In a lengthy piece in my local newspaper this week, Justin Welby, the bishop of Durham, gave some suggestions for new year's resolutions. Right at the top of his list was the plea that we should all tithe 10% of our income. Respect due, he did not insist that the money should go to the Church but stated that any charity would be an appropriate recipient of our tithes. I fully agree with him that being charitable is a human duty. That humans give to others is empirical proof of our claim that we have the ability to empathise with others and so is part of what makes us human. Not to give to others makes us less than human. Where I disagree with him is with his insistence on charity being linked to a percentage of income.

Percentages of income no doubt seem perfectly logical to a person who has an income in excess of what they need to live on. However, to those who struggle to survive it is just another burden placed on them by the rich and privileged.

You see, the real value of a percent of something increases the smaller it is. A pensioner in England receiving £100 per week is living on the breadline. If she gives away 10% of that £100 she will be left with just £90 and the loss of £10 will make her life even more miserable and hard. A company executive earning £2000 per week will be enjoying a life with no financial worries and will have plenty of money to spend on luxuries. If he gives away 10% of his salary each week he will be left with £1800 and will still be enjoying a life with no financial worries and he will still have plenty of money to spend on luxuries. The pensioner will have made a huge sacrifice. The company executive will not have done.

Jesus threw out the tithing system and replaced it with the recommendation (warning) that, as long as there are people  who do not have enough money to live on, we should give all our wealth in excess of what we need to live on to those who live in absolute poverty. Very few Christians follow this system of true tithing. We hope that Christ will be merciful when he returns to judge us. A rich person who demands that poor people should give more, in effect, than himself would be testing the Lord's mercy to the extreme.  Instead, a rich person should secretly give a percentage of his income far in excess of the traditional tithe and never insist that anybody else gives anything. He should certainly not insist on others tithing a percentage as any taxation system based on a fixed percentage being demanded from all favours the rich and further oppresses the poor.



  1. John Wesley actually did take what he needed (£28 a year), and give everything else away. I wonder how many other people ever have? But yes, tithing would be oppressive, to say the least, for someone on JSA.

  2. Coincidentally, yesterday I was musing on the widow’s mite and the standard interpretation that Jesus is praising her for giving all she had. Yesterday, the Epiphany, I had an epiphany of my own, and it was much like what Jonathan has just written. Jesus was actually berating the rich, who insisted people give even if it is their last penny, and who do only what is required in giving to the poor, whilst still living in luxury.

    Well done, Jonathan. Thank you.

  3. I SO agree — and our bishop actually says you should tithe only to the church and any “charity” (like soup kitchen or food bank) should come on top of that.

  4. I agree and thank you, MP. The 10-percent tithe might work for someone with means. For those of us who are hanging on by our fingertips, it can be like taking a sledgehammer to one set of digits, leaving us dangling evermore precariously.

  5. MP, I say this every year during our stewardship campaign. The emphasis on tithing makes my head spin annually. The folks who promote tithing are very well off financially so you’re correct … they feel no pain.

  6. I think, Lois, that there is a very good case to make that this is the central teaching of Christ’s ministry and that everything else was either and explanation or example of this teaching. God being near to us and loving us is a reason for following this commandment. Loving each other can only been done properly if we stick to it. The healing miracles are an example of removing poverty from people. Christ giving everything on the cross and walking unhindered through the eye of the needle and straight into glory also alludes to it.

  7. In all fairness to Bishop Welby, he is most definitely reminding everyone of their financial responsibility to each other and is not after raising funds for his church, although Durham Diocese could really do with the money at the moment.

  8. Whiteycat, every time I have been at a church during a funding campaign I have suggested that we work out a sliding scale where the percentage gets higher the more available income the church member has AND that people below a certain income give only a nominal £1.00 a week. Children I suggest, should give 10 pence. I then suggest that this scale should form part of any presentation.

    Not once has this suggestion been considered let alone taken up.

  9. For some years now, we’ve been told that the Church of England suggests that people who wish to give regularly to their local church should think about giving 5% of their wages.

    I understand this comes from some calculation that compares the budget with the average number of weekly attenders likely to be working, and the average wage. But I don’t have any reference for this. Sorry.

  10. I really like your idea MP, but then I’m not a Bishop.

    The facts show that poor people already give a far greater portion of their meagre incomes to charity than the rich, and it seems morally wrong to address appeals to the public as a mass when it’s so obvious that it is only a small minority of highly (many would say excessively or obscenely) “remunerated” individuals who actually need to be reminded that they are, in fact, part of the human race and not on another planet.

