"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
March 29, 2013
Tithing -- the Higher Law
by Orson Scott Card

I was always taught that tithing was a "lower" law, that because the Church failed in its attempts to live the Law of Consecration back in the 1830s, tithing was instituted as a temporary substitute.

Maybe it's helpful to have that attitude. "As hard as tithing sometimes is, it could be harder!"

But let's remember that "tithes and offerings" have been around from the beginning. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. Malachi told Israel that failing to pay tithes and offerings was robbing God.

Tithing really doesn't seem all that temporary to me.

Think of it this way. Joseph Smith's attempt to institute the Law of Consecration required that we give our "surplus" to the bishop. But that takes us to a realm of utter madness, since "surplus" is impossible to define.

Think of a farmer. Until harvest time, he doesn't know what how much crop he'll have and he doesn't know what price it will fetch in the market. But all through the year he's been borrowing against that harvest. As often as not, there is no surplus.

Or suppose he doesn't want to borrow. In that case, he will have to live all of next year on what he makes from this harvest. Since he can't know what all his expenses will be, or what next year's harvest will be worth, there is no way he can declare any of this year's harvest to be "surplus."

For all he knows, nothing will ever be surplus.

Tithing, on the other hand, is a flat ten percent of your "increase." Even though there's a lot of flexibility in "increase," it's way clearer, and results in far more offerings to the Lord, than "surplus."

People can quibble themselves to death over strict definition of "increase," which is why the Church refuses to spell it out, leaving it up to individuals to work out with the Lord, with the bishop as witness and adviser.

But that "ten percent" number means that every single person is expected to pay something on that order, unless they actually suffered losses during that year. (And even with losses, most people pay ten percent of income anyway.)

Tithing you can pay right along, as you earn money, instead of waiting till the end of the year to find out what your "surplus" is.

Tithing, then, is more demanding than "surplus" was in Joseph Smith's attempt at the Law of Consecration. There's no wait-and-see. It is a higher law.

Tithing Our Time

Tithing is to our money what church callings are to the "time and talents" portion of the temple covenant of Consecration.

You don't call the bishop up on a Friday afternoon and say, "It seems I'll have a couple of hours of 'surplus' time from 5:00 to 7:30 tonight. What does the Lord want me to do?"

Instead, we accept callings and then arrange our schedules to allow us to fulfil them.

If we have a lesson to teach, then we find the time -- we make the time -- to prepare for it. We aren't using "surplus" time; we're pushing other possible uses for our time down the priority list in order to put lesson-preparation time closer to the top.

This is the principle involved in tithing, isn't it? We give the "firstlings of the flock"; we take tithing out of our paychecks first.

We peel off ten percent of our earnings before we decide how much we can afford to pay for a house, a car, food, transportation, entertainment. If we didn't take tithing into account before making all other financial decisions, we would never be able to pay tithing at all.

Likewise, when we have a calling, we drop other activities in order to fulfil our obligation of service.

And just as tithing is supplemented with "offerings" to whatever degree is possible, so also we "go the extra mile" in our service.

It's not just the lesson we are called to teach every week. It's also helping set up or put away chairs, giving rides to a dance, accompanying youth on a temple trip, subbing in nursery, cleaning the building, going out with the missionaries, singing in the choir, playing piano or leading the singing on the spur of the moment because nobody else in the group can, fixing somebody's broken faucet because you know how and they don't.

None of these take place in "surplus" time. Instead, our time is tithed on a regular, plannable basis (with our official callings) and then we add "offering" time as needs crop up.

This became the pattern of LDS life without anybody deciding that's how we would live the Law of Consecration.

In the early days of the Church, most of these callings didn't exist. Primary, Sunday School, Young Men and Young Women -- each of these organizations grew up with its own history. They began as extras.

You consecrated your time and talents and everything the Lord had blessed you with by selling all that you had -- or, sometimes, just walking away from it -- and gathering with the Saints.

You picked up and moved to new colonies when President Brigham Young called you to. You gave up everything to live a Mormon life.

But gradually we stopped gathering; gradually, Church membership became compatible with living a regular life in the ordinary world.

Along the way, we gradually developed a replacement for the extravagant sacrifices of the early days.

