A Short Philosophy of Tipping

“Christians are the worst tippers.” Waitresses and waiters have told me this over many years. I have no hard social science data on this, but I believe it. That is good reason to address the philosophy of the gratuity. We consider who and how to tip thousands of times in our short lives. Perhaps we should think a bit more about how to approach it.

Gratuity is the noun correlated with the adjective gratuitous, which pertains to something not strictly necessary. A gratuitous insult is unneeded or uncalled for. Thus, a gratuity is an action or bestowal, beyond what is required. In the positive sense, a gratuity goes beyond what duty demands. It is also related to freedom. If we say, “John did that gratis,” we mean he did it without cost.

So, then, what is a gratuity considered as a tip one gives to a service person, say in a restaurant or bar or hair salon? The one serving receives a salary, but they are usually small compared to the work they perform. Our waitress will make most of her money from tips. This may not be true in other tipping circumstances, as with hair stylists. Hence, understanding the situation is pertinent to our philosophy of tipping. But how much should we tip?

Some establishments suggest a gratuity and will calculate what the tip should be given the cost of the goods or services rendered. I was raised thinking that ten percent was the least one should tip. Convention deemed it so. However, if superior service was given, the tip should go up. If inferior service was given, the tip should go down or disappear entirely.

It seems the convention for tipping is now twenty percent. Some establishments make a gratuity mandatory by adding it to every bill and, thereby, flaunting the law of noncontradiction. If we have laid out the facts of the matter, we are ready for specific advice on offering gratuities.

“It is better to give than to receive,” said Jesus Christ, the most generous man in history. The Gospel is God’s gratuity to man, the law-breaker. Being reinstated into God’s favor and gaining eternal life is a gift and nothing but a gift and is to be received as such. This glowing reality should inform and infuse all our transactions. Better to be too generous than stingy. If we have freely received from the hand of God, we should freely give. How might this orientation to God and man find expression in tipping?

We should not forget the economics. Before we go out to eat, we should consider the cost of the food, drinks, and tip. While a tip is technically a gratuity, it is expected by both the owners and the servers, and it is part of the logic of the business. If no one tipped, the business would likely die. Therefore, if you are not going to tip, then do not patronize the establishment.

Perhaps, since you want to give more to your church or to missions or to other worthy causes, you would rather not tip. If so, stay home. Of course, one should not tip at the expense of the tithe and other giving.

Just as a required gratuity is a contradiction, in a sense, so is giving a gratuity for good service, since good service deserves a tip. The laborer is worthy of his tip. However, one is not obligated to tip; so, it is still elective for the giver. In that way, it is a gift. What then is an appropriate gift?

Convention helps. For decent service, twenty percent is the norm. If the service is poor, a bit less is justified. Situations differ, however, and should be taken into account. Consider a few.

If your server has rendered excellent service, then going above the normal tip is called for. This encourages him in his work and helps him with his finances.

You may receive rather poor service, but you note that this stems from your server having a bad shift. She looks harried, tired, and may even be crying. In this case, she may deserve a small tip, but needs a lift that a good tip can bring.

You know that your server is in a financial crisis and that you can spare more than an average tip. Tipping generously is apropos in these cases. My hair stylist, Karen, told me that a woman she regularly styled once gave her a hundred dollar tip because she knew of Karen’s needs as a single mother. If you know of a student who is waiting tables and has little money, a large tip can be a gift as well. Servers suffer when business is slow, so if you note this, you might want to leave a larger tip to compensate a bit.

But, on the other hand, larger tips may be a mistake. This is not because liberality is dangerous, but because it may have ulterior motives.

Men may over-tip an attractive waitress in order to get her attention. (I suppose a woman might do this with a male waiter, but it strikes me as unlikely.) If done outside of allowable flirting—between unmarried people—it is wrong, since it is an attempt at illicit seduction.

Tipping may also be a way to impress others. If so, the motive is wrong, however much it benefits the server. Good deeds should be done because they are good, not to show oneself as good. Jesus’ statement refers to giving to the needy, but the principle applies to tipping as well:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).

The gratuity is only a part—although an important part—of the morality of being served. Those who serve us should never be treated as mere means to an end. They are ends in themselves, since they are created in the image and likeness of God. As James warns us:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness (James 3:9).

Rather than curse, or ignore, our servers, we should greet them with kindness. Jesus again speaks to us.

And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:47-48).

In some cases, our servers—especially the older ones—may be one of “the least of these,” of which Jesus spoke as deserving special honor (Matthew 25:31-46).

Our philosophy of the gratuity says much about us. May it never be that you are known as a bad tipper. Christians, of all people, should be generous. “Freely you have received; freely give,” commanded Jesus, who has given himself freely for all (Matthew 10:8).

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

9 thoughts

    1. In that case, you are making a poor decision on eating out. Stay home if you can’t afford it. There are plenty of “huge treats” one must stay away from if they can’t truly afford it.

  1. The interesting part to me is that this “standard tip” amount is going up seemingly inexplicably. As Dr. Groothius noted in the article, he grew up being taught that 10% was standard. I’m in my early 30’s and I was taught that 15% was standard, so I usually do 15-20% depending on the service. Now 20% seems to be the norm.

    We could point to inflation and the rising cost of living, but this in turn drives up meal prices and, by the nature of percentage based tips, the gratuity will go up as well even if the percentage stays the same. So who’s deciding that the “standard” gratuity needs to keep going up? And why?

  2. My philosophy:

    * 15% is grace. No matter how terrible the service, they get 15%. Most restaurants for decent service, I tip closer to 20%.
    * If I only have a small thing at a regular restaurant, I don’t tip less than a dollar. If I get a coffee for $1.50, I don’t count out pennies – just slip the waitress a bill.
    * If the restaurant is particularly expensive, I generally can’t afford more than 15%, so that’s what they get. Most of those restaurants tell you what the tip should be anyway.

    My wife was a waitress before we got together and she testifies to how horrible Christian restaurant patrons can be. Sunday afternoon in the Bible belt is typically the worst time for wait staff.

  3. We are supposed to be Ambassador’s of Christ surely two extra dollars will not break someone if they are eating out. If things are that tight you may want to re think eating out.

    1. Bing… Exactly. I often find myself doing the math of what is 20% then get smacked with knowing I bear the name of Christ and figure what is an extra dollar or two…

      Also, if you can’t afford to represent Christ well, then your problem isn’t your tip. If I need to save money, no beverages or eat at home… You don’t negotiate the price of the food item, so why negotiate the tip?
      Good article.

  4. Thank you for this article. My son is a waiter, and he came home from work tonight complaining that he had gotten poor tips. We started discussing the philosophy of tipping, and I did a Google search on that and saw your article. I just read it aloud and it made a lot of sense. I never realized how little waiters are paid, and so tips are very important to them. I have always tipped at least 15% and usually 20%, but from now on, I will try to make sure I tip at least 20%. 🙂

  5. Interesting article and comments. I believe it helps with some context to note that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, the word “TIP” is an acronym for “To Insure Promptness.”

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