We must find answers to the following questions: Who is the God who requires a tithe from His human creatures, and upon what grounds does He claim it? What is the nature of that tithe? What significance does tithing have on the quality of the relationship between God and the individual?
General Theological Concepts
In the context of her discussions on tithe, there are several places where Ellen G. White refers to God as the Creator. In using that title for God, it is not her intention to stimulate theological speculations about His nature or about the mystery of His creative acts and powers, but clearly to establish or define the relationship between God and the universe. With respect to the universe, He as Creator owns it and can authoritatively state, “I am the owner of the universe.”1
The Creator did not abandon the world He created into the hands of humans or evil powers; He is the Lord. Divine universal ownership can be properly claimed only by Him. That specific theological conviction is going to determine the way in which Ellen G. White understood the role of humans with respect to God and the rest of creation.
God’s ownership of the universe reveals His power over everything He creates but does not necessarily address the nature of that power. It simply establishes that He has the authority to be Lord over His creation and that He “has a claim on us and all that we have.”2
Ellen G. White introduces another aspect of God’s character that functions as a theological foundation for tithing, namely, His love and goodness. It has been on account of His “goodness and love” that He has kept us “from dire disaster and death.”3 For her, the very essence of the owner of the universe is not selfishness, but love and goodness that manifests itself in the preservation of life. At the very core of that love is God’s constant disposition to give. There is nothing we have that does not find its source of origin in God. But the greatest gift we have received from Him, she seems to argue, is not something that He created and that He now joyfully shares with us.
In the redemptive work of Christ on our behalf, God gave Himself to us in His Son. Ellen White could then say that, “for this work of redemption God gave the richest gift of heaven.”4 God’s ownership is now grounded on a loving act of self-sacrifice resulting in redemption. We have been “bought with a price,” therefore we are “the Lord’s property.”5 We belong to Him not simply on account of His creative power, but particularly through the power of redemptive, self-sacrificing love. All other gifts granted to us are possible only, because of, and through that divine self-giving. Therefore, the Giver is present in every gift we receive from Him. He has indeed “given us everything. As we sit at our table He has given us this provision; through Jesus Christ it comes. The rain, the sunshine, the dew, and everything that is a blessing to us.”6 In fact, “He gives to us bountifully.”7
The Owner of the universe is, for Ellen White, a “beneficent Father.”8 In her writings, tithing is associated with two of the most fundamental aspects of the mysterious person of God: His creative power and His loving essence. The first one indicates that he is the Owner of the universe; the second points to His redemptive work through Christ’s self-giving sacrifice. These aspects are both used to justify His claim for a tithe and at the same time motivate humans to accept that divine claim. These important theological postulates determine and inform the whole theology of stewardship in Mrs. White’s writings and the function of tithing within them.
Specific Theological Concepts and Tithing
The concepts of divine ownership and redemptive love provide a general conceptual frame of reference for tithing as well as for any other aspect of the Christian life. The theology of tithing in the writings of Ellen G. White is directly related to the origin of the concept and practice of tithing and its specific functions. For her, the fact that tithing can be traced back to God’s loving will was of great conceptual and practical significance.
There is no systematic attempt in the writings of Ellen White to demonstrate from Scripture that tithing is still binding on Christians. But she did use several biblical arguments to demonstrate its perpetuity. In fact, her discussion on the origin and perpetuity of tithing has a theological function that enriched her understanding of it.
According to the Bible, the patriarchal stories in Genesis reveal that tithing was practiced before the formation of the theocracy during the time of Moses. Abraham (Gen. 14:20) and Jacob (28:22) already practiced tithing. That biblical information is used by Ellen White to argue that “the tithing system did not originate with the Hebrews. From the earliest times the Lord claimed a tithe as His.”9 At Sinai, the law of tithing was simply reaffirmed in the context of the covenant God made with Israel.
But with prophetic insight Ellen White went beyond what is explicitly indicated in the Scriptures themselves to uncover the very origin of tithing. She implicitly denied that the practice was instituted by humans as a result of social, religious, or financial changes that may have taken place in the world of the ancient Near East. She located the origin of the idea and the practice in God Himself. It “was ordained by God,”10 and “it is divine in its origin.”11 The distinctive arrangement of returning a tithe to God, she wrote, “was made by Jesus Christ Himself”12 and goes, she seems to say, “as far back as the days of Adam,”13 presumably after the Fall. Like marriage, the Sabbath, and the sacrificial system, tithing is removed by her from the field of human inventiveness and creativity and placed in the sphere of the divine mind. No sociological explanation can by itself properly account for the origin of tithing. This, for her, points to the unique nature and perpetuity of the law of tithing and to the goodness of God’s will.
The permanent nature of that law was supported by Jesus who, according to Ellen White, “recognized the payment of tithes as a duty.”14 After quoting Matthew 23:23, in which Christ condemned the scrupulosity with which the Pharisees paid tithe, even on things not required by the law, she commented, “In these words Christ again condemns the abuse of sacred obligation. The obligation itself He does not set aside.”15 Hence, tithing was not “repealed or relaxed by the One who originated it.”16 The fact that its origin preceded the giving of the law at Sinai means that tithing is not to be identified with the ceremonial law. It did not “pass away with the ordinances and sacrificial offerings that typified Christ.”17 In the rest of the New Testament, tithing, like Sabbath keeping, is assumed to be a Christian duty, and it is still “binding upon God’s people in these last days as truly as it was upon ancient Israel.”18
It would appear that soon after the fall of Adam and Eve, the concept and the practice of tithing was instituted by God Himself. Ellen White quotes Him as saying to us: “‘When I entrusted you with My goods, I specified that a portion should be your own, to supply your necessities, and a portion should be returned to Me.’”19 That may very well be an echo of what God said to the original couple. The obvious conclusion is that from the dawn of human history outside the Garden of Eden, tithing was instituted by God on the grounds of His authority as Creator and Redeemer. The law was an expression of His will for us and was to be obeyed.
However, for Ellen G. White, the law was not arbitrarily forced on humans by an all-powerful Lord. God’s will is never arbitrarily established because it always seeks the good of His creatures. Hence, the tithing system is an expression of God’s loving will for the human race in that He originated it to “be a great blessing to man.”20 What was the good that this particular law sought to produce? How was God’s loving concern for humans expressed through it?
Sin, God, Tithing, and the Divine-Human Interaction
In answering this question, Ellen White pointed to the immediate and direct effects of sin on the human race. With the entrance of sin into the world, a new power, evil by nature, claimed lordship over the human race. “A demon became the central power in the world. Where God’s throne should have been, Satan placed his throne.”21 God opened a way for humans to return to Him through the saving work of Christ, making it possible for all to be reinstated as His stewards: “Then it was that the great love of God was expressed to us in one gift, that of his dear Son.”22 Yet human nature had been corrupted and claimed self-sufficiency and independence from God. “A discordant element, born of selfishness, entered man’s life. Man’s will and God’s will no longer harmonized. Adam had united with the disloyal forces, and self-will took the field.”23 It is in the context of that most disturbing tragedy that for very specific reasons, the system of tithes and offerings was instituted by God.
Tithing as a Recognition of God’s Lordship
It was God’s intention through tithing “to impress man that God was the giver of all his blessings.”24 This was now necessary in a world in which there was a conflict between lords over the loyalty of humans. Through tithing, humans were to be reminded of and to acknowledge the goodness of God toward them, so that they might keep fresh in their minds the fact that God was the legitimate Lord of their lives. Through the many blessings that He was constantly pouring on the human race, God was attempting “to draw men to Himself,”25 with the intention not only of saving them but also of being recognized as their Lord. Tithing indicates that humans can find the true center of their lives only in God, in a spirit of willing and grateful submission to Him.
Through the tithing system God was revealing Himself to them as their Lord.
Tithing as a Witness to God’s Power to Preserve Life
Closely related to the previous comments, Ellen White stated that tithing is “an acknowledgment of their [humans’] dependence upon God.”26 The realization that human life and its preservation is directly dependent on God and not on any other power was a direct answer to the false promise of Satan to Adam and Eve—that self-realization was possible only in total independence from God. Ellen White seems to be saying that the rejection of that lie is concretely expressed in the act of tithing. Concerning Christians in particular, she commented that since they have been partakers of God’s grace through the work of salvation in Christ, they should show their appreciation for that gift by giving a faithful tithe. Tithing was instituted by God to teach us to rely on Him for the preservation of our lives and not on ourselves or on any other power.
Tithing and the Restoration of Human Dignity Before God
Through tithing, God was making humans aware of the fact that He was again entrusting to them the responsibility of being stewards of His goods. By bringing our tithe, she writes, we are “declaring that God is the possessor of all our property, and that He has made us stewards to use it to His glory.”27 Ellen White is here emphasizing the tremendous privilege God has granted us by appointing us as His stewards. He was welcoming humans back to a personal relationship with Him with all of the privileges and responsibilities that such a relationship entailed. The purpose of this relationship was to bring glory to God and not to humans. According to her, the alternative for using the tithe and all we have to the glory of God is “selfish indulgence,”28 a monstrous and sinful distortion of His loving intent for us.
Tithing as an Instrument in Character Development
The tithing system was instituted by God as “a training adapted to kill out all narrowing selfishness, and to cultivate breadth and nobility of character.”29 Unquestionably, Ellen White said, “Selfishness lies at the foundation of all sin,”30 and God is constantly helping us in a multiplicity of ways to overcome it in our lives. One of the means He uses is the practice of returning to Him our tithes and offerings. By doing this, we do not selfishly keep for ourselves what the Lord in His loving kindness had provided for us, but rather become channels of His blessings for others. It was God’s intention for us “that we may be His helping hand to bless others.”31
Tithing also contributes to our character development and self-image. Ellen White forcefully argued that through the power of God, the tithing system seeks to bring down the hegemony of selfishness in our sinful nature by assisting us to develop nobility of character. By instituting this system, God was permanently reappointing us as stewards of His goods on this planet and, consequently, reinstating us to a personal relationship with Him as Owner of all. Sin was not permanently able to separate us from God.
