While I respect Phil, Justin, and Greg’s analysis (now… you know that whenever a sentence is started this way there’s a colossal “but” coming), but at the risk of being the “Scrooge of Evangelicalism,” I have to take a different view of the phenomena.
I’m part of a small band of brethren (call us the “Tipperatti”) who have been laboring quietly, but steadily, for a more just society… especially when it comes to tipping. Our society—no longer secret (the dark robes and hoods don’t play well in the Caribbean sun)—is dedicated to a four-plank platform where tipping is concerned.
#1 – Employers should pay their employees a fair, livable wage. If a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. But in the case of wait staff who work and work hard, they still may not eat. That’s injustice number one. Injustice number two is a system of employment that shifts the responsibility for fair pay away from the employer to the customer. I realize that’s done in pricing for almost any good. But restaurants are the only places that have avoided already-inadequate minimum wage laws in most states and passed the responsibility directly to customers in the form of “tipping.”
As a Christian, it seems to me that the biblical principle at stake is not generosity (though we should all examine our hearts on this one) but employers paying fair pay. “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Lev. 19:13). Our Lord says, “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7; see also 1 Tim. 5:18). I know that many of our friends who encourage generous tipping are worried about our witness to the wait staff. But we also have a witness to the employer, do we not? Consider James’ rebuke of employers who horde:
Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter (James 5:3-5).
Don’t we have a witness to uphold with the employer as well? And might our witness for Christ be seen more effectively and lastingly if we were working to improve wages in this case? As a Christian, I think the conversation is lopsided. We need to be talking about wages AND tipping, not just tipping as an alleviation of poor working conditions that others are more immediately responsible for.
#2 – Resist inappropriate social stigmas of every kind. The current system of tipping is built, in part, on an ethic of shame and guilt. People who do not tip “generously” are in danger of the wagging finger, disapproving look, and apparently of religious profiling and scuttle-butt in the Applebee’s kitchen. It’s interesting to me that we think the name of Christ is brought into disrepute because of tipping. Isn’t the Christian the counter-cultural agent in society? Isn’t the Christian the bearer of news even when they don’t have tip money? Perhaps this is another place where we should be questioning the association of Christ and money. We do it when it comes to the so-called “prosperity gospel;” perhaps we should question this association here as well. After all, poor Christians also should be able to eat out... without the association of Christ and money and the stigma of “poor tipper.”
If I have to counsel one more college student, in debt up to their teeth, but who feels the social stigma to eat out (with money they don’t have) and to tip generously (for fear of being thought of as “stingy”), I just may scream.
This stigma is strong. And it even feeds a certain entitlement mentality. My wife and I went to a very nice restaurant in Atlanta once. Once. The tab was about $140. We left a tip as I recall… probably in the ten percent range (this was 10-12 years ago). The waitress apparently complained to the restaurant manager, who actually left the restaurant to find us outside and ask why we didn’t leave a bigger tip! My response: “We were here an hour and left $140 for a fondue meal… between the price of the meal and the labor costs you saved by having us cook our own cheese and chicken… surely you can pay her more than minimum wage.” I wasn’t a Christian then… but I’d probably say the same thing in the face of such cheekiness. The other couple we were with returned to the restaurant and left an outrageous tip. The stigma claimed another victim.
#3 – Advance true biblical witnessing. Whatever happened to "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you”? My greater concern would be for those Christians who spend hours in a restaurant, interacting repeatedly with the wait staff, and who never leave what they do have to leave – news about the Savior. Not that I think a person needs to share the gospel every time they’re out for a meal (though, why not?)… but I’m convinced the overwhelming majority of Christians probably have never shared the gospel or struck up spiritual conversations with the wait staff at a restaurant, even ones they visit regularly.
You see how the social stigma works against actually proclaiming the good news? It occupies us with percentages of the bill instead of with the plight of the souls we should be speaking with. I like Greg Koukl’s points about learning the waiter’s name and making it a point to say “thank you.” Those seem like real starters at a conversation about real issues—heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, Jesus Christ and the wait staff. If we’re going to be out among the lost, well let’s get to Jesus. Let’s have them occupied with either receiving, considering, or rejecting the Savior rather than receiving, considering or rejecting our sitting in their section because of perceived tip inadequacies. Wouldn’t it be better if the kitchen conversation was: “Oh man… here come more praying Christians. They’re kind… but I’m going to hear about Jesus and my need for the umpteenth time. I know the gospel already and I’m tired of having to face it.” If that’s the lament, then perhaps we’re being ambassadors and our being out in public has some social and spiritual value.
#4 – Priorities in Giving. I reckon most all of us would agree that a Christian’s giving should primarily focus on the expansion of the gospel and the kingdom. So, the bulk of our giving should go to our local churches in support of gospel labors the Lord gives us there and perhaps to missionaries and parachurch groups doing good work in other areas. After that, what should be our priorities? Family needs to be sure. Okay… what about after that?
Honestly, with my “spare dollar,” there may still be more worthy goals than tipping. This isn’t an argument for never tipping, or not tipping generously when you do. It’s an argument for a wider view of social giving than perhaps most people consider. When’s the last time you tipped your child’s public school teacher who makes about what the waitress makes in most places and yet has the task of intellectually and socially shaping your child for several hours a day? When was the last time you offered to purchase classroom supplies for your child’s teacher, especially considering that most teachers will pay some significant outlay in supplies that the school is too strapped to pick up? How about the garbage man or the mail man? Tipped them recently… other than at Christmas or Thanksgiving? I’m afraid that many people leave multiplied amounts of cash on restaurant tables out of social pressure and leave other worthwhile servants unthanked and unrewarded. We should correct this where we’ve erred and where we can.
So… I’m continuing my crusade… maybe in Philadelphia somewhere around Tenth Pres! Stickney, if you’re reading this, I’m still holding the fort!