The Tithe Problem, Part I

The Tithe Problemby Ralph Larson

An Open Letter to the Church

Dear Brethren: For several years I have been receiving from many troubled church members questions about their Christian stewardship of tithes and offerings. The central problem in their minds has been whether God required them to give financial support to the preaching of doctrines that they believed to be contrary to our faith

In response to those questions, I spent much time in research in the Spirit of Prophecy and published a report of my findings on the subject in Our Firm Foundation, September, 1991. My conclusions were the same as those that had been reached by Elders Willie White, A. 0. Daniells, and W. W. Prescott, who had conducted similar research in the early 1900’s.

The reaction to my report on the part of some church officials has been unusual, to say the least. A Union president wrote to me a letter bristling with personal abuse. The president of the Canadian Union, D. Douglas Devnich, wrote a two- page article in the December, 1991, issue of The Canadian Union Messenger, in which he applied to me and to my article such malicious terms as “half- truths”, “distorts the writings of Ellen White”, “gross misquotations drawn out of context”, “accuses the pastors and leaders of the Church with falsity and apostasy”, “deceptive”, “dishonesty”, “willful intent to mislead”, “unscrupulous”, etc.

With minor changes, this article was reprinted in the Columbia Union Visitor, April, 1992, and described as “important counsel beneficial to members around the world”.

This unprecedented procedure has been very disturbing to many church members who have not previously witnessed our church papers being used for launching personal attacks against the character and integrity of a Seventh- day Adventist minister. And since my conclusions were identical with the conclusions of Willie White, A. 0. Daniells, and W. W. Prescott, the question also arises, “Are these former church leaders not being similarly condemned as persons of no integrity?”

And why do church administrators and editors rush such accusations into print without checking them for accuracy, thereby seeming to establish a new low in journalistic irresponsibility?

These questions are lent added significance by the fact that the accusations in the Devnich article can be readily demonstrated to be without foundation. To illustrate this point, I will hereby offer Pastor Devnich a reward of $1,000 if he will produce from my writings a statement that “accuses the pastors and leaders of the church with falsity and apostasy”, as he charged in the Canadian Union Messenger.

I firmly deny that in my writings there are “gross misquotations drawn out of context”, and I challenge Pastor Devnich and those who have reprinted his article to produce their evidence in support of this charge. I will also offer to Pastor Devnich an additional reward of $1,000 if he will produce from my writings a “gross misquotation drawn out of context” from the writings of Ellen White or any author.

Pastor Devnich accuses me of distorting a passage in Testimonies, vol. 7, 176- 177 on the grounds that the word “tithe” does not appear there. I made no claim that the word “tithe” does appear there. The word “stewardship” does appear there several times. I see no way that the responsibilities of Christian stewardship can be properly fulfilled without the payment of tithe. Many persons, speaking in behalf of the SDA organization, have invoked the story of the widow and her two mites (Mark 12: 42) as evidence that all tithe should be paid through organizational channels regardless of existing conditions. Yet, the word “tithe” does not appear in that story. Shall we, therefore, accuse these persons as being “deceptive”, “dishonest”, “unscrupulous”, etc.?

Several weeks ago a “leak” was communicated to me from our world headquarters that my name was at or near the top of a “hit list” of persons who were to be disfellowshiped from the church. I was told that the first step in the planned procedure would be the launching of a smear campaign for the purpose of destroying my reputation and character, which would prepare the minds of the church members for the disfellowshiping that would follow.

The first part of the procedure appears to be well under way, but have the results of this action been carefully considered? What will be the reaction of fair- minded church members? When church members learn that the appalling charges are without foundation in fact, how will this affect their confidence in church leadership? Will this draw them closer to the organization, or will it have the opposite effect?

May I respectfully suggest that all of you have a responsibility in this matter. I believe that since the false accusations have been spread world- wide, there must be an equally world- wide correction.

The church, which by the various articles, has had its attention drawn to this unprecedented personal attack, is watching to see whether there will be fair play and justice. It would seem that a minimal standard of fairness would require that such an accused person should be provided opportunity and space in the papers to respond to the accusations that have been made. I have made this request twice to the editors of The Canadian Union Messenger without results. I am hereby drawing it to your attention and requesting that your influence be exercised in behalf of justice and fair play.

