An op-ed appeared in the NYTimes this morning that I was stunned to read. Written by Margaret Renkl, the piece makes several contentions that are, at best, simplistic in their understanding of both churches and charity. The piece says, among other things:
- The idea that conservatives are somehow more charitable than liberals is not necessarily true. She contends this without definitively making her case, but most of the case that she does make is based on the fact that religious giving, that is giving to church is somehow not really charitable.
- That “tithing” is giving to church, as opposed to other forms of giving. An assertion that simply defies any reasonable understanding of the term “tithing.”
- That giving to church is not really all that charitable because, there is all that annoying church overhead like paying the pastors, ministers or priests and buying the building and so forth and so on.
Therefore she concludes that
While we’re setting aside money to support our churches, we’ll need to set aside even more for Doctors Without Borders, so it can bring medical care to war-torn areas of the world. We’ll need to set aside even more for the International Rescue Committee, so it can care for displaced people around the globe. We’ll need to set aside even more for AmeriCares and Direct Relief, so they can help victims of natural disasters. We’ll need to set aside even more for the local food bank, so it can feed our hungry neighbors.
I almost don’t know where to start with this…
…But I think I’ll start with just what the term “tithing” means. Historically, the tithe is a portion of your income given in tribute to the authorities. Over the millennia, and through a lot of Christian exegesis, it has come to mean giving ten percent of what you earn. In the common modern understanding of the term it is about charity, regardless of where that charity is directed. It is considered a spiritual discipline, an exercise to help develop a charitable heart. Therefore, not only is it not limited to giving to church, but to use the term in that fashion and to argue that it is somehow less charitable than giving to some other cause is to, in fact, argue for stinginess.
It is precisely the penny-counting tone of this entire piece that has really set my teeth on edge. A Christian is charitable and generous. That’s a huge part of what it means to be Christian. Rather than argue whether it is better to give the farthing here or there, the Christian in their God-granted generosity, simply gives and gives and gives more. A Christian fundamentally understands that with God as the source of all wealth, it is in limitless supply. We do not have to argue about what goes where – God will supply what is needed and where it is needed. Now, of course, there are practicalities, but even in confronting those practicalities, a Christian does not operate out of a spirit of limitations, but out of a spirit of God’s overwhelming abundance.
Simple fact, few Christian give an actual ten percent of their earnings. I used to chair the “Missions and Outreach” committee of the church I attend most regularly and was formerly a member of. (Don’t ask, my church affiliations are nearly as complex as the host’s.) That was the committee charged with giving away money. We once did some rough estimation that if the regular attenders all actually gave 10% our committee would have to figure out what to do with several millions rather than the tens of thousands that we were used to working in. That church “tithes” on its budget. That is to say, ten percent of the budget was set aside precisely for that committee to give away. Further, the budget often exceeded that 10% mark and it was policy that if income exceeded the operating budget in any given fiscal year, the excess flowed to that committee.
Then there was the off-budget chartable work done by the church. The church currently has two major missions that are off-budget. One is the construction and operation of an orphanage in Tijuana. The other is an on-going mission in the Dominican Republic that has built countless houses, schools, medical clinics and sends medical missionaries every year. Both of these huge projects raise funds and operate in the church, but entirely outside of the church’s regular budget. Then there are the smaller things that the kids do every year when they adopt one cause or another, raise money and do other things to support it – all off the church budget. And such is true for thousands-upon-thousands of churches all over the country.
Then there is simply the spontaneous stuff that comes together. One example. I was chairing that committee when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. We had teachers in the church with rooms full of kids that wanted to help. They started those kids putting together backpacks full of emergency supplies for kids in the affected areas but had no way to get them there. I happened to have friends in the Gulf Coast area so I reached out to their churches who were doing everything they could, but could not get supplies in fast enough. And a ministry was born. A couple of college age kids in our church rented a truck, out of their own pockets, and drove a little over a thousand backpacks to that church in Mississippi that then distributed them to the neediest kids in the region. A generous elderly person in the church bought plane tickets home for the college kids. None of that showed up on any charitable giving records anywhere. It just happened. But it did take two churches, with all that “overhead,” to have created communities that were united in their desire to help the very needy. So, I am not sure how overheady all that overhead really is.
And then there is the fact the idea that local Christian ministry is somehow not charitable. I have been to some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest churches in the nation and even the world. And in every single one of them there was someone less off that someone else that needed help. Charity is much broader than simply “feeding the poor.” I think of one man I know, of limited means, but far from poor. He is however, deeply alone. Elderly, an immigrant, and completely alone. Money is not what he needs. He needs a place to be on Sunday morning, and throughout the week, where people see him, interact with him, care about him. There is deep, deep charity in simply talking to that man, even if no money changes hands.
Does any of what I have written here mean that Doctors without Borders, or any of the other causes Ms. Renkl lists are unworthy? No it does not. What I argue against is the notion that somehow giving to church is less charitable than giving to any of these other things. What’s most important to God is simply that we give and give and give – that we have a charitable heart that does not count where the pennies go, but instead just finds more pennies to give.
When God supplies it is not a zero-sum game.