In our current times, we face a dilemma: many of our churches are struggling to survive financially. Our priests are on the brink of burn-out, forced to work secular jobs on top of their pastoral and familial duties because their parishes cannot financially support them. Our parish councils struggle simply to pay the bills month to month, not to mention save money for those larger expenses that rear their ugly heads at least once or twice a year. The cause? Our lack of tithing.
What is tithing?
A tithe (from Old English teogoþa, “tenth”) is a one-tenth part of something. In the Christian context, tithing means setting aside one-tenth of all we possess for the work of the Lord. Because it is voluntary and based on percentage of income, a tithe is distinct from the concept of a due. Today, tithing is normally paid in cash, checks, or electronic funds transfers; however, historically tithes could be paid in kind, such as wheat, wine, oil, produce, firstlings of livestock, etc.
Something important to remember: God is not seeking financial compensation from His people through tithing. No amount of money or livestock or produce could pay back the debt we owe to God for all that He has done for us. Everything that is, is His. Speaking through the Psalmist, God declares: “For every beast of the forest is Mine, And the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, And the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness” (Psalm 50:10–12).
Establishment of tithing
Many mistakenly believe the tithe originated with Moses and the giving of the law. However, it appeared five centuries earlier, when the patriarch Abraham encounters the mysterious Melchizedek, king of the city of Salem (modern Jerusalem) and priest of the most High God. In Genesis 14:18–20, we read that when Abraham drew near, Melchizedek came out to meet him, blessed him, and Abraham in return gave Melchizedek “a tithe of all.”
With the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, we see the establishment of not one, but three tithes for the ancient Israelites:
- An annual tithe to support the Levites, priests, and other religious personnel (Numbers 18:21-28).
- A separate annual feast tithe, which went towards the expenses and upkeep of the Temple, and the various feasts and sacrifices surrounding it (Deuteronomy 14:22–27).
- A third-year tithe for the poor of the land, and again for the Levite (Deuteronomy 26:12f).
Even during exile, the Israelites were expected to practice tithing (Tobit 1:6-8). Failure to pay the tithe was considered robbery against God (Malachi 3:8-12). In this sense, tithing was very much an obligation; it was not optional. First and foremost, though, tithing was an act of worship, not merely a duty.
When it comes to finances, we tend to think in secular terms, not spiritual. We owe our money to the bank, the credit card company, or the IRS. God, on the other hand, gets the spiritual stuff. The perspective of the Mosaic Covenant was much more holistic when it came to such matters. Rather than a nagging debt to be settled over and over again, year after year, the payment of the tithe was a privilege—an act of worship, a reasonable sacrifice, giving back to God a portion of that which He gave to His people.
Money and the spirit of giving in the New Testament
Only a handful of passages in the New Testament specifically mention tithing (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42; Luke 18:9–14; Hebrews 7:5, 12, 18). While our Lord speaks little about the practice of tithing in the Gospels, He has much to say about the spirit of giving that formed the basis of the Old Covenant system of tithing. In fact, Christ had more to say about the proper stewardship of money than about any other topic in the Gospels, even sin!
The supreme model of giving Christ sets forth is not based on ten percent, but on one hundred-percent commitment. As St. Paul reminds us, our Lord provides the ultimate example of sacrificial giving: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9; Philippians 2:5-8). Following His example, early believers sold all they had—both lands and houses—and brought the proceeds to the apostles, who distributed them to each according to need (Acts 4:34–35).
Above all, the basis for true and God-pleasing giving is a thankful heart with a joyful spirit (2 Corinthians 9:7), always keeping in mind the needs of others (James 1:27). St. Paul praises the Philippian believers for their faithful and generous support of his apostolic ministry (Philippians 4:15–16). A few verses later, he calls their financial gifts “a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.” This beautiful imagery confirms the Mosaic understanding of tithing and giving as an act of worship.
Tithing in the Early Church
While tithing as an obligation is part of the Old Covenant, nothing specifically affirms that it is obligatory for Christians. Similarly, nothing specifically says it is not. To understand what Christ taught His Apostles, and what they taught the Church, we must look beyond the pages of Scripture to the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit as expressed through the Holy Tradition of the Church.
