What would Jesus cut?

From Jordan J. Ballor at First Things, who wonders if there is not another way beyond budget cut conversation:

Even more troubling is the mounting evidence that Christians have adopted this mentality, too. We see this in giving patterns among American Christians. The majority of evangelical church leaders, for instance, seem not to think that tithing is a biblical imperative (estimates for levels of evangelical giving typically range from 2 to 4 percent of income). As Ron Sider himself put it, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

The problem with the CPJ/ESA Call and the host of other Christian responses to the budget crisis is that they do not embody the urgency or the significance of this charitable responsibility. Douglas LeBlanc, author of Tithing: Test Me in This, recently described the importance of tithing as “the beginning of breaking out of that self-indulgent life, primarily because it says to you that your money is not your own. And it’s a small sacramental way of saying that your money in your life is coming to you through the grace of God, through the gifts that He’s given you.”

C. S. Lewis once said, “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” The federal government has been on the wrong road for decades, and the answer to the public debt crisis in America lies in turning back to basic questions about the role of government in its various forms and its relationship to other aspects of social life. A truly Christian response to the challenge of intergenerational justice and the public debt crisis demands no less.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Scott Eaton

    There is only one problem with Sider’s assertion about the tithe. If Christians did indeed begin tithing it probably would not help the poor in the least. As most tithing is taught today that money would go into the church and would likely be used on the church itself, not on assisting the poor. This issue is far more complex than “just start tithing.”

  • JoeyS

    Scott Eaton beat me to it!

    Exactly! The majority of the money given to the church is used on digital signs, lights in the sanctuary, pastors salaries, new building initiatives, and the list goes on. I know, I work for one.

  • JoeyS

    Having said that, I’m certain that Sider recognizes this. He’s no dumby and has his thumb on the pulse of how the church serves the poor.

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    But “tithing” *isn’t* a biblical imperative.
    What needs to be critically analyzed is how the ecclesiastical pie is cut.
    If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide for bigger buildings with robotic lights and haze machines, plus bigger salaries for professional pastors to fuel a more self-indulgent life. This is America. I’ve seen this from the inside out and now look at it from the outside in.

  • JoeyS

    oops, dumby = dummy

  • http://www.remnantculture.com Joseph Sunde

    The lack of such clarity seems to come from an assumption by Sider et al that the church already gets it. As was evidenced by Jonathan Merritt in the recent intergenerational justice panel at AEI, such a basic understanding is lacking in the church. It is ironic that those in the church itself seem to forget their own role in poverty alleviation.

    I weighed in on this a few weeks ago (http://remnantculture.com/?p=3062).

    Ballor is right. Emphasis here is sorely needed.

  • Leslie S.

    I really appreciate Sider’s work and particularly the concept of a graduated tithe. I also share the concerns of previous posters that a tithe to the church typically provides bigger buildings and salaries. Even amid please to give more than a tithe to the church, our family has decided that our giving beyond 10% goes directly to other charities. If our churches were committed to simply tithing the gifts they receive would make a tremendous difference.

  • Amanda Furman

    I know my church would prefer that I give my whole tithe and consider outside giving extra. I understand where they are coming from (with an attitude of if everyone gave the full amount, they would have extra to give away)

    However, just as my church might insist that I give 10 percent now, whether or not I’m rich or poor, it seems to me that they could sacrificially give to the poor now, not just someday when everybody is giving a full tithe and they have leftovers.

  • Scott Eaton

    Another thought: In light of 2 Corinthians 8-9 is tithing even the appropriate teaching for new covenant people?

  • EricW

    Tithing is fine if you’re a Jew living under the Old Covenant in the land of Israel with a Levitical priesthood and a standing Temple.

    But considering what tithing was primarily intended for – to provide income for the tribe that did not have any land of their own – and how much of our citizens’ income is already taken by taxes for welfare-related programs – food assistance, cash assistance, medical assistance, etc. – many Americans are already giving a sizable portion of their income to the modern-day Levites (bureaucrats) and their institutions, and the poor. And then there’s that Deuteronomy 14:22ff. tithe that few preachers ever talk about.

  • BradK

    I agree with many responses so far. Tithing does not appear to be a scriptural mandate for Christians. Stewardship does seem to be a mandate. And stewardship does seem to require that each of us be responsible for what we do with the money with which God has blessed us.

