nothing” It does bite into my money and when I am feeling panicked I do start thinking about “maybe I should cut back” but then I mentally slap my hand and remind myself to be grateful and that I shouldn’t let my fear or my greed overwhelm me. Also that it isn’t just about money that I need to give more of myself to others by being more patient/welcoming/loving etc.

I totally am for taxation though. There was some sort of figure that food stamps and other government food programs are responsible for 90% of the money given for hunger and food pantries are 10% (something like that). We as human beings are not at a place where we can rely on voluntary means to support a healthy and just society.

PicNic (#3,760)

@Stina I thought it might be you too! and I really liked reading both your and Tara’s thoughts behind tithing and why you do it. The 10% pre-tax specification kind of threw me a bit but I like the process and thought you describe a little better and how it varies throughout the congregation.

Stina (#686)

@PicNic Aww Thanks hon!

@andnowlights Whether you were talking about me or not.. Hey there fellow religious person! Thinking carefully about what your values are and how to best express them are always good things.

erinep (#4,236)

@Stina @andnowlights Stina, I did not think this was you because I know that you do not live in Texas and I had a suspicion you do not go into work on Saturdays to sing :)

I myself am not religious – my parents had some difficult and interesting religious conflicts in both of their families growing up and decided that we wouldn’t be a “church family” – which was tough growing up in a very Catholic city. They just decided to try and raise us with those kinds of principles – be good to one another, empathy, take care of those who can’t care for themselves. As an adult, I am happy with their decision. I do however sometimes wonder about what it would be like to have that built-in community.

I think it’s fantastic that you have that and have found that in your community, especially in such a way that you have found the calling to tithe.

Stina (#686)

@erinep If they ever wanted to pay me for singing I’d be down for it but somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen ;)

Totally noble undertaking by your parents. I belong to a church because I need the sort of enforced discipline/structure otherwise I would get lazy and selfish, plus I appreciate the community its given me. But at heart I believe that there are “many pathways to the same goal” and some those pathways involve no or different formal religions. Plus religion is unfortunately sometimes the quickest way to the wrong path as well.

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

You lost me at the part where forcing women to marry their rapists served to protect them.

@chickpeas akimbo oh COME ON. You know exactly what she meant- and she certainly wasn’t condoning the actions of rapists in BIBLICAL TIMES. Sheesh.

gyip (#4,192)

Thanks for sharing this. Very thoughtful and as andnowlights says, gracious.

Lily Rowan (#70)

You know, I don’t come from a tradition of tithing, and my gut instinct is to think, “Who can afford to actually tithe???” But in the Downturn, my job put everyone above a certain level (including me) on 90% of salary for 90% of work time (every other Friday off), and it was 100% fine. I am definitely in a position where I can live on 90% of my income. I’m going to think about this more.

lapgiraffe (#1,336)

Serious question – do Jews tithe?

@lapgiraffe can’t speak for everyone but i grew up in a very jewish bubble and no one i knew tithed, at least not officially. it wasn’t a Thing. charity was, though: it’s a traditional part of the friday night service (you pass around a tzedakah, or charity, box) and all the major holidays (there’s an annual Yom Kippur Appeal to which you are supposed to give in addition to paying for the High Holiday tickets, and those cost, like, the same as Yankees tickets, seriously, it’s ridic). also everyone “belonged” to a synagogue, which meant paying pretty exorbitant dues. 10% of pre-tax income, though? don’t know.

Stu (#7,129)

No where in the New Testament are Christians commanded to tithe. That is Old Testament teaching. Instead in the NT, Christians are encouraged to willingly and cheerfully give according to their hearts. “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7)

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