ADVENTISM’S FUNDAMENTAL BELIEF #21
We are God’s stewards, entrusted by Him with time and opportunities, abilities and possessions, and the blessings of the earth and its resources. We are responsible to Him for their proper use. We acknowledge God’s ownership by faithful service to Him and our fellow men, and by returning tithes and giving offerings for the proclamation of His gospel and the support and growth of His church. Stewardship is a privilege given to us by God for nurture in love and the victory over selfishness and covetousness. The steward rejoices in the blessings that come to others as a result of his faithfulness.
Commentary on this statement
This Fundamental Belief correctly points out that we are called as God’s stewards to all that He has given us: spiritual gifts, talents, money, time, and the natural resources of the earth. However, Scripture does not teach tithing as the method of supporting the New Testament church, nor does Scripture teach tithing, or any other human work, as a spiritual discipline that will give us “victory” over sin. To be fair, Seventh-day Adventists are far from the only church to misapply this doctrine. I do find it interesting, though, that this Adventist Fundamental Belief commands tithing but does not include any of the biblical verses in which God described the tithe to Israel in the law.
Some of the key misunderstandings which persist about tithing are resolved when the details of tithing are examined in God’s law.
1. Tithing and first fruits are often confused and co-mingled in Christian teaching on stewardship. These offerings, however, are distinct from each other in the old covenant. While the Adventist Fundamental Belief does not specifically mention first fruits, the concepts of the first fruit offering are blended into the Adventist teachings on tithing and stewardship. Ellen White wrote in volume 4 of The Testimonies For the Church, “Of all our income we should make the first appropriation to God. In the system of beneficence enjoined upon the Jews they were required either to bring to the Lord the first fruits of all His gifts, whether in the increase of their flocks or herds, or in the produce of their fields, orchards, or vineyards, or they were to redeem it by substituting an equivalent.”
Unlike tithing, however, the first fruit offering was an undetermined amount. It consisted of the first ripe crops planted in the land, and this offering was commemorated each year (Lev. 23:9–14). Here are the definitions of the offering of first fruits:
Deuteronomy 26:2: “…that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you bring in from your land that the LORD your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God chooses to establish His name.”
Numbers 18:13: “The first ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours; everyone of your household who is clean may eat it.”
Leviticus 19:23–25: “When you enter the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it shall not be eaten.
But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. In the fifth year you are to eat of its fruit, that its yield may increase for you; I am the LORD your God.”
2. Tithe in the Old Testament was specifically from the produce of the land (plants and animals):
Leviticus 27:30–33: “Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’S; it is holy to the LORD. For every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD. He is not to be concerned whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; or if he does exchange it, then both it and its substitute shall become holy. It shall not be redeemed.”
3. The Leviticus passage above also pointed out the tithe is not our “first and our best”, as Adventists often teach because of Ellen White’s interpretations. Instead, it was the tenth animal that passed under the rod regardless of whether it was the best or the worst, and it was one tenth of the produce of the year’s crops. The idea that one’s tithe should represent one tenth of the first and the best of one’s income and possessions is one of the errors that comes from confusing the unrelated ideas of first fruits and tithes.
4. The Jews participated in consuming the tithe they gave; it was eaten in the presence of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 14:22–23 “You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.”
5. Tithe was not given as gold and silver (money), but always as food. Even if one sold their animals and produce, before it was tithed it had to be turned back into food and drink:
Deuteronomy 14:24–26a: “And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves.”
6. Tithe consumption was not limited to the Levites; it was shared between the giver, the Levite, and those who might be in need (orphans, widows, and homeless):
Deuteronomy 14:26b–29: “And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you. At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”
I have jokingly made the point that one could tithe, as defined in Scripture, by bringing produce from his garden to the next potluck. All humor aside, sharing one’s food at the church potluck is more similar to the biblical practice of tithing than is the practice of placing money in the offering plate. In fact, when one studies what the law teaches about tithing, Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees about tithing herbs (Lk. 11:42) makes sense.
What about paying pastors?
It is also interesting that the biblical laws on tithing included using the tithe to help the less fortunate. The Adventist organization has conveniently omitted this application of tithe money and instead distributes it for the benefit of its pastors and leaders.
This examination of the rules for tithing raises the legitimate question: “If I don’t tithe, how is the church supported?”
The New Testament gives us the answers to this question. Believers give to support pastors—technically elders and teachers (1 Tim. 5:17; Gal. 6:6–10) and missionaries (3 Jn. 5–7). Additionally, believers also give to support their own poor relatives, the needy in the church, the sick, and the elderly (Acts 6:1; Acts 20:35; Rom. 12:13; 2 Cor. 9:12; 1 Tim. 5:8–16). Nothing in Scripture suggests or dictates that all of this giving is done through the church. No amount is specified in the New Testament, and while individuals may consider a tithe (or 10%) to be a convenient starting point for giving, it is never presented in the New Testament as either a goal or a baseline.
Believers should not give out of compulsion—a required percentage would be compulsory—but instead, believers are always to give out of their joyful responses to the blessings that God has given them, specifically the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ (Mt. 10:8; 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8:5–12; 2 Cor. 9:6–7).
When we are in Christ, all that we are and all that we have is the Lord’s. Our freedom in Christ gives us both the choice and the responsibility to determine, guided by Scripture and His Spirit, both the amount and recipients of our stewardship. †
Rick Barker is a native of Southwestern Ohio and facilitates a weekly Bible study for former and transitioning Adventists in the Dayton, Ohio, area. Rick graduated from Andrews University in 1987 and received a Masters degree from the University of Dayton. Rick and his wife Sheryl formally left the Adventist chuch in 2004. Prior to this they had been active in the Miamisburg and Wilmington, Ohio, Adventist churches.