    All too often in the U.S. church pastors earn six figure incomes, own a luxury vehicle for himself and his spouse, and live in a $400-500K house in a nice neighborhood far from the “riff-raff.” I’m not advocating “muzzling the ox” and firmly believe that “the worker is worth his wages” but there appears to be a distinct lack of perspective in the church in this country. Why should a person in the congregation who supports a family on $40K-$80K, drives an old beater of a car, and lives in a relatively modest $100K-$150K house give any money at all to a church like that when there are poor people all around who need help just to live? Doesn’t this kind of lifestyle for a pastor indicate that the organization he runs is not at all in need of donations?

    Some may say that this is a caricature and not representative of mainstream evangelicalism. Most churches in the U.S. are small and many pastor bi-vocational. But as far as the overall numbers go, a significant chunk of evangelical Christians probably attend a large church. And I’ve seen the above enough times to believe that what I described is the norm for large churches rather than the exception.

  • Richard

    I would be curious to hear a NT rationale for tithing. Generosity (giving even if it hurts) is clearly taught but not a tenth. If anything, all is demanded.

  • C. Ehrlich

    I’m missing the connection between the fact of tithing failures and the call to “turn back to basic questions about the role of government” to address public debt.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Scott E #1

    People who attend church (or synagogue, or mossque) more than twice monthly are … regardless of political persuasion … are far more generous with their income than those who don’t. Yes they give a lot to their local churches, but they still give more and volunteer more time to other causes than those who don’t attend. I think it is a bit cynical to just say they will spend it all on themselves.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Well, as Tony Campolo used to say, “You tithe? Great. Now what are you going to do with the other 90% of God’s money.” 😉

    I agree that there is no mandate to tithe in the NT, but there is a mandate to be generous. Ten percent is a nice beginning point from which to think about generosity.

    I think Eric W @10 is correct to note that our tax system does collect from our wealth to accomplish many of the things (and more) that were intended to be accomplished in the OT.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    For me, what so much of this points to is what an incredibly underdeveloped sense of vocation, work, stewardship and economic life we have in an age of unprecedented and expanding affluence. Moralistic denunciations of greed and consumerism versus cheerleading for egoistic materialism does little to help us with discipleship in an age affluence. Yet that battle is precisely where most of contemporary American Christianity is content to live.

  • RobS

    Lots of valid points here as always…

    Some level of expenditures in a church is necessary to achieve some things, but no doubt many churches likely over emphasize “glitz and glamor” and leave little for tangible helping. One could argue that some glitz and glamor does draw in seekers and God might get a chance to deliver a message to someone who finds a comfortable seat on a Sunday morning.

    What to give…? I think 10% as a command in the OT is a starting point personally. For me, it’s hard to stand in front of a blood stained cross and say that half the original tithe is appropriate. I just don’t personally feel that way. Sadly it seems many (not all) that argue against a tithe are looking for an excuse to give less — rarely (truly now there are exceptions) more.

    My local church is rather responsible (in my opinion) but I still feel the need to lovingly share something about responsibility and push our local body toward different priorities with our budget. I hope others can do the same (& maybe some of you have some great ideas/testimony in that area that would be great to share).

  • B. Thomas Moll

    I like that many posts deal with the MANDATE to tithe and since it’s not in the NT we shouldn’t HAVE to do it.

    As if we DO EVERYTHING WE’RE MANDATED to do, anyway.
    But if we’re only doing it because we’re MANDATED, I’m not sure we’re at the heart of Jesus, anway.

    Speaking of it being a mandate (and speaking of Jesus), we can turn to Matthew 23:23 or Luke 11:42 where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for ONLY bringing a tithe; He was requiring the TITHE plus LOVE, or the other way around, but regardless He didn’t reduce the amount we’re to give. In fact, did Jesus reduce anything (the law says don’t murder, I say don’t become angry…or the law says don’t commit adultery, I say don’t lust…)

    Some have already posted that JESUS asked for everything — so anywhere between 10% and 100% ought to be fine. :)

    tithing does a lot of things that we’ll never be able to see tangibly. God knows this, but we want results in front of our face so we know it’s worth it to give. Trust God that He’ll use what you give.

    But in my experience as a Pastor most people who argue about whether or not one should tithe DON’T GIVE ANYTHING — (or very little) — and it all seems to be a futile discussion amongst Christians. Jesus said give. Give to the renewal of the Kingdom of God — through your church, through some other great non-profits, through your time, etc…

    But GIVE — at least 10%. Not just because it’s mandated, but because we want to.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    All too often in the U.S. church pastors earn six figure incomes, own a luxury vehicle for himself and his spouse, and live in a $400-500K house in a nice neighborhood far from the “riff-raff.”

    While I think I’d agree that the number will be high enough for “all too often,” I suspect that the actual percentage of pastors–even in the US–for whom this statement might apply is actually VERY low. Pastors, as a rule, are actually quite poorly paid (and many have to either volunteer and/or work another job just to pay the bills).

