Tithing for Dummies by Dan Barker (November 2002)

Vol. 19 No. 9 – Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. –  November 2002

By Dan Barker

My first full-time associate pastor position was at an Assembly of God in La Puente, California. That church has since changed names, but in 1973 it was called Glengrove Assembly–or, as was once printed on an envelope we received there, “Glengrove Ass. of God.”

The Assemblies of God are pentecostal–speaking in tongues, faith healing, and so on–and although the people were sincere and kind, I quickly found that church to be a bit noisy for my tastes. I worked there a year and a half before moving on.

But the day I was hired, I was excited to sit down with the senior pastor to discuss terms of employment, duties, and salary. It must have been the power of the Holy Spirit that kept me from grinning when Rev. Milton Barfoot pronounced his name.

When Barfoot told me the salary, I was ready to say “Praise the Lord,” until he quickly added, “But we expect all of our staff to tithe.”

It was church policy for the three pastors and the staff to give 10% of their salary back to the church. “How can we expect members to tithe if the ministers don’t set a good example?” The bible says, “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10), and Barfoot explained that the “storehouse” is where you regularly worship.

So I dutifully tithed for a while, chopping my salary to 90%. (Christians debate whether tithing should come off gross or net income, but Barfoot assured me it is gross, not take-home pay. I suppose God told him that personally.) Besides tithing, we were often asked to make contributions for other causes, and of course, the staff had to set a good example.

But I felt funny about tithing. This church hired me to do a job. Why should they decide how to manage my giving? After a few months, my tithing became less regular, and I’m sure they noticed.

I was unclear about the concept until about six months later, on a special Tithing Sunday, when we ministers were each called on to preach about the duty and joy of giving to God. While preparing my sermon, I was surprised to learn how thin is the biblical basis for Christian tithing. I delivered the sermon, not sharing what I had learned (which was very little, and therefore very important), talking around the issue about the importance of “giving to God” in many ways that are not limited to money. I’m sure Barfoot and the elders, knowing my tithing was decreasing, thought I was a hypocrite.

I grew less and less comfortable at Glengrove, for many reasons, and when I received a “call from God” to move to another church in central California, I was very happy. (It’s amazing how God knew to call me to a church that was less controlling.)

After I left the ministry, I worked as a computer programmer. One of my co-workers, a devout Mormon, felt prompted by God (or his elders) to give an additional 10% to his church–a double tithe! He was often audited by the IRS, he said, because they couldn’t believe someone with his income would be that generous.

“It was this shameless, revelatory church marquee, spotted in Escanaba, Mich., that inspired this article,” said Dan.

In the Old Testament, tithing was a way for the Israelites to support their priestly tribe, the Levites, who did no work outside of sacred duties. The word “tithe” appears in the entire Old Testament only 27 times, mostly in passing. There are only five places where it is discussed in any detail, and they are conflicting.

In some cases tithing happened yearly (see Deut. 14:22), but elsewhere it was commanded every third year (see Deut. 26:12, 14:28 and Amos 4:4).

The Levites themselves gave a “tithe of tithes” to the high priest Aaron (Numbers 18). But tithing was not just for supporting the ministry; you could use tithes as general charity to help “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 26:12). The tithe was 10% of everything you earned or produced, including grain, fruit, and meat (presented as a “burnt offering”).

You could borrow against your tithe, for a 20% fee (Lev. 27:30-34). You could sell your tithes for cash and indulge yourself, as long as you didn’t forget the Levites (Deut. 14:26-27).

I was surprised to learn that tithes were meant to be consumed mainly by the tither! (It made sense to dispose of meat quickly in that part of the world.) The only restrictions were that tithes be eaten in certain holy places, that the blood be avoided, and that some remain for the Levites (Deut. 12:6-19, 14:22-28).

That was back when state and church were always united. In many countries, 10% was the state tax. Babylonians, for example, used the tithe as a secular tax for royal purposes. Although the Jews appeared to dedicate tithes mainly to sacral purposes, in II Chronicles 31 the king and the priests cooperated in the collection. Samuel told the people that the king would “take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants . . . and he will take the tenth of your sheep” (II Samuel 8:15-17).

In the Old Testament, the tithe was the tax.

Writes Kristi Williams from South Carolina: “Well, here’s a rather promising Sunday sermon. Guaranteed to focus us on a hefty dose of guilt, fear, threats and bribes. Amen, and pass the collection plate!”

There is nothing in the New Testament in favor of tithing. Neither Jesus nor Paul commanded believers to give 10% to their local church, or to go to church at all! Jesus mocked the scribes and Pharisees who tithed (Matthew 23:23), and denounced a self-righteous Pharisee who boasted about tithing (Luke 18:9-14). The writer of Hebrews, who observed that the old tithe was collected by the Levites, claimed that times are different now: “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Hebrews 7:5,12).

Right-wing Christians who want to cut taxes should stop tithing. Why would an omnipotent god need cash, anyway?

New Testament giving was generally freer, less legalistic than the Old Testament; although in one case, the exception that proves the non-rule, church members were struck dead for failing to give 100% (!) to the new communistic church (Acts 5:1-11).

No wonder I felt funny about tithing! I wish I had known enough to tell Rev. Barfoot that he was a bad Christian. I also wish I had saved that money for my retirement. How much would it be worth today?

Freedom From Religion Foundation