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October 30, 2011


by Dennis J. Fischer

A comprehensive study of tithing codes in the Old Testament reveals a system of incredible complexity and periodic change. History repeatedly verifies that any dissent on this topic can bring the "wrath of God" upon us by able and willing churchmen. The primary focus of this study deals with the Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, history, policy, and practice of tithing. Although a large segment of  Adventists do not return a so-called "honest tithe," any personal or public inquiry into this doctrinal pillar is done at one's own peril.

From 1859 to the late 1870s,  Adventists did not have a doctrine on tithing as it is known today; instead, they advocated a plan known as "systematic benevolence."  It was designed for church members from 18 to 60 years of age who owned property. Also, men and women had  different rate schedules for suggested giving.  The Good Samaritan, an exclusive magazine for the SB plan, was published to promote this endeavor.  Ellen White gave this plan her full endorsement.  At first, local SDA churches had complete control of the SB funds; however, the growing church hierarchy soon seized upon such liberties.1

Interestingly, it was Dudley Canright, Adventism's most notable heretic, who championed the current doctrine of tithing in the mid-1870s.  As would be expected, Ellen  White gave wholehearted approval to this plan that projected increased revenue from every income category. One of the major differences in these two plans was that systematic benevolence funds could also be used for local church expenses. The tithe funds, on the other hand, were restricted primarily for ministerial salaries, in recent decades for some  teacher's salaries, and for salaries of personnel in various levels of administration.

Another largely overlooked and/or ignored aspect of tithing in our economy is the issue of unequal sacrifice. For example, a tither earning merely $15,000.00 per year has a much greater financial burden for the basic needs of life than the tither earning $100,000.00 per year (even flat tax proponents and the IRS allow an exemption for low income). Old Testament tithing codes made provision for public welfare, temple maintenance, support for priests and other professional personnel, theocratic government expenses, and festal celebrations. It is important to note that there never was a monetary tithe (i.e., salaries and non-farm, self-employment income were exempt). Only crops and animals came under the various tithing regulations.

It is most surprising, even shocking,  to many Christians that a large segment of the Hebrew people did not tithe at all. For example, farm hands did not tithe. Furthermore, occupations like fishermen, construction workers, lumbermen, weavers, handicraft workers, miners, merchandisers, military personnel, law enforcement officials, and manufacturers were also exempt from tithing.  The teaching profession, on the other hand, was an important and integral part of the Levitical system. The occupations of the Levites were what we call the professional fields today.

Mandatory Tithe

Unlike Israel's laws, the General Conference Working Policy requires all credentialed denominational employees to tithe their incomes in order to keep their jobs (usually routine audits, known or unknown to the Church employee, are used to enforce full compliance). In the event that an employee is found in noncompliance, administrative action can be severe; specifically, a summons to a special meeting, restitution of funds supposedly stolen from God (payment of back tithe), or termination of employment.

Enforcement action is generally very sporadic to nonexistent for employees other than ministers and credentialed personnel.  For example, it would be unthinkable, discriminatory, unfair, and likely illegal for the SDA Church to require Adventist medical personnel in their hospitals to tithe in order to maintain their employment while non-Adventists in the same position would be unaffected. However, if the matter went from bad to worse, the affected Adventist medical employee could feasibly request to be removed from the membership records of the SDA organization in order to keep his or her job. This action would be yet another good reason to officially leave Adventism. Truly, those who are intent upon accurate answers will no longer remain as members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for a variety of monetary, psychological, and theological reasons.

In spite of the inconsistency of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in disciplining its workers for noncompliance in tithing, local  church treasurers are indispensable to the local  pastor and his nominating committees to verify eligibility for any position of influence. Sadly but truly, some people tithe to keep their positions whereas others tithe to gain positions in the Church. Doesn't this required tithing sound a lot like the mandatory dues of an organized labor union? Only tithers can hold positions of influence in the local church. This effectively translates into a two-tier SDA membership system. For extra job security and/or legalistic passion, some people in the "upper tier" of SDA employment, tithe on gross income instead of net income to insure that they have not supposedly robbed God nor raised an auditor's eyebrows. 