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    First, I’d like to second Mr. Kruse’s comments: Tithing isn’t taught in the NT, but sacrificial generosity is.

    Second, arguing against budget cuts because of “what they’ll do to the poor” assumes it is better to 1) take money out of the economy (where jobs are created) to 2) give it to groups the government favors (creating a mentality of dependency and entitlement — and all too often a cycle of such thinking down the generations).

    Cutting the budget is going to hurt everyone. It should — we’ve all put up with it far too long. But in the long run, this will be better for everyone.

  • Robin

    I question the pessimistic attitude shown in the first couple of comments regarding the ministry of the church, and the assertions that it would all be spent on pastoral salaries and bigger buildings.

    It was just a few years ago that church ministries outpaced FEMA and every other aid agency in the rush to help in the wake of Katrina. You could also look at the incredibly quick, effective, and abundant response of churches to the recent tornadoes if you wanted proof that not all of your additional tithes would be wasted on trinkets.

  • Robin

    I have struggled with this kind of legalistic judgementalism in the past regarding pastors and buildings. I used to look at the car that my pastor’s son drove with a lot of…I don’t know how to explain it, but I am confident it wasn’t the right attitude for one brother to have towards another.

    I wish that all Americans were giving 20% or 30% of their income to the church and that the church was doing amazing things with it throughout the world. But right now we have broken churches full of broken people and we are all just trying to grow in Christlikeness.

    My current church gives 50% of every dollar it takes in to either local charities or missions, but there are only 2 reasons we can do that (1) we don’t pay our pastor and (2) we don’t have any buildings. We meet in the cafegymatorium of a local elementary school.

  • Robin

    I think it is also to think about today’s Christian church in light of the historical church. Sure, you have massive million dollar complexes like Willow Creek, but they’re full of people that make $100,000 per year and they do, in fact, spend lots of money on ministries outside of the church.

    Take a stroll around any historic downtown in the US or around any of the cathedrals of Europe and you will see massive, ornate, opulent structures that were built in time periods of massive poverty and ills like we cannot currently fathom in the US. It would be like building a multi-million dollar church in Haiti or Rwanda or Ethiopia.

    It just strikes me that the “income of the congregants vs. opulence of the ministry” gap has gotten significantly smaller over time, not larger.

  • Robin

    Haiti, Rwanda, and Ethiopia was probably stretching it, but I just cannot help but see grandiose cathedrals, ponder the poverty of the congregants that sacrificed to build them, and not think of the considerable gap between the people making the sacrifices and the people living off their donations.

    There were some particularly stunning Cathedrals in Chicago in a documentary that I watched that were built in the poorest of the poor immigrant neighborhoods.

  • BradK

    Mark @19,

    Pastors are indeed generally poorly paid. That’s why I mentioned that “most churches in the U.S. are small and many pastors bi-vocational.” However, a significant portion (how large I’m not sure…anybody got data?) of actual evangelical “butts-in-the-pews” on any given Sunday may be in attendance at large churches. One church with 5000 in attendance matches 100 small churches with only 50 in attendance.

  • Fish

    I’m surrounded by tornado damage and while the churches are helping, the largest source of aid — and the quickest on the scene — is from our good old socialized government organizations.

    I give very little to the church. They spend it on buildings, typically.

    Just as we are seeing how government is far more efficient in administering medicare than any health insurance company (bringing to mind the efficiency gains from single-payer universal coverage plans such as in Canada), I have my doubts that any church will be as effective in administering aid as the government.

    Until you have been on staff at a church, you would not believe the glacial slowness, overwhelming politics, and attachment to the way it’s always been done.

    Not to mention the TOTAL lack of accountability. I was shocked when I came from the corporate world. People at churches get fired for having the ‘wrong’ theology or for making an important donor mad, but not for operational incompetence or wasting money.

  • Fish

    And to be fair, pastors aren’t hired based on their operational excellence and ability to project manage, nor should they run everything by numbers.

    It’s just that those are the qualities required to run large public programs.

  • BradK

    After a bit of googling, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. According to this link…


    …”50 percent of churchgoers attended the largest 10% of congregations (350 regular participants and up).”

    So the behavior of that 10% of the largest churches may be fairly representative of the whole. I.e. if many of those churches are not acting responsibly in regard to how they spend the money contributed by their members, it may have an effect on how much a great number of people contribute or why they don’t contribute.

    It seems very valid to question whether the church in the U.S. spends its money mainly on the things of which God approves, i.e. assisting the poor as Scott Eaton questioned in the first comment above, and on whether that has an effect on how much people contribute.

