How do we fund our churches?

Back in high school I invited a schoolmate to my church. After the service he confessed he was really bothered by the offering plates.

We passed offering plates right after the worship songs, but before the karaoke. (Many Christians call it “special music.” It’s where someone gets on stage and sings along to an instrumental track. Exactly like karaoke. ’Cause it’s karaoke.) People put cash and checks in the plates. Sometimes in little envelopes, so people can’t see how little they actually give. Sometimes not, so people can.

This bugged him. In the church where he was raised, they had an offering box in back of the auditorium. If people wanted to inconspicuolusly put money or gum wrappers into it, they could. The box, he felt, was way more appropriate than our ostentatious “Look what I gave” display—which reminded him much too much of this story:

Mark 12.41-44 NRSV
1 [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

That, and he didn’t like how we interrupted our services to beg for money. People should just give, he figured.

Me, I grew up hearing you funded your church by tithing: Ten percent of every paycheck belongs to Jesus, so give it to your church. Ten percent of the gross, not the net; and if you don’t cough up the dough you’ll be cursed. No, an usher wouldn’t shout, “Tithe, motherf---er!” although that’d be awesome; I didn’t say cursed at. It meant we expected this bit of Malachi to come true:

Malachi 3.8-9 NRSV
8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!

Our finances were gonna shrivel. We’d been told scary stories about people who stopped tithing, and suddenly they could no longer live within their means. Apparently if God doesn’t get his cut, he takes it out of us in other ways. Ways we won’t like. You know, like wiseguys who stage a few “accidents” till they get paid off.

Now no, I’m not accusing our pastors of trying to shake us down. They preached this because it’s what they were taught. They were told this is a biblical principle, and shown all the appropriate proof texts in Malachi and Matthew. They never bothered to investigate beyond these verses, and see whether the bible teaches more about the subject—and it does. I wrote about it.

When I investigated, I also discovered tithing—as a means of financing Christian churches—is actually a recent doctrine.

It first appeared in the United States a very short time after the year 1776. That bit of information give you any hint as to why churches suddenly began to preach about tithing?

Right you are: Because between the Edict of Milan in the year 313, and the American Revolution in 1776, churches were almost entirely funded by the state. Senates and kings paid for everything. Really, your tax dollars did. (Well, considering the United States used to be British, your tax pounds did.) They felt it was the state’s duty to do so; that if you’re truly a Christian nation, the nation sponsors the church. Right?

But then the United States quit being British. Our states all rewrote their constitutions. In them, nearly all of them included freedom of religion: The state has no official church, so citizens aren’t compelled to state any particular Christian creed… nor fund any particular Christian church.

Churches hated the idea, because now it meant they had to fund themselves. And now they do: By telling their regulars we need to tithe.

State-sponsored churches.

But state sponsorship has always been the norm. From ancient times, religions latched onto a wealthy benefactor, and the richest of course was the government. In monarchies, that’s the king and his family.

And most religions seriously sucked up to the king. Frequently they even made him one of their gods: The Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans did so. Notice how many demigods became kings in Greek mythology; notice how many ancient kings claimed they, too, were the descendants of gods. The emperor of Japan still has this myth as part of his history.

Now yeah, commoners and nobles also bring offerings to temple, church, mosque, religious meetings, whatever. Do these offerings cover all the religion’s expenses?—pay the priests’ salaries, pay for the facilities’ upkeep and utilities? Sometimes. But not always. So with rare exceptions, this is how religions are financed.

After the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in 313, it’s how we were financed. The Roman senate paid for the upkeep of Christian churches and schools. And once Christianity spread into a new kingdom or duchy, the king or duke (who had previously paid for the previous pagan religion) now paid for the church.

Once kings were replaced with parliaments or democratic governments, the new government usually picked up where the monarchs left off. Many a European democracy still has an official church, funded by taxpayer euros. Often by necessity: Membership in these churches sucks. (And sadly, church membership in general in such nations suck.)

Okay, back to North America. Virginia was an English colony, so its official church was the Church of England. Initially Parliament financed the church. After Virginians created their own government, the House of Burgesses, they financed the church. Owned its buildings, paid its vicars, and actually passed laws decreeing how people should worship.

