Imagine that everything in the church is precisely the way that it is now with two exceptions:
1. The handbook has absolutely nothing to say about how tithing money should be processed.
2. The tradition in virtually every unit of the church is that the bishop handles tithing alone, behind his closed office door.
Imagine that you become aware of the possible problems that this system could cause and so you express them to me and wish for change.
I tell you that there is nothing in the handbook prohibiting tithing from being handled differently, and so if the status quo bugs you or anyone else, you should advocate for change on the local level. You might find my response inadequate for the following reasons:
1. The wards most likely to have problems under the status quo (i.e., cheating bishops) are the ones least likely to adopt new policies.
2. By suggesting that the problem be solved in an ad hoc, local manner, I have denied that there is a systemic problem. If there is a systemic problem, this is the wrong response. Addressing a systemic problem locally denies that it is a systemic problem. This denial reveals one’s opinion of the advisability of the practice in question; in this case, that protecting tithing money is not important to the church as a whole, but might possibly be done in some places if a certain leader can be convinced that it is a good idea.
3. By punting tithing oversight policies to the local level, I am asking you to go in to your bishop and say, in effect, “I’m worried you might be STEALING MY MONEY, so I think we should adopt new policies that no other ward in the church has.” This is unlikely to go over well. It is, rather, likely to lead to contention. Avoidance of contention is a prime LDS virtue and robust general-level policies help us avoid it by leaving fewer decisions over which to contend at the local level.
4. Innovating on the ward level disturbs the consistency between wards and risks creating wards of different temperaments, which increases the incentive for ward shopping, which further increases the polarization between wards. And that story never ends well.
This post isn’t about tithing but rather is an analogical and partial response to Neylan McBaine’s new book Women at Church. I will write a full review in another venue, but in the mean time, I wanted to balance the intense and well-deserved praise that the book is receiving with some concerns about a bottom-up approach to change in the church. I am not claiming that these concerns outweigh the benefits; I am claiming that it is a question that we need to seriously consider.