Tithing To Ourselves

Before I started writing this blog, I would periodically experience a “brain spasm,” brought on by something I had read or heard. Or it might have been an idea that just entered my thought processes without my conscious awareness of its origin. Often, on those occasions, I would lament the fact that I still had not started my blog. After all, reducing a “brain spasm” to writing and expanding on its implications is one major reason for having a blog in the first place.

So, I started this blog about two months ago, and almost immediately the spontaneous bursts of creativity ceased. That has been OK, though, since I had warehoused some of my earlier ideas, and I was able to dust them off and expose them to public scrutiny via my blog.

Today I experienced another of my spontaneous “brain spasms,” brought on this time by an Op-Ed column published in Monday’s edition of the Columbus Dispatch. This time, I immediately reminded myself, I do have a blog, and so I dashed (that, of course, is a relative term for a 62-year old, overweight boomer) upstairs, sat down at my computer, and what you are reading is the product of that burst of creative thinking. I had planned to devote this post to a follow-up to my last entry on radical discipleship. Look for that next time.

I am not a political activist, but I do try to be a good citizen. I don’t litter, I do vote, and I pay my taxes. (I even paid income tax back when I was fortunate enough to have an income.) Although I have been unemployed for more than three years, I have never drawn a dime of unemployment insurance or any other type of tax-funded public welfare, and we have never purchased Food Stamps, although I believe we were eligible. We have also received no assistance from any church or religious organization. Our situation has been ameliorated, however, through the generosity of a dear friend (not a wealthy man) who has taken substantial tax-benefit losses on the cash gifts he has provided that have helped make it possible for us to pay our bills.

We live frugally, on a mainly pay-as-you-go basis, and we have been able to weather the current downturn in our financial circumstances because we don’t spend a lot of money, we had some savings to draw upon, and God has been faithful to us. I have often likened our situation to that of the Widow of Zarephath, whose story is told in 1 Kings 17. It was a time of drought in the land, and when the prophet Elijah asked the woman for something to eat, she was willing to feed him although she knew it would exhaust her meager supply of flour and oil. For her faithfulness, God cared for her so that “the jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty” for the duration of the drought. That is our testimony too.

Not everyone is as fortunate as we have been. For many, during the current economic hard times or perhaps over an even longer period of time, tax-funded government assistance programs such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), etc., have been their only means of survival.

Now, I know all the arguments against tax-funded welfare programs, and I have heard the stories about people who abuse, misuse, and defraud the system. I have no doubt that some, perhaps many, who draw money from these programs could find jobs if they tried hard enough. I am not joining that argument, on either side, in this post. My gripe today is with the church.

Back to the Op-Ed piece I read this morning. I read virtually every Op-Ed column that is printed in the Dispatch, from the fairly balanced (on both sides of the political spectrum) to the lunatic fringe (again, on both sides). The author of the column to which I refer here is one of the most liberal columnists published in the Dispatch, but I mention that only in the interest of full disclosure, since it is of little consequence so far as my point is concerned.

The writer devoted Monday’s entire column to re-printing a blogpost by a 23-year old, married mother of a 15-month-old son. The young blogger is the daughter of a meth-addicted, uneducated, single mother of six children. Her blogpost, which the liberal columnist re-printed, is titled “Dear American Taxpayers,” and here is what she writes in the first paragraph.

Since 1987, you (American taxpayers) have supported me as you paid your taxes. You are the sole reason I am alive today. I am writing to thank you for doing it.

In the remainder of the post, she describes, succinctly and articulately, how tax-funded government assistance programs, like Medicaid, WIC, etc., provided her with food, health care, and education so that she became a healthy, educated adult who is now committed to contributing to the system which made it possible for her to survive and thrive. You can read her entire post here.

Once again, my purpose is not to argue the pros and cons of public welfare.  It is to ask the question, “What is the church doing to address this kind of need?” If our society is ever to wean itself off the public welfare teat, which contributes to our annual federal deficit and our growing national debt, then churches and other privately funded agencies will need to do far more than they are doing to meet these needs.

Christians need to be honest. We cannot decry the out-of-control government spending on welfare programs, which encourage waste and fraud, without recognizing the responsibility we have to help those in genuine need. And our contribution cannot be limited to food pantries and holiday gift baskets.

Whenever a church member says to me that government should not be involved in social welfare, and that care and assistance for those “less fortunate” should come from churches and other private enterprises, I want to ask, “How much of your annual budget is devoted to this kind of ministry? For that matter, how much of your annual budget is devoted to any kind of ministry, spiritual or social, outside of your own walls?”

When I see church budgets with 80% or more of their expenditures directed to mortgages, building maintenance, and liberal staff salaries, I wonder how it will ever be possible to reduce the government’s role in social welfare. And if we persist in “tithing only to ourselves,” how will the work of the Kingdom outside of our four walls ever get done?