Tithing, the giving of one tenth of one's income to a religious group, has its roots in the Old Testament. But some Christians are questioning it, and the answers might surprise you. In an era when contributions to religious groups are growing more slowly than other charitable giving, and as Congress takes a closer look at the finances of some televangelists, Martha Teichner examines the controversy over tithing, and meets some inspiring people who strongly believe in the power of generosity.
Pastor Marty Baker is a believer in the idea. "When Jesus says, 'I will build the church,' he says, financially, I've got a system for you," Baker preaches, "It's called tithing."
Tithing means giving a tenth of your income - and church construction is exactly what pastor Marty Baker is pitching his congregation to pay for.
"God doesn't fund the church through bingo nights, pancake suppers and chicken dinners," Baker says. "God funds the church through people willing to commit to the tithe."
Over twenty years, tithing has helped transform Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Georgia from a few people in somebody's living room to a megachurch in the making.
"Without tithing, we would not be here," says Baker. "I would say that the tithe probably would be around 70% of our overall budget. The tithe is the heartbeat of our church."
Giving is central to most religions, a principle of faith. Americans donate $295 billion a year to charity, with just under a third of it - $97 billion - to religious organizations.
On average, Christians are giving about 2.5 percent of their income to churches, not ten, and no matter how much good it does, tithing is controversial.
"We believe that everything the churches teach about tithing is wrong," author Russell Kelly says.
Teichner reports it's a hot button issue that has reached critical mass on the Internet.
From his home near Marietta, Georgia, Russell Kelly wages war against preachers who use the Bible to justify tithing. His Web site, shouldthechurchteachtithing, argues against the supporters of tithing.
"We believe if you look at those texts they quote," he says, "they are out of context."
But that's not his only objection.
"Almost every person I contact on the Internet, they tell me the same story, where they go to their pastor - no matter what kind of church it is, Baptist, Charismatic, Methodist, you name it - and start asking questions about tithing, they are told to shut up, to be quiet, to leave the church."
It happened to his own wife, when her first husband was dying.
"I had a $5 an hour job, a small child to raise, and my husband kept getting, sicker and sicker," Janice Kelly told Teichner. "It came to the point whether I buy insulin for him or whether I pay my tithes, so I went to the preacher."
Janice Kelly didn't expect his response.
"He just ... told me I would be cursed."
"I'm angry that my church would twist and fleece the flock, twist the scripture to such a point that it's just awful," says retired aerospace worker Charles Crabtree.
Crabtree got mad when he received a letter from his pastor.
"In that letter, they were asking us to tithe and they used Malachi."
The reading was Malachi 3:10: "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse … and test me now in this, says the Lord of hosts. If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows."
"Protestants, both mainline and evangelical, have since the 1870s, fixed upon the tithe and on this Malachi passage as a kind of law that has never been repealed," explains James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University.
Yes, only since the 1870s, as a way of making up lost revenue. The First Amendment in effect privatized religion in the United States, cutting off the tax money that once supported it in colonial America. The weekly collection didn't even exist until the middle of the 19th century, when churches gave up selling or renting pews.
"I'm somewhat suspicious of people who want to turn giving ten percent into virtually the only law that applies to people who are under a covenant of grace," says Hudnut-Beumler, "where God saves freely, not for ten percent down."
He says he's reminded of Martin Luther, father of the Protestant movement, who broke away from the Catholic church because it was selling indulgences: Promises of a quicker road to heaven in exchange for cash.
"Stripped down to its basics," he says, "I don't think it's different than indulgences. What we see today, though, is a return to 'this-for-that religion,' give God this and God will give you that."
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley wants to know how God happened to give the trappings of a billionaire lifestyle to certain televangelists and whether donors, many of them tithers, are being exploited.