NEXT TIME YOUR PASTOR SAYS God expects you to give 10% of your income to the church, roll your eyes if you must. But try not to be too obvious. The pastor might not know any better.
That’s pretty much the take of church history profs.
They know that Christians did not start tithing until the 1800s, though that comes as a shock to most of the rest of us.
Early Christians did not tithe.
They considered it one of the many Jewish laws that Jesus retired when he set up a new covenant to replace the old laws of Moses: “When God speaks of a ‘new’ covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date,” (Hebrews 8:13).
Here’s the surprising Friday Fun Fact:
You will not find a Christian sermon on tithing until the 1800s.
- Martin Luther (1483-1546), theological father of the Protestant movement, did not tithe.
- John Calvin (1509-1564), theological father of many Baptist and Presbyterian churches, did not tithe.
- John Wesley, father of the Methodist church, did not tithe.
Christians considered tithing too legalistic, too Jewish, and not biblical.
In the New Testament, we’ll find Paul asking only for donations, not tithes:
“You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure,” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Is it peer “pressure” if the church calls people forward to drop their pledge cards in offering plates at the front of the church, with everyone watching?
Or is it an act of worship, as it’s sometimes described – a public profession of support for the local church, a bit like baptism is a public profession of faith in Jesus?
Here’s what started tithing in the United States:
The government had funded churches with tax money, just as many governments in other countries still do today. The reason they did this is because they felt worship centers provided a valuable contribution to the community. But in 1833, states started rescinding the religious tax.
Suddenly broke, pastors started experimenting with ways to raise money to keep the church going and to fund missionaries they were sending overseas.
The pastors took offerings. They took pledges of support for the upcoming year. They even sold season tickets: Pick your Pew.
It didn’t go so well.
Good news, though. Somewhere along the way preachers latched onto the Jewish idea of tithing.
They discovered if they sold the idea as an enduring law, as foundational as one of the Ten Commandments, they could raise money like nobody’s business.
One of their preferred moneymaker pitches:
“You people are robbing me, your God. And, here you are, asking, ‘How are we robbing you?’ You are robbing me of the offerings and of the ten percent that belongs to me,” (Malachi 3:8).
Christians don’t want to rob anybody, especially God.
Many pastors know about the history of tithing, but they are reluctant to change their fundraising practices. For good reason, some say: most of the money that churches raise comes from tithing.
One church historian I know offers a compromise – a way of raising money without misleading Christians about what God expects of them.
Dr. Paul Bassett, prof emeritus of Christian history at Nazarene Theological Seminary, said he thought it would be a good idea for pastors to tell their people that 10% giving has worked well at funding the church in recent centuries.
But he advised against telling the congregation that tithing is pretty much the Eleventh Commandment, required of all God’s people until the end of time – or at least until the government goes back to giving tax money to the church.
In other words, pass the plate but – theologically – don’t pass the buck.