Moreover, in both Adventism and Mormonism, tithing is not a confidential personal matter between the individual member and God. In Adventism, tithing is an absolute requirement, not an option, for key employees and non-employees who wish to serve their organization in any position of influence. Since Seventh-day Adventism is largely a physical religion (e. g., Sabbath-keeping, lacto-ovo vegetarianism, veganism, no jewelry, no lip stick or rouge for women, no masturbation (considered identical to suicide), quarterly foot washing ceremony, no sweet cakes, no dancing, no clapping in church, no card playing, no Jello-brand gelatin desserts, no pies, no condiments, no butter, no coffee, tea, or cola drinks, no alcoholic beverages, no apple cider, no chocolate, no ice cream, no eggs, no milk, no cheese, ad nauseam), tithing provides yet another way for Seventh-day Adventists to judge each other. Because well-meaning Adventists cannot possibly obey all the rules imposed by their organization, they are forced to largely live a guilt-ridden life that is devoid of any assurance of their salvation and position in Christ. Consequently, their spiritual growth is retarded, and they are assailed with crippling doubts. Their unique cognitive dissonance (the ability to believe in two opposing views simultaneously) keeps them from insanity. 

The honest, objective student of Scripture will find it impossible to practice the various versions of tithing recorded during different time frames in the Old Testament.  Historically and traditionally, tithes were only mandated for crops grown from the sacred soil of Palestine where the Levitical system was fully in place.  Even Orthodox Jews realize the futility of adhering to the tithing institution without having an ongoing sacrificial system in place. Rabbinical canonists prohibited tithing after the destruction of the second temple in A. D. 70.  Today, Jews use alternative methods of financing their congregation's needs. "In addition to the natural tendency of human beings to set their own standards of giving, the church has established various standards of its own, all of which must be scrutinized in terms of their faithfulness to the basic understanding which motivates Christian giving.  All too often, as a compensation for man's innate selfishness, the church has attempted to force its members to be more generous by imposing standards upon them which supposedly have the weight of divine law.  The church must be held responsible for having confused and distorted the true meaning of Christian stewardship."2

Perhaps you are familiar with many stories in Adventist books and magazines claiming the promises of Malachi 3 for our day and circumstance. Exciting stories abound from pen and pulpit of how God miraculously intervened exclusively for the honest tithe-payer.  For example, typical SDA accounts depict a summer hailstorm that devastated all the crops in a certain area but abruptly stopped at the tither's fields.  Claiming such promises and miracles, why would a farmer even think of buying any crop insurance?  Stranger yet, why would the General Conference operate an insurance corporation for charging premiums of their various Church entities throughout the world?  Why would a local church board find it financially sound to insure their church structure from any losses?  Jesus said, "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45 NIV).  The Gospel does not include making  "principles" out of Old Covenant rituals. Why, then, make tithing a principle but not all the Old Covenant directives? Importantly, Old Covenant tithing is not mandated anywhere in the New Testament.

A Royal Tax

As may be learned from 1 Samuel 8:15,17, tithe could also be a royal tax which the king could exact and give to his offiicials.  This ambiguity of the tithe, as a royal tax due on the one hand and as a sacred donation on the other, is to be explained by the fact that temples to which tithe was assigned were royal temples (cf. esp. Amos 7:13) and, as such, the property and treasures in them were put at the king's disposal.  In  Genesis 14:20 Abraham gives a tithe (after his battle with the four kings of the north) to Melchizedek the king-priest of Shalem, and in Genesis 28:22 (cf. also Amos 4:4) Jacob vows to pay tithe at Beth-El, the  "royal chapel" of the Northern Kingdom (Amos 7:13).  The mention of specifically these two "royal temples" in connection with the tithe is not a coincidence.  It seems that these two traditions have an etiological slant.

The institution of collecting tithes in the northern chapel Beth-El is linked to Jacob, the ancestor hero par excellence of the northern tribes, while the institution of the tithe in the royal sanctuary of Jerusalem is traced back to Abraham, whose traditions are mainly attached to the south.  As is well known, the kings controlled the treasures of palace and temple alike (1 Kings 15:18; 2 Kings 12:19; 18:15), a fact which  is understandable since they were responsible for the maintenance of the sanctuary and its service of the court (cf. Ezekiel 45:17, etc.). It stands to reason that the tithe, which originally was a religious tribute, came to be channeled to the court and was therefore supervised by royal authorities. This royal management of temple funds is actually attested in 2 Chronicles 31:4 where Hezekiah is said to organize the collection and the storage of the tribute including the tithe.