    As Michael Kruse pointed out, people who attend church more than twice monthly are far more generous with their income than those who don’t, and they also give more and volunteer more time to other causes than those who don’t attend. Maybe part of the reason those people give and volunteer for other causes besides their churches is partially related to how they see the money being spent. Hard to know for sure without some data.

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    Come on, Robin. Don’t be so naive.

  • Jorge L


    Those are not cathedrals in Chicago. There’s only one cathedral, the bishop’s church.

    Those are parish churches. And they were bult BY the poor impoverished immigrants, with their pennies. Because they believed that these buildings glorified God. Because they wanted to glorify God. Because these buildings were the place where the sacred mysteries that gave their lives meaning took place. Because these were the islands of beauty in their lives. Because they didn’t have money to go to the Opera House or the Concert Hall and see and hear the sacred mysteries of the WASP well-to-do. Because salvation was to be found in those Sacred Mysteries. Because Heaven came down to earth in those Sacred Mysteries. Because they found the strength in those Mysteries to live life with integrity, to raise their children, to give a day’s work for a day’s pittance pay.

    Those “cathedrals” drip with deep meaning to this very day, for those with ears to hear and eyes to see. For such as these, they are living testaments to thousands of years of Christian history in which Sacred Space was real, based on belief that God HImself had become incarnate.

    Those Christians who today have no use for sacred space, for beauty in service of glorifying God, whose beliefs about worship minimize the concrete and earth-bound receptacles of God’s grace really should think again about the meaning of those “cathedrals.”

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    I like this: “My current church gives 50% of every dollar it takes in to either local charities or missions, but there are only 2 reasons we can do that (1) we don’t pay our pastor and (2) we don’t have any buildings. We meet in the cafegymatorium of a local elementary school.”

    This is what I believe every church need to do and be.

    I too am overseeing a “church” that does not pay the pastor. Oh – that would be me.

  • JohnM

    For those who use the “It’s all God’s money” as an argument for obligatory tithing – why not then give 100% of your income to the church all the time? If you don’t, stop talking about how it all belongs to God when you’re talking about giving to the church.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    JohnM @32

    We can have only two relationships with regard to wealth. We can use wealth as stewards for God or we can forgo wealth. Period. And if we own wealth, the only question is whether we are going to be good stewards or bad stewards.

    Our personal abilities and experiences, our relationships with others, our material possessions, are all “resources” or “gifts” we hold in stewardship for God. Nurturing ourselves and celebrating life with God and others is one form of stewardship. Nurturing those who have been entrusted to us, like family, is another appropriate form of stewardship. Investing resources in productive enterprises is yet another. And giving generously to others who need assistance is still another.

    I think that stewardship breaks down in three categories: personal consumption, investment in productive enterprise, and giving to others. So the question is how to allocate between all three of these necessary forms of stewardship? But the issue is that 100% of our resources are resources we use with discernment before God. We don’t give a tithe, and then the rest is free money to blow in any way we our heart desires.

  • JohnM

    Michael @33 – “We don’t give a tithe, and then the rest is free money to blow in any way we our heart desires.”

    We also don’t use cute cliches to manipulate others into giving the way we want them to. I don’t say you have done that, but that is the way some people use it’s-all-God’s-anyway. I don’t agree when people try to connect that point to tithing and I find it annoying.

  • Fred

    “Come on, Robin. Don’t be so naive.”

    Jeff, have you ever addressed one of your parishoners this way?

  • Robin


    when we discuss financial issues I just think it is really easy to engage in things like “I thank you Lord, that I attend a church without a basketball gym, and that my pastor’s salary and health benefits are in line with my sensibilities,” I don’t agree with lots of things that churches spend money on, but my personal standards of piety are not biblical requirements so I prefer to believe that my brothers and sisters have valid, God honoring reasons for the way they have chosen to spend their money.

    Like I said, I attend a church without a building or a paid pastor and I am very proud that we give half of our money to missions and local charities. How should I feel about the campus of Willow Creek, or the countless Cathedrals built by the Catholic Church with their ornate marble and stained glass, etc.? They do not represent the usage of money that I would prefer, and therefore I give my money to other organizations, but it is very possible that the members that donated that money saw gymnasiums, gold and silver communion cups, stained glass windows, etc. as God honoring, and it is more than a little presumptuous for me to say otherwise.

  • Robin

    For the record, I do not believe in a tithe, but I believe God’s standard is much more difficult to keep. The clearest example I can think of God praising someone’s financial contribution is the widow and her mite. Her donation wasn’t limited to 10%, it was literally everything she had, and Jesus honored it. I don’t think that Jesus requires us to donate 100% of our income to the church, but I do think that he is honored with financial donations that have the same heart of sacrifice exemplified by the widow.