Contrary to what you may have heard, I have never spoken against the church to which I and my wife have given our lives in service. I have spoken out against apostasy in the church, which I understand to be a fulfillment of my ordination vow. In all of my travels and in all of my seminars I urge people to never leave the church but to work for its revival and reformation. My theology is precisely and specifically the theology set forth in the book Seventh- day Adventists Believe. If I am divisive, that book is also divisive.

And one last question, Brethren. If you are the captain of the ship and a crew member warns you that there is a dangerous leak in the hull, what is the wisest procedure? To repair the leak or to throw the crewman overboard?

May the Lord bless and guide you as you consider this matter.

Very sincerely yours,

The Tithe Problem Part I

Today the question of accountable stewardship is becoming an issue in the minds of many Seventh- day Adventists. The awareness that we all have an individual accountability before the heavenly universe, to administer the trust committed to us of God has, in recent years, raised questions in our minds as to how to best fulfill that responsibility. It is not the purpose of this paper to solicit funds, or to attempt to point out what one’s personal responsibility is, but to give our readers information that will help them fulfill their position as God’s stewards.

The subject of tithe has come to be an emotional mine field, and so let us proceed with caution. Voices usually calm are likely to become strident when the subject is introduced, and not infrequently, strongly stirred feelings find expression in bitter accusations. Yet the problem is real, and it is here. It shows no sign of diminishing, but rather is steadily increasing. Ignoring it is not likely to be an adequate answer, nor yet is indulging in emotional outbursts which tend to aggravate tensions rather than to relieve them. Is it possible to calmly consider this problem? Let us try.

My own exposure to the problem has been educational. While I was teaching classes of ministers in the Asian Adventist Theological Seminary I sometimes met the question, “Is it ever proper to send tithe anywhere other than through the regular church channels?” I answered the question with a firm and uncompromising “No. Diverting the tithe to other than the regular church channels could never, under any circumstances, be the right thing to do.”

I must confess that I did not give this answer because of evidence that I had seen, but because of evidence that I was sure I would find in the Spirit of Prophecy if I looked for it. However, since the question did not seem to be an urgent one at the time, and I was very busy with classes, evangelistic meetings, and other projects, I did not engage in any research on this particular topic.

But upon returning to the States in 1985 I was surprised to find that the question was seriously troubling many church members. With full confidence I set out to find the Spirit of Prophecy evidence that tithe should always go through the regular church channels and never anywhere else. This research brought my second and much greater surprise. I did not find what I was looking for. It just was not in the inspired writings.

Was I failing to properly understand what I had read? Apparently not. I did find a statement regarding the question that had been prepared by Willie White (Ellen White’s son and secretary), Elder A. G. Daniells, and Elder W. W. Prescott, which indicated that neither had they found such evidence in Ellen White’s writings. The historical context of their statement is as follows:

On May 9, 1907, a Charles E. Stewart of Battle Creek sent to Ellen White’s office at Sanitarium, California, a 49- page compilation of questions and charges intended to cast doubt on the Spirit of Prophecy as manifested in her ministry. In October of the same year, the material was bound into a small book and published, apparently in Battle Creek. At some later date it was republished by another of Ellen White’s critics, E. S. Baflenger, of Riverside, California. Document WDF 213, in the White Estate Office in Loma Linda, is a record of the plans made by Willie White, Daniells, and Prescott to deal with the charges in the book, one of which was that Ellen White’s counsels and practice in regard to the tithe were not consistent, in that she did not always follow her own recommendations. Paragraph six on page two of the document is a clear statement of how these brethren understood the totality of Ellen White’s teachings in regard to the paying of tithe. “ 6. As to the proper use of the tithe: The outline of a statement on this subject which was agreed upon was briefly this: To give extracts from Sister White’s writings as to the tithe and its use; to show that her testimony and her own usual practice was in favor of paying the tithe into the regularly designated treasury, to be used under the counsel of the committees appointed for such purposes; to show further from her writings that when those who have charge of the expenditure of the tithe so far fail in the discharge of their duty that the regularly organized channels for the distribution of tithe become hindrances to its proper use, then in order to carry out the divine plan that the tithe should be expended in the wisest manner for the furtherance of the work, individuals have the right to pay their tithes direct to the needy fields; but that this involves a considerable degree of personal responsibility, which must be assumed by those who decide to follow this plan. It was thought that this matter could be handled in a way to show that the departure from the regular plans was authorized only when the regular plans failed to be carried out by those in positions of responsibility.”

