Here’s a paradox: even though modern-day tithing is usually applied by most Seventh-day Adventists to their monetary increase—we generally are paid by check or direct deposit, not in bushels of wheat—tithing really isn’t about the money.
It’s about having our hearts connected to God and to His work, church members and experts agree.
“This is a spiritual matter. It’s not about money. It’s about loyalty and faithfulness,” declared José Cortés, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who is president of the church’s New Jersey Conference. There are 13,000 baptized members in New Jersey, he says, and tithe growth in 2010 is an impressive 15 percent, with the conference on track to receive “over $11 million” this year.
It’s not about the bottom line, he adds, but rather directing people’s thoughts toward God in every area of life. Planning for a statewide emphasis on stewardship began two years ago, he said, as the storm clouds of the current U.S. economic difficulty began to gather.
After first working with his local pastors to ensure they were each responsible stewards, the message spread to the membership. Cortés told his pastors they needed to emphasize to members who may not have been participating the value of returning tithe. “Some churches were [returning] only 35 percent to 45 percent of [their] potential.”
As a result of emphasizing the spiritual discipline, members have seen temporal blessings, Cortés noted. In New Jersey, where unemployment rates have hit 10.2 percent this year and were 9.5 percent at the time this article went to press, “the [members] are keeping their jobs. We have not too many people out of their jobs because God is blessing; some have lost [one job], but they are getting another job.”
There are other benefits as well: for the first time in a long while, all teachers at Seventh-day Adventist schools in New Jersey “have a decent salary, everybody is paid according to policy,” Cortés reports.
But he emphasized that it’s the spiritual aspect of sharing in the responsibility for God’s work that is essential: every morning at 5:30 a.m., he told Adventist Review in an interview, Cortés is on his knees praying for conference constituents, often referencing a list sent in by pastors. Knowing that their leaders are praying specifically for them enhances members’ loyalty to the church, he said.
What’s happening in New Jersey is of a piece with the rest of the world church, statistics reveal: “Despite a global economic recession spanning most of the past quinquennium, annual worldwide tithe for the past five years grew more than 40 percent, increasing from US$1.3 billion in 2004 to $1.8 billion in 2009,” according to a report by General Conference treasurer Robert E. Lemon during the 2010 General Conference session in Atlanta, Georgia.1
And while the Christian research firm The Barna Group reported “in 2007. . . research revealed that just 5 percent of adults tithed,”2 Seventh-day Adventists in North America clock in at approximately 60 percent of members who attend services returning tithe, according to G. Edward Reid, stewardship director for the North American Division.
“The tithe principle is as foundational to stewardship as Daniel 2 is foundational to eschatological prophecy,” Reid said in an interview. “The biblical principles of money management are all important, how I manage the other 90 percent. But the tithe is the baseline.”
Why aren’t more members tithing? Reid says it may stem from a lack of education of the membership by some pastors.
“There’s been a dearth of teaching in that area,” Reid said. “Here’s the bottom line: it is more ignorance on the part of members than it is obstinacy. . . . Selfishness comes naturally; but you have to be taught generosity and financial faithfulness. [But] once you experience it, you wouldn’t want to go back the other way at all.”
At least one church member agrees that tithing is vital: Leon C. Gottberg from Willits, California, says that during his 76-year life span, so far, he’s learned that the value of tithing goes beyond monetary benefits.
“I would almost say it never was an endeavor; it was a pleasing part of our Christian experience. We never questioned it. Even when my wife didn’t have enough money to put food on the table, [we tithed],” Gottberg, who goes by “Lee,” said. “It’s what one does when one lives with God. Tithing to us is a joy.
“When times were more tough and we continued to tithe, one of the main reasons is I was able to say, ‘That’s one thing the devil can’t take away from me,’” he said.
Gottberg says there have been instances of material benefit. One time, when his car’s tires were all bald, a dealer gave him four used-but-serviceable ones and mounted them free of charge; he and his wife found a prize homesite in a desired location at a price they could afford. But the main dividend is a greater closeness to God.
“You put your trust first in Him . . . trusting that He was going to fulfill His word,” Gottberg said.
A Proud History
The history of tithing in the Seventh-day Adventist Church goes back to early days. In 1859, four years before the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was formally organized, Adventists meeting at Battle Creek, Michigan, were instructed to regularly set aside funds for the Lord’s work. This became more clearly defined in the years that followed, and by 1864 there was no doubt: tithing, the return of 10 percent of one’s increase, or income, was the standard.
“He [God] places His treasures in the hands of men, but requires that one tenth shall be faithfully laid aside for His work. He requires this portion to be placed in His treasury. It is to be rendered to Him as His own; it is sacred and is to be used for sacred purposes, for the support of those who carry the message of salvation to all parts of the world,” were the words of Ellen G. White, a pioneering cofounder of the movement, in volume 6 of Testimonies for the Church, first published in 1900.3
In a manuscript read to the San Jose, California, State Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in January 1907, White affirmed not only the importance of tithing, but also the fact that the church and its people would have more to share if all were faith-fully returning tithe: “There should be an abundant supply in the Lord’s treasury, and there would be if selfish hearts and hands had not withheld the tithes or made use of them to support other lines of work.”4
Adds Reid, “One of the biggest things I encounter is people get sideways of somebody in the church or in the conference office, and say, ‘I’m going to send my tithe to XYZ’ . . . but the tithe, according to the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy, is totally nondiscretionary. . . . It is holy and not to be diverted.”
Other Christian authors have also expressed dissatisfaction with a contemporary casualness toward tithing.
“I grow very impatient with folks who oppose tithing [and claim] they are so spiritually minded that they see the tithe as stopping short of what God asks for,” said Douglas L. LeBlanc, a veteran Episcopalian journalist and author of Tithing: Test Me in This, a book that studies the approaches of several Christians to the tithing question (Thomas Nelson, 2010).
“It’s not as though God is crippled without our tithing, but God, through His generosity, invites us to become part of what He is doing through tithing,” LeBlanc says. God, he adds, “can come up with the finances needed for something in whatever way He chooses, but why resist that? Why would we say, ‘No thanks, I’d rather spend it on a video rental or a good meal somewhere.’ . . . I would be far more hopeless if I weren’t at least tithing.”
And, as Reid put it, “When Jesus returns He’s going to say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ to the group who managed their money faithfully.”
1 As reported in Elizabeth Lechleitner, “Membership, Financial Audits Key to Adventist Church Growth, Leaders Say,” Adventist News Network, June 26, 2009, http://news.adventist.org/2010/06/member ship-financial.html, accessed August 2, 2010.
2 Barna Group, “New Study Shows Trends in Tithing and Donating,” April 14, 2008, www.barna.org/barna-update/article/18-?congregations/41-new-study-sho?loc=?interstitialskip, accessed August 2, 2010.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 386, as cited in Arthur L. White, “Highlights of the Beginning of the ?Tithing System,” Ellen G. White Estate, www.whiteestate.org/issues/Tithe-H&U.html#Highlights, accessed August 2, 2010.
4 White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 249.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. This article was published September 9, 2010.