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Tithing - some extended thoughts

[Blatant disregard of the typical 250 word count this week - my apologies! -JW] 

A large misconception that I’ve noticed in my 3-odd-some decades of being a part of the Church is the notion that Christians should be tithing their income. Giving 10%. There are further splits on whether that should be from gross or net income - but I don’t think it really matters. 

Why? 

Because I don’t believe the “tithe” as we understand it applies any longer.

And even if it did, the amount would be closer to giving away 23.3% of our assets each year, and not 10% of our income. So when I’m feeling a little saucy and someone tells me they give their biblical tithe, I ask if they’re giving away a quarter of their net worth every calendar year. 

A bit of context might help. 

The tithe is mentioned a bunch in the Old Testament. The term “tithe” literally means a tenth, so no debate there. But how and when and where it was applied is another story that makes things somewhat complicated fairly quickly. 

In Genesis 14, Abraham first introduces the idea. Abraham gives a tithe to the mysterious Melchizedek. Oddly, this tithe was based off of the spoils of a war/raid on a nation. 

Later in Genesis, Jacob makes a bargain with God in chapter 28 in which he offers to give God a tithe if God gives him something first. 

Both of these happen “pre-law” - and both seem to be one-time gifts. Not to mention maybe not the best of circumstances (raiding a nation, and making a demand of YHWH). 

So fast forward a bit to when Moses set up the law, and this starts a pretty consistent pattern of tithing coming up in the Old Testament (Leviticus 27, Number 18, Deuteronomy 12, 14, and 26, 1 Samuel 8, Amos 4, 2 Chronicles 31, Nehemiah 10, 12, and 13.) 

Without going into each of them - as a whole, they actually seem to suggest three different “tithes” are required.

The first (Levitical tithe) was for the maintenance of the Levites and priests of Israel, the second (Festival tithe) was to be used for the feasts and celebrations of Israel, and a third (Poor tithe) was collected once every three years to take care of the sojourners, orphans, and widows who lived within and around Israel. 

So. 10% Levitical tithe + 10% Festival tithe + 3.33% (10% once every 3 years) Poor tithe = 23.33% total tithe.

And since this was an agrarian society, all of these tithes were food products. Grain, oil, animals, etc. The modern day equivalent of assets, not income. 

But, there’s more. (Truthfully - way more than I can crunch into here.) 

A brief sampling of other tithing issues we don’t talk about as much: tithing was to stop if Israel was expelled from its land (Deuteronomy 12:19), the Festival tithe could only be eaten in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 14:23), and there seems to be some grace allowed for the poor’s requirements to tithe (Leviticus 14:21, 28:8). 

So a quick Old Testament summary: Israel was commanded to give approximately 23.3% of their assets, which was mostly food material, and there seemed to be some exceptions to the rule. 

Let’s move forward a bit more in the Bible and look at what Jesus specifically said - or didn’t say - about the tithe. 

Here’s the exhaustive list: Matthew 23:23 (also admittedly Luke 11:42, which is the same story) and Luke 18:9-14. Neither of which are exactly a ringing endorsement of the practice. From Matthew’s version:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you should have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” 

The second mention in Luke 18 isn’t much better. In that one, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector, and although the Pharisee rattled off a list of all the things he piously does, including tithes, Jesus isn’t impressed. 

Hmm.

What’s even more curious - at least to me - is that Jesus seems to up the ante with other laws in his teaching in Matthew 5, or the Sermon on the Mount. Murder is still wrong, but Jesus links even anger or insults to a similar punishment. Adultery is still wrong, but Jesus says that even a lustful thought is adultery in the heart. Oaths, retaliation, loving your enemies, etc. are all “leveled up” in Jesus’ teachings. 

And yet his only mention of tithing is when he says that the Pharisees do it, but are missing the picture entirely. 

So still nothing definitive on if we should be tithing, and the rest of the New Testament doesn’t bring up the tithe topic (save for Hebrews 7:1-2 which mentions Melchizedek again.) 

Fortunately - there’s good news. Without affirming (or to be fair, rescinding) the tithe, Paul gives some giving instructions in 2 Corinthians 9 and in 1 Timothy 6. 

“The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)

That is both beautifully freeing and frustratingly ambiguous. Give us a number, Paul! 

Later on, in his first letter to Timothy, he elaborates a bit.

“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

So. 

Where does that leave us? Not with a whole lot of precision, in my opinion.

Here’s my belief: Jesus and the New Testament are intentionally ambiguous on what should be given. And I think there's a good reason for this. 

God recognizes that money controls each of us to different, varying degrees. And a way of breaking the hold of money (while also increasing our Trust in Him) is by giving a portion of it away. So for some, that might be 3%. For others, maybe it’s 33%. 

I also think that when it comes to giving, characteristics may be more helpful than hard figures. Here’s a few to maybe frame your giving decision within: generously, joy-filled, bountifully, and sacrificially. 

That last one isn’t mentioned by Paul, but it’s hinted at by Jesus in Mark 12:41-44 when a poor widow gave two small coins and he said that she gave more than the rich folks who threw in large amounts. 

A family earning $30,000 a year and gives 10% would give $3,000 a year.
A family earning $300,000 a year and gives 10% would give $30,000 a year. 

And although there is a tenfold difference between the two amounts, I have a suspicion that one is a bit more sacrificial than the other. 

[My dear friend Brandon talked a bit about these points and others in a recent teaching (the whole message is probably the best sermon I’ve ever heard on money, but the tithe/give discussion starts at 1 hour 3 minute mark in the service video).]

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart.”

Maybe that number actually IS 10% for you. Maybe it’s 2%. Maybe it’s 23.3%. 

I don’t think the number matters (although I do think whatever you decide on should arguably be applied consistently and/or growing as a percentage over time). I think it’s the characteristic of our hearts that matters more. 

The average Christians gives about 2.3-2.5% of their income every year. That’s remained relatively constant for as long as I’ve remembered looking it up. So if someone feels compelled to give 10% - amazing! I just don’t feel it’s accurate to call that 10% a biblical tithe, which is completely ok.

Because maybe the Church should stop tithing anyway. 

Interesting Resources

Quote
Dan Rasmussen (Verdad Capital)
"It’s easier to predict what will happen, it turns out, than when it will happen."

Why Do We [Truly] Do What We Do?
7 min read | CalibratingCapital (yours truly) 
Although I continued this weekly letter since 2017, I took a break from writing more publicly in 2020. In this recent CalCap post I explain and offer perhaps an uncomfortable look into my heart on the reasons why. Brief snippet:

We say we work so hard because we want to provide for our families – but maybe the actual truth is that we don’t know who we are detached from our job.

We say we write content to help change people’s view of money – but maybe the actual truth is we just like the attention.

We say we need to keep accumulating money because we want to ensure financial freedom – but maybe the truth is we attach an unhealthy amount of our self-worth to our net-worth.

And so on, and so on.

This is the danger zone, and I think it’s the place where people (myself as an example) can get really tripped up and lose perspective of the reasons Why we do certain things.


Investing in a Bubble
8 min read | Verdad Capital
Really solid article that looks back at previous times when people declared we were in a bubble of some sort with the markets. Two things: (1) they were right on the fact, but (2) they were wrong on the time.  Some of the smartest people in finance said around 1995 that the stock market was in a bubble, but it continued to keep increasing (in some areas insanely so) for half of a decade. It also shows how value (as compared to growth) type investing performed as the bubble burst. 

Real Return is All That Matters
2 min read  | Retirement Field Guide
My friend Ashby is a fantastic writer (as well as becoming a fantastic illustrator as well), and he does a great job at illustrating how "real return" is all that matters when talking about investments. "Real" is defined as the net difference after factoring in inflation. Lots of people are projecting lower future returns for the stock market - which may or may not be correct. But rushing out of equities into something else - like bonds or cash - might not be the greatest strategy because of inflation's impact on our actual returns. 
I feel I owe each of you an apology for the long-windedness of this week! However, I do feel it's an important topic as being intentional with our giving (whatever the amount is) is a huge, huge component of our financial lives. 

Feel I'm entirely in the wrong? Let me know by simply replying back with some counter points! 

Gratefully,
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