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Changing Our Patterns of Giving: Exploring the Virtues and Wisdom of Tithing

By Ron Nicola, Chairman of the Department of Stewardship of the Antiochian Archdiocese

From The Word, October 2005

The concept and practice of tithing is being talked about more frequently throughout the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. To some, this is a positive and long overdue development. For others, discussion of tithing within the context of the Orthodox Church is both confusing and unfamiliar. It is true that the practice of tithing has not been common within most Orthodox communities in North America, but this does not mean that a discussion of tithing is out of place. In fact, just the opposite is true. There is nothing about tithing that places it out of the realm of the Orthodox Church, other than the fact that it has not been part of the tradition of our churches for the past few generations. There are countless individuals and some entire parishes within the Antiochian Archdiocese who currently tithe. Their example is a beacon for the rest of us to learn from and follow.

As tithing is discussed more freely and more routinely, the faithful are asked to keep an open mind. Tithing and proportional giving are practices steeped in the traditions of the Christian Church in general, in the Orthodox Church in particular, and in the teachings of the Holy Bible. The history and the evolution of our Church in North America, as well as in the lands our ancestors left to immigrate to this continent, provide reasons why tithing and proportional giving fell out of practice. Bringing it back must begin with a clear examination of what the Bible and Church teachings say about this prescribed method of Christian stewardship, the giving of our time, our talents, and our resources in thanksgiving to God for the many blessings He has entrusted to our care. Our progress towards a more enlightened awareness about giving will be painfully slow unless a few fundamental points are addressed, thoroughly discussed, and incorporated into our beliefs and practices as Orthodox Christians.

First and foremost, what we give to the Church in terms of our time, our talents, and our resources is a part of our worship, just like attending Divine Liturgy, and other holy services. When we say we believe in God and in the Holy Orthodox faith, we know that professing our faith must include how we conduct ourselves in the course of our everyday lives: how we raise our children, how we treat our spouse, how we interact with friends and family, how we conduct ourselves at work, how we administer our personal affairs, how we relax and enjoy the fellowship of friends and neighbors. All of these activities and, in fact, all aspects of our life, no matter how large or small, must be done in a manner consistent with the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church. There is, truly, no distinction between our secular and our spiritual lives. The fact that we profess our faith and call ourselves Orthodox Christians means that all we do in our lives must be consistent with the teachings of that faith.

As human beings made in the image and likeness of God, we are constantly striving to live a life in harmony with God’s will, yet we know we have human weaknesses. This does not stop us, however, from continuing the struggle, even though we frequently fall. The sacraments of Holy Confession and Holy Communion are expressions of God’s love for us and His understanding of and His compassion for our shortcomings. In terms of our giving to the Church, we give as an expression of our faith and in thanksgiving to God for all of the blessings He has bestowed upon us. We must be good stewards of these gifts and we must use them in ways consistent with the teachings of our faith. When we read in 1 Corinthians 16:21, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come,” we hear one of the many scriptural passages which reinforces this teaching that God prescribes, in clear and definite terms, that our giving is an extension and an expression of our faith.

A second, and equally important point about our patterns of giving, is that giving, as an extension of our faith, means that our giving should not be guided or limited by the temporal needs of the Church. This is perhaps the most baffling aspect to this whole discussion about tithing and proportional giving. For most of us, we have grown up in an environment geared to giving to the Church based on the needs of the Church, for example, to cover the annual budget, to pay for maintenance of existing facilities, to support a new building or expansion plan, to support a program or project. These have been the factors which motivate and inspire us to give. However, we must pray together and study together to modify and change this notion of how and why we give to God’s Church. We must give because we as Orthodox Christians need to give in proportion to the gifts God has given us. We need to do this as part of our salvation. The Church does not need our donations to survive. Instead, we need to offer ourselves and everything we have to God and to His Church in order for us to survive and in order for us to do God’s will. Our salvation depends, among other things, on our pattern of giving to God that which is rightfully His. When we read, study, discuss, and pray about the following passages, what conclusion can we come to other than God prescribes methods of giving consistent with these points? Giving is part of how we worship God. Giving to the Church is done in acknowledgement of God’s blessings. God’s Church has endured for over two thousand years; it will continue in spite of what we give. It is our salvation that is at stake when we talk about how much to give to the Church.