  • Tom

    I agree that the Tithe is OT law and not NT freedom. I also think that 10% is a good place to start and a good principle to use when looking at what God wants us to give. There needs to be some sacrifice on the part of God’s people. I also agree that most of any additional money the churches would get would, for the most part, be used to maintain a nice “club”. Sad that we have all bought into this. I know at the church I attend, about 22% is going toward missions. We have increased this each year for the past few years and I feel good about it. We have a small building and a well paid staff because we should take care of our staff. A workmen is worthy of their wages. By the way, I’m not a pastor or a staffer.

  • ND

    The consensus here seems to be that tithing isn’t mandated under the New Covenant, or for that matter, any fixed perecentage of giving. However, many are still saying ‘it’s a good place to start’ or ‘a good principle.’ Maybe. But the NT emphasizes giving ‘in accordance with one’s income.’ So for some 10% won’t be a good place to start and for some it will. For some it will be a good principle, for others, not so much.

    Here’s a great theological work on the topic (in the McMaster Theological Studies series):


  • http://www.ccada.org Kate Johnson

    I run a non-profit that helps abused women and children and men (and goes into the jail to teach men about healthy relationships in order to break the cycle). We have sought the churches’ support. We keep being told “there’s no money due to the tight economy.” While I can appreciate that to some extend (No kidding – our giving is down), I keep thinking that they want other people to tithe even with the tough economy yet they keep cutting back on supporting ministries. So I end up looking to secular grants for money. It should not be this way. Additionally, churches that did promise support then said oopps, no money. Even my own church promised office space as their way to support us non-monetarily but then said they had a room but we would have to pay rent because they “needed the money.” Really? Your building costs you nothing (been paid off for a long time).

    BTW, they are still ready to refer to me and use our services!

  • http://www.mindfulsojourning.com Jeff

    Wow! Lots of responses here. I actually got into “trouble” for suggesting a similar idea during the ’08 elections.

    I find it interesting and American of us to focus on the negative dealings of the tithe, rather than the true issue at hand. Should we forget about tithing and giving altogether since pastors live in big houses and nice cars, instead of helping the poor? I’m in agreement that pastors need to live a moderate lifestyle. But I don’t believe this should keep me from giving.

    My parents were furious when I was caught skipping school. They explained the importance of school, studying, and getting good grades. When I told them that others were skipping and not trying in class, they let me know I’m not everyone else. They also told me that going to class, studying and getting good grades would help better my future regardless of what others were doing.

    I’m not suggesting that anyone above does not agree with giving (whether we call it tithing or stewardship), but be an advocate for change if your community of faith does not handle financial stewardship well, or find another community.

  • Stephen

    I am a pastor, my salary is 29,000 a year, of which I pay my own income tax, medicare, medicaid tax, and social security tax. I live in a parsonage which is modest at best, and hasn’t been updated since 1979. I drive a 1996 Honda Civic with way too many miles on it, but its paid for. I tithe 10% of my salary back to the church.

    So my net income is somewhere around 23,000 a year to support me and my wife.

    Anyone out there want to talk about how pastors make too much money? Live indulgent lifestyles in fabulous neighborhoods? Drive high end cars?

    The great myth out there is that pastors are overpaid. I can tell you in mainline denominations (denominations that require the highest amount of learning from their pastors) pastors usually make far less than their congregations.

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    50 cents is too much to pay for a *gift* that was designed to be exercised in community.

  • BradK

    Jeff @41,

    Has anyone suggested or even implied that “we forget about tithing and giving altogether since pastors live in big houses and nice cars, instead of helping the poor?” It seems to me that each of us will answer to God for how we manage resources. If the particular church of which we are members inappropriately spends its resources (assuming we aren’t willing to change churches over such) then I’d suggest that it may be appropriate or even necessary to give the money where it should be going instead of to the church where it is being wasted. I.e. if our church won’t help the poor, we can still do so individually. As Robin mentioned if “[t]hey do not represent the usage of money that I would prefer, […] I give my money to other organizations.”

    Stephen @42,

    Assuming a church is large enough to be able to do so, failure to adequately support a pastor and meet the needs of his family is just as big of an issue as a pastor who makes too much money, lives an indulgent lifestyle in a fabulous neighborhoods, or drives high end cars. Often small churches are just not able to do that, which is why so many pastors are paid so poorly. Which makes the situations of “bling-bling” pastors and churches all the more distasteful.