This statement appeared to be strong evidence that I had not misunderstood the materials I had examined. The conclusions of these brethren were not different from my conclusions, after my study.

As indicated in the quotation, their purpose was to enlarge the outline into a tract or paper on the subject. We would, no doubt, find it helpful if we could read the paper itself, but I have not yet been able to locate a copy.

Certain basic points in regard to tithe paying stand out very clearly in Ellen White’s writings. She had no doubt that returning tithe to the I£ rd is a Christian duty, and that a failure to perform this duty is tantamount to stealing from God (see Malachi 3). She is equally clear and firm in her conviction that the tithe has only one proper use, the support of the ministry of the Word of God. Although she includes those who minister with pen as well as with voice, she specifically excludes other forms of Christian endeavor, such as “school purposes” and “canvassers and colporteurs” (See Testimonies, vol. 9, 248- 249), a poor fund or church expense. See Counsels on Stewardship, 103, and other references.

According to the testimony of God’s inspired messenger, tithe should always be faithfully returned to the Lord, and all of the tithe should be used for the support of the ministry. But which ministry or what ministry? This is the question that is troubling us now. What if a ministry strays from the path of sacred duty? What if a ministry becomes so theologically confused as to depart from the truths of God’s Word and begins preaching a false gospel? What if church leaders begin to use tithe funds for purposes other than the ministry of the Word, such as those listed above, or even to pay the fees of non- Adventist lawyers? What, then, is our Christian duty? We may seek to escape from these troubling questions by shrugging them off and saying, “There is no need for us to concern ourselves about things like that. They could not happen in our church.” But in view of Ellen White’s predictions of a great Adventist apostasy, is this a realistic attitude? Willie White, Daniells, and Prescott took no such position. They did not deny the possibility of a malfeasance, as indicated by these words:”. .. when those who have charge of the expenditure of the tithe shall so far fail in the discharge of their duty that the regular organized channels for the distribution of the tithe become hindrances to its proper use . .

“When the regular plans failed to be carried out by those in positions of responsibility . . . .” Document WDF, 213

Let us remind ourselves that these brethren were not expressing their own opinions. They were setting forth what they understood to be the totality of the teachings of Ellen White. They had before them the example of Ellen White. In the year 1905, two years before their meeting, Ellen White had written a letter to the president of the Colorado conference in which she had revealed that “for years” she had been using her tithe to assist needy ministers who were being neglected by the organization. When this statement was first called to my attention, I dismissed it very easily (I thought) by saying, “She was a prophet, and I am not a prophet. God often gives instructions to His prophets that do not apply to other people.”

But the matter is not quite that simple. The letter also revealed that when other persons offered her their tithe to use as she thought best, she accepted it and used it as indicated above, in support of needy ministers. Perhaps we could still say that she was exercising the prerogatives of a prophet, since the money passed through her hands.

But that would not be true of the third type of tithepayers who are mentioned in her letter: “If there have been cases where our sisters have appropriated their tithe to the support of the ministers working for the colored people in the south, let every man, if he is wise, hold his peace.”

There is no suggestion that this money passed through her hands, or that she was consulted about it. The money was apparently sent directly to needy ministers whose condition had become known to the tithepayers. Ellen White obviously did not disapprove of the actions of these persons, much less accuse them of “stealing” the tithe.

