Tithing is good for the Orthodox Christian and therefore good for the Orthodox parish. So why don’t more Orthodox Christians tithe?
We know the usual reasons: We’re not used to it. Back in the old country the government paid for the church. The parish was founded on the “dues” model. Tithing is “Protestant.” Orthodox people are stingy. We just don’t have it in our culture.
Those things are all true in one way or another, but I don’t think those are the real reasons that we do not tithe very much as Orthodox Christians. There are some who do, of course, but it’s not very many of us. So what is the reason why we’re so terrible at tithing?
I believe that it is because we don’t know why we tithe.
And because we don’t know why, we don’t do it. And when we don’t do it, then we come up with the various reasons given above as the cause of our non-tithing. But those aren’t the real reasons. It’s because we don’t know why we should tithe.
Now, the reasons I am going to list below are not all equally important. Indeed, if I had to answer the question, “Why should I tithe?” I would answer only with #1. That’s the real reason. #2-#6 are essentially useful effects of tithing that should help us to focus on #1.
So here are six of my reasons. #1 is the most important and really the point of all of it.
1. Tithing enables us to be saved.
As Christians, we want to be saved. We want to be healed. We want to “go to heaven” rather than to hell when we die (setting aside for the moment all the details). We want to become like Christ. Tithing doesn’t purchase all that for us, but tithing is a powerful way that we give of ourselves, that we turn over what we have to God so that we are opened to receiving His healing and blessing.
It’s a basic principle of Christian spiritual life that we cannot receive God’s blessing if we are holding back on Him. Why? We can’t be filled with God if we remain full of ourselves. Tithing helps us to empty ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong—giving money is not the only way that we work out our salvation and become open to receiving blessings. But whatever we have, we have to give to God. And if we have money, then we have to give money. If we don’t have money, then of course we don’t have to give it. But we have to give what we have, whatever it is, and with the way our culture is so grasping and possessive about money, it really is one of the best things for us to give if we can.
Money is one of the places where we spiritually hurt the most! So we need to pay attention to that wound.
2. Tithing shows that we’re serious.
When I speak of tithing here, I am referring most obviously to giving 10% of income, but for this article, you can define tithing as serious giving. 10% is serious for most of us. For some of us who are more affluent, 10% is not that serious, and we should do more because we can. And for some of us, 10% is unaffordable, so we need to be serious with another percentage. But the point is to be serious. So if you’re not serious, get serious.
How do you know if you’re serious? Well, to start with, if you’re spending more on cable TV or other forms of entertainment every month than you’re giving to the Church, it’s a safe guess that you’re not being serious about giving.
I love the phrase “put your money where your mouth is.” It’s definitely true. Jesus says almost exactly the same thing when He says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21, Luke 12:34). Where we put our money proves where are hearts are. Where is your heart?
3. Tithing is absolutely Orthodox.
Some people say that tithing is not Orthodox. This is nonsense. Giving is Orthodox. Asceticism is Orthodox. Generosity is Orthodox. Ministry is Orthodox. Discipline is Orthodox.
The purpose in tithing is not because it is an “absolute requirement” in order to be saved. It’s not. But how can we be saved if we do not nurture a truly generous heart? And how can we nurture that generous heart without becoming disciplined about giving all that we have? The Orthodox Church understands how to become disciplined. We understand asceticism. This is one of the best ways to do it.
Tithing was a minimum set up in the Old Covenant (and there were multiple tithes, equaling about 23%). 100% is the standard in the New Covenant (Acts 4), and when the Fathers talk about tithing, they say that because the New is superior to the Old, we give more than the Old Covenant people did.
So perhaps it’s true that “tithing is not Orthodox.” But that’s not because we give less than 10%, but because we give more than 10%.
God is merciful, of course, and if we’re not ready to meet that standard, we can work toward it. But are we working toward it? If not, let’s get on it.
4. Tithing becomes ministry.
There are things that a parish would love to do but just can’t because they don’t have the money for it. Perhaps they could improve or repair the building or build a new one. They could start that iconography project. They could get an assistant priest. They could hire a youth director. They could give to charities. They could fund continuing education for the priest, the choir director, or other parish workers. They could bring in special speakers. They could sponsor kids to summer camp. They could sponsor people to go on pilgrimages. They could do a lot more outreach. They could feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
The possibilities really are almost endless. The point is that God takes what we give, blesses it, and then returns it to us for our sanctification. When we give our money, God turns it into ministry.
And sometimes ministry is just the most basic things, like keeping the priest from having an outside secular job, keeping health insurance in place for him and his family, paying the parish’s utility bills, buying supplies, etc.
When we tithe, that’s what God does with our money. It doesn’t go to lining anyone’s pockets. Most clergy—not just Orthodox, but all clergy—are actually rather underpaid for their level of education, experience and the labor they put in. And almost none of them ever get a raise for preaching about tithing. And a lot of them are tithing themselves. In many parishes, the priest is one of the top givers, and he usually does it on a salary far below the parish average.
5. Tithing ends money problems for the parish, once and for all.
If a mission parish has 25 tithing families who each make roughly the national average ($50k/yr.), the collective income for the parish would be $125k, which is usually plenty for a mission to function on.
If a parish has 50 tithing families who make that average, pledge income would be $250k. We are now well above the income of most medium to small parishes.
If there are 100 families who tithe like that, the income would be $500k. And they’re probably about to burn any mortgage, buy new land, build something new or start a new mission. Or maybe they’re hiring a couple more clergy, a secretary, etc. How many 100-family parishes have half a million dollars to use every year?
Even if half the families in a parish start tithing or even if that same half started giving just 5%, the parish would probably never have any more money problems ever.
6. Tithing changes a parish culture.
Related to #5, I sometimes hear that, if only the membership knew all the money problems in their parish, they would be inspired to give a little bit more. But usually the people who say that, knowing full well the financial situation of their parish, have not themselves increased their pledge. Giving information and insight to the unmotivated usually doesn’t accomplish much.
But what if we started thinking about parish life in a whole new way?
What if we stopped talking and worrying about paying for things and started thinking about why each of us needs to become generous, serious givers? We have to put the horse before the cart: We don’t develop a culture of generosity by complaining about money problems. We develop a culture of generosity, and our money problems go away.
A tithing parish sees itself as a group of people ministering to one another, not as a group of people who are paying for something or expect to get something. And that’s the kind of parish that’s truly Christian, because they have love for each other (John 13:35).
So those are some of my ideas. What are yours? There’s a lot more we could say here, of course. Giving all that we are and have is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. So we certainly can’t leave money out.