  11. A friend of mine served an inner city parish where some welfare recipients tithed. As an imposition from above, tithing can be oppressive for people with little income. As a voluntary discipline it can be liberating.

  12. For the past several years I’ve wondered why stewardship drives to this day emphasize the “biblical tithe” while these same churches talk about the biblical context of other Levitical laws. It seems a combination of lax thinking and shame-based fundraising and it needs to stop. Jesus made it clear that ALL we have comes from God; it ALL needs to be dealt with faithfully. “Tithing” is not a Christian concept at all. I don’t know why we keep talking about it as if it were.

    Thanks for writing this!

  13. Of course, MP is right and I was being over simplistic. The OT sets a minimum of tithing, but the New Testament could be summed up as giving being proportionate to income, regular and sacrificial. So, it might be very small indeed for someone on a low income and a vast majority of income for a rich person. But we still need to give and encourage others to do so.

  14. My goodness, yes. I’d be in a right mess if people stopped. In fact, Justin, next time you publicly appeal to people’s generosity if you could mention my website… I’ll make sure a cut goes to the distressed bishops fund, of course 🙂

  15. I’m of two minds about tithing. As an obligation (or “tax”), it can be oppressive for those who have barely enough to get by.

    But, like Daniel Weir’s friend, I have ministered in poor rural communities heavily dependent on social assistance, and had some widows who tithed out of their meagre Old Age assistance (and allocated more to neighbors in need than to the church upkeep). For them, it was a liberating act of faith, that they could get by without much. In my experience, the poor understand this much better, and are better able to do it, because they know what hardship and personal deprivation are all about. It is harder for a rich person to understand, and thus to get into the kingdom, than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle.

    Those of us who are better off need to learn from that example. My own stewardship preaching tends not to be about tithing but about giving the first-fruits, taking something off the top to give thanks and to share with the less fortunate, before satisfying our own needs, and preferably that something off the top should be substantial enough that we have to do without something.

  16. I agree. And when Jesus pointed out the widow giving all she had, he was denouncing the whole corruption of the temple system that was taking money from the very person they should have been taking care of.

  17. Jim, I’m not saying that the poor should not give to charity. My point is that it is their choice and we should not shame them into paying the same percentage of their income as a rich person. I certainly agree that the charity of the poor is an example for us all to follow.

  18. But don’t you think MP that the state has taken over some of the functions that used to fall to the churches and to charities. Perhaps not so much in the USA but I’d be surprised about Britain. When we pay tax in Australia, and when we don’t cheat on it, we could be paying 40 – 45% of our income. A lot of that money goes to social welfare and provision for the unemployed, and single parents.

    Now In some other world I could give 20% to the government and tithe the other 25% to the church but in a way I’m glad that charity, i.e. large scale charity has been taken out of the churches hands.

    I don’t want people in our society to have to line up at churches for help like they might have in centuries past. I’d rather the provision be a secular thing. I guess that means there is less left over in our income for the churches. But once you pay your taxes, and a hideous mortgage, and goodness knows what else to feed, clothe and educate kids, you’re lucky if you have anything left to tithe. So is it 10% of gross? Or 10% of what you have left after 45% tax? Or 10% of what you have left after all the running costs?

    Or do you just say, like the widow, “Oh buggar it, you might as well just take the last bit I’ve got!”

  19. MP,
    We’re in agreement. The church should not be shaming the poor into paying what they can’t afford. But the Occupy movement shows that we need to do a better job at shaming the rich, who at present give proportionally a whole lot less than the poor.

  20. My mother, who was by no means rich, and would be thought poor by many in her own community, always tithed as long as she was able to go to church. She said that somehow there was always enough to get thru to the next bit of income. She never insisted that everyone should, but she was glad that she was able to. The last 10 years of her life she was unable to go to church. I don’t think the preacher crossed her door sill the whole time she was bound to the house and bed.

  21. I agree with you, Boaz. Certainly those on low wages in countries like our own should consider that their tax is charitable to a large extent.

  22. It seems that in conversations such as this, it is far too easy to dwell on the anecdotal poor person who gives generously rather than the real people the teaching was meant for: the tight-fisted wealthy. We should put all of our focus on figuring out how to deal with these two realities: 1) Jesus says give what isn’t necessary and 2) people have an unhealthy view of what is necessary. And a third might be “let’s not piss off the big-givers.”

    Talk about the tithe allows the well-off from dealing with either the question of their own wealth or what is truly necessary for their lives. Without confronting these issues, we are ignoring a central teaching of Jesus, as you pointed out, MP.