Why Do We Take Up an Offering?
By Father Wade Miller
After hearing a sermon and before receiving the Eucharist in worship, traditional Anglican parishes distribute offering plates so that the faithful can give their tithes. Why is this done? Is this a way of guilting people into giving money to the parish? Is this a way of judging whether a sermon was good, so that if the homily gained the approval of the hearer, the offering gets a little heavier?
The Church believes that the giving of one’s tithes and offerings is just as important in worship as hearing a sermon or singing a hymn. As Father Hayden Butler said so well, “Giving in our tithes and abundant generosity is the way we pray with our money.” The giving of our tithes and offerings truly reflects the condition of our heart.
The concept of giving without getting something immediately in return is a very foreign concept to most Americans. That might explain why people are drowning in debt, or why our national debt is now higher than our gross domestic product (GDP). People can’t wait to purchase that new outfit, or that new car, or going to that much anticipated event, but giving to the church has no immediate perk or personal pleasure unless one delights in obedience to God. St. Paul says of the wicked that their god is their belly and their end is destruction due to living for this life alone (Philippians 3:19).
If we want a fair test of our allegiance and worship, we should ask ourselves, how much money do we spend going out to eat, paying for cell phones, movies, or vacations as compared to giving to our local church? I knew a man who bragged of giving $20 a week in the offering plate. He owned a summer home in the northern part of the country, and a winter home in the south. He was a millionaire. He went out to eat daily for lunch. A few days a week he would go to some fancy restaurant for dinner. Twenty dollars didn’t even come close to his cocktail tab. Despite this dissonance, he proudly proclaimed that he was a strong supporter of the parish. That is obvious pure rubbish! As our Lord said, which was passed on to us by St. Paul, “it is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)
Some believe they are off the hook in giving a tithe because we live under the grace of the New Testament era, no longer under the law of the Old. Such a distinction is not the way the catholic tradition understands Scripture or tithing. Even if that were true, the practice of tithing predates the Law under Moses. Abraham and Jacob gave a tenth of their possessions (i.e. not just money) as an act of worship (see: Genesis 14 & 18). This became embedded into the practice of the Israelites, but it did not stop there. They were to give another portion of their goods to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26). This is where we get the idea of Alms. Although the old English word ‘tithe’ means ‘tenth,’ giving was more than 10% of one’s earnings.
The early church in Acts practiced an even more generous way of giving by selling their possessions and distributing to those who had needs in their own fellowship (see: Acts chapters 2 & 4). They also supported the apostles and presbyters (i.e. bishops and priests) as they devoted themselves to the Church, knowing that the body of Christ is the Kingdom of God here on earth and where the Holy Spirit resides. A careful study of II Corinthians 9 and I Timothy 5:17-18 is vital for any discussion of giving and how this corresponds to the fact that those in holy orders (bishops, priests, and deacons) are to be supported as icons of Christ to the people.
If this discussion makes you a bit uneasy, welcome to the club! Corruption over money has become common news, especially since the 1980’s when certain evangelical leaders were caught in financial and moral scandals. The hiding of certain immoral priests by bishops, and then seeking to pay off their victims to be quiet continues to haunt the Roman Catholic Church. This was my world as a teenager, so I would like to avoid talking about money altogether, but I cannot as a priest in the Church. What makes talking about money even more difficult is the continual exposure of preachers espousing the so-call ‘prosperity gospel,’ which says the more one gives to their so-called ministries, the more God gives the giver in return. Such abuse, heresy, and scandal are enough to never want to discuss the issue of money or tithing in the church.
The danger of the pendulum swinging in the other direction of utter silence, however, is that tithing is never discussed or taught to people who want to learn and do the right thing. I believe there are some people in our parishes that really do not know what tithing is or what is expected from them by God. This essay is not meant to be accusatory or exhaustive. If you want a more exhaustive study on this issue, I recommend Fr. Michael Hyatt’s excellent article or podcast on this subject. Hyatt does an amazing job showing how some of the lowest income earners in this country would be considered rich as compared to the rest of the world.
Let’s now discuss the practical matters as it relates to tithing. First, we are not bound to a definite percentage of giving. Anyone who has a job and can provide for their daily needs should strive to give 10% of their income as a minimum. If one is drowning in debt, unable to pay their own bills, and is in danger of losing their home or not providing for their daily necessities, that person should not give a dime! They should, however, give in other ways like helping serve in needed capacities of the parish. The church always needs ushers, caretakers of the building, people to help with the food pantry, etc.
If one spends more on recreation like going out to dinner, going to the theatre, or traveling rather than tithing to his or her parish, it is time to make some radical changes. Enjoyment of God’s good creation is a salutary practice if it is secondary to God’s kingdom.
The final point that needs to be made is that giving to a favorite charity, or to a trusted organization, or to some social cause is not the same as giving to the local church. The Church is the Christ-appointed and God-ordained institution here on earth. The Lord has set the Church to be the light and conscience for the sake of the world. It is the Kingdom of God here on earth. The Bible speaks of tithing as giving of our first fruits. This means that before we spend money on ourselves, or our hobbies, or on our own favorite charities, we are to first set aside money as an offering to God. For some this might be 10% but to those who have much more this might mean 50% or higher. It is not about the percentage, it’s about the heart! (II Corinthians 9:7)
Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. (I Timothy 6:17-18)