The Scriptures explain that it was commonplace in the New Testament Church to provide for ministers of the Gospel (1 Cor 9:9-14). In the beginning this occurred through spontaneous offerings of the faithful. As the Church expanded, however, it became necessary to ensure the proper and permanent support of the clergy. We see many references to tithing in the writings of the Church Fathers. For the sake of brevity, we will include but a few here:
Didascalia Apostolorum (3rd century)
“Set aside part offerings and tithes and first fruits to Christ, the true High Priest, and to His ministers, even tithes of salvation to Him. . . . Today the oblations are offered through the bishops to the Lord God. For they are your high priests; but the priests and Levites are now the presbyters and deacons, and the orphans and widows. . . . Your fruits and the work of your hands present to him, that you may be blessed; your first fruits and your tithes and your vows and your part offerings give to him; for he has need of them that he may be sustained, and that he may dispense also to those who are in want, to each as is just for him.”
Saint John Chrysostom, 4th Homily on Ephesians
“Woe to him, it is said, who doeth not alms; and if this was the case under the Old Covenant, much more is it under the New. If, where the getting of wealth was allowed and the enjoyment of it, and the care of it, there was such provision made for the succoring of the poor, how much more in that Dispensation, where we are commanded to surrender all we have?
For what did not they of old do? They gave tithes, and tithes again upon tithes for orphans, widows, and strangers, whereas some one was saying to me in astonishment at another, ‘Why, such an one givest tithes.’ What a load of disgrace does this expression imply, since what was not a matter of wonder with the Jews has come to be so in the case of the Christians? If there was danger then in omitting tithes, think how great it must be now.” (emphasis added)
Saint John Cassian, The Conferences, Chapter XXIX
“He who retains his goods of this world, or, bound by the rules of the old law, distributes the tithe of his produce, and his first fruits, or a portion of his income, although he may to a considerable degree quench the fire of his sins by this dew of almsgiving, yet, however generously he gives away his wealth, it is impossible for him altogether to rid himself of the dominion of sin, unless perhaps by the grace of the Savior, together with his substance he gets rid of all love of possessing.”
Didache, Chapter 13 (1st century; oldest document outside of the New Testament)
“But every true prophet that wills to abide among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have not a prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.”
Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:18:1
“We are bound, therefore, to offer to God the first-fruits of His creation, as Moses also says, “Thou shalt not appear in the presence of the Lord thy God empty;” so that man, being accounted as grateful, by those things in which he has shown his gratitude, may receive that honour which flows from Him.”
One important note: Not all Church Fathers taught on the subject of tithing, nor did all Church Fathers tithe. The patristic evidence on the topic is rather mixed; however, the benefits of tithing as a spiritual discipline have led many Orthodox bishops and priests to continue promoting it in their episcopacies and parishes.
Why tithing is good for Orthodox parishes
By looking at the state of many Orthodox parishes in American, it is painfully evident that very few Orthodox Christians actively tithe. This is primarily because we do not understand why we tithe in the first place. The key to the effectiveness of any discipline we undertake as a part of our Faith – whether it be tithing or fasting or prayer – is knowing the why behind it.
Because we don’t know why we tithe, we simply don’t do it. So why should we tithe? And why is it a good discipline for us to undertake as Christians?
1. Tithing forces us to empty ourselves
As Christians, we want healing. We seek salvation. We want to become like Christ. While tithing doesn’t “buy” us salvation, it is a powerful way that we give of ourselves, emptying ourselves by turning over what we have to God. When we set aside the things of this world, we open ourselves to receive the Lord’s healing and blessing.
Of course, giving money is not the only way. Whatever we have, we have to give to God. Because we can’t be filled with God if we remain full of ourselves.
