When I was growing up, my parents gave me an allowance so they could teach me how to manage money. They taught me how to use a bank account, save for big purchases, and tithe. It was not an extravagant amount of money. I remember when my allowance was a single dollar. On Saturday night, I would set out a dime by my church dress before going to bed. Then I’d put the dime in the offering plate at church the next morning. Now, parenting my own children, I feel at times that I am much less organized than my parents were. I have only recently started talking to my children about finances, and the fact that everything is digital and automated today makes it harder for me to model money management to them in ways they can visualize.
For years, I resisted automated withdrawal for our tithing. My single reason for this was my desire for my children to see me placing my envelope into the offering plate each week. But eventually, the busyness of my schedule and my inability to easily keep track of the numbers led me to succumb to convenience. Now my children cannot see us tithing. This has me pondering how best to teach them about stewardship and faithfulness with our finances. As with most things, if we want to teach our children to do something, we need to understand why we do it ourselves and be willing to talk to them about it.
Why Do We Tithe?
Throughout Scripture, God’s people bring Him the firstfruits of their labor. We see this from the very beginning, including when Cain and Abel bring offerings to God, when Abraham gives a tenth of everything he has to Melchizedek, and when the Levitical laws dictate that people give a tithe of their income to the tabernacle and those who serve as priests. We also see it when the woman places her two small coins in the temple collection and receives Jesus’ praise for her faithfulness.
There is no legalistic requirement for the Christian regarding giving 10 percent of one’s income to the Church, yet it is clear throughout the New Testament that Jesus and the apostles still taught and valued giving.
An obvious reason to give is that doing so supports the ministry of the Church. Jesus instructs His disciples, “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 7:10). Paul affirms this in 1 Timothy 5:17–18: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’ ”
While caring for our pastors and church workers is important, the greatest reason we should regularly give to the Church is that it teaches us to trust and depend upon our heavenly Father for all we have.
Everything we have comes from God, and we are to look to God to provide for our every need. Any time we elevate something in our lives over God or fail to trust in Him to provide for us, that is idolatry. Luther expresses this in his explanation of the First Commandment in his Large Catechism:
Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god. The purpose of this commandment is to require true faith and trust of the heart, which settles upon the only true God and clings to Him alone. It is like saying, “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another.” In other words, “Whatever you lack of good things, expect it from Me. Look to Me for it. And whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need.”
(LC I 3, 4)
We never want to look to something other than God for our sustenance, and trusting in money or our own ability to care for ourselves and our family is perhaps the most common way to fall into idolatry.
Pitfalls to Avoid
When modeling tithing for our children, there are some snares to avoid. By falling into one of these errors, we lose the opportunity to practice dependence upon God and instead use our generosity as a way to manipulate others or justify ourselves.
1. Avoid tithing only in seasons where you feel you can afford it.
My husband and I have tithed throughout our lives. This included when we were both undergraduate students supporting ourselves with on-campus jobs and throughout seminary (yes, even back before tuition was fully covered). One of the greatest blessings of those years was learning that we could depend fully on God for all our needs. When our car broke down in our first year of marriage and we didn’t know how we’d get to class, my grandmother suddenly was getting rid of her car and wanted us to have it. When we were coming up short on the grocery bill one month at seminary, an unexpected note would come from a church we’d never heard of with an extra $100 because they were charmed by a thank-you note we had sent out. When my husband needed surgery and the surgeon found out he was a seminary student, the surgeon donated his time and told us not to pay the bill. All of these were unexpected, surprising gifts from God. I don’t believe that God provided for us because we tithed, but I am grateful that our eyes were open to seeing the many ways He was blessing us through the love and care of others in the Church.
2. Avoid telling yourself that you’re a better Christian because you give more.
Mark 12:42–44 tells the well-known story of the old woman who gave two small coins as her offering. Jesus praised her for giving more than any of the wealthy who had given out of their abundance. Jesus viewed this widow’s offering as great not because she gave out of a sense of her own righteousness, superiority, or status but because she gave as an acknowledgment of her complete dependence on God. She placed all she had to live on in God’s hands, trusting that He would always meet her needs.
3. Avoid tithing as a reaction to what is happening in your church or as a way of expressing your views.
Any pastor or church elder can tell you that people vote with their giving—even in the Church. When things in a congregation are not going the way that you want, there is a temptation to “refuse to support” the ministry by withholding your tithe. Others choose to tithe by supporting their favorite charities or earmarking their giving for ministries they feel strongly about. Treating our giving in this way does not help us practice dependence on God. It places our dependence on our own judgment and discernment.
When we tithe, we are not just trusting God with our money, we are trusting Him with our Church and future. We are investing in something we cannot see and believing that God will make the return on that investment. I recommend tithing a baseline amount or percentage of your income to the congregation where you regularly worship. Do not view this money as yours to give or not give as you see fit but as a spiritual practice reminding you that none of your money is yours to begin with, but all that you have comes from God. You may also choose to support other charities or causes the Lord places on your heart, but consider that as over and above your “tithe.”
It’s All About Dependence
I could end this post with a practical plea. I could point out that the younger generations (my own included) give much less to their churches than the older generations. I could suggest that if we do not teach our children this spiritual discipline, the future of the Church is in trouble. But I am not going to do that.
Jesus clearly says that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church (see Matthew 16:18). The Church will never be existentially threatened because even if you and I never give another cent to our local congregations, Jesus will preserve His Church. He has promised to do so!
Preserving the Church is not the reason why we teach our children to tithe. We teach them to tithe because they need to know that God is the source of all they have, and they can trust God to provide for them in times of need and in times of plenty. The world will tell your children to trust in wealth, success, and power for their happiness. Giving a portion of our wealth to God reminds us that we do not live by the world’s value system. We can best teach this by modeling (giving out of our own riches or poverty), talking to our children about why we give, and demonstrating a lifestyle that worships God, not money.
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
Quotations from the Large Catechism are from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, second edition, copyright © 2006 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Parents need to hear God’s words for them as they partner with the Holy Spirit to pass on the faith.