Douglas LeBlanc: The RealClearReligion Interview

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A survey of the National Association of Evangelicals' board of directors made headlines recently because of what it revealed. Shockingly, only 42 percent of those prominent Protestant leaders believe the Bible requires tithing. Douglas LeBlanc has a message for those leaders and for churchgoers: God really does want that 10 percent. LeBlanc is author of the book Tithing: Test Me in This. He is also a former staffer for Christianity Today and Get Religion (full disclosure: our tenures there overlapped), and current editor-at-large of Living Church magazine. LeBlanc spoke with RealClearReligion in March about tithing, Mormons, the Gospel of Inclusion, and why he is still an Episcopalian.

RealClearReligion: The subtitle of your book is "Test Me in This." Who is "Me"?

Douglas LeBlanc: The Me is God Almighty and it comes from Malachi 3:10 in the Old Testament. God is addressing the Israelites and the verse says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."

I wanted Test Me in This to be the main title of the book. My editors weren't keen on that idea but they graciously allowed me to use it as the subtitle of the book. I was ready to just settle for it as a chapter title if necessary. But I wanted that phrase somewhere in the book because more than one person along the way cited that verse. And when it came up, I felt as though God was saying, within my soul, "Son, if there's only one idea that you get across in this book, that is it. Pay attention."

I'm not exactly sure, to this day, why that's the case. It was almost a mystical experience, in those terms. I simply sensed that it was important to God, to the extent that I hear God accurately, to get that idea across. I think it's partially because at least the first person I spoke to about this, Stacy Kramer - she's the wife of an Anglican priest and they were living in New Oreans at the time - pointed out that it's the only point in Scripture in which God says, to anybody, "test Me in this" rather than "do not test Me in this." That alone has to command our attention.

RCR: Do you tithe?

LeBlanc: Absolutely. I would be a loathsome hypocrite if I didn't. I know you've written In Defense of Hypocrisy but, to put it another way, I could not have written the book with a clear conscience if I didn't tithe. I was tithing long before I was asked by [series editor] Phyllis Tickle to write the book. Phyllis and I, to my knowledge, had never talked about tithing, so I am humbled that she decided that I was a person who was up to the task of writing the book. I think she wouldn't have even asked, knowing Phyllis, if she had any reason to doubt that I believed in tithing and did it.

RCR: Exactly what is a tithe?

LeBlanc: Ten percent of your income.

RCR: Net or gross?

LeBlanc: I would say gross. This is not in the book but I talked to an older Mormon couple along the way, partly because I was fascinated with the history of the discipline of tithing within Mormonism. I think it was a far more legalistic approach early on but basically you're still expected to have a meeting with your bishop once a year, if you're a Mormon, and to answer the straightforward question of "Are you tithing?"

This older Mormon couple: the husband said sometimes people ask him "Should I tithe on the gross or the net?" His answer to them is, "Do you want gross blessings or net blessings?" I would adapt that to say, "Do you want to be drawn into the heart of God in a larger way or a smaller way?" On the other hand, I would say, even if you tithe on your net, you are way ahead of other Christians.

RCR: How much do Americans typically give to church or synagogue?

LeBlanc: About 3 percent, as Christians go at least. I haven't seen studies that get into questions about Jewish giving patterns or other giving patterns beyond the church. That's partially because I relied primarily on the work of a couple that I interviewed in the book, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, who have studied church giving patterns for the better part of their adult life and have written a series of studies on this. And you can just see their hearts breaking over the years that giving patterns just aren't changing in any considerable way. At the 30,000 foot level, at least.

RCR: How do American giving patterns stack up against the rest of the world?

LeBlanc: That's a perfectly interesting question. I would love to compare it to impoverished around the wold but I'm not aware of anyone who is studying giving patterns among impoverished people. I would be surprised if they are not more generous in their giving, if you could ever establish that.

