To tithe or not to tithe

GivingThanks2Wall Street Journal religion reporter Suzanne Sataline had a lengthy feature on tithing that a few readers sent in. Headlined "The Backlash Against Tithing," here's how it began:

Can you put a price on faith? That is the question churchgoers are asking as the tradition of tithing -- giving 10% of your income to the church -- is increasingly challenged. Opponents of tithing say it is a misreading of the Bible, a practice created by man, not God. They say they should be free to donate whatever amount they choose, and they are arguing with pastors, writing letters and quitting congregations in protest. In response, some pastors have changed their teaching and rejected what has been a favored form of fund raising for decades.

I have to admit that this lede confused me. I think it might have been a good idea to define tithing more precisely for the purposes of the story. Judging from most -- but not all -- of the remaining anecdotes and reportage, the backlash is against the view that giving ten percent of one's income is a biblical requirement. But that's not how Sateline defines it, exactly.

In the rest of the story, Sataline says that churches are stepping up their efforts to encourage tithing, although there's little statistical support to show any trend. She also describes everything from the encouragement of tithing to the requirement that new members pledge to give ten percent of their incomes, even if they're deeply in debt or supporting large families on extremely limited incomes. Here's another paragraph I found confusing:

Many Christians who don't read the Bible literally say that by tithing they are not misreading the text, but rather interpreting it differently. Tithing has its roots in the Biblical tale of Abraham presenting a tenth of the war spoils to Melchizedek, the king of Salem. In the Old Testament, Jews brought 10% of their harvest to a storehouse as a welfare plan for the needy or in case of famine. That percentage, say pro-tithers, can be a useful guideline for Christians today. "It's the best financial discipline I know," says Terry Parsons, stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church.

I have no idea what that first sentence means. And grouping people who require tithing with people who simply think it's a useful guideline continues to confuse me. I also think it might have been a good idea to explain the views of those who don't follow tithing. My church, for instance, teaches that we are free to give any percentage of our income depending on the circumstances. The article didn't quite delineate which churches teach tithing and which don't. Anyway, the best part of the story is the series of anecdotes Sataline provides, such as this one:

For Judy Willingham, of San Antonio, 12 years of tithing came to an end earlier this year. She says she gave a tenth of her pay to Cornerstone Church because the pastor, the Rev. John C. Hagee teaches, "'If you obey God and you tithe, God will return it to you 30, 60, 100 fold.'"

Ms. Willingham, who earns $26,000 annually as an administrative assistant, says she started to research the practice, reading criticism online and studying the Bible, and concluded that she'd been "guilted into tithing." She quit the church and hasn't found another one.

Steve Sorensen, director of pastoral ministries at Cornerstone, says the church requires its paid and volunteer leaders to tithe, and teaches new members to do so, although it doesn't make them show proof of income. "When you tithe, God makes promises to us, that he ... is not going to let anything bad or destructive come about," says Mr. Sorensen. For those who don't tithe, he says the Lord "is not obligated to do those things for you."

ShouldChurchTeachTithing2The stories really are fascinating. One parishioner who questioned his church's tithing commandment was told he was wrong and to submit to his pastor and elders. He stopped going to his church. Kevin Rohr, a youth pastor at a Quaker offshoot, was told by his pastor that he was expected to tithe on his $32,400 salary. With four kids and a wife to support, he told the pastor that Christians are not required to tithe. He ended up leaving his job:

Mr. Rohr, 35, is now supporting his family by driving trucks. He says he still believes what he wrote to Mr. Engel: "All decisions to give and how much to give are between the believer and their God, not meant to be used as stumbling blocks or judgments against others."

One interesting thing about these anecdotes is that Russell Earl Kelly, author of Should the Church Teach Tithing?, says he provided the names of Rohr and five others who were interviewed and quoted in the article:

I am somewhat upset that my name and book was not mentioned. I spent literally hundreds of hours pouring over old e-mails from the past six years to furnish names and information to the Wall Street Journal for this article. The names of all of the key persons interviewed in the article were provided by myself . . .

He raises an interesting point. A good reporter will spend countless hours researching a story. I don't think many folks outside the media have any idea how much information has to be left out of a given story. But particularly since Sataline devoted a bit of her article to anti-tithing scholarship, it seems she could have at least plugged Kelly's work on the matter. What do you think?

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