+ “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” Proverbs 3:9-10

+ “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Matthew 23:23

+ “For what did not they of old do? They gave tithes, and tithes again upon tithes for orphans, widows, and strangers; wheras some one was saying to me in astonishment of another person, ‘Why, such a one gives tithes!’ What a load of disgrace does this 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 a danger then in omitting tithes, think how great it must be now!” St. John Chrysostom, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume XIII, First Series, page 69

Having made these two points, we are now going to move to some specific discussion about tithing and proportional giving. Before continuing, however, please pause and consider these points. Until we truly believe that we give as an extension of our faith and we give as an expression of how much God has given us, the chances of truly changing our patterns of giving are slim. Take time to consider how much of your time, your talents, and your resources you give to the Church. What do you do for a living and what are your special talents, hobbies, and interests? Do you find ways to offer these skills and talents to further the work of the Church? In addition to conducting yourself in every aspect of your life like a practicing Orthodox Christian, do you offer a portion of your time to the specific work of God’s Church? On what basis do you decide what portion of your resources to give in thanksgiving to God? Is your annual, monthly, or weekly contribution an amount that reflects how much God has blessed you and your family? Giving an amount consistent with God’s teachings takes time and some deliberate consideration to determine.

Many of our parishes have developed the practice of establishing a per member or per family amount that they recommend as an annual donation to the Church. Some call this amount dues and others call this a pledge. While some parishes do not recommend a specific dues or minimum pledge amount, many parishes publicize information about church operating expenses and planned parish projects, and parishioners are encouraged to then give a “fair share” amount in order to cover the cost of these expenses. While it is a commendable practice for parishes to keep their members aware of and informed about the financial condition of the parish, we need to move away from also using this information to calculate how much we as individual members should give on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. As individual Orthodox Christians and as individual members of our parish communities, we do not need to wait until the parish council adopts a tithing program or until others in the parish begin to tithe. Each of us is responsible for our own behavior and for our own salvation. Once you accept into your heart the points made here about what should motivate our levels of giving, begin to give what you know in your heart is a true reflection of your faith and a true measure of the blessings God has given to you and to your family.

While the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is clear about tithing as a guideline for giving, a person who has not been used to this practice will take some time to get to the point where he or she can reach the ten percent and even higher levels of giving. Those who decide they want to examine their personal pattern of giving honestly and consider making some changes, must first prove to themselves that change is possible without jeopardizing their ability to meet their monthly financial obligations. Here are some simple first steps to follow as you begin this journey.

First, consider the amount you and your family currently give to the church. How did you arrive at this figure? Perhaps it is the amount suggested by your church’s parish council. Maybe it is simply the amount you gave last year. You may have increased the amount of your previous year’s pledge if the parish leaders indicated that budget or project needs had increased. Did any of the factors discussed in this article factor into your decision concerning how much to give? If you give to your local church because you believe this is part of your responsibility as a member of the community, this is a worthy motivation, but in the life of the church, there must be more to giving than this. You will never give more because someone tells you to give more. You will only change your pattern of giving if you become convinced that God’s teaching prescribes a change in your habits. Think about any other practice in your life where you have made a change or where you realize that you should follow a different path. We all know, for example, that the decisions we make about what to eat are not always nutritionally sound. The fact that we sometimes eat the wrong foods does not change the fact that we know better. We therefore are constantly looking for the motivation to be more consistent and more disciplined in our nutritional habits. This same pattern of behavior holds true with exercise, with how we use our spare time, with how we conduct ourselves at work, and with many other aspects of our lives. If you are a former smoker, for example, why did you quit? Whatever the circumstances leading up to that decision, the decision itself came only when you decided to take that important step. All of the help, encouragement, and information about the dangers of smoking helped support that decision, but the decision itself was yours and yours alone. This same pattern of human nature applies to our lives in the Church. Changing your established pattern of giving to the church will happen when you make the decision to modify your practices. What will help bring about that change is an increasing level of awareness. Knowing that God prescribes practices for giving, just as His Word gives us guidance in all other aspects of our lives, is the first step toward change. “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Second, make a list of the last ten items you purchased. How much money did you spend for each item? Are there items on this list you could have done without? Are there items on this list you could have spent less to acquire? The items you could have done without and items you could have spent less to acquire represent money you could have had available to include in your tithe to the Church. One fact about tithing is that it helps bring financial discipline to our lives. In the long run, it is a practice that makes us more financially secure as we become closer to living our lives as God has prescribed. Tithing is not about denying ourselves or our families the essentials needed to live good lives. Tithing is about practicing the spiritual and financial discipline needed to live full lives that are in concert with God’s teachings. Remember, if we call ourselves Orthodox Christians, we must live our lives in a manner which reflects the teachings and practices of our faith. In Luke 12:27-31, we are reminded that our faith in God will be rewarded with His blessings:

“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith? And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.”

Next, does your job compensate you based on an hourly wage or a monthly or weekly salary? If you are paid by the hour, consider making your weekly donation to the Church equal to what you are paid for one hour of work. If you are paid $10.00 per hour, set aside $10.00 per week as your offering. If you are paid $15.00 per hour, set aside this amount as your weekly offering. If you are paid a weekly or monthly salary, divide this amount by the number of hours you work per week or per month and make this your weekly or monthly offering. Another approach is to calculate a percentage of your weekly or monthly salary. Whether you choose to start with a two, three, four, or ten percent calculation, make this your first step toward your goal of giving in a manner more consistent with Church and Biblical teachings. Proverbs 3:9-10 reminds us to discipline ourselves to set aside this offering in a manner which reflects our awareness that it is through the gifts God has given that we are able to earn our living: “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce: then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” In other words, set aside your offering at the beginning of the month, before other expenses are paid. This discipline will honor God and will leave enough to cover your other obligations.

