by Admiral Ncube  |  28 September 2020  |

COVID-19 has come, and its effects on the church are evident. With job losses and business closures, contributions in form of tithes have been adversely affected. Prior to COVID-19, the church enjoyed phenomenal growth in membership, and financial contributions of over US$3.5 billion. In response to the decline in financial contributions, stewardship calls have been intensified and measures put in place to ensure continuity in remittances. 

As lockdowns are being eased and some businesses, institutions and churches gradually reopening, the trail of destruction left by the pandemic will be evident in empty office desks, closed businesses, empty pews and the absence of some of the familiar church faces and voices. Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 is an opportunity to reinvent rather than helplessly wait for a return to normalcy. One of the areas requiring fresh thinking relates to tithe, which has formed a large portion of our church finances. 

The Origins

The Adventist church wasn’t formally established until 1863, but the body of believers existed from about 1844-1845. Brian Strayer reports that it was not until 1859 that the members committed themselves to establishing a regular and systematic system to finance the work of the ministry. In February of 1859, the Systematic Benevolence Plan based on 1 Corinthians 16:2, 1 Corinthians 8:12-14, and 2 Corinthians 9:5-7 was established. It was not a system of tithing per se, but rather a form of “church tax,” since leaders such as James White had rejected tithe as an “Israelitish tithing system” not applicable to Adventists. 

As it evolved during the 1860s and 1870s, under the Systematic Benevolence Plan full-time workers were urged to give a tithe or ten percent of their annual increase. Adventists emphasized that this new plan focused attention on financial and material support for individuals, seniors, widows, ministers, and missionaries. 

Following the panic and financial crisis in the 1870s, as the plan of giving ten percent of one’s annual increase no longer provided sufficient funds for the church, Dudley M. Canright, around 1876, used Malachi 3:8-11 to argue that “God requires that a tithe, or one-tenth, of all the income of his people shall be given to support his servants in their labors.” His argument was that since the tithe already belonged to God, believers merely returned it to Him, which saw the prevailing Adventist thinking on tithing being reversed, as it was now argued that believers do not pay the tithe but return it to God as His own. Ellen White joined in but made it clear that systematic benevolence should not be made a matter of compulsion:

Systematic benevolence should not be made systematic compulsion. It is freewill offerings that are acceptable to God. True Christian benevolence springs from the principle of grateful love…Love to Christ must be the ruling principle of the being, controlling all the emotions and directing all the energies. Testimonies, Vol 3, p. 396

But with the passage of time, tithing in Adventism evolved from systematic benevolence to what others have termed “systematic compulsion,” as various policies and measures created a sense of obligation or compulsion. For example, in 1932 tithe was included in the fundamental beliefs and Church Manual, making it mandatory in the election of local church officers. In 1951 baptismal vows included tithe, and in 1985, extensive guidance on limitations of use of tithe was published by the General Conference. Consequently our stewardship messages and church policies contained inferences of tithe being compulsory, contrary to Ellen White’s counsel. 

Systematic Compulsion

Today, messaging around tithing places emphasis on God’s being the owner of everything, the blessing that come from returning tithes, and the need for members not to worry about the use or misuse of tithe. This approach, understandably informed by the need to inculcate faithfulness, has bred compliant instead of generous givers. Tithe has become a form of church tax, which confirms eligibility for church positions and is necessary for activating God’s blessings. 

Thus, our messaging on tithe has been contaminated with notions of fearmongering. Unconsciously, some of us have grown up scared that if we don’t return tithe, God will be angry, and whatever misfortune that befalls us may be a consequence of not returning tithe. 

The careless use of Malachi 3 created a sense of fearful giving that has woven itself into our stewardship messages. This robs us of a true picture of a God who makes it rain on the wicked (who don’t tithe) and the good (who return a faithful tithe). 

Related to this, using tithe as an eligibility criterion for membership and election into church, though meant to inculcate responsible membership, unfortunately perpetuates a “subscription” mentality. It is the excessive emphasis on the blessings that come from tithing and its defining eligibility for participation that breeds fearfully compliant givers instead of cheerful givers.

It is time our emphasis on tithe be divested of any forms of manipulation, and let the love of God be the greatest motivation.

Compassionate Benevolence

The current teaching on Systematic Benevolence also ignores that the system was premised on two great purposes, namely, to take care of the poor, and to spread the gospel. 

Rarely do we find attention placed on assisting the poor in our stewardship calls. There is an unhealthy detachment from ministry to the poor and vulnerable, with tithe only regarded as the Lord’s money. This portrays supporting the church structure as nobler than addressing the needs of the poor—a false dichotomy. Jesus always identified himself with the poor (Matthew 25:31-46; Proverbs 19:17), and whatever support we provide to them is as important as that rendered to the church. 

This is not a call for replacing one with the other, but an argument for balance, especially in the context of COVID-19. We seem to have forgotten that our systematic benevolence was developed out of a collective compassion for those who were poor, widows, fatherless, and elderly, as well as support of ministers and missionaries. These twin principles are what should make our mission one of compassionate benevolence.

Systematic Consumption

In many places, our church administrative structures have the liberty of maintaining reserves and investments, while local churches suffer from lack of funds, poorly maintained buildings, crippled programs, and debt. At a time when the same members are contending with the effects of COVID-19, local churches suffer the most, as they have no reserves to draw from. 

Is it not an opportune time for conferences and unions to plow resources back into struggling local churches and to members? Local churches should see and experience that the church they love also cares for them. 

At a time when incomes are adversely affected, to simply intensify calls for tithe contributions sounds insensitive and devoid of empathy. Shall leaders indifferently watch members struggle to access social protection packages and unemployment benefits being delivered by governments or other denominations? It is understandable that the church’s financial model is based on tithe, but transparency is needed. If indeed the church is under financial stress, transparency will give members a clearer picture of the real needs. As long as calls for transparency are resisted, suspicions of systematic consumption will always surface.

The need to rethink tithing means recapturing the true spirit of tithe, through detaching tithing from membership and leadership eligibility criteria, reorienting our message from fearmongering to cheerful generosity, and developing a transparent system that lets local churches benefit from tithe contributions. 

Our context demands fresh thinking. As long as these issues are ignored, stewardship calls will appear increasingly disingenuous, and look like systematic compulsion rather than systematic generosity.  

Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.


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