Massachusetts was founded by separatists, people who didn’t wanna be part of the government’s church. They wanted to do their own thing. They created their own government. Which then financed their church… turning it into a government’s church. Yeah it’s ironic; they didn’t care. They required everyone in the colony to be Christian and a church member—so no one should have any problem with their taxes paying for church. It was a government’s duty, they taught, to be the “nursing fathers” Is 49.23 KJV of the church.

Imagine if the United States had a Department of Religion, funded by your taxes, where the Feds owned your church building, and hired your pastors and church leadership. Kind of a creepy idea, isn’t it?

The United States has had separation of church and state for two centuries. That’s why, to Americans, the whole idea of state-run churches sounds wrong. And yet we kinda have something like this: Visit a military base sometime, and check out their chapel.

It weirds a lot of Americans out whenever we visit a country which still has state-sponsored churches. We often assume they’re dead churches, too; and state funding is only keeping ’em on life support. But ’tain’t necessarily so.

When separation of church and state first kicked in, it did wreak a little havoc. The new states realized if they weren’t English anymore, should they still fund the Church of England? Were a majority of their population even in the Church of England? Legislators tried to compromise: When people paid taxes, they could indicate which church their tax money should go to. Citizens of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Georgia passed religious tax laws.

Virginia tried it too, but the Baptists pushed back. (See, back then Baptists believed in separation of church and state.) They wanted their churches to remain independent of any government influence. And purse strings are definitely influence. After all, what if the government grew displeased with how your church ran, and cut off the money?

Religious tax laws quickly got repealed, as states realized they violated the religious freedom rights of their constitutions—and later, of the U.S. Constitution. Baptists got hassled for it, ’cause state-sponsored churches realized coming up with their own support was gonna be hard.

But it actually wasn’t. Churches quickly found other ways to raise money. Some of ’em created endowments. (For those of you who slept through Economics in high school, that’s when you get a really big pile of money, invest it so you get big fat dividends, and live off those dividends.) Some churches went with dues and subscriptions. And some adopted the newly-discovered “biblical principle” of tithing.

Funding the ancient church.

Bounce back before the year 313, when the ancient Christians had to fund church, and definitely wouldn’t get any support from a hostile government. How’d they do it? Acts describes it thisaway:

Acts 2.44-47 NRSV
44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The “all things in common” idea (which Mammonists tend to call socialism, and suspect there’s something too Marxist and subversive about it) is the natural, obvious result of Jesus’s teachings on money. Of “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mk 10.21 NRSV But like Pharisees, we tend to look for loopholes, or alternative explanations which permit us to remain miserly.

The result of the “everything in common” plan was a Christian community where nobody was deprived.

Acts 4.32-35 NRSV
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

When people had a need, ancient Christians didn’t respond, “Well we took an offering, but it only put this much in the budget, so we can afford to give this much to the needy.” They sold stuff. They gave up their worldly possessions for the needy’s sake. They shared food with the needy. Some figured they ate together. I don’t figure the text has to mean that, but eating together was a common early Christian practice, so why not. Clearly they shared their lives with one another.

Contrast that practice with our own. It oughta embarrass us, and drive us to repent. It exposes just how materialistic so many of our own churches are. We have to regularly beg the people of our churches for money. We shouldn’t have to do any such thing. But our people are addicted to possessions, money, and comfort. And instead of rebuking them, we fear they might call us socialist, so we accommodate them.

Those Christians who claim tithing was always how Christians financed church, miss the fact these early Christians were still going to temple for worship. Ac 2.46 Still putting offerings in the temple treasury! Paying temple taxes, same as Jesus and Peter. Mt 17.24-27 The first Christians were still Jews, and still contributed to the existing system. And if they paid the three tithes the Pharisees demanded of them, you think it’s realistic they paid a fourth tithe to the apostles? Nope.

As I said in my article on tithing, the Pharisees’ three tithes were their invention. There was only one tithe. That, plus the usual sacrifices and offerings to temple, were the only things the Law required of Jews. The Pharisees overdid things, as usual. But the ancient Christians also kinda went overboard… because they gave everything. Just like the poor widow in temple whom Jesus praised, Christians practiced pure generosity. It was great grace. Ac 4.33 For while the larger Jewish society still had their needy, the Christians had no needy. Ac 4.34 God’s kingdom was working.

