Should Christians Tithe While Paying Off Debt?

by Joe Plemon on October 9, 2009

tithe barn yarn sham
Creative Commons License photo credit: processwhite

Darren and Cynthia (fictional names) had $80,000 in credit card debt, two old paid for vehicles and a house with zero equity that they were trying to sell. Because Darren’s job required him to work sporadic hours, it was difficult for him to find extra work. Cynthia worked a sales job that brought in irregular income. They secured my services to help them with their finances.

These two believed strongly that they should continue to tithe while working on their debt. They also believed vehemently that they should always make all of their payments. The problem was that they did not have enough income to make minimum payments to all creditors, so they would pay all of their creditors and bills with their income then charge their groceries and gasoline to credit cards, thus increasing their debt every month.

I recommended that, instead of continuing to dig a deeper hole each month, they prioritize their finances, meaning they would always make house payments, utility payments, and grocery purchases. They would then make minimum payments to creditors as they were able. Depending on cash flow, some would occasionally go unpaid. We wrote letters and tried to work with creditors who were not getting paid. Some were receptive but others were not. Eventually, when threatened with a law suit, Darren and Cynthia filed bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy, for these Christians, was a traumatic event.  Could it have been avoided it Darren and Cynthia had cut back on their tithes? Maybe. Early on, I very tentatively suggested that cutting back on the tithe could be something to consider, but, for them, this was a non-negotiable.

I have since struggled with the issue of tithing while paying off debt, and still have more questions than answers. Following are some of my thoughts.

I do believe that Christians should tithe

Tithing, or giving a tenth of your income to the Lord’s work, has been a basic tenet of Christianity for centuries. The practice, though not emphasized in the New Testament, was clearly taught in the Old Testament. I realize that we are under grace and not law, but it seems to me that Christians, who have been given so much, should give much. I don’t look at the tithe legalistically, but I think it should be a goal of all Christians to give at least 10%.

I also believe that Christians should pay their debts

Scriptures and common sense tell us that when we borrow money we should repay it.

What if these value systems collide?

If Christians can continue to tithe and still pay their debts, I think they should. However, when there isn’t enough money to do both, the issue becomes dicey. Pleasing God in one area (tithing) may necessitate not pleasing him in another area (paying our debts). In effect, doing so means giving God money we robbed from someone else (by not paying them what we owe them). So how does one handle this dilemma? Here are some thoughts:

  • Examine your budget for fluff. I once had a client who did not have enough cash flow to tithe and also make minimum debt payments. Although he was paying $1300 a month on two car payments, he chose to cut back on his giving rather than divest himself of one or both cars. The point is that some people CAN continue to tithe while paying debt if they are willing to sacrifice (extra job, no eating out, no vacation, etc.)
  • What if there is no fluff? Tough decisions need to be made based on the answer to this question: “In the financial situation I am currently in, how can I best please God?” Of course the answer is dependent on one’s particular theology and life commandments, but I think that the best way to honor God is to do our best at paying our debts while also giving to his kingdom. Realistically, the tithe might need to be temporarily cut back in order to do so. Yes, doing to may create huge guilt, but I question if this person was giving with right motives in the first place…see 2 Co 9:7 “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
  • Consider giving more of your time. For some, giving more of their time may be a way to tithe while paying off debt. Volunteer to serve in your local church or other charitable organization.
  • If the decision has been made to temporarily decrease your giving, formulate a plan to gradually increase it again. As the debt goes away, have a plan to systematically give more. Each increment may be very small (1% of your income at a time), but each increase should also be a celebration…God does indeed love a cheerful giver.

In summary, I think that Christians should willingly and cheerfully give 10% or more of their income to advance the Kingdom of heaven. I also think they should do their best to pay the debts they owe. If these two values clash, I think the Christian should seek the Lord and ask himself how he can best honor God. There may be times, after thoroughly scrutinizing the budget, when temporarily cutting back on tithing is a solution.

email

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

JoeTaxpayer October 9, 2009 at 11:09 am

A number of posts have started implying that any credit card use isn’t just irresponsible, but immoral. That credit card use is like making a deal with the devil. Whether I believe that or not, I think there is a greater good attainable once that debt is gone. Consider, if you make $40K, but are paying $2000/yr in interest, that’s quite a burden. Tithe as well, and you are taking 15% off the top without even funding retirement.
I suggest going at that debt with a vengeance, go with your idea of donating time, and then once the debt is gone, you will be able to donate money again.
I’d like to see more focus on the time idea. For most, money is tight, and there are few ways to raise more cash on 4 hours per week. But the time can be more valuable than money. Time you donate to a cause translates into money they don’t have to spend. A house of worship needs painting? Congregants can do it in a couple days, and save the cost of a professional hire. Every community has more opportunities to volunteer than people ever willing to do it.

Reply

ChristianPF October 9, 2009 at 11:18 am

Joe, I know discussions like this get a variety of responses, but I will say this. I was at a point where I didn’t have enough to pay the bills and tithe and I continued to tithe while trusting God to provide and I saw some pretty amazing and unexpected sources of provision show up (I wrote about it here). So I can’t speak for everyone, but it worked for us.

Reply

Jesse October 9, 2009 at 11:23 am

In the old days, tithes weren’t strictly money and people gave food, time and service. I think tithing is a must and I have tithed my entire life. I wouldn’t even consider not doing it when paying off debt but that may just be because it’s so ingrained in me, I pay it without even thinking about it but I think some in this situation could be more creative with their tithes.

If you have a certain skill, and a little free time, give service as a tithe. If you have excess food, give that to someone in need. It may be hard to figure out what 10% of your life/time/food is but the man upstairs will understand.

Reply

Joe Plemon October 9, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Bob,

I read your post about tithing before I wrote this one. As always, you gave me food for thought. I appreciate the way you say that tithing worked for you without saying that everyone should do what you did.

Reply

Joe Plemon October 9, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Joe Taxpayer and Jesse,

I must confess that I never really considered the idea of tithing one’s time until I started doing research for this post. Doing so does seem to make sense for some people, depending on their debt loads. I wonder if Darren and Cynthia could have avoided bankruptcy by trying that tact.

Reply

Joe Plemon October 9, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Jon,

Thanks for suggesting the Pro Rata plan. This is another option that I didn’t discuss. As you said, the credit card companies will very seldom sue if you are paying them something. Of course when you don’t pay miniumum payments to any of your creditors, they will all bump the interest rates and none will be happy. But the pro rata is a fair way of knowing you are doing what you are able to do and paying each what you are able to pay.

Sending the pro rata form and budget each month is also a great idea. Communication is key.

Thanks for reading!

Reply

Nancy Bomber July 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Thank you very much for commentary on paying back huge debt and whether to tithe……..very compassionate and practical guidance.

Thank you,

Nancy

Reply

joeplemon July 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Nancy,
Glad it helped. As you can tell from reading the other comments, not everyone agrees on whether to tithe while paying back huge debt, but God knows our hearts and our motives. The key is to honor him in every way we can.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: