How Much Should Christians Give?

Many of the great movements for justice in Christian history have been driven by clear, unequivocal moral stands.  Think of William Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade.  Think of Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle.  Slavery is wrong.  Racism is wrong. Although they were prophetic minorities in their time, they had the advantage of a forceful, unambiguous ethical position.

However, when it comes to economic discipleship in the 21st century, things are perhaps not so straightforward.  This community of bloggers believes that God is calling wealthy people (i.e. people with access to a computer) to live simply for the sake of giving justly to the poor.  We stand for lifestyles of generous giving powered by a rejection of consumerism and relentless upward mobility.

But what does this mean?  What exactly qualifies as a “simple” lifestyle?  What degree of giving could legitimately called “just?”  How much would we have to share in order to be “generous?”  When it comes to hard numbers, what precisely is God calling us to do?  In short, how much should Christians give?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately, and in my next few posts, I’d like to invite you to explore these issues with me.  I’ll be writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, carefully considering the guidance we find in the Bible, especially the teaching of Jesus.

Nevertheless, as a way of getting into this important topic, let’s take a quick glance at the larger philosophical conversation.  Over the last 40 years, there has been an earnest and sometimes heated debate among ethicists about what the rich owe the poor as a matter of justice.  (For a wide-ranging, intellectually challenging discussion that touches on many of the broader issues involved, see this exchange following one of Ed’s book reviews.)  But in order to prevent this a blog post from becoming a philosophical tome, I just want to focus on how one important thinker has answered the question “How much should we give?”

Peter Singer is widely credited with having kicked off the debate about what justice demands the rich give to the poor.  Over the last 40 years, his basic stance has not changed:  we should spend our money wherever it will do the most good, and since saving human life is of much greater value than movies or vacations or eating out, giving to the desperately poor should take precedence over such relative luxuries.  However, when it comes to quantifying this general principle, Singer’s stance has varied greatly:

  • In his seminal 1972 article Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Singer rigorously followed through on the implications of his demanding utilitarianism.  He claimed that the rich ought to give away their money and possessions to the point where they consumed almost as few resources as the poor themselves.  In other words, as long as half the world subsists on less than $2 a day, we should live on about $3 a day and give away the rest.
  • In a 1999 New York Times op-ed, he relaxed his position a bit, arguing that any income above what is necessary for our “essential needs” be given away.  Singer suggested anything over $30,000 per household, regardless of total income, should be given for economic development.
  • In his 2002 book One World, Singer conceded that his previous radical demands, while accurate from his perspective, may overwhelm people to the point where they give nothing.  But if he told people to give less, more may actually do it—and the aggregate total for the poor will be greater.   Various economists have calculated that if all wealthy people gave 1% of their income to economic development, extreme poverty could be ended.  So in the end, Singer suggested that we annually give 1% of our income as a minimum standard for doing our “fair share.”
  • In a 2006 article and 2009 book The Life You Can Save Singer sticks with the 1% figure for most of us but says that those who make more than about $100k should give 5% and up as income increases.

I find this quick overview of Singer illuminating because in the career of one scholar we have nearly the entire spectrum of answers to the question of how much we should give:  we should give even to the point of identifying with the poor (extremely demanding), we should only spend on necessities (very challenging), and we should at least do our fair share (pretty easy).  It shows how complex the issue really is.

I think this survey is useful for another reason too: it encourages us to decide for ourselves where we stand.  Often Christian giving to the poor is not a planned, intentional part of our lives—it is common to think about it only when major disasters make the news, a special offering is taken, or a homeless person invades our space.  Singer’s  proposals challenge us to embrace a quantifiable standard for our giving—and then act on it.  So what about you? If you had to add a bullet point to the list above summarizing your ethical standard for giving, what would it be? One of Singer’s options, or something else?

In my next post, I’ll consider tithing, the most common answer offered by church leaders to the question of how much Christians should give.

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8 thoughts on “How Much Should Christians Give?

  1. I think how much you should give is dependent on your financial situation. If you’re struggling with student loans and credit-card debt, the 1% might be a stretch goal for you. If your parents raised you to be frugal and paid for your college education, 20% might be a too-easy goal.

    It seems like there are very large jumps between “live on $3/day” vs. “live on $80/day” vs. “live on 99% of what you make”. I wonder if Singer has just gotten more mainstream or conservative as he’s gotten older? (c.f. Churchill’s quote on people under/over 30)

    I like the “living wage” philosophy, but even that must be amended for individual situations. For example, what if a parent can make $100k ($70k after taxes) but must choose between working and childcare (a $30k cost)? You can’t stay under the living wage line and pay $30k for childcare, but working can result in a net gain of $40k in giving.

    Finally, let me write another plug for giving groups like LATG (more info in the “Join Us” tab at the top of this blog): because giving thresholds are so individually unique, and also very personal and private, I’m a strong advocate of discussing them in the context of an intimate group. I would share my financial situation in such a group, but not on a public blog!

