Talking about Tithing: Part One

This week in Auckland the talkback airwaves, newspaper front pages and evening current affairs slots have devoted a good deal of time and space to the uproar in Brian Tamaki's Destiny Church over an Australian pastor's resignation. The leader of the Brisbane branch of Destiny Church - an independent Pentecostal denomination founded about twenty years ago by Tamaki, a former Apostolic minister - has walked out with something like half the flock, on the grounds that Destiny's emphasis on fundraising is getting in the way of the gospel. Of particular concern has been an inordinate emphasis on financial donations, coercion of members to give beyond their means, and the setting up of a covenant organisation whereby men pay $300 for a ring engraved with Tamaki's name, to signify their loyalty to his cause.

I don't intend to comment on the justice or otherwise of these complaints, or on the minister's resignation, but the discussions on Talkback raised some fascinating issues, as well as revealing some distorted assumptions on the part of both the supporters who called in and the critics, such as talkback host Danny Watson. Since a lot of this discussion revolved around the topic of income tithing, and whether or not followers of Jesus are expected to practise this discipline, I will give my views on that issue in next week's post. But first I want to note how ignorant both callers and hosts seemed to be about how a church operates in this day and age. For example, Mike Hosking on TV One this week expressed shock and horror that Destiny Church has EFTPOS machines available in the auditorium. Hello! We live in a society that is fast becoming cashless, and most people do not carry money or even their hardly-ever-used chequebook, if they have one, round in their wallet. The middle of the road Presbyterian church where I served for twelve years installed an EFTPOS machine at least a decade ago, at the request of the younger members. Many other mainstream churches offer this option, and some of us are lobbying to get one in the church where I work now. Ideally of course, management want offerings to be in the form of automatic payments, but EFTPOS at least enables the less-organised among us to submit their freewill offering on the day they attend worship. (It is also very useful for paying camp fees and opshop purchases.)

My use of the term "church management" raises a further area of ignorance among the letter writers, callers and radio hosts. People did not seem to realise that even though the church is a voluntary organisation, with spiritual purposes, it must operate in society along business-like lines. Our treasurers prepare budgets, pay salaries and juggle cashflow like they would in any other enterprise. Some callers suggested the church should not ask for regular offerings at all. If the church needs the roof repaired, we should do it with voluntary labour, they said. If the poor need social services, we should give to them directly. These folk seemed to have no idea that the main function of a church - to share the story of Jesus with those within and beyond our community - requires sustainable funding. Salaries make up the lion's share, not just of leaders, but of the receptionist, children's and youth workers, and cleaners. Ministers spend most of their week preparing for Sunday worship, teaching small groups and offering care and counsel. These are functions which participants want their church to make available on an ongoing basis, and employment contracts must reflect that. In addition, most churches purposely make their buildings available to other organisations (eg, at our church, Plunket, Kindyrock and afterschool coaching) during the week; someone has to administer the bookings, ensure the facilities are clean, safe and tidy, and account to local bodies for these matters. All of this takes money, and spontaneous working bees or gifts to the poor do not meet the wide range of ministry needs. I was reminded as I listened to these callers asking why Brian Tamaki needs to be paid at all, of the young couple who asked me to marry them some years ago. When I mentioned the fee, they were shocked that the government didn't pay me to do so!! I'm not sure that Bishop Tamaki needs as much as as he is getting, but that will have been a matter decided by his community in a robust process and posted on the Charities Commission website. Breaking news - in Sunday's papers I read that Destiny's Trust structure has an explicit clause that grants Tamaki "absolute power of veto of any decision made by the Board." That's dodgy.

Back to the issue of tithing. Tamaki has claimed that tithing is a biblical practice required of Christians, and that not to tithe is "robbing God" (Malachi 3:10). He is not alone in the former view, for example the Saddleback Church led by Rick Warren asks members to commit to income tithing, and do do many mainstream evangelical Kiwi churches. Next time, I will expand on the issue of tithing, and why I personally believe it is an Old Covenant principle that is not compulsory for Followers of Jesus. Nevertheless, generous giving is a Christian virtue. I note how shocked the media seemed to be that a minister such as Tamaki would ask their people to give sacrificially by giving up their latte or Sky subscription. Putting aside that many of the main demographic of folk that attend Destiny would not drink latte or have pay TV, let me say that I am totally comfortable with leaders promoting stewardship, and by reminding people of the transient value of their purchases, compared with the eternal value of investing in the mission of God. I have heard this said many times in local churches I have attended or led. It does not have to be coercive. I recall the Treasurer of one Presbyterian church brandishing a can of Coke as he reminded young worshippers of the cost of the music and sound equipment they expected the church to supply and maintain. And I myself have used the cost of a latte as an example of what we may choose to relinquish in light of the needs of the ministries of the local and global church.
Here's a quote from a 2001 sermon I preached at annual budget time:
One of the elders worked out that if everyone who is already in our planned giving system gave four dollars a week more, there would be no problem. That’s amazing. For some there is no way of managing that big an increase but for others four dollars is possible. It could mean sacrificing your weekly magazine, a cup of latte, a kiwi ticket or a carton of ice-cream.
Every church budget is a theological statement. It reveals our perception of God's goals and plans, and it challenges us to be involved in fulfilling them. Jesus didn’t think money was a dirty word; in fact he preached about money and economic issues far more than about sex or violence or any of the other sins we tend to focus on. Jesus was intensely interested in economics, because money is at the heart of our value system. In the faith community, we endeavour to model a generosity and simplicity seldom seen in today's world, but in my view we simply cannot ignore the fact that even a spiritual organisation needs donations to do its work.
To Chew Over: Do you think a twentyfirst century church could function without asking people to make donations?
Hear the pennies dropping,
listen while they fall
Every one for Jesus,
he shall have them all
Dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping
Hear the pennies fall
Every one for Jesus
He shall have them all.
The Sunday School Hymnary, 1938.