Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tithing is Big News

Christopher deForest posts this latest entry from his new location in the U.K:

Recently, a story broke here in Scotland about a 30-year-old Oxford academic, Toby Ord, who plans to donate $1.7 million to charity (to read the story, click here). He is not independently wealthy. As a scholar in the fields of ethics and philosophy his salary is not high, and he doesn’t anticipate big raises or bonuses. Nor does his pledge include contributions from his wife, his family, or any other source – merely from his own earnings.

So how does he plan to reach this extraordinary goal? Simply by giving 10% of his income every year until he retires.

Is that even possible? You’d think the numbers just couldn’t add up, but they do. And if one guy of modest means can give that much – what about two people? Five people? Ten? A hundred? A million?

That’s the whole idea behind a new grassroots movement called “Giving What You Can.” Maybe it’s premature to call it a “movement.” It only started three weeks ago, with the launch of their new website (click here). So far, they only have 23 “members” – that is, 23 people who have signed up to make the same pledge: to donate at least 10% of their lifetime earnings to organizations that are fighting extreme poverty in the developing world.

The group does not solicit or take donations directly; they merely invite you to take the pledge. And though they do endorse a few NGOs that they think are doing a great job, they leave it up to members to decide, on their own, where they give. All they ask is that the 10% goes towards aiding the poor or eradicating extreme poverty.

And how’s it all going, after three whole weeks? So far, a mere 23 individuals have pledged over $9.5 million dollars.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? The members also do something else that seems highly counter-cultural these days: they publicly post their names, right on the website. Not to boast, or to show off their moral superiority, but to make themselves accountable to each other and to the whole world. And to say, they believe they have a personal stake in the welfare of the whole human family, especially those who suffer most.

Again, let’s be clear: these aren’t wealthy philanthropists. These are at best middle-income academics. And half the listed members are students!

I am deeply humbled and inspired by what they’re doing. But one thing does give me pause. Scanning the list of members, not one claims to be clergy or faith-affiliated, nor are there any scholars or students of religion or theology.

I doubt there’s any deliberate exclusion. Rather, this may say something about the place of religion in society today – certainly in Europe, but increasingly in the U.S. as well. It seems, once again, that another creative and courageous secular group has taken what should be our message and mission, and they’ve run with it: a gracious invitation to reorient one’s life towards grateful generosity; towards simpler, more joyous living and giving. Once again, we religious folks are left in the dust, either because we’re seen as irrelevant, or out of touch, or ineffective – or because we’ve had our chance, and we’ve blown it.

Here’s another observation. Go to this link and read the stories in the press about this new group. The articles I’ve read all express a range of opinions, from doubt to shock to ridicule, not only that regular people could ever give this much – but also the very idea that anyone would consistently give 10%. What I find interesting is, never once does any journalist mention the historic religious practice of tithing – offering ten percent of your produce or income, either directly to those in need, or indirectly by way of church, synagogue or mosque.

Here’s my question: Has the whole world really forgotten what “tithing” is, and where this old concept comes from? Or have we religious folks so abused, misdirected, or marginalized the whole point of giving, that tithing has become a dirty word, or an onerous relic?

I do strongly encourage you to check out the website for this new group. They offer a wealth of data that de-bunks many myths about giving, and really makes a case for the power of personal commitment and, yes, for tithing. They may not start with God, but they end up in the place God invites us all to be: daring to believe that we are called to love extravagantly, and to declare that belief through a very public and personal witness.

Let’s celebrate and endorse this new way, that’s really very old. A way that finds its source and its hope, for us and ultimately for the whole world, in the crucified and risen Christ. Whether that’s old or new, it’s still very Good News indeed.


Russell Earl Kelly said...

There is nothing wrong with pledging to give ten per cent or more to gospel work --bud do not call it "tithing." True biblical tithes were always only food from inside God's holy land of Israel during the covenant. This definition was still in effect 1500 years later under the Law as taught by Jesus in Matthew 23:23.

New covenant giving is primarily sacrificial. That means more than ten per cent for many, but it means that some are giving sacrificially even though less than ten per cent. Do not forget the injunction of First Timothy 5:8. The Christians first duty is to buy essential medicine, food and shelter.

See for much more.

Christopher deForest said...