I remember one time I traveled to the Dominican Republic, as part of my travels with Compassion International in the early 1990s. We were visiting the mother of a sponsored child -- that was how I wrote mostly about sponsored children, by interviewing their parents. And she had to borrow coffee cups from her neighbor to serve us coffee that she made. It was some of the best coffee I've ever tasted.

I was so humbled by her attitude that I almost wanted to say, "You know, I'm not worthy to drink your coffee," but I knew I would have insulted her. That for me is an icon of the generosity of the poor.

RCR: What effect has tithing had upon Catholic schools in Wichita, Kansas?

LeBlanc: It's been so powerful that if you're a member of a Catholic Church in Wichita you can send your children to a secondary school without having to pay for the tuition yourself.

RCR: How have they managed to get tithing up to that level?

LeBlanc: Mostly just by following the example of this wonderful monsignor that I interview. It's the final chapter in the book. It's not really a chapter, it's just a brief epilogue. And his name is Thomas McGread. That section was briefer because he was such a man of few words. He helped people to enter into a spirit of tithing by helping than see that it's a broader picture than simply what you're doing with your money. It's also a matter of spending time with God.

In the case of his parish -- he was the pastor of Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in downtown Wichita -- he encouraged people to spend time in adoration of the blessed sacrament and so seeing the fuller picture of time, talent, and treasures. It's become something of a cliché and sometimes it's tempting to use talent and time to evade any demands on our treasures.

But I guess that's really true of any of the three elements. You know, you can take refuge in one of them and say, "I gave at the office and that's all I'm giving." So it's very refreshing to encounter a priest who has more of a full-orbed approach to stewardship and to a life of giving. And somehow, that caught on enough in the diocese that schools can make that offer. The monsignor is living in a community for retired people that was built by the diocese because it was flush with income at the time based on response to his teachings.

RCR: For the most part in the book, you opt for show over tell. You show the practical effects of tithing through the stories of various religious leaders. What do you think are the best arguments for tithing?

LeBlanc: Well, that tithing appears in the pages of scripture, primarily in the pages of Old Testament as a concept for the Israelites but I think it carries on into the New Testament into the higher demands of Jesus. I'm perpetually amused by folk who argue that because Jesus wants it all...

RCR: ... That they're not obliged to give anything?

LeBlanc: Yeah. If people say "I'm not going to tithe because it's legalistic and Jesus wants all of it," I would then want to say, "Well let's compare checkbooks." If you're giving 20 or 30 percent of your income, great. You're further along than I am toward giving everything. But if you're below 10 percent, this is just gorilla dust. Get serious. Don't play those kinds of games with piety, please.

Now I would hasten to add, as a Protestant of sorts, that it is not a matter of earning your salvation. I wouldn't believe that for a moment. I think if it were, the vast majority of us would be damned. Because even if you're tithing, you can still live a very self-indulgent life.

But tithing is the beginning of breaking out of that self-indulgent life, primarily because it says to you that your money is not your own. And it's a small sacramental way of saying that your money in your life is coming to you through the grace of God, through the gifts that He's given you. And God wants a a part of part of that money His wonders to perform.

RCR: How exactly does tithing work?

LeBlanc: My favorite comparison would be to prayer: God does not need our prayers to know who is standing in need of our prayers or of his help. He extends to us the privilege of praying as a way of participating in the work that He's doing. And to see it come to pass and to feel in some way that we've had a hand in bringing God's presence into that person's life, it's a mystery about how that all happens and I'm not sure that I'll even fully understand it in the afterlife.

In the same way God, as the creator of the entire universe, doesn't need any of our money to help meet people's needs or to help the poor. But we need it, spiritually, to participate in that activity and to become part of what God is doing. By his grace, he allows us to do that, with money, if we're willing to do it. And if not, He's not going to force us.

RCR: This is one book in Thomas Nelson's Ancient Practices series. The books look at ancient spiritual disciplines. What are some of the other practices?

LeBlanc: Fasting, prayer, pilgrimage, the Eucharist: those are the ones that come to mind immediately.

RCR: It's interesting to see Thomas Nelson, which is a historically Protestant outfit, putting these out.

