A majority of evangelical leaders believe that the Bible does not require Christians to tithe, according to a survey released by the National Association of Evangelicals on Wednesday.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents (members of the NAE board of directors) said they do not think giving 10 percent of one's income to the church is mandated by the Bible, while 42 percent do.
Likely the wording of the survey explains why most of the respondents said offering tithe, a strong tradition among evangelical churches, is not a duty of believers.
Dr. John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., said he was not surprised by the survey finding after he looked at the wording of the question. He said the word "required" is the operative term.
"People who might have felt very strongly about tithing still would have said, 'Well no, but I'm not sure I would call it required,'" Walton explained to The Christian Post. "Back to the old [argument], are we under law or under grace."
Many of the NAE leaders noted in their response that although tithing is an Old Testament legal model, New Testament Christians should give out of generosity. The overwhelming majority, 95 percent, of respondents said they give at least 10 percent.
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"Anything less seems like an ungenerous response to God," wrote David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, in his response.
Dr. Kurt Fredrickson, director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said the language he is increasingly hearing among pastors is whole life stewardship.
"It is about how do we give our whole selves to God, which includes money of course, but also our time and gifts," said Frederickson, who was a pastor for 24 years. "I like David Neff's comment ... there is certainly the sense that the way we spend our money says an awful lot about who we are as a person."
The Fuller professor pointed to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, who gave away more of his income as he earned more and kept his living standard the same. He ended up giving away about 90 percent of his money and living on 10 percent.
Instead of thinking about strict obligation, Old Testament professor Walton also called on Christians to think about tithe in different terms.
"A stewardship worldview would include a sense of gratitude toward God as the source of our goods. If we are trying to express our gratitude toward God, I don't think our words are enough," said Walton.
Still, the 10 percent standard in the Old Testament can serve as a "benchmark," he added.
"My gratitude to God is unlimited so does that mean I need to give everything?" he posed. "What would be an appropriate expression of gratitude? And that is where the Old Testament information comes in. That God considered an appropriate expression to be a tithe."
He added, "Sort of like the benchmark for tips in a restaurant. It sets what the expectations are."
In contrast to nearly all the NAE leaders who said they tithed at least 10 percent, Empty Tomb, Inc., reported that evangelicals give churches only about four percent of their income. Among all Christians, the percentage is even lower – only 2.43 percent.
Douglas LeBlanc, author of Tithing: Test Me in This, commented, "What is maddening to me is if there were a more explicit command to tithe, I think there would still be folks who would say, 'We are not in bondage to the law after all.'
"American Christians in particular, I think, will never fail to find a way out of tithing if they are not interested."
NAE President Leith Anderson commented at the end of the survey that he hopes to see more "generous, proportionate, cheerful and sacrificial giving among American evangelicals" in the years to come as churches increasingly offer financial courses and teach on stewardship.
The NAE conducts a monthly Evangelical Leaders Survey among its board of directors, which include the CEOs of denominations, missions organizations, universities, publishers and churches.