On one hand, there are compelling Christian reasons to retain tithing. It’s a way of training generosity and checking self-centredness. It teaches Christians to put God first in their lives, and their own material needs second. Tithing loosens one’s attachments to worldly comfort and possessions. It reminds one that such possessions are not ‘mine’ because all good things rightfully belong to God, thus forcing one to be less selfish. Tithing can, if motivated by the right reasons, be quite admirable and morally idealistic.
There are practical reasons for regular tithing as well. Simply put, if a church wants to maintain and expand its charitable activities, it needs a regular income. The more ambitious its mission, the more money it needs. And CHC is nothing if not ambitious – annual blood donation drives, multiple programmes to help the disadvantaged and marginalised of society, and massive recruitment ambitions like wanting to expose 50,000 new friends to Christ, are just some of its goals. Blogger Yongsheng also notes that land prices are rising, making it more expensive to find space for an ever-expanding congregation.
So when does tithing cease to be good or pragmatic?
Tithing based on the prosperity gospel, for instance, is questionable. Prosperity theology is a worldview some Christian churches like CHC subscribe to. It emphasizes God’s approval of material prosperity, asserting that people should tithe because doing so will earn them material rewards from God. Pastor Kong says in one sermon that “prosperity is our rightful inheritance” and in another that “God will reward those who faithfully give their tithes and their offerings.”
While it is valid for prosperity theology to celebrate honestly acquired wealth, portraying material reward as an incentive to tithe undermines the very purpose of tithing. Tithing becomes motivated by self-interest rather than selflessness. And while the Bible doesn’t consider prosperity immoral in itself, it doesn’t promote it as the main goal in life either, much less the main goal of tithing. After all, as Randy Alcorn – an American Protestant author and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries - says, “Instead of assuming that God wants us healthy, we need to realize that he may accomplish higher purposes through our sickness than through our health” , through our poverty than through our prosperity. Every life, whether lived in poverty or wealth, can be meaningful. Hence those who tithe as a means to prosperity do so without truly understanding biblical values. The prosperity gospel has been accused by many Christians such as Alcorn of distorting biblical teachings, of worshipping money and not God.
Churchgoers therefore should be more wary of what their leaders’ priorities are. Materialistic or spiritual? Having a lot of money isn’t inherently unreligious, but the way you use your money is a sign of what your priorities are.
There is a lot of potential for money to be used inefficiently or dishonestly in organisations like churches or religious organisations. Effective fund-raising creates the problem of excess. If you can raise so much money so easily, why bother using it carefully and efficiently? The power of charisma and the ability to evoke God’s name to support whatever you do throws in another problem: if you can command unquestioning trust, are there any moral limits to how you use your funds?
Given such potential abuses, here’s what churchgoers and churches can do to keep things on track.
Firstly, churchgoers need to be more open to the idea that their religious leaders have vices as well as virtues. As CHC member Joseph put it, “The main thing to remember is that we come to serve God, not man.” We must not take it as a given that religious leaders always have good intentions, and we should express our doubts when their activities appear questionable.
Secondly, churchgoers should demand more financial accountability from their leaders. Robert Kee, founder of Operation Hope Foundation which seeks to “transform the lives of orphans and the poor in developing countries” suggests that we demand more information about exactly how our money is spent, since charities often “write about what they do but not how” they do it.
Andy, an ex-member of CHC, confirms that members often don’t expect business-like accountability from the church ― they don’t insist that if “you tell me to donate to the Building Fund, it must go to the Building Fund, or I will sue you.” Many are fine with CHC sharing its funds between the Crossover Project – which is at the centre of the controversy surrounding CHC leaders - and the Building Fund and don’t press for details on where exactly the money goes, highlighting the trust they have in their leaders. It is this trust that Kee would like to see replaced with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Thirdly, on an organisational level, churches can help keep their finances in line by appointing an independent audit committee, possibly consisting of members from other churches, or by engaging independent companies to do the audit and management checks. Such committees will ensure that there are proper invoices for every transaction, insist the projects be closed rather than open-ended with fixed annual budgets, assess any requests to change the budget, and so on.
Ultimately, in a money-driven world where financial resources affect our ability to improve our surroundings, ambitious churches understandably need lots of money to fund their projects. They naturally turn to their people because, due to the separation of church and state, they don’t get funding from the government. It is their people whom they need to survive, and it is therefore only their people who, by calling for change for within, can make them sincerely reconsider their practices.