How Evangelical Christians Do Money: On Tithing

by Ester Bloom and Tara Leigh Cobble

Ester: Good morning! We’re going to talk about TITHING. Are you excited? I’m excited.

Tara Leigh: I’m excited too! I love talking about this.

Ester: Let’s start with the basics. What is tithing and how long have you been doing it?

Tara Leigh: Tithing is a Biblical practice which has its origin in ancient Judaism. In short, it’s giving a percentage of your overall income, usually a minimum of 10%, to your local church as a demonstration of gratitude and trust in God’s provision. I remember tithing as a child, with money my parents gave me, but in my adult life, it wasn’t something I started practicing consistently until 2009.

Ester: For a secular audience, particularly a perennially cash-strapped one, the obvious question is WHY. So let’s get that part out of the way. Why do you give 10% of your money away? What do you get out of it? Emotionally / practically / spiritually?

Tara Leigh: For me to explain this clearly, it may help to draw a parallel to marriage. Many things you do for your spouse are not transactional; they’re simple ways to show you trust and love that person. The heart of tithing is not focused on what I can get out of it. However, I do actually get benefits. I get a deeper, more enriched relationship with God by demonstrating my love and trust for Him.

Scripture’s model of giving 10% off the top of your income is much like the Sabbath principle of resting for one day each week. Both of these principles say, “I trust that God can and will provide for me in what is left.” He doesn’t need my money. The church will continue to exist without my measly portion of income. But my heart needs to give it, to help me grow deeper in trust, and to extricate myself from the clutches of greed and vanity that pull at me. I like nice things. I like new things. Tithing helps refocus me on things that matter, instead of those fleeting joys that will end up in a yard sale someday. In short, it demonstrates my faith while refocusing my desires around things that deepen my relationship with God.

Ester: There is so much loveliness in what you have just said but before we address it further, perhaps now might be a good time to step back a little. Can you tell us about yourself? It seems clear that God plays a crucial role in your life. Do you identify as an Evangelical Christian? Or is that label not as useful to you as it is to the mainstream media?

Tara Leigh: There’s definitely a lot of baggage that comes with that label, but we’re not all the stuff of bad press. It’s an accurate term for me, as far as the denotative meaning is concerned. I grew up in a traditional Christian home, and I became a Christian myself when I was a child. Many people are skeptical of a young conversion, and I understand that concern, but my faith has continued to deepen over the years.

Ester: Did/do your parents and older role models tithe? Did you grow up with this as the status quo? And did religion interact with money in other key, influential ways while you were growing up?

Tara Leigh: My parents did and do still model this. In addition to tithing, they are generous, giving additional portions to missionaries, to those in need, to other organizations.

Ester: As the youngest of six, did you ever feel at all resentful — did you not get something you needed or wanted because so much money went to religious causes? That would have been a totally normal response and yet I can understand how it may have felt, or still does feel, very fraught …

Tara Leigh: My parents modeled a love for God and a love for our church, far more than a love for possessions. I always had richer tastes than they could provide for, and I remember once throwing a tantrum over a purple leather jacket they couldn’t afford to buy me when I was in 6th grade. Ultimately though, I never would’ve questioned why God got the money first. He wasn’t my enemy, taking things that should’ve been mine. I knew He was my ultimately my Father, my provider. It wasn’t a competition.

Ester: That’s right, Satan was your enemy: the one planting the desire for the sinful purple leather jacket in your mind. 🙂 Except, seriously, did you view it that way?

Tara Leigh: This may be going a little deeper than intended, but I’ll do my best to sum it up. I have a few enemies, things that pull at my allegiance to my primary relationship with God. The biggest of those enemies is myself, or my “flesh,” as Scripture calls it. That is way to reference my wants and my desires. Not all desires are sinful. Purple leather jackets aren’t inherently sinful. This one was pretty rad. 🙂 It just wasn’t in the budget. And since Christians don’t believe God owns only that 10% — in fact, He owns 100% — then it’s wise to keep a budget to make sure we use Someone else’s money wisely.

Ester: Got it. So how do you decide which extravagances — or even which spending choices — fall closer to the sinful side? Anything indulgent? Make-up? Travel? How do you decide which purchases would make your provider proud, and is that how you strive to make day-to-day choices? And isn’t that maybe a little exhausting?

Tara Leigh: I can see how it might sound exhausting, but it’s a simple habit born out of relationship. For example, when someone invites you to dinner on Friday at 6:00, you do a quick mental reference of your schedule, your husband’s schedule, your daughter’s nap and feeding schedule, then maybe you cross-reference quickly with your husband before saying yes. Right? That kind of structural cross-referencing is how this works as well.

