I have read in some evangelical Protestant books that, unless you give 10% of your income to the Church, God won’t bless you. This seems to be an Old Testament idealogy, contrary to the spirit of the Gospels, in which God demands our love and not our offerings.
I have no credit cards, no car payment, no cable television, and no retirement fund. I rent a small apartment, support two children who live with me, and pay child support for two others who do not. After I am done paying rent, utilities, student loans, the orthodontist, etc., I am left with far less than 10% of my take home pay, out of which has comes gas, food, and bare essentials for my children. I simply can’t afford to give 10% unless I stop paying rent, paying child support, or buying food, etc.
Yet I have read that I must still give 10%, and that God will take care of the rest, and that if I do not do this, I will always struggle financially and will not be blessed. This does not seem right, yet I feel guilty that I am not able to contribute, even though I know that I have little to give.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
Thank you for your enquiry. I have plenty of thoughts on this; here are a few of them.
1. While tithing—giving 10% of our financial resources, or “treasures”
— is an Old Testament imperative, it certainly is not inappropriate for Christians to set aside a tithe, or percentage of their income, for God’s work. If one can contribute 10%, then let him or her do so; if one can contribute more, then let him or her do so. But if one can only contribute a smaller percentage, then let him or her do so, making no comparisons with others, and as a sign of thanksgiving for the blessings God has bestowed.
2. What is crucial is the fact that God indeed expects us to give of our treasures for His work. Your observation, that “God demands our love and not our offerings,” is not consistent with what is revealed in the New Testament, where it is clearly stated that “where your heart is, there also will be your treasure.” Further, the model for giving to the work of God through HIs Church is found in the story of the widow’s mite. A rich man enters the temple and offers his tithe—10%—which fulfills the Old Testament “law,” with little regard for the spirit behind the law; he gives not out of love, but out of duty and pride, and he could well afford to offer even more, given his means. Meanwhile, a poor widow enters the temple and offers two coins—hardly a great sum of money, but it was the sum total of all that she possessed. Our Lord praised her, rather than the rich man who fulfilled the “law” by offering 10%, for she gave all that she had, expecting nothing in return, and surely not expecting to be praised by others.
3. The principle found herein is that we must recognize that all we have is a gift from God, that we are called to be wise “stewards,” or “managers,” of His gifts, and that ultimately, we must give all that we have to Him. This does not mean that we are to ignore our own needs. To the contrary, we are urged to offer a portion of our treasures to God and to set aside our gift to God through His Church before paying our other expenses. Whether this represents 5%, or 10%, or 20% is a secondary matter; the point is to give the “first portion” of what we have for God’s work, as did Able, who offered the first portion and the best portion of his harvest to God, unlike his brother Cain, who offered God his “leftovers.”
4. You mention that you have read certain things in evangelical Protestant books on tithing. Some things found in some evangelical writings are not exactly consistent with the teaching and practice of the Orthodox Christian faith. I know from personal experience, and from the experiences of many other Orthodox Christians who have commited themselves to “first portion giving,” that God indeed blesses us if we give willingly and joyfully. Yet I also know that some [but not all, certainly] evangelical Protestants preach what is known as the “Gospel of prosperity”—that by giving a tithe, God will bless us with material wealth, and that material wealth is, in fact, a sign of being blessed by God. This is not “THE Gospel,” and Our Lord Himself warns against “laying up treasures here on earth.” Giving of our treasures out of the desire to acquire material goods, rather than out of pure, simple, and innocent love is hardly Christian. Some [but not all] TV preachers who proclaim the “Gospel of prosperity” and live lavish lifestyles, projecting themselves as icons of God’s blessings as evidenced by their wealth, are hardly preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know of at least two mega-churches that require their members to submit their tax forms in order to calculate the precise 10% tithe that they are then expected to give—a practice that violates the very principle of giving in secret, not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing.
5. There indeed are a number of Orthodox Christian resources which talk about “first portion giving,” about setting aside a percentage of our income for the Church before tackling the the phone bill, the orthodontist bill, or the car payment. If you click the OCPC link on the OCA web site, you will find resources on Christian stewardship and first-portion giving. The OCA Department of Stewardship page on the web site also has a number of resources that discuss how we are to be stewards/managers of God’s gifts, recognizing that, ultimately, everything we have belongs to God, and that we can only offer back to Him that which He has given us, as we say in the Liturgy: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, in behalf of all and for all.”
6. The bottom line is this: God does expect us to give; it is not an “option” for Christians, any more than prayer and fasting and almsgiving and worship are options or personal preferences. Our Lord says, “when you give,” “when you fast,” “when you pray,” not “if” you give, fast, and pray. He expects us to offer to Him first, not after we have satisfied our personal needs and bills. He does demand our love, as you note, but He expects us to reveal our love in concrete ways—one of which is by returning to Him a portion of the gifts with which He has blessed us. And, I might add, that this does not only involves our treasures, but our time and talents as well, for these are also gifts from God. Hence, in addition to offering of our financial resources, we are expected to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and minister to “the least of the brethren,” recognizing in others the very image and icon of our Savior HImself. If we are of limited material means, we should still give something, while also giving all the more generously of our time and talents to minister to others through the Church—and I don’t know an Orthodox parish that is not constantly looking for volunteers to do everything from teaching Sunday School to collecting food and clothing for the needy or ministering to the homeless or battered or forgotten or visiting the parish shut-ins, to name just a few essential ministries entrusted to all of God’s people, and not just the clergy. And, as Christ clearly spells out, we are expected to give of our time, our talents, and our treasures joyfully, not worrying about what others may or may not be doing, nor with the intention of being “seen” or “lauded” by others. We are taught that Our Lord is the only one Who needs to see our compassion and charity and generosity, whether they be offering our time, our talents, or our money; it is for His sake, and His sake alone, that we do these things, that in all things “God may be glorified,” as Saint Paul writes.
Is it not possible, despite your limited income, to set aside a portion of your resources for the Church before setting aside money for rent and food and the orthodontist? As Christ challenges us, look at the birds of the air
— do they worry about how they will eat; and to look at the lillies of the field—even Solomon in his finest garb could not compare to the beauty in which they have been clothed by their Creator. So too, setting aside $20, or $40, or even $100 weekly or monthly—or even just two coins, if that is all we have—before setting aside money for other things may at first be a bit difficult or akward, but it is consistent with what we are taught by Jesus Christ. And those who do this find that they still have plenty left over for themselves. In 30 years of priesthood, I have never met anyone who has gone bankrupt because they have given to the Church! And I have met plenty who, in thanksgiving for how God spares us, have made the commitment to give Him more than their “spare change.”