LeBlanc: It helps to know that [president] Michael Hyatt is Eastern Orthodox, by conversion is my understanding. It also helps to know that Phyllis Tickle is the editor of this series. I'm kind of amused by the company I'm keeping in this series. I may be the rightmost person theologically on the spectrum.

RCR: Other contributors include Brian McLaren and Joan Chittister.

LeBlanc: And Nora Gallagher, a fellow Episcopalian. I'm thinking of those three folks in particular. I think I met Nora Gallagher years ago through friends and all we did was shake hands and say hi. I wouldn't expect Brian McLaren or Joan Chittister to know me from Adam. But I enjoy the humor, I suppose, that our bylines appear in the same series, somehow.

RCR: You've been very involved in the Episcopal Church as a churchgoer, activist, and journalist. Can you help give readers a clear picture of what exactly is happening in the Episcopal Church USA?

LeBlanc: In the Episcopal Church, we are seeing a consolidation of a victory by what I guess I would have to call the sexual left, especially on the discussion of same sex unions at the moment. I think you'll see it over time expanding into the question of bisexuality and transgendered folks and categores yet to even be named.

Behind that is a theology that assumes that inclusion is the heart of the gospel of Jesus. I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel.

RCR: What is the heart of the gospel?

LeBlanc: Redemption. Redemption on the cross, by Jesus. Otherwise I think the death of Jesus is a joke or a sick joke at that.

Inclusion, on the other hand says come as you are. You needn't ever change really anything about yourself, unless you're judged as insufficiently inclusive of other people. It's as though inclusion becomes the only virtue, and digression from inclusion is the only deadly sin. It's just such a truncated understanding of what the Christian life is about.

On the other hand, I mean, I do believe that folks who have embraced this, they feel as though they're obeying God and doing their best to be good Christians, etc. I just do not understand how we ended up in this very narrow gully of theology.

Further, in trying to think their way through to a theological basis for this new understanding of sexuality, Episcopalians have bought into the notion of continuing revelation, the idea that new revelation can contradict what was the old revelation or at least what was understood previously as revelation.

That puts us on common theological turf as Mormons. Our general convention will meet in Salt Lake City in 2015. Of course the gay and lesbian folks of our church expressed concerns that that might be a dangerous place for them, what with so many Mormons around. The performance artist in me would much prefer to say, well why don't we initiate a theological dialogue now with Mormons. We may find that we have much more in common with them than we're willing to admit as liberal Episcopalians.

I guess I long ago resigned myself to living as a theological minority within the Episcopal Church and even trying to find some sense of joy and vocation in that.

RCR: What about the wider Anglican world?

LeBlanc: In the broader Anglican communion, I think it now becomes a question of whether the Episcopal Church succeeds in exporting this understanding. Really, you will hear people say, "The rest of the communion will catch up to us. We are on the cutting edge of new revelation. God has told us this." People see it very much in terms comparable to the Civil Rights movement, the rejection of slavery, you name it. I'm sure some people see it somehow in relation to the Crusades, for crying out loud. Anything that we might find even remotely embarrassing as Christians today: a lack of inclusion, especially on sexual grounds, is somehow tied to that.

They're having to balance that out, though. In countries like Nigeria, where Christians are having to live side-by-side with at times radical Muslims. I can think of the archbishop of Jos Nigeria who has come close to being killed by some of his more radical neighbors. He gets around very well with some of the Muslims of Jos but of course some of the Muslims of Jos would much prefer to see him dead. And our antics, our gorilla theater of inclusion in the United States, does not make life any easier for that archbishop. Indeed, I think those things make life for him much more difficult than it has to be.

And I think we'll give account for that someday. I think people are doing these things with good motivations of not wanting to be hateful and not wanting to hurt people, etc. But when they have to encounter something like that, evidence of how it affects someone across the world, well then you see responses that are just very glib and embarrassing. "Oh well, those are Africans. They're fundamentalist and they're dumb and eventually they'll come to agree with us."

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