Pastors: This tax season, you’re examining your own church donations. Here are reasons why pastors (and others) are exempt from tithing:
What is Tithing?
In many churches, I’ve heard conversations about how much people should give to the church. But I’ve never heard anyone ask whether pastors should tithe from their income. Many pastors teach that tithing is an important part of the Christian life. Just as important as church attendance, daily prayer, and reading the Bible, they say that giving ten percent of your income to the church is part of a well-rounded Christian life. Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey has a lot to say about tithing on his website—it’s worth checking out.
I could enumerate all the Bible verses that talk about tithing. Instead, click here to read more. Only you can decide whether you want to give to the church. The purpose of this article isn’t to tell you whether you should tithe, but to discuss who does and does not have to tithe.
Should Pastors Tithe?
If you are in a camp that believes Christians should give ten percent of their income to the church, there remains an important question: should pastors tithe from their income? This might sound like a ridiculous question, but it isn’t. It’s actually quite a complicated thing that many pastors ponder but few ever discuss. You see, somewhere in the back of a minister’s mind is the niggling question of whether they are required to give, how much they are required to give, and where they are required to give.
Are pastors required to tithe?
With the exception of high-profile megachurch pastors and clergy serving wealthy congregations, most ministers are severely underpaid. Many pastors ask themselves whether they are required to give at all, given the fact that with the same education level, they could probably make a ten percent higher salary in the secular world. Simply by choosing to go into ministry, a pastor voluntarily decreases his or her potential income over the course of their career.
One might say simply by entering the ministry in the first place, pastors have already given their tithe. Not to mention the fact that many churches do not contribute anything toward a pastor’s retirement. So, the pastor who makes less in gross income also has to worry about the future. Besides this, many churches do not believe their responsibility to cover medical insurance for their pastor, either. Some churches also expect their pastors to take on non-pastoral duties like cleaning the church or cutting the grass. When the pastor is overworked and underpaid, it’s a reasonable question to ask whether pastors are required to give financially at all.
How Much are pastors required to tithe?
If a pastor teaches that church members should donate ten percent of their income, is the pastor also required to tithe? Does the pastor only have a right to recommend ten percent if she is giving this same amount? The difference is that whatever a parishioner gives is their free choice. But if a pastor preaches on tithing, they feel obligated to give ten percent themselves.
Given that only a small proportion of church members actually give ten percent, and that they do it voluntarily, it doesn’t seem fair that the pastor is obligated to give ten percent himself. And, what about ministry expenses that the pastor incurs without receiving any kind of reimbursement? It’s more complicated than you’d think. Few who are not pastors have considered all the facets.
Where are pastors required to tithe?
Depending on your denominational structure, this question could be answered for you. At one time, I was ordained by a denomination that required every pastor to tithe ten percent of their income to the denomination itself. Rather than giving to the local congregation, pastors paid a tenth to the denomination. I use the word “paid,” because it certainly wasn’t giving. It wasn’t voluntary. In fact, if a pastor fell behind or stopped writing their tithe checks, they lost their ordination.
This is manipulative and controlling when the one that writes your paycheck expects you to give them a ten percent refund. It’s the same kind of weird when pastors are paid by their local congregation, and that church expects them to return ten percent back to them. In the secular world, no employer gets a rebate.
One congregation I served started a building campaign. It asked its members to contribute generously over and above their regular giving. Each member was asked to pledge a specific amount. As a pastor who was struggling financially, it was a pinch for me to give regularly to the church in the first place. Beyond this, it really hurt to give to the building fund. What is a pastor who is overworked and underpaid to do when the congregation demands that you give more? You grin and bear it. You write your check to the church and consider writing your résumé as well.
Ancient Clergy Exempt from Tithing
To figure out whether a pastor should tithe, let’s look at the Levitical model. Levites were not allowed to own property in ancient Israel. They could not benefit from ancestral lands passed down through generations. Their inheritance was the Lord. Or, more specifically, their inheritance was to do the work of God and to be compensated by a tithe paid by the rest of the tribes of Israel.
When people gave money to the temple treasury, it went to support the work of the temple. It also went to support the families of the Levitical priests. When people gave offerings from their produce or livestock, the Levites received that offering. Because the Levites were not allowed to participate in everyday work, they were also not allowed to receive everyday wages. As such, it was never expected that they should return ten percent of their income back to the temple. After all, it doesn’t make sense to give money back to your source of income.