We must recognize that Willie White, Daniells, and Prescott, who were charged with the responsibility of setting forth a comprehensive statement regarding Ellen White’s counsel and practice regarding tithe paying, were faithful to the evidence that was before them. They frankly reported their findings to the people, with neither understatement nor overstatement. They felt that there was no self- contradiction between Ellen White’s writings and her practice. In neither her writings nor her practice was there any- thing to support the view that all tithe, regardless of circumstances, must be paid through regular church channels.

It is probable that they did not anticipate any great trouble for the church organization as the result of the publishing their frank statement. The conditions that they described as making it permissible, according to Ellen White’s writings, for a church member to exercise individual judgment in deciding where to send tithe, (the failure of persons in places of responsibility to use the tithe for its proper purpose) hardly existed in their time, if they existed at all. These leaders could not have been expected to foresee the conditions that have now developed in the church as a result of the great Adventist apostasy that has been the subject of this series of studies.

But church members in our time could hardly be expected not to see these conditions. Many have recoiled in horror from the revelation that hundreds of thousands of dollars of sacred tithe funds have been used to employ Catholic and other non- Adventist lawyers to sue and prosecute persons for calling themselves Seventh- day Adventists, and in at least one case assessing huge fines and putting the person in jail.

Some members may not be aware of such specific incidents as this, but it would be difficult for any member in the North American Division to be unaware of the great theological apostasy which is the very heart of the tithe problem. He or she is likely to encounter it in church on any Sabbath morning.

It is an undeniable fact that there are pastors in Seventh- day Adventist churches, teachers in Seventh- day Adventist colleges, and persons at all levels of church administration who are persistently presenting as truth the devil’s great lie, that Christians cannot stop sinning even by the power of God. Ellen White has identified this assertion no fewer than 35 times as a lie that originated in the heart of Satan, and that was proved to be false by our Lord Jesus Christ. Undoubtedly the strongest of her statements is this:

“Satan declared that it was impossible for the sons and daughters of Adam to keep the law of God, and thus charged upon God a lack of wisdom and love. If they could not keep the law, then there was fault with the Lawgiver. Men who are under the control of Satan repeat these accusations against God, in asserting that men can not keep the law of God. Jesus humbled Himself, clothing His divinity with humanity, in order that He might stand as the head and representative of the human family, and by both precept and example condemn sin in the flesh, and give the lie to Satan’s charges.” Signs of the Times, vol. 3, 264

May we suggest a second thoughtful reading of the above inspired statement? Its implications are staggering. Can it be possible that there are ministers, teachers, and administrators all through our ranks who are under the control of Satan? If the writings of Ellen White are inspired, we have no choice but to believe it.

Here is the heart of the tithe problem. Here is the answer to our question, Who is responsible? Would it not be the ministers who present poison from the pulpits, the teachers who present poison in the classrooms, and the administrators who support and defend them, ignoring desperate appeals from church members?

To blame the tithe problem on independent ministries is as illogical and unjust as to blame the historic Adventists for divisions being created in the church by the preaching of the false doctrines of Calvinism among us. May we here earnestly appeal for clear thinking and fair judgment on this matter?

Consider the problem of a church member who understands our message, is devoted to the truth as it is in Jesus, and has always been a faithful tithepayer. During the years he has built up a small library of Ellen White’s writings and has studied them with care. Then he is confronted with a series of shocks.

On Sabbath he hears his pastor proclaim that our Lord came to earth in the human nature of the unfallen Adam, making Him very different from ourselves. He finds it puzzling, and so spends some time on Sabbath afternoon looking through his copy of The Desire of Ages. He finds the opposite affirmed to be true on pages 25, 49, 112, 117, 174- 175, and 311- 312. Soon after, he hears his pastor preach that it is impossible for Christians, by any means, to stop sinning and that it is impossible for anyone to obey the law of God. In his The Desire of Ages the church member finds this statement described as Satan’s lie on pages 24,29, 117, and 761, and he finds in that volume a total of 78 statements that it is possible, through the power of Christ for Christians to obey God’s law. He then turns to The Great Controversy and reads on page 489 that “[ Satan] is constantly seeking to deceive the followers of Christ with his fatal sophistry that it is impossible for them to overcome.”

