Sondra Wheeler: Tithing and church membership

A rule requiring tithing for church membership may prove divisive in the community

In the ancient church a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur seeks advice from elders in these letters. The letter to which Sondra Wheeler replies is here .

Dear Tom Arthur,

Your question has three intertwined aspects. It may help to sort them out.

First, membership. Christian congregations strive to be inviting communities without giving up their aim to form disciples of Jesus Christ. Everyone must be made welcome to attend and invited to join. However, what one is invited to join is a community that exists to love and serve God. Loving God is inseparable from loving neighbor, and the Bible is clear that love has to be lived out, not merely felt or talked about. The giving that sustains the church is not simply an option, but part and parcel of what it means to join. Therefore United Methodist membership vows include a promise to support the congregation by “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.”

The unhappy fact is that many who take these vows do not take them seriously. Nevertheless, the idea that membership entails obligations is not novel or idiosyncratic. Nor is it unusual for certain offices or functions (like voting) to be reserved to actual members of a congregation. What is distinctive in your church is the creation of two kinds of membership.

You note that “two kinds of membership are seen as two tiers of membership.” I have to say that this perception is accurate: greater privileges and greater duties belong to “navigating” members than to “participating” members, while none of the rights and duties of participating members pertain only to them. You mean to make a distinction based on levels of commitment. The question is whether this distinction is appropriate. This depends on whether it builds up the church or breaks it down. My own intuition is that it can hardly help being divisive. It might better be replaced by a single standard for membership (of whatever character).

Second, church discipline. It is appropriate to have shared expectations for the conduct entailed by membership. One factor contributing to church decline in the present time is our unwillingness to face the delicate task of holding one another accountable for living according to the standards we profess. Our unease is understandable, for the risks of legalism and pride are genuine. But the alternative is to forfeit the identity of the church and the integrity of the gospel. Because the stakes are so high, it is vitally important that the standards we establish are clear, well-founded, and embraced by the community as a whole.

Third, tithing. I have every sympathy for making giving a matter of church discipline. I have argued that the central infidelity of the American church is our thorough accommodation to a culture of accumulation. However, any concrete standard must not be arbitrary. It must be offered as something that the community as a whole can embrace. You suggest that the practice of church leadership being tied to tithing is “squarely in the spirit of the Wesleyan tradition.” I have a bit of reservation about that. John Wesley did not offer a quantitative rule for giving. Yet Wesley’s standards for what Christians were obliged to give away -- everything beyond the most basic subsistence -- put me and everyone I know utterly to shame (tithing alone would not meet them). But Wesley’s communities included the poor, and many of them lived below subsistence and were expected to give nothing. Instead of a rule, what he gave his communities was a whole account of money vastly more rigorous than anything seen in our churches today.

Perhaps because I am a teacher, my practical suggestion is that your congregation undertake a sustained study of the biblical and Wesleyan tradition about the perils and responsibilities of possessions. Read together the words of the prophets, who say that exile is coming because the needy are sold for a pair of shoes, and Jesus’ warning about how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom. Read Wesley’s multiple sermons about the power of wealth, and the seriousness of “daring to rob God” of the sustenance owed to the poor. Pray together and begin to tell one another the truth about the hold that money has on our lives. Let this be part of the work of the small groups for spiritual growth that are already part of your church’s life. And then come together to discern what standard of giving should be adopted for members -- the first step toward faithfulness in this arena that qualifies one as being on the path of a disciple.

Sondra Wheeler

Sondra Wheeler teaches Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.