An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Tithing–an Unequal Law

Many Mormons argue for a flat tax because, like tithing, it asks the same of everyone. A close reading of D&C 119, however, reminds us that the law of tithing was a substitute for the law of consecration, a more perfect law which the Saints could not live. Section 119 calls for all “surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop,” after which “those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually.” In a modern economy of salaried people “interest” and “increase” have been defined as income—with some disagreement about whether gross income or net income should be counted. Many Mormons of lower incomes struggle to pay tithing, but hardly anyone recognizes the inherent unfairness of asking the same percentage of income from rich and poor alike.

Take a look at a millionaire such as Jon Huntsman, Sr. whose annual income, I’ve heard, is $10 million. He can doubtless cough up $1 million without missing any meals. Now consider a beginning policeman or teacher making $32,000 and supporting a wife and two or three preschool-age kids. Under current tax laws, he won’t owe state or federal income tax—although some will be withheld—without interest—until he files a return. After Social Security and health care insurance are deducted from his paycheck, this guy may be lucky to take home $2,200 a month. Unless they live with relatives, rent or house payment will take almost half their paycheck—leaving a little over $1,000 for food, clothing, car payments, insurance and gasoline. They may also have student loans to pay off.

Do the math and tell me it’s as fair for this man to pay $220 a month tithing as for Jon Huntsman to donate a million a year. I know George and I can afford to donate more than 10% of our income at this time of our lives. Paying tithing when our family was young and our income low was a hardship. Our kids resented seeing our tithing check placed in the hands of the bishop while we drank powdered milk and shopped at thrift stores. Church lessons and talks are replete with stories of financial blessings bestowed upon those with the faith to place their last dollar in a tithing envelope, but monetary blessings eluded us.

D&C 119:5 tells us, “Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties.” Defining surplus is tricky, but many young American families truly have little or no surplus income. And what about members in developing countries where the average income is below $2.00/day? To tithe on their below-sustenance income, these families must take food from their malnourished children. Brad Walker writes about the struggles of LDS families to provide adequate nutrition to their children in Ecuador and Guatemala. These people are the poor the scriptures tell us to care for.

 A wise person said, “Nothing is more unfair than treating unequals equally.” If one of the purposes of tithing is to increase spirituality through sacrifice, it certainly gives the poor greater spiritual blessings than the rich. Somehow I doubt that God thinks the poor need more spirituality than the well-off.

The law of tithing was a replacement for a higher law. As far as I’ve read, God never said it is a perfect law that couldn’t be improved.

Comments on: "Tithing–an Unequal Law" (16)

  1. “Grinding the face of the poor” comes to mind. It’d be interesting to me if this could be verified but I also think the poor are more likely to feel the need of the blessings promised with paying a tithe. This would make the message of tithe primarily a message for the poor — and therefore a doctrine targeted at the poor.

    Really enjoyed the thoughts here, CC.

    • From the spiritual perspective, maybe tithing is a law for the poor. But why isn’t there a law for the rich? I feel for their being left out.

    • “I feel for their being left out.” <– holy crap that's funny. 😀 The advertising says it's a law for everyone. I guess the parable of the laborers could work here? Rather than getting the same pay for less work, some pay various opportunity costs … one a meal or rent, anthor a helicopter. The Lord seems to think it's none of our business to raise a complaint.

      • Just because its none of my business doesn’t mean I won’t raise a complaint. I like your allusion to the parable of the laborers. Is it the rich who come in late (or make small sacrifice) but get full pay?

      • That’s it! I guess the rich could see it the other way. The poor getting a full wage while bringing a relatively small portion. But as you say, my issue is more with the man who thought this parable should teach something higher than justice when what it raally does is teach us to fear a god who does not operate according to anything we can comprehend.

      • Personally, I can think of nothing scarier than trying to please a God who doesn’t operate according to anything we can comprehend.

  2. What? Back when I was a tithepayer I was told that a full tithe was 10% of gross, not net income. Can I file for a refund?

  3. The Church should back off the claim that paying tithing brings blessings, since that establishes a quid pro quo, and that is hardly doctrinal. Buying blessings? We might as well be buying indulgences.

    Paying tithing does give blessings, though likely not monetary, and it its most basic in instills a sense of discipline (I’m a big believer in discipline). I think this is important to note, you can’t always get what you want, and members should realize this. On the flip side, leadership should let members decide what their surplus is and take their answer at their word. I had a Bishop tell me that this was his policy, and I respected him for it (and he took my tithes at my word). Like all things gospel related, some moderation is necessary in all things, to include passions over tithing.

    Bishops should be more open to the plights of others, and members should make an honest, though not crippling assessment of their financial situation.

    • You make a good point that claiming monetary blessings come from paying tithing is akin to buying indulgences.

      An “honest, though not crippling assessment” of one’s financial situation is good advice!

  4. Two of Three said:

    Can anyone tell me where I can find a reference to paying tithing on net and not gross?