The rendering of  tithes of property was common all over the Ancient Near East. God used an equitable system that His people were already familiar with and that they would fully utilize in their culture and economy. In converting grain to money, in cases of transportation problems,  a fifth had to be added by the process. However, no conversion to money was allowed for animals.  Some tithe was actually eaten in a chosen place annually (see Deut. 14:22). In contrast to the common view, there is no real contradiction between Nehemiah 10:28, which says that "the Levites are collecting the tithe in all the cities," and Malachi 3:10, Nehemiah 12:44; 13:12, etc. which speak of the people bringing tithes to the storehouses. The  latter statements mean that people made their contribution, not that the people brought the tithes with them in the literal sense of the word. According to Mesopotamian practice, the temple authorities were responsible for the transportation of the tithe, and there is no reason to think the same practice should not have prevailed in Judah, especially when this tradition is  explicitedly stated in Nehemiah 10:38.  On the other hand,  it is possible that the smaller Judean farmers brought their tithes with them to Jerusalem.  There were different tithing locations and procedures in various time frames in the Old Testament, so there was not just one standard method of paying tithe.

Malachi's Injunction

In order to understand the tithing injunction in the book of Malachi, it is important to understand the severity of the problems in his day including many Israelites having foreign women, the prevalence of drought, famine, blighted crops,  and so forth. People met these problems with spiritual lethargy and indifference.  They  had  forgotten God and treated Him with dishonor.  In  this crisis, God spoke to the entire nation through Malachi, (Malachi 3:9,10) to bring the "whole tithe" (NIV) or "all the tithe" (KJV) into the storehouses.  Temple officials picked up the tithes on the threshing floor when needed and/or had storage space. In addition, God made a specific promise to those responding to His call at this time, guaranteeing that He would prevent crop failure by pest, drought, and  disease (Malachi 3:11). Furthermore, God  promised to open the "floodgates of heaven" (NIV) "that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Malachi 3:10 KJV). This promise clearly applied to the emergency in Malachi's day about 430 B.C.  Normally, "all the tithes" or the "whole  tithe" was not needed at once.3

From the foregoing, it might seem that the tithe was an obligatory tribute, as is actually stated in Deuteronomy 14:22.  However,  the tithe was also a kind of vow or voluntary gift.  Thus, Jacob's tithe in Genesis 28 is clearly linked to a vow, and by the same token Abraham gives tithes to Melchizedek of his own free will (Genesis 14:19-20). Amos also mentions the tithe within the framework of voluntary offerings (Amos 4:4-5). The law of tithe in Leviticus 27:32-33 occurs in a chapter dealing with sacred free gifts of various kinds (the firstlings there, verses 26-27, is an exception to the rule: these gifts cannot be dedicated since they are holy by virtue of their birth as firstlings). Tithing went through  different changes and  rules as  God,  culture, and the economy dictated.

During the Intertestamental period, the tithing codes added even the most unimportant  crops such as thyme, dill, cumin, mustard, pepper, caper, and mint to be meticulously calculated.  Jesus mentioned these practices in Matthew 23:23, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin..."  Obviously, Jesus was not impressed with their legalism.  Christ taught the radical concept of common ownership for His followers to enable the Gospel to become the central focus in their lives.  The early Christians trusted each other with their pooled resources. Materialism was not their bondage; Christ was their all-sufficient Savior. The Lord abundantly blessed their love for the Gospel. Earthly goods could not separate them from their Redeemer, and Christianity spread like wildfire.

It took almost three centuries before the early Church fathers reintroduced tithing.  The Emperor Constantine the Great, in appreciation for his baptism and his cure from leprosy at the hands of Sylvester, Bishop of Rome, A. D. 314-336, developed ecclesiastical and civil laws which required support for the Church.  Constantine further legalized Christianity in A. D. 321 with the first Sunday law allowing believers to celebrate a weekly Easter. Furthermore, he gave the Church vast properties in Judea, Greece, Asia, Africa, and other places. The Apocrypha was especially influential in upholding tithing and almsgiving as having healing and saving power. "For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin" (Tobit 12:9). Belief in the redeeming power of almsgiving was so strong that the word "righteousness" became synonymous with "almsgiving."