As this heart- wrenching experience continues, the church member is eventually forced to recognize that Ellen White’s predictions about the great Adventist apostasy are being fulfilled before his eyes. Then comes the agonizing question, “Does God require me to pay my tithe to support the great apostasy?”

Like many others before him, he decides that this line of reasoning just doesn’t make sense. He then turns to an independent ministry holding the Seventh- day Adventist historic faith, preaching the message that he accepted when he joined the church. He now begins to send his tithe to that ministry.

Now the question for every fair- minded person to consider is, Who is responsible? Has the church member’s problem been created by the independent ministry, or by the preaching of the false doctrines of Calvinism in his own church?

And will this problem be solved by crushing independent ministries and letting the false preaching continue? The answer is self- evident. To destroy the independent ministries will not solve the church member’s problem, nor will it be solved by cracking whips of church authority over his head, excluding him from church office, or by any other means of coercion.

Tragically, this obvious truth seems to be lost on some church administrators who continue to condemn and rail at independent ministries as if they were the cause of all the difficulty, and that the solution is simply to put them out of existence. It appears that some of these ministries are now being threatened with church discipline as a first step in that direction.

I have been invited to several meetings ostensibly called for the purpose of resolving tensions between independent ministries and the church organization. At none of these meetings did I discern the slightest recognition that the preaching of false doctrines in our churches was the real problem, or even any part of the problem. At none of them did I hear the slightest hint that any attempt would be made to correct this evil. Rather, the message delivered to the independent ministries is simple, “You, and only you, are the problem, and if you do not stop what your are doing, in particular if you do not stop accepting tithe, you are going to suffer the consequences.”

Some are already suffering the consequences. Members of independent ministries have in some places been denied the right to transfer their membership either into or out of the churches where they live. It should be remembered that transfers are a right of church membership and may be denied, according to the church manual, only by properly conducted church disciplinary actions. See pages 162- 163 of the Church Manual.

For that matter, the Church Manual also recognizes the right of independent ministries to exist (see page 158), and also provides that no church member’s standing should be called in question because of his failure to give financial support to the church. See page 165

But strong emotion is the enemy of reason, and as we noted at the beginning of this study, emotions tend to run high when the tithe problem is mentioned- so high that in some cases neither appeals to the Church Manual, to the Spirit of Prophecy, or even to the Bible itself bring any result.

Emotional tensions also contribute to the mishandling of evidence found in various public statements about tithe, and the accusations accompanying them. Possibly the outstanding example of mishandled evidence is a variety of Ellen White statements, written to show that tithe should be used only for the ministry of the Word and not for other Christian endeavors, are misconstrued to mean that tithe should be paid only to one ministry of the Word and not to the other minis- tries of the Word. An oft- quoted example of this misconception is on page 247 of Testimonies, vol. 9:

“Let none feel at liberty to retain their tithe, to use according to their own judgment. They are not to use it for themselves in an emergency, nor to apply it as they see fit, even in what they may regard as the Lord’s work.” Emphasis supplied

What Ellen White meant by the clause “what they may regard as the Lord’s work,” is made clear on the following pages by these lines:

“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.” 248- 249

In view of the general frailty of human nature, and the specific predictions by Ellen White that there would be many apostates in the Seventh- day Adventist ministry in the last days, (see Testimonies to Ministers, 409- 410; Testimonies, vol. 5, 80- 81, 707) it would have been hazardous indeed for the messenger of the Lord to have singled out any particular group of ministers as the only ones who should ever be supported by tithe, and even more hazardous to maintain that they must be supported by tithe regardless of what they might be teaching or doing.

“It would be poor policy to support from the treasury of God those who really mar and injure His work, and who are constantly lowering the standard of Christianity.” Testimonies, vol. 3, 553

“There are fearful woes for those who preach the truth, but are not sanctified by it, and also for those who consent to receive and maintain the unsanctified to minister to them in word and doctrine.” Ibid., vol. 1, 261- 262

“As there are woes for those who preach the truth while they are unsanctified in heart and life, so there are woes for those who receive and maintain the unsanctified in the position which they cannot fill.” Ibid., vol. 2, 552

Let us take note, also, of Ellen White’s use of the expression, “the treasury of God.” In her letter to the Conference president to which we have already referred, she first tells of her practice and then adds, “The money is not withheld from the Lord’s treasury.” Obviously she did not have the limited view of “the Lord’s treasury” that some have today.

