For two years before starting this blog with Chris, I was an active contributor to another blog which was trying to press for an apology on behalf of the victims of a notorious church near London. This church had succeeded not only in persuading the congregation to give ten per cent of their gross income but also to remortgage their homes to give to various building projects connected with a church school and housing for the ministers. It transpired much later that the clergy buildings had been registered in the ministers’ names themselves and the church had to buy them back. This is a edited version of a comment I sent to the blog and I see no point in rewriting it all.
What is the basis of this command to give to the Church (and to the leaders) power over eye-watering sums of money which are the cause of envy in other less well-endowed congregations? The injunction about the tenth or the tithe is taken from various passages from the OT (eg Leviticus 27.30) where the people of Israel are commanded to hand over one tenth of the possessions ‘to the Lord’. What was good enough for the people of Israel is good enough for us we might think.
But there are three problems with this convenient (and lucrative) interpretation for ‘Health and Wealth’ Christian leaders.
First it might be queried whether giving ‘to God’ a tenth of all that you own has anything remotely to do with handing over ten per cent of your income to your local church. One imagines that in ancient Israel there were a number of institutions that needed supporting from the tithes, say defence, the running of the justice system and possibly some kind of basic education system for the next generation of priests and administrators. In other words the tithe was in fact a kind of Biblical taxation system. We are all familiar with the way that taxation is enforced (or not) in this country but few of us avoid paying it. We might claim that some of the recipients of our taxation money (health and education) are working for the Lord every much as a narrowly defined church ministry. One likes to think that God works in many contexts.
The second objection to the tithe being a requirement of all church members is whether the church has the right to control the charitable giving of its members. Many of us give widely to charities whether famine relief, the protection of children or the educational institution which helped us when we were young. Even if we take seriously the need to give away a tenth of our income, should that giving all go through the church? A minister urging, threatening his congregation to give away a tithe to God, may simply be trying to set up a power base for his own ambitions for success and material gratification.
The third objection to ‘tithe teaching’ is that it often fails to tune in with a modern need for accountability. Over thirty years tens of millions of pounds have been spent by and through the church. (I am referring to the particular church at this point) Who makes the decisions for the disposal of this largesse? Are there really accountable structures in place which share information about the dispersal of such large sums. Do not the contributions of the people give them some rights in both knowing and deciding what happens to the money?
I write this contribution partly for new members who are struggling with the demand to hand over a tenth of your income because it is ‘biblical’. My advice is don’t, at least not until you have looked at where the money actually goes. The thought of paying money to pay for inflated salaries, grandiose building projects and the building of empires is not everyone’s idea of the purpose of church money.
A further point that did not seem appropriate to the followers of the other blog was the issue of power. If you give a lot of money to a church leader without accountability you are not only providing them with a luxurious lifestyle but also with a great of power over you. As I said in the last blog post, the more that a church has money the more power it can exert. In the case of this particular church, the wealth of this church has silenced potential critics among other local congregations (even though they are picking up the casualties of abuse) and also the church has been able to afford expensive lawyers to threaten individuals with the full weight of the law when they make accusations. Money, particularly when there are no accountable structures, has the ability to bully, to cajole and generally gets it own way. Money in short is one the tools of an abusive church.