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Archive for Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Which should come first, religious giving or debt?

November 21, 2006

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It took me a while before I had faith enough to tithe. Tithing means giving a tenth of your income. For many who believe in tithing, it means giving that 10 percent first - before any bills are paid.

Tithing is a practice based on scripture followed by many Christian groups, and the money is used to support the local church. The practice of charitable giving varies among religious denominations. So too does the monetary amount or percentage of income members are encouraged to donate.

Many people who believe in the biblical requirement to tithe struggle with this question: Should I give even if I'm deeply in debt?

In a New York case, a bankruptcy judge ruled that some debtors can't tithe or donate money to charity if they want federal bankruptcy protection. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Littlefield Jr. ruled in August that because of the recent overhaul of the bankruptcy code, the $100 a week a New York couple wanted to give to their local church had to be used to pay their creditors.

Under the new bankruptcy rules, which went into effect a year ago, debtors who file for bankruptcy first must undergo a means test. Those whose annual incomes are at or below a certain amount based on their state's median income are permitted to file for Chapter 7, which for the most part wipes out nonsecured debt.

However, if an individual or couple makes too much money based on the means test, they must file under Chapter 13, which requires debtors to repay their debts over a three- to five-year period. In a Chapter 13 filing, only certain "reasonable" expenses are allowed. What's left after those expenses are determined must be used to repay creditors.

Before the new law went into effect, bankruptcy court judges were required to permit debtors to tithe a portion of their income on a regular basis.

Littlefield's decision prompted Sens. Orrin Hatch and Barack Obama to propose legislation that would allow individuals in bankruptcy to continue giving to churches and charities. The bill was approved in the Senate.

I certainly hope the House follows the Senate's lead. Even the judge in the New York case thinks the bankruptcy reform law is flawed. Littlefield wrote in his decision: "The court does not agree with this awkward, bifurcated congressional framework which makes charitable giving easier for some debtors and not others. Whether tithing is or is not reasonable for a debtor in bankruptcy is for Washington to decide."

Is tithing or charitable giving reasonable if you are in debt? For many it is. It's not a matter of choice. It's a matter of faith.

But there's another biblical principle that these same religious folks should heed.

Psalm 37:21 says, "The wicked borrows and does not repay." Just as you are called to render your tithes or charitable contributions, so too should you make every reasonable attempt to honor your debts.

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