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Giving (up) the tithe?

Religion | Survey shows differing evangelical views on the Old Testament practice

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

Does the Bible actually require the people of God to tithe? Apparently, American evangelical leaders cannot agree upon an answer.

Each month, the National Association of Evangelicals surveys its 100-member board, which includes the heads of Christian denominations, publishers, educational institutions and mission organizations. In the February survey, 95 percent of respondents claimed that they tithed, giving at least 10 percent of their income to the church, but only 42 percent thought tithing is required biblically.

Nationwide, those self-identifying as Christians give an average of 2.43 percent of their income to their churches, according to a report from Empty Tomb, Inc. Evangelicals give at a slightly higher rate of 4 percent.

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Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, notes that the Old Testament requires several tithes for government and religious functions. As Bible expert Ben Witherington notes in Jesus and Money, the New Testament calls Christians to the higher standard of "sacrificial giving."

Yet some of the NAE responses point to a belief in situational flexibility. One non-tither explained that he gave according to his own financial circumstances as well as the needs around him. Anderson himself, although he tithes, said he believes "the New Testament teaches 'proportionate giving' that may be more or less than 10 percent based on income."

Purdue sociologist Dan Olson, who has studied the tithing patterns of American Christians, told CNN that some evangelical leaders may object to the word "required," as though tithing were necessary for salvation. Even those who believe the tithe is not required might recommend the practice as an expression of gratitude. NAE board member Alan Robinson argues that Christian generosity, while not beholden to the Old Testament legal model, should "greatly exceed" the 10 percent tithe.

Raising Lazarus

On April 10, when lectionary-based churches read the story of Lazarus in John 11, hundreds of American churches participated in a "Lazarus Sunday" event to highlight the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Of the estimated 34 million people infected worldwide, 22 million live in Africa south of the Sahara. In Zambia, where most people live on less than $2 per day, AIDS has dropped the average life expectancy to 37. When antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) first became available, they could cost as much as $10,000 annually. Only 50,000 Africans were on ARVs in 2002.

Today, 4 million Africans receive the life-saving drugs, often through religious groups, via the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), begun by George W. Bush. Pharmaceutical companies worked to lower the cost of the drugs to 40 cents per day, and the Obama administration continued the program. Within 40 days of beginning treatment patients who were walking cadavers have become healthy and hopeful adults and children. Doctors call it "the Lazarus Effect."

U2 lead singer Bono's organization ONE spearheaded Lazarus Sunday. RED, an affiliated group also devoted to the AIDS battle, commissioned a film showing the dramatic transformations in those receiving ARV medicines. The Lazarus Effect also tells the story of those, such as a 4-year-old boy named Raden, for whom the treatment came too late. More than 1,500 churches screened the short documentary on Lazarus Sunday, most during Sunday school.

While some churches declined to get involved, others encouraged congregants to write their representatives and urge them to maintain funding for PEPFAR. It's clear that at least 90 percent of the funding will be maintained: The House budget proposal had a decrease of $363 million, which would put PEPFAR at about the 2009 level, and 10 percent below this past year's budget.

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