Thanks, Russ. I'll check out your site. My point is not concerning the more precise Biblical definition of "tithing." Rather, I'm observing that the once-common meaning of this word is being ignored - the meaning found in my dictionary:

one tenth of annual produce or earnings, formerly taken as a tax for the support of the church and clergy.
• (in certain religious denominations) a tenth of an individual's income pledged to the church.
• [in sing. ] archaic a tenth of a specified thing : he hadn't said a tithe of the prayers he knew.

verb [ trans. ]
pay or give as a tithe : he tithes 10 percent of his income to the church.
• historical subject to a tax of one tenth of income or produce.

ORIGIN Old English tēotha (adjective in the ordinal sense [tenth,] used in a specialized sense as a noun), tēothian (verb).

...This is the meaning (and the Old English word origin) that I thought was still in the mind of the general public; is tied to the concept of "10%"; and is either forgotten or being deliberately ignored by the journalists commenting on this person's "ten percent" giving.

Russell Earl Kelly said...

Use God’s Word to define “tithe” and not a secular dictionary! Using a complete Bible concordance you will discover that the definition used by tithe-advocates is wrong. In God’s Word “tithe” does not stand alone. Although money existed before tithing, the source of God's "tithe" over 1500 years was never money. It was the “tithe of food.” True biblical tithes were always only food from the farms and herds of only Israelites who only lived inside God’s Holy Land, the national boundary of Israel. No tithes were accepted from defiled pagan lands. The “increase” was gathered from what God miraculously produced and not from man's craft or ability.

There are 16 verses from 11 chapters and 8 books from Leviticus 27 to Luke 11 which describe the contents of the tithe. And the contents never (I repeat), never included money, silver, gold or anything other than food from inside Israel! Yet the incorrect definition of "tithe" is the greatest error being preached about tithing today! (See Lev. 27:30, 32; Num. 18:27-28; Deut. 12:17; 14:22-23; 26:12; 2 Chron. 31:5-6; Neh. 10:37; 13:5; Mal. 3:10-11; Matt. 23:23; Luke 11: 42).

Christopher deForest said...

Thanks again, Dr. Kelly, for further clarification of your point. I visited your website, and recommend it to anyone seeking detailed exegesis on the biblical usage of "tithing."

I also think I understand better now your big concern: that some leaders in some Christian traditions - especially in the Seventh Day Adventist and Southern Baptist churches - are using "tithing" to demand monetary contribution to the church, perhaps even as a requirement for church membership - and they are claiming that scripture warrants this. If this is where you are coming from, I think you are fighting a good fight, and I encourage your work.

Here's where I'm coming from. In my tradition (U.S. Lutherans), church leaders and pastors tend to do THE OPPOSITE of those leaders in your tradition. They rarely use the term "tithing" in relation to giving. This is not due to any better biblical understanding - it's because we (I am one of those leaders) tend to be much more reluctant to ask people to give. This has led to average giving in mainline Christianity of less than 2% per person. I repeat, less than 2 percent! And of course this means that many people are missing out on the joy of such generous living - and a lot less gospel mission work is being done than could get done if more of us were involved in a bigger way.

Anyway, it wasn't my intent to promote the misuse of the term "tithing." All I was pointing out was that it was (unfortunately) BIG NEWS in our world today to give 10%. As a minor point, I was also noting that 10% monetary giving is something that most of the secular world (and most people in my tradition) would define as "tithing" (hence the dictionary definition).

So your point - that the term is being misused - is a good one - a vital one, in fact, since in some traditions, it is being used to harm and hinder the gospel. In my tradition - and in most of the secular world - the term is not being used at all, (I say) because we tend to avoid our moral and gospel imperative - and opportunity! - to love our neighbor through generous giving.

Am I making any sense? Thanks again, Dr. Kelly, for your insights and your perspective on your traditions and on biblical exegesis.

Russell Earl Kelly said...


Thanks for the good words.

I have an article on my web site titled "Martin Luther Rejected Tithing." It seems that he would have liked to teach tithing, but could not justify it in the New Covenant. It is strange that several major Lutheran groups still teach tithing while others refuse to do so.

Yes, you are right about the current situation. My focus on New Covenant giving is 2nd Cor 8:12-14. It is clear than many Christians should be giving much more than ten per cent while others are giving sacrificially at a lower percentage. The problem is that so few Christians do not give sacrificially. I am appalled that we spend more on our cell phones and eating out than we give to the gospel work.

Merry Christmas
Russell Earl Kelly