2. Tithing becomes ministry
Guaranteed, there are many things your parish would love to do, but cannot because they simply do not have the money. Perhaps they could improve or repair the building or build a new one. They could start that iconography project, get an assistant priest, hire a youth director, or give to charities. They could fund continuing education for the priest, the choir director, or other parish workers. Or maybe they could bring in special speakers, sponsor kids to summer camp, sponsor pilgrimages. They could do a lot more outreach, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
The possibilities are endless. When we give to God, He blesses it and returns it to us for our sanctification. When we give our money, God turns it into ministry. Sometimes ministry is just the most basic things, like paying the parish’s utility bills or providing for the priest’s health insurance. Other times, it can be so much more, and touch the lives and hearts of many.
3. Tithing ends money problems for the parish, once and for all.
The national average household income in the United States for 2022 is approximately $63,000. With 25 tithing families, a parish would collect nearly $160k. With 50 families, that doubles to $315k. And with 100 tithing families, a parish would bring in nearly $630k.
Even if only half the families in a parish start tithing (even if that same half gave just 5% instead of 10%), the parish would probably never have any more money problems.
4. Tithing changes a parish’s culture.
Far too many Orthodox parishes operate on a quid pro quo sort of system: they give money to the church to pay for something (a wedding, for example) or because they expect to get something in return. We have created a culture of personal ego inflation, where we give money for the sole purpose of recognition in the eyes of our fellow parishioners, giving to get what we want out of the parish. Our Lord Himself spoke against this (Matthew 6:3-4), yet we continue to see parish after parish acquiescing to the egotistical demands of prideful parishioners.
When a parish faithfully and anonymously tithes, we create a culture of generosity, of kindness. We create a community that is truly Christian, because its members have love for one another. As a parish, we work together toward holiness, striving to be more like Christ. With Him as our focal point, the culture within the parish will slowly begin to heal all on its own.
God desires all of us, not just a part
Remember that God desires every corner of our heart, not a percentage. The tithe is the minimum standard, the foundation to ensure basic, consistent giving. It is not the be-all and end-all. If we think that giving a tithe “gets us off the hook,” we’re placing ourselves in the company of the Pharisees. We use a rule of prayer each day to guide us in our prayer life. But we don’t say, “Thank God! I’ve done my ten minutes of prayer this morning, now I don’t have to pray again until tonight!” A rule of prayer is just a starting point for prayer, a call to order, not the total of all we do. The same thing applies to the tithe.
The importance of tithing comes not in the percentage of what we give, but rather in our giving of the first and best of our resources to the work of the Church. In honesty and out of thanksgiving to God.
We must be good stewards.
Everything we have comes from our merciful and loving God. And as creatures made in His image, we must be good stewards of all He has given us. Not only does this mean we must take care of our families and meet our own needs without being wasteful. But it also means we must use what God has given us – money, time, talent, etc. – to take care of our fellow man and support the work of the Church.
When we fail to be good stewards, when we fail to use our finances properly, we are robbing God. There’s no nice way to say it. When our priests are living on substandard wages, our ministries understaffed, our churches dilapidated, and our almsgiving to the poor and underprivileged a sham, yet we personally surround ourselves with unnecessary possessions and expensive toys, we stand under the same condemnation.
If every Orthodox Christian took this concept of stewardship seriously, the results would be astounding. If everyone in the Church simply tithed (not to mention going beyond it), the Church would be able to do so much more in the world. But as it is, we are far more limited in our ability to do what God has called us to do, and this is a sin for which we should all repent.
As Orthodox Christians, we need to reinvigorate the concept of the tithe and put it into practice in our parishes. Remember: we give not for the financial benefit of the parish – though this is a wonderful consequence! Instead we give because our Lord has asked this of us, because He knows the benefit it has for our souls. That said, tithing should not give us any cause to be proud, for we are simply doing that which is our duty to do, as unprofitable servants (cf. Luke 17:10).
If we are afraid of the financial strain of tithing, we can begin with a lesser amount. Eventually, however, we should work up to the ten percent that is our moral obligation, and one day, Lord willing, exceed even that amount. Tithing should become a matter of conscience for us as Orthodox Christians, like fasting or saying our daily prayers. And we should do so willingly, with a cheerful heart, recognizing that all we have is from God, and that our tithe will accrue to our spiritual benefit, as promised by the Lord (Malachi 3:10-12).