The Nature of Tithe
Ellen White did not redefine the biblical understanding of the nature of tithe but reaffirmed and developed it by clarifying some of its implications. The biblical statement concerning the nature of tithe—“‘“It is holy to the Lord”’” (Lev. 27:30, NKJV)—is often repeated by Ellen White. She used the Sabbath to illustrate the nature of tithe: “Like the Sabbath, a tenth of the increase is sacred.”32 She noted that “The very same language is used concerning the Sabbath as in the law of the tithe: “‘The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.’ . . . In like manner a tithe of our income is ‘holy unto the Lord.’”33 The clear implication is that “God reserved to himself a specified portion of man’s time and of his means.”34 It was that divine act that transformed a fraction of time and a portion of our means into holy elements; they became the exclusive possession of God. Tithe is indeed, as she wrote, “God’s portion, not at all the property of man.”35
God owns tithe in a particular and unique way that distinguishes it from His ownership of the universe. Since tithe is sacred and holy, it has not been placed under the control of humans, but under divine control. Confronted by the holiness of tithe, and in order to show respect for the sacred, we are to ask, “What should I do with it?” The answer given by Ellen White is short and to the point: In order to keep it holy, we must return it to God. She found support for this position in God’s command recorded in Malachi 3:10—“‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse’” (NIV).
She noted, very perceptively, that in the divine command, “No appeal is made to gratitude or to generosity.”36 The Lord is not appealing to the gratitude or generosity of the people to motivate them to bring their tithe. For her, the determining factor in tithing was not gratitude or generosity but something more serious and significant, based on the holy nature of tithe. She unambiguously stated, “This is a matter of simple honesty. The tithe is the Lord’s; and He bids us return to Him that which is His own.”37 Ellen White thus lifted tithing from the realm of a ceremonial or cultic practice to the level of a moral responsibility that is not to be controlled by the state of human emotions or tendencies but by the unwavering principle and value of honesty.
The tithe received from all church members, including pastors and workers, is considered by Ellen G. White “a sacred fund.”38 This has some important implications for those who handle it after it is given by church members. At the level of the local church, the sacredness of tithe is acknowledged when it is sent to God’s treasury. Not even the local pastor has the authority to place his or her hand on the tithe. She adds that pastors should not support any plans, presumably from local church members, to divert tithe to an illegitimate use, but should rather preserve its sacredness by placing it in God’s treasury.39
Speaking to church administrators, she wrote, “The tithe money must be kept sacred.”40 Transferring the tithe from the local church to the higher organizations does not alter the nature of tithe; it continues to be holy. And those who administer the tithe have the responsibility to keep it sacred. How do they keep it sacred? According to her, tithe money is “a fund that is consecrated to a sacred purpose”41 by God Himself, and as long as administrators use it in accordance with that “sacred purpose,” it is kept holy.
It would then appear that the holiness of tithe is not simply related to and determined by the fact that it belongs to God. Its holiness is particularly connected to the purpose that God assigned to it. According to Ellen White, there is no such thing as holy tithe in the abstract; nature and function are simply inseparable. It is only improper use of tithe that desecrates it and not, for instance, the bag used to carry it or touching it with unwashed hands. This understanding of the nature of tithe as holy in the sense that it belongs exclusively to God for the particular purpose He assigned to it, plays a major role on what Ellen White has to say about the tithing system in her writings.
The implicit theology of tithing present in the writings of Ellen G. White is based on several important theological concepts that will determine the more pragmatic aspects of the tithing system. It is based first on the concept of God who as Creator owns the universe and everything found in it.
Second, this dimension of God is accompanied by another one that describes the nature of this powerful God in terms of His love and goodness toward His creation. He preserves and provides for all of His creatures because of His loving disposition to give not only from what He has created but also from His own person. This is particularly the case in the salvation. He provides for humans through the work of Christ.
Third, the tithing system is an expression of God’s loving will toward sinful human beings whom He is trying to restore to perfect fellowship with Him and to liberate from the destructive inroads of sin in their existence. Tithing was instituted by God Himself soon after the fall of Adam and Eve and was reaffirmed by Christ during His earthly ministry. It is because of the goodness of this law as an expression of the will of God that it is still to be observed. It has been used by God to help us acknowledge that He is our Lord, that we depend on Him for our existence and not on any other power, and that He wants us to preserve His relationship with us by reinstating us into the role of stewards of His goodness and blessings. Through the expression of God’s loving will for us in the tithing system, He is also attempting to liberate us from the enslaving power of selfishness. The tithing system is fundamentally an expression of the loving nature of God toward sinful human beings.
Ángel Manuel Rodriguez, Th.D., is the former Director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.