Pastors Exempt from Tithing
If we use this model, we must conclude that pastors are exempt from the tithe. Unlike the Levites, Protestant clergy has no rule banning them from owning property, passing an inheritance down to their children, or engaging in secular employment. But in a practical sense, many churches prevent their pastors from ever acquiring the kind of wealth or even comfort that the church members themselves enjoy. They pay their pastors a low salary relative to the educational requirements the church imposes and relative to the average income of the church members themselves.
Churches shortchange their pastors when it comes to benefits like vacation time, health, insurance, and retirement contributions. Many churches require their pastors to live in houses owned by the church. When you live in a parsonage, manse, or rectory, then you are not gaining the kind of equity a homeowner gains. Hence, pastors are generally under-compensated. As such, churches should consider their pastors to be exempt from the tithe. In fact, churches could effectively give their tithing pastors a ten percent raise simply by formally expressing that they do not expect their clergy to tithe.
Tithes, Offerings, and Alms
Of course, all of this begs the question whether anybody needs to tithe. Tithing ten percent of one’s income was an Old Covenant expectation. Israel had no welfare system, Social Security, or any other way to take care of the needs of suffering people—other than tithes, offerings, and alms. There were multiple times a year that citizens were expected to give. For example, we see Peter stressed out because he doesn’t know how he’s going to afford the temple tax. Grain offerings, financial contributions, and livestock offerings not only went to support the Levite families, but they supported the indigent as well.
Church and State
In Western society, we believe in the separation of church and state. While the church does some benevolence, the government is in charge of the long-term maintenance of struggling individuals. We have Social Security, welfare programs, food, stamps, and other benefits for those in need. We pay an exorbitant amount of taxes to cover these things. So, our churches do not need our tithes to maintain such extensive benevolent funds. Charity is important, yes—but it doesn’t require a tithe.
Are Christians Required to Tithe?
So, are Christians required to tithe, just as the Hebrew people under the Old Covenant? The New Testament never uses the word “tithe.” It only says that God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 6.6-12 NRSV says:
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not regretfully or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written,
“He scatters abroad; he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”
10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us, 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
Everybody is Exempt from Tithing
There’s no indication that the New Testament Church imposed a tithe on its members. Christians gave generously—sacrificially, even. But we have no evidence that a set amount was prescribed. Every Christian has the freedom to determine how, when, and where to give. You have the right to decide whether your giving involves donating your time instead of money, your money instead time, or a combination of both. But we’re under grace, not under the Law. As such, everybody is exempt from tithing!
How Much is Enough?
Certainly, Christians should give enough to support their pastors and other ministries of their church. They should give generously, out of love, and not out of a sense of obligation. If their clergy is full-time, then they should pay enough in wages and benefits that the pastor lives at the same standard of living as the rest of the congregation. In churches where most of the church members are homeowners, their pastor should be able to own a home as well. If the pastor does decide to give back to the congregation, it should be voluntary and never expected. How much is enough to give? That’s up to your conscience, and should never be dictated by the policy of a church or a denomination.
Pastors, if you decide to give regularly, I suggest you choose another entity besides your congregation as the recipient. It’s just weird to give back to the one that pays you. Perhaps if your paycheck comes from the church, you could give your offering to the denomination instead. Or choose a charity worthy of your contribution. If you aren’t receiving reimbursement for your ministry expenses like mileage, books, and other things, then you should advocate for that reimbursement. But if they won’t give it to you, then those expenses should be the way that you give, without writing a tithe check back to the church.
Pastors (And Others) Exempt from Tithing
Should pastors tithe? The bigger question is whether anyone is required to do so. The answer is that all believers walk in freedom. Nobody is required to tithe. But pastors especially are exempt from the tithe, based on the pattern of the Levitical priesthood in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course, I’m aware that some churches and denominations are strict on tithing. So, if you are a pastor in that kind of environment where you are expected to teach tithing, but you don’t tithe yourself—don’t feel like a hypocrite. You are exempt. But you really should reconsider your church’s stance on tithing. Because just as pastors are exempt from tithing, your members are exempt as well. Because every believer is “a holy priesthood.”