by Admiral Ncube | 2 February 2023
Going by the reactions on social media and reports from many churches, lesson 3 of the current Adult Sabbath School Study guide left more controversy than conviction. Entitled “The Tithing Contract,” the lesson attempted to affirm the importance and validity of tithing in the Christian’s life.
Already foreseeing controversy, on January 14th a special program was aired on Hope Channel Zambia where some from the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division commented on the lesson. This was followed by a letter on the 19th of January by the Southern African and Indian Ocean Division Stewardship Director, vaguely addressed to “leaders” but, importantly, contesting some of the points in the lesson. Added to this, during his recent visit to Zambia, General Conference president Ted Wilson reportedly scheduled time to answer questions on tithing from members, a move which in itself raises questions.
Without wading into the theological debate on tithing or evaluating the lesson itself, it would be important for church leaders to dig into the real questions and reason behind the pushback by members. As aptly put in an African proverb,
“When the toad jumps in broad daylight, it has seen something.”
The disgruntlement around tithing in this part of the world, where Adventism has enjoyed a large following, cannot be ignored. It brings to the fore a number of issues and questions which members are asking but that the church is not answering. At a time when we have been investing resources in more stewardship seminars and materials, the negative reaction to the lesson is revealing.
As a church that defines itself as a product of the Bible—whose very existence is biblical—we tend to see our systems, attitudes, processes, and even policies as biblical. We are consequently sensitive to questioning any part of our church without construing it as an attack on God, which is idolatrous.
Emerging out of the tithing debate are issues which this article seeks to highlight. I leave the theological debate on the biblical validity of tithing to theologians. What is provoked are more questions which, while containing theological issues, should inform the church’s focus on stewardship in a world that is tired of being driven by guilt.
Dialoguing with the prophet
Whenever questions arise on policy related to the use of tithe, some are quick to cite references from Ellen White, which are also reiterated in the Church Manual as non-negotiable demands. These are used to “ring fence” tithe from any other use, as well as stifle disgruntlement around misuse or mismanagement. It appears that to some our policy on the use of tithe is as immutable as the Decalogue.
But the question often ignored is the context when Ellen White gave instruction on how tithe was to be used. What was the state of the church’s finances, mission, and needs that prompted her to set tithe apart? To what extent did her context inform this stance?
The question is not what Ellen White meant or did not mean, but how we dialogue with her the way we do with other prophets in the Bible. The treatment of her counsel as more eternal in application than the Bible becomes irresponsible, especially when at one time she became stirred up with those readers who took an inflexible attitude toward her writings and sought to follow the letter of her message while missing the underlying principles. In Selected Messages, Book 3, p.214, she wrote to her rigid interpreters:
My mind has been greatly stirred in regard to the idea, ‘Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore, we are going right up to it.’
She then added
God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.
The problem worsens, when during a Bible study an “Ellen White grenade” is thrown to close further discussion. Her writings are used to conclusively stifle all questions that might emerge.
For a generation whose relationship with religion is different from many of us who are older, nothing could be more disingenuous. Could this be the reason why, regardless of the quotations thrown onto people’s faces without dialogue, they quietly disengage?
Where is the storehouse?
Reports presented in previous General Conference sessions reveal that the church uses between 30-36% of tithe funds for operational expenses, in addition to evangelism projects and administrative personnel costs.
One wonders: why can’t this same tithe be used for similar operational costs at a local church? These are the same buildings legally owned by conferences which members contributed to construct. At the heart of this debate is why can’t the local church be the storehouse? If this is merely a policy issue, let it be clearly admitted rather than argued from a faulty theological framework.
There have been reports of churches’ running in debt, struggling to stay afloat while remitting all tithes and 50% of the offerings collected to the Conference. This sounds cannibalistic, especially at a time when many are still trying to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic. As a result, there are some who feel cannibalized by the very system they are supporting.
Why can’t church administrative structures invest in the same constituencies that are financing them? The situation is compounded by lack of transparency on the state of the storehouse, transparency on the use of these collections.
How can we make stewardship a two-way street? The 21st-century giver cannot be cajoled into not bothering about misuse or abuse of her offerings.
Give until it hurts
In my part of the world, low incomes, generational poverty, and unemployment continue to wreak havoc. Many are contending with multiple demands on the little they have. Tithing is often made an act of compulsion, an eligibility criteria for election into church positions.
But messages on stewardship continue here to be guilt-driven rather than love-induced. People are called robbers, with the hope that they will then become generous and cheerful givers. The message seems to suggest that the poor, the hungry children, would rather die than “eat the Lord’s money,”—when in fact the same Lord identifies them with Himself (Matthew 25). Members are told that tithing brings material returns or blessings so they should give even if it hurts.
I recall some years ago, one Sabbath I met a man at church who was hungry. As he told me his story I felt compelled to give him what I had set aside as tithe for him to buy food. It was only years later that I was taught that I had erred: tithe cannot be used to help the poor. I felt bad whenever I met this man, and he became a constant reminder of how I had robbed God.
For many struggling to make ends meet, it becomes a challenge to watch loved ones suffer want while returning a faithful tithe to the church. Their question is whether God is happy to see people suffer while He gets His 10%? Does giving or sharing tithe with the poor equate to robbery of God?
How should Malachi 3 be read in our day? The current messaging sounds insensitive; it speaks volumes about the picture of God we have created. The situation becomes scandalous to those who have tithed for decades, but for whom the windows of heaven remain closed. In this instance, how does tithing bring hope? Should it be used in this way?
Progress, not perfection
Post COVID-19, many have not recovered economically. The cost of living has gone up as evidenced by unrest in different parts of the world. Even if we assume that tithing is valid, the church needs to be more sympathetic to members trying to balance multiple demands.
We might have to make the 10% aspirational, and help people grow gradually towards it—to celebrate incremental progress rather than an all-or-nothing way of working. Rather than making it sound like the Adventist is being taxed by God or paying a subscription, we should seek cheerful giving.
Nor should giving be portrayed as a way to manipulate God into blessing us. There are moments when I have given, and God blessed me, and then there are those when I have not given but still God blessed me. Giving should be about God’s trying to help us develop characters like His rather than our bailing Him out financially.
Disagreements around the validity of tithe will continue, but the danger is in pushing each other to extremes. For example, in many places offerings constitute a very small percentage of collections compared to tithe. It appears we are compliant but not generous. Adventists need to be taught to fall in love with God, to be drawn by His moral and relational beauty such that giving becomes a natural impetus.
When we place emphasis on percentages due to God, we create a God of percentages. Our posture towards Him will be in percentages: thinking that compliance to percentages is conversion.
What is at stake?
Of course, the church and mission need to be financed. Nor is the issue about whether or not God is the giver of what we have. Even the gross-versus-net debate need not emerge
Instead, allow God to speak to His children. Any person or institution that seeks to control us by playing upon our fears or our desires is devilish. Just like the reformation of the Middle Ages, it is important we not use guilt to impose duty on people. It gives legalism power over the people, creating a narcissistic, fear-based, shame-driven, grace-phobic, pro-control version of Christianity, that parades itself as biblical.
The danger is creating legalists whose consciences we control. But legalism is not sustainable, so if people are not set free, with time they will inevitably protest or disengage from any environment that plays upon their guilt to hold them.
The gospel at its best is about freedom, creativity, and the affirmation of individuality in Christ, while legalism tends toward control, uniformity, and the negation of individuality. Anything that borders on conscience control in any relationship, especially in matters of faith, is Babylon.
So, after doing all the theological gymnastics with scripture to create obligation on issues such as tithe, you have to let go and let God impress upon His people.
Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.