“Every good and perfect gift is from above…”
“Thine own of Thine own, we offer Thee.”
It is a moral and spiritual imperative for Orthodox Christians to consecrate all of their wealth and possessions to God, for His purpose and to His glory. This imperative was given concrete expression by the Old Testament commandment to offer tithes: one tenth of produce and livestock was consecrated to the Lord in imitation of Abram’s offering of a tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:19-20; cf. Lev 27:30-33; Num 18). In practice, Israel’s tithes provided material support for the Temple and its priests. With the Deuteronomic reform, the tithe was extended to offer support as well for Levites (who held no property), sojourners, widows and orphans (Deut 14:27-29).
In the early Church, the act of tithing became a symbol of the gift of oneself and of one’s possessions, offered to God as a gesture of thanksgiving and love (cf. Didachê13:7, “...of all your possessions, take the firstfruits…and give according to the commandment”; St Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.18.1, “The oblation of the Church, which the Lord gave instructions to be offered throughout all the world, is received by God as a pure sacrifice…[H]e who offers is himself glorified in what he offers, if his gift is accepted”; St John Chrysostom, Hom. In Eph. II, passim).
In Deut 14:22f, tithes are offered and consumed in the context of a sacrificial meal. Although the Church never developed in any formal sense the relation between tithing and the eucharistic meal (the Divine Liturgy does nevertheless invoke God’s blessing on “those who remember the poor”), this Old Testament link between the gift and the meal suggests that tithing possesses a sacramental quality.
As Orthodox Christians living in an excessively competitive society, in which Mammon is the god of choice, we need to recover this sacramental aspect of tithing as a symbolic offering of “all our life to Christ, our God.” Tithing is less an economic issue than a spiritual one. It is not just a means to support programs and ministries of the institutional Church. Its true purpose is to acknowledge, in the most concrete and visible way possible, that God is absolute Sovereign over our life, and that our faith in Him—and in His faithfulness—signifies absolute trust in His promises (Mt 6:19-34!).
It’s in this perspective that I would like to make the following proposal: That the Orthodox Church in America undertake a major program to educate our faithful in the spiritual as well as practical necessity to tithe of their material goods, particularly by dedicating at least one tenth of their annual income to the programs and ministries of the institutional Church and to favorite charities. This educational program can be carried out through Bible study, Christian education and preaching in the local parishes; through the curriculum of our seminaries that would include a focus on problems of wealth and poverty; and through statements by our bishops to encourage the faithful to return to the practice of tithing in accordance with biblical teaching.
aid in this educational process, the Fellowship of Orthodox Stewards (FOS) might consider creating a new category of commitment, based on a tithe of one’s total (net) income. The Church might propose, for example, that over a fixed period (one to three years, to begin with), our Orthodox faithful agree to make a sacrificial offering of 10% of their income, of which half would be specifically devoted to institutions of the Church (the parish, the diocese, the chancery) and the other half to special needs within the Church (IOCC, OCMC, Project Mexico, seminary and other appeals, etc.), or to favorite charities (cancer research, food banks) and social projects (Habitat for Humanity, pro-life activities) which aim to alleviate human poverty and misery.
If accepted by even a relatively small percentage of our people, this initiative would help dramatically in meeting the financial needs of our Church institutions, programs and ministries. And it would produce spiritual fruit of the greatest importance, as Orthodox Christians come to experience the truth of the Russian proverb: “The hands of those who give are always full.” God Himself spoke this assurance millennia ago, through the voice of the prophet Malachi (3:6-11):
The people, Malachi declares, rob the Lord by not bringing the full tithes into the storehouse of the Jerusalem Temple. God responds: “Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the window of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing!”