Some independent ministries have pointed out Ellen White’s statements that it is not necessary for all “funds” or “means” to flow through the same channels, and since no exception is stated in regard to tithe, they have concluded, not unreasonably, that these general terms include both tithes and offerings. But some writers have seized upon this conclusion and made it the basis for accusations of dishonesty. Surely this accusation could be termed uncontrolled emotionalism. We certainly want to have much stronger evidence before we accuse any persons of being dishonest.

You and I cannot solve the problems of the church nor the problems of the independent ministries, but we can and must resolve our own personal and individual problem in regard to the type of ministry that we support with our tithe. This problem is best solved by each one of us on his knees before the I£ rd, with the inspired writings before him. Probably none of us should presume to instruct others as to their duty.

Some may think of the widow and her two mites upon whom the Lord pronounced a blessing in spite of the corruption among church leaders at that time.

Others may reflect that we have no evidence that the widow was aware of the corruption, and that in any case there was no representative church government such as we have now. Some will be influenced by Ellen White’s statement:

“God desires to bring men into direct relation with . . . . . Every man has been made a steward of sacred trusts; each is to discharge his trust according to the direction of the Giver; and by each an account of his stewardship must be rendered to God . . . . We are responsible to invest this means ourselves.” Testimonies, vol. 7, 176- 177

“Do we individually realize our true position, that as God’s hired servants we are not to bargain away our stewardship? We have an individual accountability before the heavenly universe, to administer the trust committed us of God.” Testimonies to Ministers, 361- 362

And we must not overlook the warnings previously quoted that there are woes upon those who consent to receive and maintain ministers whose unsanctified attitudes injure the work of God.

It has not been the purpose of this study to give directions to any person as to his individual responsibility. It has been our purpose to prove the following points:

  1. There is no biblical or Spirit of Prophecy evidence to support the view that all tithe must, regardless of circumstances, be paid through organizational channels. Such a position might in some cases require that outright apostasy be supported by tithe, which is far beyond the boundaries of reason.
  2. We have been given through God’s appointed messenger an abundance of clear warnings that there would be a time when apostate ministers would be preaching in many Seventh- day Adventist pulpits, and that the apostasy would sweep through the ranks of our ministers and our members.
  3. If we are to take Ellen White’s words at their face value, that time has at least partially arrived, in that many ministers are now occupying Seventh- day Adventist pulpits who are preaching as truth the devil’s great lie- that Christians cannot stop sinning even through the power of Christ. By unmistakably clear Spirit of Prophecy definition, such ministers are “under the control of Satan.”

Therefore, as Christian stewards under God, we have a solemn responsibility to fulfill in regard to our tithes and our offerings.

May the Lord help each one of us to prayerfully, carefully, and conscientiously return the sacred tithe, as the Lord has directed, for the support of the ministry. May we never be confused and uncertain as to what kind of ministry the Lord deems worthy to receive the tithe. And may we never be confused or uncertain as to who is responsible for the present tithe problem. The responsibility must be placed squarely at the doors of those who are preaching among us the false doctrines of Calvinism and the administrators who are supporting and maintaining them in their positions.

The messenger of the Lord counseled parents, guardians of youth, and those who minister in the service of God:

“When existing evils are not met and checked, because men have too little courage to reprove wrong, or because they have too little interest or are too indolent to tax their own powers in putting forth earnest efforts to purify the family or the church of God, they are accountable for the evil which may result in consequence of neglect to do their duty. We are just as accountable for evils that we might have checked in others, by reproof, by warning, by exercise of parental or pastoral authority, as if we were guilty of the acts ourselves.” Testimonies, vol. 4,516

May God give us faith, courage, and power in these troubled times to know and do the will of the Lord.

Part II