by Tim Isbell
Christians understand that God owns everything and we are his managers (1 Chronicles 29.10-20). We serve a gracious and giving God so it is only natural to show our appreciation by returning some of what he provides back to him. Giving money to the Lord's church is a way we respond to his grace, a way we affirm to Jesus that he is Lord, a way we invest in the Kingdom, and a statement to the powers of darkness that money is not our God. Giving our tithes and offerings is not only a part of Christian worship, this act also has several benefits for the giver. For some of these, click on Irrational Act, a short Forbes article by Rich Karlgaard.
Years ago when I started paying our household bills electronically I also tried donating our Tithes and Offerings electronically. But soon I decided that New Life parishioners benefited by seeing their pastor actually put something in the offering bag as it passed by. So I went back to checks. When I did this I discovered that the physical act of putting something in the offering adds an element of worship that was missing with electronic or automatic forms. I also discovered the blessing of carrying a blank check to special services to see if during the presentation the Lord might nudge me about what to give. Just before the offering I'd often lean over to my wife, Robin, and ask what she felt we should give. It was usually more than I had in mind - so that's what we gave. Not only were these special times with God, they were times of connection between Robin and me. If I had just triggered the automatic payment system ahead of time I wouldn't have thought much more about it. To be clear: there's nothing wrong with autopaying your church or having your donation charged to your credit card. But at least consider ways that might make your giving to God more than just paying the electric bill.
Okay, let's get on with the details. There are two general categories of giving to a local church: 1) Tithes/General Offerings and 2) Designated Offerings.
The primary way God finances the general operation of his churches is through the Tithes/General Offerings of its participants. These donations are unrestricted, meaning donors have not earmarked this money for any specific purpose. Instead, church leadership (usually an elected board of some sort) manages this money across a variety of categories including:
Mature Christians give a full tithe: 10% of their income. Some give even a larger tithe. If our income flow is uneven throughout the year, we estimate weekly or monthly. Then once a year, such as at tax time in the United States, we compute our tithe based on our total income and make an adjusting donation if necessary. I recommend giving based on total pretax income. Yes, I know some Christians teach tithing on after-tax income. If that's your position, read on anyway because I think you will find some helpful suggestions for your case, too.
A good starting point for most Americans the Adjusted Gross Income that we report each year on our Federal Income Tax form. Then we need to add a few items that the federal government excludes from the Adjusted Gross Income line. Some examples:
The basic point is this: a good baseline for computing our tithe is our Adjusted Gross Income plus any tax exempt income.
Giving the full tithe
is a big decision. So, new Christians usually start slow by
giving some Designated Offerings (see below). As their relationship
with Christ grows they begin giving regularly at a level such as 1-3%,
and then increase this over time to a full tithe of 10%.
If a person earmarks a donation for a specific purpose it is called a designated or special offering. Accountants call this restricted money because the church is obligated to spend it only for the designated purpose. Mature Christians make it a practice to contribute their full tithe before contributing designated offerings. Pre-Christians and new Christians often begin giving in designated areas, such as:
I was fortunate to grow up in a tithing
family. My parents didn't talk with me about it but they didn't hide the way they did it,
either. I was aware that tithing was a sacrifice for our
family. I also watched my father serve as treasurer of our local church
for many years and I noticed how diligent he was with church money.
I want to be clear that I am writing about when we are delinquent on paying our bills - meaning we are behind on the payment schedule. As you read this section, keep in mind Jesus' teaching, "... if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God." (Matthew 5.23-24, NLT)
It is common for one spouse to become a Christian before the other, or for someone to live in a household for decades as the only Christian. It's also common for two Christians to disagree about stewardship. So here's a little advice.
The Christian is wise to prioritize their witness to their spouse and others in the household above any sort of "rule" of donating to the church. Recently I heard a great quote from Reggie Joiner that captures this well: "Our lives are designed to be a platform to illustrate God’s story of redemption and restoration to others." So I don't advise the Christian spouse to secretly donate to the church. It is best when the Christian operates as if all the facts are known - even when they are not. Sometimes, the Christian has their own income stream and the spouse is comfortable with the Christian spending all or part of this as they wish. So perhaps you can donate, or tithe, on this amount. Doing this transparently is a positive witness of Jesus' lordship in the life of the Christian.
If you are the lone Christian in your marriage, I recommend Lee and Leslie Strobel's book: Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage. Leslie came to Christian faith before Lee did, so they come at this topic with deep personal experience. Lee was definitely a very unlikely Christian. Now he's a minister and Christian author.
From the time Americans retire until we die most of us receive benefits from Social Security and Medicare. During our working years, we pay into both systems. If you did not tithe your initial investments into Social Security or Medicare, it makes sense to tithe all the money coming back in retirement.
you did tithe on these payments during your working years, then consider it done. For at least the
first many retirement years you are receiving back money that you
already tithed decades before. It is very difficult for anybody to
determine at what age they have
received their original money back so they can start tithing the excess! Analysis
of typical scenarios show that if we live to our expectancy
we will receive Social Security and Medicare
benefits that modestly surpass the amounts we paid in. So if
you live much beyond your life expectancy you can resume tithing - but
by that time many of us won't remember it anyway!
Finally, for American Christians fortunate enough to outlive our retirement funds, let's be generous with our church and other Kingdom ministries through our estate plan. It's our last opportunity to tithe on some of the income that may have slipped past us during life - especially things like missing on tithing retirement income, home sales, business sales.
Special thanks to four people who reviewed this web page and provided very useful feedback, most of which I incorporated. These are Dr. John Calhoun (District Superintendent of the Northern California Church of the Nazarene), Ron Knepper (long time friend who has served as treasurer of many churches as well as a Nazarene district campground in New York), Carryl Keenan (long time colleague who is the Northern California Nazarene District Treasurer), and Kenneth Dirks (long time friend and parishioner from New Life Church, Cupertino, CA). Thanks so much to each of you.
And a very special thanks to my parents, who without realizing it taught me the most about managing the Lord's money.
For more on this subject, click Stewardship Resources.
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