My brother-in-law called me last week to get my advice about a tithing question, in part, I think, because I have an accounting degree. He had inherited his parent’s home, and needed to pay tithing on it. But it would take time to sell the home, if he decided to do that, and the value of the home might change between the inheritance and when it sells. How should he decide what the home is worth in order to calculate how much tithing he should pay?
I know that this type of question has been asked a lot—my brother-in-law is far from the first to ask what the rules are. And actually, he isn’t the first to ask ME about what the rules of tithing. And the Bloggernacle is full of post after post addressing tithing and what the rules are.
Many Church members are aware of the Church’s stated policy about what tithing is:
The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay ‘one-tenth of all their interest annually,’ which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this.1
And Church practice makes this lack of further explanation clear. There is no equivalent of the US government’s Internal Revenue Service to audit or verify members’ tithing. There is no code of rules published. So if you want to know if you should pay tithing on what you grow in your garden, or your Christmas gifts, or what you inherited from your late relative, there is no stated guidance. You pay what you feel is correct.
Of course, the result is that two equally faithful persons, with exactly the same financial situations, could honestly decide to pay very different amounts of tithing on exactly the same increase.
Should we be ok with this?
Apparently many members aren’t sure. They feel uncomfortable with different treatment—perhaps because our political culture in the United States sees the potential for injustice in different treatment of individuals—and rightly so. This potential injustice also bothers many members when a Bishop treats some members differently than others, or when different Bishops handle the same situation differently (often called “Bishop roulette” or “leadership roulette”)2. A comment I found addresses this to a degree:
In my view, all the concern about what other people are paying sounds a lot like the first hour laborers’ concern that the eleventh hour laborers were getting the same penny. If the Lord is telling me to pay gross, what does it matter if he tells somebody else to pay net? To paraphrase from the New Testament, if I will that he pay net, what is that to thee? 3
The desire that everyone follow the same rules may be what is behind an account from Ernest L. Wilkinson’s diaries:
May 11, 1961, conversation with [First Presidency Member] Henry D. Moyle about the need to provide authoritative definition of what constituted full tithing, particularly that it should be paid before the payment taxes. Moyle agreed, but said as long as President McKay and President Clark were in the First Presidency there was no chance to get any authoritative interpretation.4
It is also likely behind the questions that accounting and tax professionals who are members, bishops, stake presidents and general authorities frequently get about what the rules are. And it is the reason for the Church’s statement above, which basically says that there aren’t any rules except “10% of your increase”.
Seeking specific detailed rules for tithing, or any other doctrine for that matter, has been tried many times by many different groups—I think its actually been common among small and conservative religious groups. As I understand it, its the motivation behind those we know as the Pharisees. And, from what I read, much of the Talmud is very specific rules like this. For that matter, isn’t much of Deuteronomy and Leviticus detailed rules that seem obscure today?
And today our system of laws is built on this kind of thinking — detailed rules made even more specific by formal interpretation, often addressing exceptions to the rule. The detail of the tax laws and regulations reached the point a couple of decades ago that by law the IRS must publish estimates of the amount of time it takes to fill out each form.
This last fact — the requirement that the IRS publish estimates of form preparation time — demonstrates the where this problem leads. What we spend our time thinking about matters. In the case of taxes or of tithing, do we really want thinking about money to take up so much of our lives? Is the gospel really about spending our time thinking about how to follow the rules?
So lets ask ourselves, do we really need rules for every situation?
President Oaks in particular has weighed in on this. He said:
As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. … But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord. 5
And in one of the comments I came across elsewhere, the commentator related hearing President Oaks say in a stake conference:
“In our church we don’t have rules. We have doctrine and we have principles.” 6
Taking President Oaks’ statements is the Church’s view, there seems to be not only a lot of room for different interpretations (and results) of the law of tithing, but also a clear reliance on Joseph Smith’s saying to “teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
For me this idea flows logically and directly from our teaching that we are spiritual children of heavenly parents. Their goal is our “immortality and eternal life,” which presumably (I believe) includes training us to be successful and moral beings, who know how to reason through making decisions that are correct and moral. Giving us, their children, a detailed and specific rule book can’t possibly help us learn how to make such decisions.
Obedience may be the starting point in learning how to make moral decisions, but it can’t be the whole training program. If we have been put in a place, as we teach, where there are buffers to keep us from the most eternally deleterious effects of mistakes through the atonement, then isn’t the point likely that we should try to make decisions in the absence of specific rules? Aren’t we supposed to be figuring out how to apply the principles we’ve been taught?
In addition, if we are all learning in this life, we should not be surprised that some church members are focused on the rules. Human beings seem designed to learn over their lives, and this focus on rules is, I believe, a feature of various times during our lives. It may be annoying to those who are not focused on the rules, but I think it is so common that almost everyone will remember some point in their lives when they were focused on rules. Why should we be bothered when that is where someone else is in their spiritual development? If we want them to let us grow spiritually, then we have to let them grow spiritually also!
Like every gospel principle and doctrine, tithing contains a lot of elements that allow us to understand and practice the gospel better. Since, as we’re sometimes reminded, it is a “lesser” portion of the law of consecration, it can help us realize how to focus less on money and more on giving. It can help us be more careful about our finances and think clearer about what money means to us. It can even lead us to focus on the economic system we live in and what that system should do for us. And it can help us get away from a “scarcity” mindset.
But perhaps most important of all, we should use this as one example of how the rules and correct practice are less important than the process of working through and understanding the principles of the gospel; as well as the process of finding solutions to the inevitable moral decisions we face in this life, and that I suspect we will also face in the eternities.
- Ensign (December 1986), 14 and many other places, including the Church Handbook of Instructions. ↩
- Please note that I am NOT suggesting that the differences in how bishops handle problems is always correct. I’m merely suggesting that some of this is really about how we see rules and comparing ourselves to others when we shouldn’t. I haven’t addressed here everything that needs to be addressed about “leadership roulette” ↩
- See: https://bycommonconsent.com/2007/02/28/questions-about-tithing/#comment-68839 ↩
- D. Michael Quinn’s typed notes of excerpts from Ernest L. Wilkinson diaries, 1952-196, 1 Uncat. WA MS.119, Beinecke Library, Yale University. As cited here: https://bycommonconsent.com/2007/02/28/questions-about-tithing/#comment-68958 ↩
- Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Dating versus Hanging Out. CES Fireside, Oakland, California May 1, 2005. in Ensign, June 2006, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2006/06/dating-versus-hanging-out?lang=eng ↩
- https://bycommonconsent.com/2007/02/28/questions-about-tithing/#comment-68871 ↩