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Should We Change the Way We Talk About Tithe?

Jar of coins with a plant growing out of it

Because I grew up in an Adventist home, I was familiar with the word “tithe” from an early age. I still vividly remember seeing my dad preparing the tithe envelope and placing it in the basket at church. Sometimes my dad would even let me place the envelope in the basket, and I felt like I was contributing to something so much bigger than myself. I hoped the money we gave would help more people know about our loving God. My parents always said, “Ten percent of your paycheck goes to God, as he has asked us to do in the Bible.” And I believed them.

A few decades later, tithing feels more and more like a burden. There has been pressure from my family to pay regularly, even if I don’t have much money, because “God will bless a cheerful giver.” I have always believed that tithe should be given out of the goodness of your heart. It should be done because you want to, not because you are pressured to do so each month.

Honestly, that’s what it often feels like. I don’t think tithing should be eliminated completely. But I do believe that the idea of tithing needs to be reframed. Can it be a cheerful spiritual experience without denominational pressure?

In Mosaic law, God did command tithing, but not from all Israelites. And it wasn’t monetary. In Leviticus 27, Moses mentions grain, fruit, and animals from the flock. Giving was from the excess or increase from the year before. That way, farmers had enough supply to take care of their families. In contrast, the Adventist Church today advocates for each working church member to give a tithe of 10 percent of their income. We know from the book of Hebrews and the New Testament that not everything in the Mosaic law applies to today's world. In fact, the result of Jesus dying on the cross was an elimination of the need for Mosaic law. 

Since the tithes and offerings referenced in Leviticus concern the Levitical priesthood—a priesthood that no longer exists—the blessings and curses that result from withholding tithes, outlined in Malachi 3, are irrelevant to us today. Because of this, I think Adventists should beware of using the language of Malachi 3 to pressure poor church members to give beyond their means. God does love us and wants to bless us, but it won't always be a financial blessing. I never want to treat God like a vending machine, giving all the money I have and expecting him to bless me with more.

The Great Depression made changes to how the Adventist Church framed tithing. Due to low financial support during this time, church leaders wrote a Church Manual that made tithe paying a duty for local church members. Then, in 1932, for the first time, tithing entered the “Fundamental Beliefs” list at number 18. The belief stated, “That the divine principle of tithes and offerings for the support of the gospel is an acknowledgement of God’s ownership in our lives, and that we are stewards who must render account to Him all that he has committed to our possession."

To this day, tithe remains an important part of the Adventist church system. But recently, young church members have begun challenging the long-held traditions surrounding the practice. 

Jason Frias, a millennial who grew up Adventist, attended a church community that deeply supported the tithing process. He heard stories of how tithe had saved the lives of family members and had led to incredible blessings from God. However, as a struggling young adult bouncing between jobs, he was forced to look at the situation from a different angle. “The money that ‘should have gone to the conference’ was instead used to pay for rent, bills, and many health issues that I couldn’t even afford,” he explains.

Frias arrived at a crossroads when he applied for a job at Adventist institution, recalling,

I knew that I was qualified for the job and had the skills necessary to do well in it. When I applied, I was routed to the HR department. They asked about my tithing history. I told them that I was a member of the Adventist church since birth. I was actively volunteering in my church and regularly helped out whenever I could. Apparently, this wasn’t enough. I didn’t get an interview. I doubt anyone saw my resume or talked to my references. I quickly was rejected due to the fact that I was not a regular tithe payer. I have vowed to never become an employee of the conference ever since.

This stigma within the church that associates a lack of tithe payments with unfaithfulness to God and community has tangible consequences. Many young or economically disadvantaged church members may struggle to produce the 10 percent necessary to stay in “good church standing.” Why can’t a person who donates their time to volunteering within their church be given just as much acceptance as someone who writes a six-figure check to the church in tithe? 

“I believe that time, talent, and dedication are incredible offerings to God if you cannot give financial offerings,” says Frias. “To me, dedicating your life to Him, and your skills, are what you should be giving Him first.”

Recognizing that not all church members have the ability to donate tithe in a traditional manner, Nicholas Zork, minister for worship and arts for the Church of the Advent Hope, has focused on building accessibility and trust. “In engaging young donors, we’ve learned the importance of making the process convenient. [This includes] allowing cryptocurrency donations so community participants can give in a way they find accessible,” he says. “Our treasurer works hard to communicate clearly how funds are being used. That trust has to be earned.”

“Anecdotally, it seems more young people are giving not out of obligation, but because they are inspired to invest in improving people’s lives,” Zork goes on to say. “Because of the generosity of millennial donors, for example, we have been able to hire a community service and engagement director who has facilitated several ongoing partnerships with great organizations in the city. We don’t expect participants to simply get on board with what those in official leadership recommend but, rather, to use whatever they can offer—their voices, abilities, effort, and financial resources—to help us collectively create the future.”

To millennial and active church member Kaleb Eisele, this community-based mindset has defined his relationship with tithing. “I've always operated out of what convictions God has given me—not from what any pastor or administrator tells me I should do,” he says. “I spent many years giving 10 percent or more of my income to helping my neighbors directly with immediate needs, because I did not believe in what I saw in my local conference.”

Eisele adds, “Now, living in a place I really believe in, I feel good about helping fund so many local humanitarian services and healthy church ministries—even if a little bit of that goes to other things I don't really believe in. The Adventist church's trickle-up system of prioritizing local ministry (my conference's schools, churches, and outreach projects) has really impacted my thoughts on what God really wants from me—and if our system of tithe today really reflects what the Bible is talking about.”

Jesus himself had radical thoughts regarding temple giving. He never criticized giving tax money to Rome, but he flipped tables in the temple of Jerusalem when he saw the poor being exploited by the Pharisees. As the Bible shows, he defended church members when religious leaders took financial advantage of them. 

From what I read about ancient Near Eastern agrarian biblical culture, God only asked his people to give from their excess resources. And this giving mostly went to the priests and those who needed it, like the Levites. It wasn’t until more recent times, when the Adventist Church leaders worried about falling into financial trouble, that the act of tithing became more of a requirement than a cheerful act. 

A few months ago, I attended a church that did not ask for tithe in their program. Despite this, they had very high giving numbers. That relief in pressure made me more comfortable and when I had the money to give, I gave gladly. While some retired Adventists almost automatically leave their life savings to the church to do with as administrators see fit, that blind giving is not something I—or many other millennials—want to participate in. As time goes on, I believe this difference in thinking will make a huge impact on the Adventist Church. Leaders need to be careful how they talk about tithing, because younger members aren’t just going to give blindly anymore.

These days, many of us personally find that we’re just a few percentage points of our payment away from economic trouble. We want to help, but without the sense that anything less than 10 percent of each paycheck is robbing God. Millennials as a whole tend to feel a pull to help community causes. As new generations create new giving patterns, what would happen if church leaders updated the way they ask us to support them? 

 


A graduate of Southern Adventist University, Jacklyn Frias is a freelance content creator and streamer, as well as the content creator for Spectrum’s TikTok account @adventist_tea.

Title image by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash.

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