Why does tithing appear to work?

One of my previous pastors is fond of proclaiming, “I’ll offer you a money-back guarantee. Tithe! Try it a few months. If you don’t see results in your own finances, come talk to me and I’ll give you your money back. But I guarantee you will see results.”

Bold move. And he was totally serious, too. I don’t know how many people took him up on it. (I also don’t know how many people asked for their money back. Hopefully not many!) But it’s based on testimonies I’ve heard all my life: “We never used to tithe. We couldn’t see how we could afford to. Money was always tight. But one day we decided God really wanted us to tithe. So we stepped out in faith and started tithing. And even though our income hasn’t gone up any, somehow—miraculously!—we have more than enough. That never happened before! It’s all because of tithing.”

Variations of this story are used all the time as anecdotal evidence for how tithing is precisely what God wants every one of us Christians to practice.

In fact what they’ve done is stumbled upon the kingdom’s principle of generosity.

Luke 6.38 NRSV
“…give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

A lot of churches use this verse to preach on tithing. It’s not about tithing at all. Jesus means generosity in general. Give to anyone—to the needy, to charity, to your church. And when you’re generous, people tend to be generous to you in return, and God is especially generous to you in return. Giving means you’ll receive. Not just a reciprocal amount, but more.

So once people decide to give to God—when we make him a priority in our finances—we’re no longer purely living for ourselves and our own. We’re living for God. We’re living for others. Like God always wanted. We’re being generous—also as God always wanted. We’re growing his kingdom. And if we can be responsible with the small amounts God gives us, he’ll frequently decide to make us responsible for larger amounts. Lk 19.16-19

However, when we get stingy or lazy with God’s blessings, why should he give us more of them? Like Jesus points out in his story of the minas:

Luke 19.26 NRSV
“ ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ ”

So these folks who discover tithing works: They’re actually discovering generosity works.

Another incidental reason why tithing works: In figuring out what 10 percent of our incomes are, some people for the first time in their lives are learning to budget. Too many people simply don’t do this. They’ve no idea how much comes in, how much goes out, and where it all goes. All they know is they’re always in the red, and don’t entirely know why. People who tithe, learn why. It’s not that their finances miraculously sort themselves out: They sort ’em out.

So how much should we give our churches?

In principle we should be willing to give everything to the people of our churches, same as the ancient Christians.

In practice, 10 percent of our incomes is a decent start.

Yeah, it sounds like I’m saying, “Tithing isn’t biblical, but go ahead and tithe.” No. I’m saying today’s “biblical principle” of tithing isn’t actually a biblical principle. Generosity is. And if you wanna be generous to your church, 10 percent is a start.

For many it’s a massive start. Ten percent of one’s income is a much bigger segment than you realize! If they struggle to make ends meet on $3,000 a month, it seems ridiculous to give an extra $300 every month on our churches. How on earth does a struggling family have an extra $300 a month?

And when you earn more than $3,000 a month, that 10 percent is even bigger… and people get antsy about giving away that much. Say you make $10 million a year. (Those who covet money are probably drooling at the idea. Stop that.) If you make $10 million a year, 10 percent is a million dollars. Giving away a million dollars every year: Even billionaires can’t bring themselves to do that. It’s a lot of money! (Those who make more than $10 billion a year: You think any of them are giving away a billion a year? Very few.)

Money has a mighty grip on people’s hearts. Either because they’re entirely sure they need that money, or because they’re entirely sure they shouldn’t give away that amount of money. We struggle hard with generosity.

That is, till we actually start practicing it. Not only does it gets easier, but we start to see the positive effects of generosity in our own lives.

So give. Start with your church. If you can’t do 10 percent yet, start with whatever you can do, and work your way up. You’ll eventually find you’re able to do 10 percent. Or more.

If you can’t give money, give time. Give labor. Give resources: Let ’em use your stuff. Feed people. And once you have enough money in your budget, don’t stop donating those other things, just ’cause it’s easier to give money than to give of yourself. Keep practicing generosity.