Tithing: commandment or privilege?

My father died when he was only fifty years old. I was a teenager at the time. My mother was in her early forties. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were very poor. My mother had to live, with her children, on a very minimal social payment that was available for widows and orphans. She became a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at age sixteen and ever since took her faith very seriously, including the fact that she was expected to give one tenth of her meagre income to the church. I remember how she once told me that she did not always succeed in doing so, which made her feel guilty. The more so, since the pastor of our small church had severely criticized her and had quoted Malachi 3:8-10 to her. She was told there was no excuse not to give a faithful tithe, for God must always come first!

The words of the prophet Malachi have created a lot of feelings of guilt in the minds and hearts of many Adventist believers. For the prophet says that not giving our tithe equals robbing God, which is not without its serious consequences. On the other hand, faithful tithe-givers can count on God’s blessings. They must test God and in so doing will experience that in the end all will be well.

It has always disturbed me when people in our church were put under severe pressure through this text. And this annoyance only increased as I gradually came to realize that our tithe-giving tradition does not really have the kind of solid biblical basis that I had often been told it has. I had to think about this when a few days ago I read an article by my friend Larry Downing (a retired colleague in the USA) on the Adventist Today website. In this piece he discusses all the tithing-texts that we find in the Bible and he concludes that there are many questions surrounding the Old Testament phenomenon of tithing, and that we cannot find a clear commandment for the followers of Christ to give ten percent of their income to their church organization. See: https://atoday.org/an-overview-of-tithe-texts-in-the-english-bible/

Do I write this short piece because I want to tell my fellow -believers that giving tithes is unimportant? Certainly not. I want to see my church prosper, giving a clear sound to world around us. And to do so, the church will continue to need the right people but also money. I am personally very grateful that during more than forty years tithe-giving church members provided for my salary and that presently I receive a monthly pension that is also financed from tithe funds. And I myself belong to the circa sixty percent of church members who give a regular tithe. [The church would no longer have any financial worries if all members were to give tithes! Alas, that is a rather utopian thought.]

Giving tithes remains a good idea, even though the New Testament is almost completely silent about it. And there is no hint as to whether one should take the tithe from one’s gross or net income. And whether all the money should be forwarded to a central point (i.e. to the treasury in the conference office). However, the Bible—and certainly also the New Testament—is quite clear that we must be generous in our giving (see e.g. 2 Corinthians 9:7) and the apostle Paul emphasizes the principle of systematic giving (e.g. 1 Corinthians 16:2).

It was a good thing that the members of the church agreed in the past on a system of systematic support for the gospel work. After first having worked with a different system (“systematic benevolence”), from about 1870 onwards the tithing system was promoted.

Considering that in Old Testament times the believers gave ten percent of their income (or more) to God’s cause, should not we—who gratefully look back on the incomparable sacrifice of Jesus Christ—practice a giving pattern that is, at least, at the same level? If we give our tithes, it is not because we have been pressured by a text from Malachi, but because our love for Christ prompts us to give to a cause that is dear to us—and because giving to the church is in actual fact a sacrifice of love that we bring to God.

Let us keep our system of tithe giving in high esteem. It is a good basis. No doubt there are those among us who are able to give more than ten percent (and that is what some do). However, if we are (perhaps temporarily) unable to reach this ten percent norm, we can rest assured that God is happy with what we can give. For in the end it is not the size of our gift, but our motivation that is important for God (see Mark 12:41-44.

Perhaps it is time to rethink our approach to tithing and consider it no longer as a duty but as a privilege.

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