Tuesday, March 31, 2015

William Payne: Tithe Preaching Churches in Latin America

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

During a recent sabbatical, I conducted 50 interviews with Protestants,[1] Roman Catholics, and unchurched people in Costa Rica. Each conversation included discussions about the tithe. Additionally, I preached in many Costa Rican churches in which the pastors required that the people pay the tithe in order to remain in good standing. In this blog, I will share my tentative thoughts on this practice.

First, tithing or giving ten percent of one’s gross income is a means by which many local churches provide monetary support for pastors who do not draw a salary or receive financial support from outside sources. All Christians should give generously to the collective ministry of the local church. Additionally, the scriptures allow a gospel preacher to receive substantive support for the ministry that he or she provides. Even though Jesus did not get a salary, he was supported by gifts that others gave to his ministry (cf. Lk 8:3). Matthew 10:5-12 says the laborer deserves food and shelter. On numerous occasions the Apostle Paul argued that he had a right to be paid for the ministry he provided even if he chose not to receive it (cf. I Cor 9:14, I Tim 5:18, II Cor 11:7-11 and Phil 4:15). Early Methodism also required that the circuit riders be paid. At times, this became a great burden that hindered the expansion of the MEC into new areas. Many of those early itinerants suffered great privation because they did not receive their salary. None became rich or well-off from their labors.[2]

Second, most of the churches that preach tithing connect the practice to some form of prosperity gospel. Often one will preach that the tithe is a seed that one plants in the kingdom of God. When sowed with faith, sacrifice, and obedience, giving the tithe will yield positive material, physical, and spiritual blessings in this life. Additionally, many pastors argue that the Bible requires a Christian to pay the tithe and give an offering. The tithe goes to the pastor and the offering funds the mission of the church.

Third, in other writings I have argued that the prosperity gospel preached by those who come from the margins of society has been shaped and formed by their context of poverty and oppression.[3] It is a contextualized theology that the poor discern from scripture. Many of the poor are attracted to it, eagerly participate in it, and can be manipulated by it. Because of my social location, I do not feel that I have sufficient standing to dismiss this theology or tell the poor that their theology is incorrect.

Fourth, the tithe has inspired many people to plant churches and do extraordinary evangelism. Throughout Latin America, “tithe seeking pastors” have started countless churches in places where new churches needed to be planted. Additionally, in many larger churches that have a strong cadre of leaders, one of the assistant pastors often will leave to start a new church. In an ecclesial system that does not pay people to plant churches, the tithe allows a church planting pastor with as few as ten families to survive without denominational support.

Fifth, tithe preaching has a long history in western Christianity. It is still preached in many ethnic and independent churches in the United States. Additionally, in the current Western context of material opulence and low demand Christianity, preaching may serve more of an educational, ethical, and “after death” purpose than it does when the poor preach it in the context of material and physical want. Even though the preaching of the tithe may seem oppressively legalistic to middle class majority Christians for a variety of culturally formed reasons, the mainline churches of the West should be slow to judge.

Sixth, without a doubt, the tithe has damaged the credibility of the Protestant church in Latin America. In Costa Rica some have complained that poor immigrants who lack sufficient training and pastoral skills have planted new churches simply because they want to get the tithe. Many of the unchurched people with whom I spoke told me that they were disgusted by the tithe and they thought that Protestant pastors who preached the tithe abused their flocks in order to get rich. They offered many anecdotal stories to support their prejudice about the “Gospel industry.” Roman Catholics tended to be the most critical. They emphasized that their church took an offering and did not ask for the tithe. Those who feel repulsed by the constant preaching on the tithe will not affiliate with a tithe preaching church.

Seventh, many who have been reached by the Protestant churches have gone inactive because of tithe preaching. Often, pastors tell their members that those who do not pay the full tithe are stealing from God and that one should not buy other things like cellular phones if they do not pay the full tithe. One poor woman told me that a rich pastor told her husband that he had to pay the tithe in order to avoid misfortune and the wrath of God. This caused her family to suffer emotional pain. Even though the husband paid the tithe, his wife begrudged the church. Another man told me that he wanted to get back in church but could not do it until his finances improved. One national leader told me that half of the people who claim to be born again do not attend church on a regular basis because of the tithe. As long as the church demands the tithe, it is unlikely that these people will reaffiliate.

Eighth, the tithe preaching church in Latin America needs to have an honest conversation with itself about this issue. From my perspective, the stress should switch from a legalistic emphasis on tithing to a biblical emphasis on stewardship. From the perspective of the New Testament, the church building is not the Temple, the pastor is not the Levite, and giving ten percent to support the pastor is not a commandment. To the contrary, God demands the entire person, not a mere ten percent of the person’s income. Additionally, a pastor who is more concerned with getting a person’s tithe than in ministering to the flock should not be in pastoral leadership.

I will conclude with an anecdote. For two weeks I ministered with a new church start that is led by a gifted pastor who has a full-time professional job. All the members of the ministerial team have jobs outside the church and none get paid from the offering. For that reason, all the money that is given in the offering is given back to the community or is used for internal ministry. As one would expect, this church appeals to lapsed Protestants and other types of unchurched people. I sense that this type of a church will grow with populations that will not attend a traditional tithe preaching church. Not every pastor is called to be bi-vocational. Still, more bi-vocational churches like the one I just mentioned are needed in Latin America.

[1] Throughout the Spanish speaking portions of Latin America, Protestants are referred to as evangelical or Christians. The Latino use of evangelical does not correspond to the American usage of the term.
[2] See “The Poverty of the Itinerants and Issues Associated with It” in American Methodism: Past & Future Growth (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2013), 125-130.
[3] See “Discerning an Integral Latino Pentecostal Theology of Liberation” Ashland Theological Journal (Fall 2013): 87-106.

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