While remembering that you do not have to wait to change your pattern of giving until a new policy is adopted in your local parish, it may be helpful to encourage your parish leaders to open a dialogue about tithing. Discussing this issue with other faithful Orthodox Christians can only lead to greater understanding and awareness. Your parish priest would, obviously, be the best person to turn to as a leader of this dialogue. People in your parish who tithe should also come forward to talk about their experiences and their commitment. There are many resources available which can provide material to help guide this search for the truth about our faith. In a pamphlet entitled, “Tithing,” Fr. Richard Ballew answers this question, What is the tithe?

“Simply put, the tithe is a voluntary offering of ten percent of one’s income, given to God. That’s right, ten percent, taken off the top. In both Hebrew and Greek the word “tithe” comes directly from the word “ten.” It is a practice established long ago whereby God’s people have the opportunity to participate in the sacramentality of life by offering back a portion of what God has given to them. As such, tithing is more than just an act of obedience. It is an act of worship.”

The term “proportional giving” also creeps into the conversation about tithing, since the tithe is considered ten percent. When we become convinced that our giving must be guided by the practice of tithing, but have not been in the habit of following this practice, some of might feel the need to start at a level of giving below ten percent. This is fine as long as the ultimate goal is kept in sight. Taking steps toward the goal is usually the approach that ultimately leads to success. This is also why we sometimes hear people talk about sacrificial giving in the context of discussions about tithing. Since God sacrificed so much on our behalf, we must do the same as an expression of our love and appreciation for the gifts He has bestowed upon us. In the Creed we recite during every Divine Liturgy we say, “ … And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures …” God’s ultimate sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son is our constant reminder of His unwavering love for us. We must acknowledge this love by our prayers, our conduct, and our deeds. Tithing is but one of the many expressions of worship through which we can demonstrate our commitment to Our Lord’s Word.

During a recent seminar held at the Antiochian Village, John Truslow discussed the meaning and the virtues of tithing. John, a convert to the faith, is a dedicated member of St. Elias in Atlanta, GA. He has devoted much time and energy to studying the concept and practice of tithing. His words and his insights gave those in attendance much to consider on this important subject. John made the observation that, given what the Orthodox Church believes, a person coming into the faith who had previously practiced tithing would assume that all Orthodox Christians follow this practice. This assumption existed for him along side the reality that, in their present configuration, most of our parishes will not enable a person who has never been a tithing person to become one unless we deliberately begin teaching this practice in our parishes. John further observed that you cannot teach tithing without practicing the discipline yourself. In his experience, he said, there is not such a thing as a “formerly tithing person.” Once you experience the joy of giving, it is part of your life forever. These points reinforce the idea that we as individual Orthodox Christians do not need to wait for others to tithe before we move toward changing our own patterns of giving. We can become the leaders of the dialogue within our parish communities.

Two other presenters at this same seminar are lifelong Orthodox Christians. John Dalack, a member of St. Mary in Brooklyn, NY, observed that many of us easily say that everything we have is a gift from God, but may not believe it to the point of living it through our actions. Scripture guides us toward the freedom found through sacrificial giving, and tithing is a stepping stone along this journey. From the words of St. Athanasius, we find this guidance: “God became man so that man might become God.” Anthony Bashir, a member of St. George, West Roxbury, MA, shared the thought that discussions of tithing represent significant departures from past practices for many of our faithful members. We must understand that change is difficult, and we are asking people to change the ways the have behaved for many years, although people often identify themselves by their customs and patterns. This request for change must be done with caution and with respect.

Lifelong members of the Orthodox Faith, as well as converts to Orthodoxy, have worked hard to establish a thriving presence in North America. There is much in that tradition that is good and through which people can take great comfort. As we explore the concept and practice of tithing, we must not lose sight of this fact. Yes, we want our members to change, and yes, many of the giving practices we have followed in the past are not consistent with Church teachings. Changing these patterns must come, but they will only come through faith, love, mutual support and education. Those among us who already do follow this practice are people we may turn to as we continue this dialogue. Their experience and their faith can help convince us that tithing is the pattern of giving we should follow and practice. William Morrison, a faithful member of Holy Transfiguration Church in Warrendale, IL, offers this observation: “No society in the world today or throughout history has ever been given as much wealth as North America has been given. ‘For everyone who had been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked’” (Luke 12:48). As you contemplate and pray about how this passage relates to your life, we look forward to continuing this dialogue about patterns of giving.