    • This still seems to be a carefully guarded secret. Handbook 2 on the web does not have a reference to tithing. The lesson on “Tithes and Offerings” in the current “Gospel Principles” manual uses the standard 1/10 of income without specifying gross or net. I have heard many active members say their bishop leaves it up to them. Unless you have access to Handbook 1, I guess you have to leave it up to your bishop–or your conscience.

  5. I like Alma’s tithing recommendations:

    “And again Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given.” (Mosiah 18:27)

    What’s even better about that teaching, is Alma and his people had just come out from the ruling hand of King Noah, where they had a flat tax (combined tithing + taxes). They paid 20%, which very easily could be 10% for taxes and 10% for tithing. Alma seemed to have recognized the inherent unfairness of flat tax tithing and changed it altogether with his new group and, I say, bravo.

    What’s more, the similarities with “indulgences” are deep and pervasive. Just a few quotes:

    James E. Talmage stated that the blessings of paying a 1/10th tithing are “beyond estimate, as gaged by the coin of the realm, [and] are assured unto him who strictly conforms to the law of the tithe.”

    Marvin J. Ashton stated that:

    “Money in the lives of Latter-day Saints should be used as a means of achieving eternal happiness. … God will open the windows of heaven to use in these matters if we will but live close to Him … .”

    Others, still, have stated that tithing is “…the best investment … if you always pay an honest tithe, the Lord will bless you. It will be the best investment you will ever make.” Some (many?) even suggest that it is “…in a very real sense, a form of fire insurance – insurance against burning, both in this life and in the life to come.”

    The teaching that tithing equates to monetary blessings is so pervasive as to make me cringe…especially when I think of those on, for instance, social security income, making $300/week and barely able to pay rent, let alone food, utilities, etc.

    I’d recommend this reading on the Law of Tithing as practiced in the Old Testament – it sheds much needed light on (a) the approved uses of tithing [hint: it’s not to build multi-million dollar chapels, temples, etc], (b) what tithing really was [hint: it wasn’t 10%] and a few other noteworthy reasons.

    • Maas–
      I agree with you that the notion of paying tithing in order to receive blessings is uncomfortably close to indulgences.

      I think the Mosiah 18:27 scripture on tithing is the most clear on tithing. I do wish I’d remembered to include Deut. 14:22-26 in my post. The notion of spending tithing on food and drink as a form of worship is my favorite!

  6. I have to disagree that “the law of tithing was a substitute for the law of consecration.” It was no such thing. Section 119 clearly that those only those who have first consecrated all their property to the Bishop are to pay the 10% of their increase. The Law of Tithing is not a replacement for consecration. Rather it is part of the Law of Consecration.

    We must keep in mind that Consecration requires all surplus to be consecrated to the Bishop. The initial consecration of surplus property is the first part of tithing. It is to be used for building the Lord’s house, laying the foundation of the priesthood, and for payment of the debts of the first presidency.

    Then every year after that initial consecration the person will pay ten percent of their interest(which they will be consecrating all of it again anyway) as tithing. That 10% is to be used for the “holy priesthood.”

    It can only be given annually because that is the only way to determine if you’ve had an increase. You take all your expenses and subtract them from all the income you’ve received and if you have any left over that is the interest or increase. That portion is what you would consecrate to the bishop of part of the law of consecration. And 10% of that would be paid as tithing as part of the law of tithing.

    It is impossible to live the law of tithing today be cause we are not living the law of consecration. You can only be paying ten percent of your interest AFTER an initial consecration of your surplus. Which means that whatever members of the Church pay ten percent or not cannot be counted as obeying the law of tithing. Rather it is obeying some corrupted version of the law of tithing but disguised under the same name.

    But, yes I do agree with your assessment that requiring everyone to pay a flat rate of ten percent is not fair to the poor and needy. I think you hit the nail on the head. But the problem is not with tithing but rather with the modern L-DS interpretation of tithing.

    When viewed in it’s correct place, as part of the Law of consecration, it becomes a perfectly fair practice. The rich will be consecrating all of their surplus, meaning all of their fortune, except what is need to live on. Ten percent of that number is tithing. Thus the rich are made low. A family that doesn’t have enough money to get by on would not consecrate any surplus, since they have none. They would not pay any tithing. Rather they would receive money out of the amount(not the tithing portion) that was consecrated by others. Thus the poor are exalted.

    The laws of God will only function properly when they are practiced as commanded. We cannot expect to receive blessings when we are not obeying God’s commandments. The “Law of Tithing” as practiced by the L-DS Church today is completely unfair. That is because it is a complete corruption of the Law of Tithing as given in section 119.

    • zo-ma-rah

      Thanks for your careful analysis of Section 119. I, too, like the idea of tithing as an extention of the Law of Consecration, but since neither Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young had much success implementing that law, I doubt any modern leader will take it on. The problem seems to be with deciding what is surplus. Brother Brigham accused the Saints of defining their surplus as animals and property as that which was too inferior to be of value.

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