John Seldon (1584-1654), English jurist and scholar, in his monumental work "The Historie of  Tithes" published  in 1618, contends that any mathematical percentage was not in keeping with the free and liberal spirit of the early Christians. Seldon's investigations have been recognized as a leading authority in revealing that the early Christians did not tithe uninterruptedly from the beginning of time.4 Seldon contended that the Church of England had the legal right to collect tithes, but not the Biblical right. Due to his tithing views, his work was ruthlessly suppressed by churchmen while he was incarcerated in the Tower of London.

It was a very special treat for me to have access to John Seldon's "The Historie of Tithes" with its Old English script.   The assistant in the Special Documents Division of Love Library at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, brought me this book as the cover fell off.  It was kept in a plastic container. This scholarly work was still in fair condition despite its 380th birthday.  After studying the book for nearly an hour, I left in awe to have held such a monumental, forbidden book in my hands. I proceeded to the microfilm department to get some copies of the text. The book  itself cannot be checked out due to its rarity and age.

With compulsory tithing back in the Church, legalism took a giant leap forward. The old adage that "history repeats itself" was never more accurate than in this matter. "Zwingle made a strong attack on the ecclesiastical system of tithing. He declared the tithes to be merely voluntary offerings."5  Soon after the Reformation, there were peasant revolts known as "tithe wars" against compulsory tithing.  In the United States, in 1876, Thomas Kate began a movement which was actually organized as "The Layman Company" dedicated to encourage tithing in America. This modern tithing  movement has grown tremendously ever since, until today we witness the phenomenon of whole denominations, such as the Mormons and the Adventists, building their spiritual life around the practice of tithing.6  Mormons have the most successful tithing statistics in America. They claim that their members currently pay 7.5 percent of their incomes in tithe. Early Adventist pioneers believed, like Zwingle, that the tithing laws are not binding on Christians. However, don't expect to read this fact in the next issue of the Adventist Review. Recent articles have given the reader the impression that Adventists have  always believed in tithing as we know it today.  The official history of the Adventist Church has been heavily rewritten.

Apparently, the young Seventh-day Adventist Church of the 1870s felt insecure and underfunded without a strict tithing doctrine.  With a tithing mandate, members would presumably feel compelled to turn over more of their hard-earned money.  Furthermore, if the  members felt that their salvation was at stake, they  would be in full compliance. Jesus said, "For where your treasure is, there is your heart will be also" (Luke 12:34).  We give because Christ gave to us first. The Christian simply gives because he has been given and forgiven much. Generosity is not the quantity of the gift, but the quality of the heart. Jesus stated, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Some, therefore, contend that the required transcendence of the Pharisaical righteousness  can be achieved merely by doing more of what the Pharisees do.  Let us never forget that all the tithe-paying in the world will not save us. Indeed, salvation is a gift to be received, not a a goal to be achieved.

"Perhaps it will be said that tithing which does not rest upon a divine command for a fixed due is not tithing.  This may be true, but in our century there is meaning in regular proportionate giving without the shackles of the law."7 Christian stewardship concerns itself with more than just giving a person's material resources.  It includes giving yourself, your time, and your talent in service to the Lord.  Paul wrote, "Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver"  (2 Corinthians 9:6,7 NIV). Someone aptly stated, "Money doesn't make people greedy, but it shows who is."

The Gospel breeds generosity wherever it takes root.  With Spirit-led giving, the Christian has no need to yearn for the ritual laws of Moses to finance the Great Commission.  Under the Old Covenant, God largely directed and specified the amount that His chosen people should give, but under the New Covenant, His elect are entrusted to gratefully and voluntarily determine the amount of their stewardship as prompted by the indwelling Spirit.  In light of God's call and mission to reach a dying world with the Gospel, prescribed or rigidly-imposed percentage giving is far too limiting and restrictive for Christ-followers. The New Testament, being the later, clearer, and final revelation to man,  must be allowed to modify, interpret, augment, and transform Old Testament directives in a Christ-centered way.


1.  Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, pp.1287-89, Review and Herald Publishing Association; Washington, D. C., 1966.
2.  Lukas Vischer, Tithing in the Early Church, p. viii, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1966.
3.  Encyclopedia Judaica,  Tithe,  pp. 1156-62, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem Ltd. Israel, Printed in  Israel.
4.  John  Seldon, The Historie of Tithes, Printed in London, England, 1618.
5.  Thomas K. Thompson, Editor, Stewardship in Contemporary Theology, p.105, Association Press, New York, 1960.
6.  Ibid., p.139.
7.  Ibid., p.143.

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