The wise thing to do when I acknowledge God owns 100% of my money is to work out a budget, give the tithe percentage to my church first, then apportion the rest to housing, food, automotive, giving, etc. Most people have a percentage built in for general purchases. I call mine “fun.” That money can go wherever I want it to, as long as it serves the greater purpose of serving my relationship. If my budget allows me to go to a nice dinner and have a steak and a glass of wine, I can. If my budget allows for a fancy vacation, I can take it. Scripture never tells me not to enjoy what God has given me. It just tells me to use it wisely.

Ester: Do you do this accounting, budgeting, and tithing on a monthly basis? As a singer-songwriter, your income must fluctuate pretty wildly.

Tara Leigh: Yes. Wildly indeed. 🙂 A monthly basis seems to work best for me. Some people do it weekly. Nothing is specified in scripture, and paychecks come at different times, so I think the timing of the principle is fairly flexible.

Ester: So you render unto God that which is God’s. How do you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s? And: do you tithe on the pre-tax income, or do you tithe post-tax?

Tara Leigh: I pay annual taxes, though some people on budgets prefer to pay quarterly. A portion of my budget is dedicated to saving for that. The standard for tithing is that it is of your “first fruits,” which most people understand as your gross, so I tithe pre-tax.

Ester: Okay but. You know “first fruits” referred to the Temple, and to a priestly class that no longer exists? It seems kind of strange to me to continue that tradition now that it’s so divorced from its original context. It’s like leaving the corners of your fields unreaped so that the poor can come and glean from them, or something, which is also a commandment but not one that — as far as I’ve heard — anyone follows. You know? Why did tithing carry over and not so many other of the 613 mitzvot (Old Testament positive and negative commandments, the thou shalts and thou shalt nots)?

Tara Leigh: In short, Christ is identified as the “fulfillment of the law” (Matthew 5, Romans 10). The ritual and purification laws are no longer required, since He fulfilled them. In fulfilling the law, however, He didn’t abolish the moral and spiritual principles of the law. In short, that’s why things like the 10 Commandments are still absolutes in the Christian faith, but they’re also guiding principles in most people’s lives outside the Church. For instance, that’s why we all know instinctively that lying and stealing are wrong, because they’re principles; yet no one thinks twice about wearing a poly-cotton blend, because that is a purification law.

Ester: Or handling a pigskin football, or not forcing a victim to marry her rapist.

Tara Leigh: Sheesh! Yes. But the culture in those days was ROUGH, and that was actually a law given in favor of protecting the women.

Ester: Yes, yes. Back to tithing. Do most people in your community tithe? And do you think anyone tithes “wrong” — for example, how do you feel about televangelists?

Tara Leigh: I love this question. Most people in my community do tithe — from those who make very little to those who are multi-millionaires. As with almost anything, there’s a way to do it wrong, but the motivation behind even our so-called “good” actions also matters.

I’ll draw the marriage parallel again. If you wash the dishes in hopes that your husband is going to mow the lawn, and you keep washing dishes and he keeps not mowing the lawn, then it’s clear that your actions are transactional. That’s not giving, that’s bartering. It breeds entitlement in you, instead of growing you in generosity.

When televangelists ask people to send in “seed money” to “reap a twenty-fold harvest” (or whatever language they’re using lately), it’s wrong on both ends. The televangelist is abusing scripture for his own gain, while taking advantage of people who A) likely don’t know their Bible, and are B) likely giving only as a means to get. The tithe is supposed to go to your local church, not some guy on TV. If you want to “give” to that guy, fine (though I wouldn’t). But that’s not your tithe, which is what God’s promise of provision is attached to (Malachi 3). That promise of provision, attached to the command to tithe, is the only time in Scripture where God says to test Him (Malachi 3).

Ester: What if you don’t like your local church, or you don’t think they’re handling their money well? Do you ever feel like a shareholder, since you contribute so much of your income to them, and think maybe you should get some input into how the funds are spent? Is that a sense of entitlement that one must fight, or a good gut feeling that one is a member of the wrong congregation?

Tara Leigh: You nailed it with that last part of the question. I’m grateful to be a member of a church whose financial practices I trust. Jesus talked about money frequently (which is interesting since He never benefitted from any of that talk, as a rabbi who was unaffiliated with the Temple). He talks about wise ways to use it, and I think it’s wise to consider how a church stewards their money before joining it.

Ester: Good advice all around, in fact! Any last words to our mostly-secular but respectful audience of people who care about using money wisely?

Tara Leigh: Yes! Money is not the root of all evil. The most frequently misquoted scripture on money is 1 Timothy. It says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” People often leave off the “love” part. Money is a gift from God to be used for God’s purposes. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It’s a principle that applies whether you’re a Christian or not: heart follows treasure. Our wallets indicate our allegiance.

Author and musician Tara-Leigh Cobble is a conference keynote speaker, worship leader, and singer-songwriter who has spent the past decade touring internationally.

Ester is a loving skeptic who spent 13 years in a Jewish Day School.

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