A tithe is one-tenth of something paid as a voluntary contribution or as a levy or tax-like payment, usually to support a religious organization. Today tithes or tithing is normally voluntary and tithes are paid in cash, checks, or stocks, whereas historically tithes were required to be paid in kind, such as agricultural products. Several European countries operate a formal process linked to the tax system allowing for churches to assess tithes.
Traditional Jewish law and practice has included various forms of tithing since ancient times. In modern Israel, Jews continue to follow the laws of agricultural tithing. In Christianity, some interpretations of Biblical teachings conclude that although tithing was practiced extensively in the Old Testament, it was never practiced or taught within the first-century Church. Instead the New Testament scriptures are seen as teaching the concept of “freewill offerings” as a means of supporting the church. Many Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) support their churches and pastors with monetary contributions of one sort or another. Frequently these monetary contributions ate called tithes whether or not they actually represent ten percent of anything.
During the Middle Ages, farmers had to offer a tenth of their harvest, while craftsmen had to offer a tenth of their production. In Europe, special barns were built in villages in order to store the tithes. The priest or the collector collected the tithe. After the Reformation, the tithe was increasingly taken over from the church by the state. In countries such as Germany and Switzerland, church tithes remained until the nineteenth century when the tithe was abolished.
In the United States, the federal government has never collected a church tax or mandatory tithe on its citizens. Today, such a tax is prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The United States and its governmental subdivisions exempt most churches from payment of income tax. Actual collection procedures vary from church to church, from the common, strictly voluntary practice of “passing the plate” in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, to formal, church-mediated tithing in some conservative Protestant churches to membership fees as practiced in many Jewish congregations.
There is an ongoing debate within many churches and congregations as to how much is appropriate for one to give to support the church. The “means test” appears to be the most sensible as it relates to how much one can give in any given time period as the financial situation for many folks can change. People get sick; lose their jobs; lose a spouse; have any number of financial setbacks that can create problems for an individual or a family. However, people do get promotions, inherit money, etc. It is hard to be the judge and jury regarding the finances of Americans today. People are asked to buy a home, buy cars, save for a rainy day, put their kids through college, and save for retirement. The church does have to come in to the equation at some point but I think each individual has to access if he or she is making a conscious effort to give appropriately back to the church out of the resources that they have been given.