To individuals familiar with the evangelical church environment the practice of tithing is commonly viewed as giving one tenth of your income to the church. This revenue is then used to pay things such as church rent, pastors’ salaries, and missionaries in far away countries. As a child I knew it as money that was given to God, whatever that means. To me it has always seemed vague and detached, but expected and necessary. Lately I have thought about it more and what it would mean in a more intimate way. The other day I read the following verses: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘S/He who gathered much did not have too much, and s/he who gathered little did not have too little’” (2 Cor. 8:13-15). Now I have not done exegesis on this verse and I am no expert on 2 Corinthians but this verse started me thinking. The passage first made me think of politics and how it seemed to have a left leaning slant that I could use as a defense of liberal, domestic policies to conservative Christians I encounter. Then I realized that is just ridiculous, being that it is not about a political ideology, although it is political in a sense, but by limiting it to such a narrow biased thinking I would be cheating myself. What I see though is a deeper meaning of the use of one’s finances in the context of the church and how your local Christian community should and can be a tool for creating an egalitarian culture. But this is different than any type of state sponsored welfare program or socialist society in that it is a voluntary thing, a heart thing, a response to the needs of an organic community. A culture in which each individual is valued as not being under or above, but at your side, defined as a human created in the image of God.
I see an example of this type of sharing within the early Christian community. The book of Acts says, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as s/he had need” (Acts 2:44-45). It also states, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of her/his possessions was her/his own, but they shared everything they had…There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as s/he had need” (Acts 4:32, 34-35). In this I see a community in which members were involved and relationally close to the point that they knew each others’ needs. While giving to distant missionaries is not bad, it may come at the expense of people within your own immediate community that are in some way struggling.
Of course the idea of a tithe or sharing of resources is no new idea. At my current church we were able to take an offering for a member who needed money to pay for the airfare to attend his son’s wedding. I know of people who often will give money directly to friends in need as one form of their tithe. The New Monastic movement has an idea of shared economic resources in their intentional communities throughout the United States. The members of the community in San Francisco put a large chunk of their income into a church fund that is then used for needs that arise. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin wrote on what he called mutual aid. Looking at Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest he believed that besides individual competition, nature shows cooperation to be a way for species to continue existence. Kropotkin believed in the voluntary exchange of resources in which people would gain a strong sense of solidarity. This kind of mutual aid he believed would cause a community to flourish.
I believe that we are responsible to share our resources with care and consideration which is why I believe the role of tithing should be examined. The Church should represent the most pure form of human community. Part of that involves the spending and distribution of wealth in which church members are taken care of. The heart of the matter is really about relationships; creating an intertwined community that is close and reliant on each other. I think a common thing that relationally detaches people today is the pursuit of professionalism, churches looking to add to their numbers through theatrical performances. By striving for perfection they lose sight of each other. Of course I am not trying to say all large churches are bad, in many cases they probably financially contribute a lot to those in need, however I do want to attack a general vibe I see in them that I see as potentially damaging to the idea of community.
Kropotkin says it best: “Today we live too isolated. Private property has led us to an egoistic individualism in all our mutual relations. We know one another only slightly; our points of contact are too rare. But we have seen in history examples of communal life which is more intimately bound together, -the ‘composite family’ in China, the agrarian communes, (I would add the early Christian church) for example. These people really know one another. By force of circumstances they must aid one another materially and morally.”