Tithe goes only for the support of the gospel minister! This is what I thought and taught in the early years of my ministry. Actually, I gave little thought to the source of operating expenses for the local, union, and General Conference offices. I was surprised when I found that the tithe was used for virtually any and all conference expenses, including maintenance and the truck drivers' salaries.
Another surprise came when I learned about tithe exchange. In this process a conference with excess tithe funds exchanges some of the tithe it receives for non-tithe funds through the General Conference office. The conference would then be free to use these non-tithe funds for building churches, paying school subsidies, and so forth. In the seventies, lively discussion at an Annual Council revealed that accurate figures were not being kept on tithe exchanges. This revelation led to a monitoring system to ensure accuracy.
When we view carefully the church's financial situation, we must admit it has faced, is facing, and may in the future continue to face serious problems. The Davenport predicament, the Harris Pine Mills bankruptcy, the Lake Region Fiasco, the large and perhaps excessive indebtedness of some of our medical, publishing, and educational institutions, are a real concern to leadership.
In an article in the Adventist Review, our General Conference president made an appeal (under the subhead "Lesson to Learn") that touched a responsive chord in many hearts. He wrote, ''I have to honestly confess to you that I am deeply troubled by the indebtedness that has overtaken this denomination, especially in North America. We live in an age when debt has become a way of life for individuals and companies. Borrowing is made easy and appears so attractive . . . As we start this new year, as we think of the theme of renewal, I am calling for Seventh-day Adventists, both person ally and corporately, to change their ways. I am calling for us to break off the shackles of debt that are holding us at risk, personally and as a denomination." 1
As I read this appeal, questions haunted me. Could the way we as a church handle the sacred tithe be in any way related to the financial problems we face? Do not the guaranteed blessings and cursings involving tithing apply to the corporate structure as well as to the individual?
Our General Conference archivist says that research shows that in the late nineteenth century, tithe reform seemed to be related to financial crises in the world and/or in the church. If this is true, as ministerial leaders we should become acquainted with the policies that govern the use of tithe.
Early Adventist tithe-use practices
What did our church in its early years understand about how the tithe was to be used? Apparently their understanding of the basis on which believers gave tithes and offerings and of the precise use of these funds underwent a gradual development. We can summarize by saying, though, that in our early years both tithes and offerings were channeled almost exclusively toward ministerial support.
The form of systematic benevolence first adopted by Sabbathkeepftig Adventists (in 1859) consisted of the setting aside of a weekly offering of from 5 to 25 cents for men and from 2 to 10 cents for women. 2 In 1864 this system expanded to include a weekly gift of 2 cents for each $100 worth of property each member possessed. It was not until the late 1870s that emphasis was placed on giving the tithe as a percentage of income.
Prior to 1880, the instruction we have from the Spirit of Prophecy does not delineate precisely how systematic benevolence was to be used—nor were restrictions imposed until later years. We do know, however, that in the church's infancy, neither the medical, the publishing, nor the educational branches of the work were regular recipients of tithe funds.
(However, Ellen White did write a testimony in 1879 in which, referring to the erection of churches and the estab lishing of schools and publishing houses, she said: "These institutions are ordained of God and should be sustained by tithes and liberal offerings." 3 This testimony gives an overall view of God's requirements in the area of stewardship. Giving was to far exceed the tithe. Ellen White refers to a "conscientious few" in Old Testament times who gave one third of all their income.)
In the January 15, 1880, Review and Herald, James White wrote, "A tithe is the Lord's. Since the Fall of man it has been necessary that there should be men devoted wholly to the service of God. It appears that from the very beginning the Lord taught His people to devote one tenth to the support of His ministers." 4
An action taken at the General Conference session that same year indicates that some local churches were using tithe funds for church expense.
The action reads: "Resolved, That no church should devote any portion of its tithe to the erection or repairing of its church, without the free consent of the state conference committee." 5
Butler liberalizes tithe policy
While the concept of the use of tithes was evolving, it was generally under stood at this time that tithe funds were to be reserved for the gospel ministry. Shortly thereafter, this practice was liberalized. According to an undated pamphlet (possibly 1884), General Conference president G. I. Butler believed that the many demands facing the church legitimized using the tithe for auditors, tract and missionary state secretaries, colporteurs, and so forth. Butler acknowledged that in some cases the gospel ministry suffered because of a lack of funds, but -concluded, "We believe the tithing is designed of God for the support, as far as it will go, of all laborers who are called by the cause of God to give their time to His work. We know of no other special system for this purpose." 6
The extent to which Butler's opinions affected the working policies of the church is a matter of conjecture. How ever, some time thereafter in a special, separately published pamphlet, Ellen White clarified the use of tithe: "The light which the Lord has given me on this subject is that the means in the treasury for the support of the ministers in the different fields is not to be used for any other purpose." 7
She spoke against the practice of some church leaders in using the tithe for other expenses: to keep up the meetinghouse or for some charity. Instead, she urged that "house-to-house labor be done in setting before the families in Battle Creek and Oakland their duty in acting a part in meeting these expenses, which may be called common or secular, and let not the treasury be robbed." 8
Yet she allowed for exceptions: "There are exceptional cases, where poverty is so deep that in order to secure the humblest place of worship, it may be necessary to appropriate the tithes." 9
The next year Ellen White unequivocally restated the concept that tithe is to be used for the gospel ministry. "God's ministers are His shepherds, appointed by Him to feed His flock. The tithe is His provision for their maintenance, and He designs that it shall be held sacred to this purpose." 10
Six years later she reaffirmed this clear position: "The tithe is to be used for one purpose—to sustain the ministers whom the Lord has appointed to do His work." 11 This counsel included both men and women. In 1899 she wrote: "The tithe should go to those who labor in word and doctrine, be they men or women." 12
In statements that appeared in late 1900, she advocated using tithe for Bible teachers in our schools. She wrote: "Those who minister in our schools, teaching the Word of God, explaining the Scriptures, educating the students in the things of God, should be supported by the tithe money. This instruction was given long ago, and more recently it has been repeated again and again." 13
Emphasizing the Bible teacher's role as a minister, she said: "The best ministerial talent should be employed in teaching the Bible in our schools. Those selected for this work need to be thorough Bible students and to have a deep Christian experience, and their salary should be paid from the tithe." 14
As to the maintenance of church schools, she advocated, with qualifications, using a second tithe. 15
Finally, she wrote a very significant statement on the use of tithe in 1904, portions of which were to form a part of the counsels that eventually were published in Testimonies under the title "Faithful Stewardship." One paragraph reads: "One reasons that the tithe may be applied to school purposes. Still others reason that canvassers and colporteurs should be supported from the tithe. But a great mistake is made when the tithe is drawn from the object for which it is to be used—the support of the ministers. There should be today in the field 100 well-qualified laborers where now there is but one." 16
Much more could be written on this important subject. Several documents are available for study from the Ellen G. White Estate (see box).
As editors we felt it expedient to share with our church leadership the latest Annual Council voted policy on the use of tithe. Over the past several years, an enormous amount of time on the part of committees and individuals has been invested in a study and revision of our use-of-tithe practices. The most recent committee, composed of 35 to 40 administrators, treasurers, departmental personnel, pastors, and laypeople, refined the document that was passed at the 1985 Annual Council and appears following this article. We trust our readers will carefully and prayerfully examine its contents.
It is unfortunate that we did not present this material several years ago, asking for readers' input. However, we still solicit any helpful comments and concepts for future reference.—J. R. Spangler.