  2. To explain Singer’s change in position: notice that he publishes the watered-down positions in public venues (like the New York Times). I think his recent suggestions are strategic lies. Singer’s utilitarianism tells him that the right thing is to do is whatever will have the best consequences. And sometimes, lying to non-philosophers about their duty is what will do the most good.

    I think it became clear to Singer over the years that telling people to give radically was ineffective. People just got discouraged and wound up doing nothing.

    So now, he’s changing his strategy. For if telling people to give 1% will generate more total donations than telling people to give radically, Singer will think it’s his duty to tell people to give 1% (even if he believes your *real* duty is
    to give radically).

    Whether philosophers have a duty to lie to non-philosophers is highly contested among philosophers. You can read Singer’s own defense of duplicity in his article, ‘Secrecy in Consequentialism: A Defence Of Esoteric Morality’, available here:

    http://www.law.nyu.edu/ecm_dlv2/groups/public/@nyu_law_website__academics__colloquia__legal_political_and_social_philosophy/documents/documents/ecm_pro_062727.pdf

  3. Is a utilitarian outlook meaningful without the inclusion of moral and emotional well-being in the calculus? And is that possible to quantify vis-a-vis giving? I know your use of Singer is illustrative of the spectrum of responses to the question, but I wonder if the decision framework is flawed if it is utilitarian.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that giving should be a planned and intentional part of our life, but I’m unsure if my standard would be “quantifiable”. Perhaps a quantifiable minimum bar, with the thorough understanding that it was a floor only.

  4. As I’ve said repeatedly, my own views on this are under development. But in light of previous discussions, here’s a snapshot of where I am.

    I think at a minimum, our *duty* (whether Christian or not) is to contribute our fair share to permanently eliminate life-threatening poverty. (This comes to about 0.7% of our income, given the best estimates we’ve got.) There needs to be some adjustment to make up for the fact that not everyone is doing their fair share; I don’t know what this should look like.

    I’m also inclined to think we have all (Christian or not) have a duty to contribute our fair share to provide *equality of opportunity* for every child on the planet. This is so everyone can develop to the fullest of their capabilities, no matter where they happen to be born. I don’t know how much this might cost, because nobody has even the beginnings of a comprehensive plan to implement it. But it’s likely this would cost a lot more than 0.7% of our income.

    What about Christians? I claim you do no sin when you choose to give only your duty. But Christians serve a God who *goes beyond His duty*, who in his giving didn’t even spare his own son. I expect to find that Christians will themselves reflect this generosity in their lives, and so I expect genuine Christian to consistently go beyond their duty.

    What this looks like may be very different from one Christian to another. It really will depend on one’s gifting and calling. There are a multitude of ways a Christian might reflect God’s supererogatory nature: not all of them are financial. I bet many rich Christians are called to radical financial giving that goes far above their duty. But I hesitate to say that *all* rich Christians are so called….

  5. Thanks Ed, Prashant, and Ang for sharing where you stand at this point. Like you, I’m trying to work through exactly where I’m at, but it’s going to take me a couple more posts to put it all out there.

    But I agree with Ed that whatever standard we all end up living by, it’s very helpful to find community support to actually live up to own own moral convictions in the context of a culture that sees living below one’s means in order to give as admirable/eccentric at best and crazy/irresponsible at worst. It’s challenging enough to think through these issues but even more challenging to consistenly live up to our conclusions…

    • Gary,

      I’m also on board with the community aspect, though perhaps in a different way.

      Just as Paul seems to tie lifelong celibacy to a gift of singleness (1 Cor 7:7), I tie supererogatory giving to a spiritual gift of giving (Rom 12:8). This means that, on my view, a church community is the only context where such giving can really make sense. For all the gifts are properly exercised only to build up the church.

      Of course, if we’re having trouble doing our duty (e.g., 0.7%), I don’t deny that the church can and should help to encourage us…

      • Hey Ang,

        I must say I read with great interest your earlier conversation with Ed, and especially appreciated the entry on supererogation you referenced. So I can see how you make your case for .07% as our duty from a Kantian perspective, but I’m not sure how you could reach that conclusion from a distinctively Christian ethical stance that was shaped by the Scriptures. Any thoughts?

      • Gary,

        Great question!

        Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to work out a scriptural argument for the fair share view. Instead, I think some variant of the fair share view is right because it is the most philosophically attractive position, and because I’ve found nothing in scripture that rules it out.

        That having been said, there are a few passages which attract my interest:

        1) In Mt 19:16-24, Jesus says that to “enter life” you must keep the commandments, but to “be perfect”, you sell what you have to give to the poor. The Church Fathers interpreted this to mean that radical giving to the poor is supererogatory. I’m actually not entirely sure what to make of the passage, because Jesus connects the giving with *following him*, which seems to be part of our duty.

        2) Paul makes a similar distinction in 2 Cor 8:3, between giving “according to their means” and “beyond their means”. But there’s no explicit endorsement of supererogation here either.

        3) I mentioned before 1 Cor 8:13-15. Paul seems to be appealing to some egalitarian principle of fairness for how we contribute to those in need. But what is the nature of the equality that Paul has in mind? I don’t really know.

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