In the new system, every member became a minister in one organization or another. Instead of giving up our entire previous way of life, we stayed in the world -- and tithed our time week by week.

The Flexible Roster

We have in our minds a mental chart of all the ward's callings: Presidents and counselors, teachers, secretaries and clerks. Music callings. Mission callings. Welfare service callings.

When we come into a new ward, we immediately know what we can expect from each named calling. One Relief Society counselor will be in charge of the teaching.

There will be a compassionate service leader who will call you to assign food to bring to a family in crisis.

If someone is called to be assistant scoutmaster or priests quorum instructor or work in the nursery or teach a Primary class or serve as financial clerk, we have some rough idea of how much time the job will take.

There are the callings you can do year after year, and there are the "burnout callings" where after a year or two you are desperate for a change.

Of course, this can differ from person to person. For me, teaching gospel doctrine or priests quorum are callings I could do forever and it wouldn't even feel like work, but after two years as Young Men's president I was completely burned out, despairing in the knowledge that no matter how this week's activity went, I had to plan another for the next week.

That may have had to do with the fact that our ward was so small that at times there were only me and one counselor available for activity nights -- and he was a fireman and so had to miss one week out of three. We taught on Sunday (the easy part for me) and then two or three days later had to run an activity.

I've sat in bishop's offices in huge Utah wards where they had lists of active members without callings. The existence of the list says, "What can we find for this person to do?"

But here in our ward in Greensboro, North Carolina, the question is more like:

"Which person who already has two or three callings can we give this assignment to?" "Can they possibly do both callings or do we have to release them from the previous calling? Because then we have to find somebody to do that."

Callings expand to use up the available time of the available members; they shrink to fit when everyone is giving all that they can to the Lord.

Callings Are Us

The time that members are willing to donate to the Church is a precious coin, and nobody is "rich." They all have the same 168 hours a week to divide among sleep, job, child-rearing, meals, housekeeping, errands -- and church service.

Yet how do we view this system, as Church members?

Most of us take our primary identity from our Church calling.

If someone asks me, "What do you do?" my first answer is not "I'm a writer" or "I teach at Southern Virginia University."

The first thought that comes to my mind is, "Right now, I'm second counselor in the bishopric, but usually I teach adults or youth in one calling or another."

My callings are not a "career" in the sense that I'm following some ambitious set of goals -- I do what bishops and stake presidents call me to do.

Yet my identity is this: "I have been entrusted with this calling for now, and I'm doing it as best I can. When I'm called to do something else, then that's who I'll be in the eyes of the ward, and in the eyes of the Lord."

I do have deeper identities tied in with my family, of course. But it was as important for my kids, as they were growing up, to see me and my wife doing our callings as it was for them to see us paying our tithing.

Because we were raising our kids with the expectation that they would live a consecrated life.

There are times when you have no "increase" of time. You have to care for ailing parents while working at a job; you're law clerking and they really don't leave you fifteen minutes a week to call your own.

There are times when you have to tell the bishop, "I can only do Sunday callings for a while" or "Bishop, my plate is full; if you want me to do this new assignment, you'll have to release me from the one I'm doing now."

That's all right -- we are a church of volunteers, and nobody wants us to lose our income-producing job, or leave our kids to wander the streets hungry, in order to fulfill an overabundance of Church callings.

We all have priorities, and, like our money, our time is ours to dispose of as we choose.

Tithing the Firstlings

But because we live the Law of Consecration, we plan our lives as we plan our expenditures -- to leave room for the needs of the Kingdom of God.

That's our "surplus." It's not left over. It doesn't just happen to come along. We plan for it. We squeeze other things out of the way. We consecrate the firstlings of our flock.

We wring out of our budget and out of our schedule every drop that we can give to the Lord, while still fulfilling our other responsibilities.

And, as we tithe both our money and our time, and add in offerings as well, we are filled with the blessings that come from a consecrated life.

This is not a lower law, not a temporary thing. This is the consecrated life, the life of temple covenants, the higher law. We are stewards in the Lord's house, ministers in his name, fellow citizens with the Saints, creating the Church for each other.

Surely this is one way we hold the keys to the ministering of angels: We are part-time angels, the Lord's messengers, coming up with the time and money and skills that others are in need of, and giving them in his name.


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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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