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Michael Miller: Should God have a say in how we use our money?

Michael Miller

There’s a backlash against tithing, according to a Nov. 23 Wall Street Journal story.

Appropriately enough, the story ran on Black Friday, the kickoff day for Americans’ Christmas spending spree.

The message? Boo tithing. Yay buying a bunch of stuff that nobody needs.

Tithing is the traditional Christian understanding that you should pay 10 percent of your income to your church. Sources for it can be found in Genesis 14, where Abram -- aka Abraham -- paid 10 percent of his war spoils to Melchizedek. Israelites also were instructed to donate a tenth of their "increase" to the Tabernacle as well as make other donations.

Reporter Suzanne Sataline also points out that Mormons "must give 10 percent to the church or they may be barred from temples where ceremonies take place" and that "Muslims are obligated to give a zakat to charity, usually 2.5 percent of the market value of a believer’s assets each year."

The backlash, according to Sataline’s piece, is taking the form of some people leaving a ministry or church altogether when the leadership begins requiring or encouraging tithing. Even if they don’t leave, they’re not happy when told they are expected to give a certain amount each year.

In some cases, a call for church members to tithe turns into spiritual abuse.

One woman told Sataline that she decided after doing research that she had been "guilted into tithing." Of course, she attended the church pastored by prosperity teacher John Hagee, who had told Cornerstone Church members, "If you obey God and you tithe, God will return it to you 30, 60, 100 fold."

It’s no wonder the woman was disillusioned. She has quit church altogether.

Christian ministers opposed to tithing say it’s legalistic, that it implies God’s treatment of you depends on what you do, not on his free gift of grace. One systematic theology teacher I had encouraged us students to give 9 percent, 11 percent, 2 percent, whatever -- just not an exact 10 percent, because that would be legalistic.

I’m not going to try to settle the issue of tithing for Christians here. Most people think a couple percent of their income, if that, is fine.

The average annual U.S. church contribution, according to Empty Tomb Inc., a research organization in Champaign, in 2005 was 2.58 percent.

Others see the 10 percent as a starting point, a minimum to give to one’s congregation with contributions to other ministries or good causes coming beyond that.

That some people have been turned off by church leadership discussing money issues didn’t surprise me. In my experience, people are more willing to talk about their most deeply held spiritual beliefs than they are about their disposable income.

What struck me in the story was the attitude of a New Jersey lawyer.

"It’s my money to do with what I want," John Magrino, who attends a Roman Catholic church, was quoted as saying.

That attitude ignores the matter of stewardship, or taking care of something God has given us. If one believes God has made it possible for us to earn the money we do, then you can come to the conclusion that he has an interest in how we spend it. In fact, he may want us to spend it in a certain way for his purposes.

I’ve been told, though I haven’t researched it myself, that money is one of the most common if not the most common topic of the Bible. What we do with our money has tremendous moral implications, according to scripture.

But if you attribute all of your success and sustenance to your own capabilities and don’t believe God had a hand in any of it, then of course you’re free to spend it as you want and to give or not give as you want.

You also, though, would be scoffing at a Bible verse repeated daily in Jewish liturgy: "You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Psalm 145:16).

Michael Miller covers religion for the Journal Star. Write to him in care of the Journal Star, 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call him at 686-3106, or send e-mail to mmiller@pjstar.com. Comments may be published.