If we start trimming the amount we pay for such necessities from our titheable income, then we can very easily slip into deducting our water and electric bills, car insurance, and medical co-payments from our total. We can find ourselves treating God as if he were the IRS. Hoarding every receipt, searching out every loophole, we surrender as little as we can to the Lord through his church.

Of course, I believe in giving beyond the tithe. It really gets fun then. But I’m not sure how you have much spiritual fun at all unless you tithe the gross. Look, it’s astonishing that God would stipulate so modest an amount. Cult leaders regularly demand the automatic surrender of all earthly goods to the master or bhagwan or whomever, thus casting devotees into forced communal living. The Judeo-Christian model puts much higher value on personal property and undergirds it with the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not steal." Of course, believers are called to be earnest stewards of the 90 percent left them by the tithe, but the discretion God gives us is dizzying. And it’s amazing how a churchgoer happily will toss a 15 percent tip to the employee at Starbuck’s, but begrudge 10 percent to the One whose "service" is life itself.

As I looked out over those graduate students in Alumni Chapel, I remembered my earliest days in graduate school at Vanderbilt. Thanks to a National Defense Education Act fellowship, I had a stipend of $200 per month. My rent was $135 a month, and I could eat on about a dollar a day (when a can of soup was 17 cents). My VW bug took a little gas, and there were books to buy, though at only about $10 a pop. Things were tight, but it was such a joy to put that $20 check in my church envelope each month. I don’t remember whether the $200 was taxable or not. It wouldn’t have mattered. When you’re having fun, you don’t notice.

So I was miserable when I discovered I’d commended "net tithing." How many students had I nudged toward the gloom of sharp-penciled accountancy? The only comfort I find is in the conviction that the Lord allowed that gaffe as a prompt for this column.

Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist. Send comments to: m.coppenger@comcast.net.

© 2006 Baptist Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.