|Print | Back
|October 2, 2014
In The VillageWhat Tithing Means
by Orson Scott Card
When I was growing up, Church leaders were not shy about offering definitions of tithing over the pulpit. The scriptures might seem clear at first glance — tithing is “a tenth.” But ... a tenth of what?
In Deuteronomy (14:22, 28; 26:12) tithing is a tenth of one’s “increase” — but is assessed only one year in three. Certainly not the way we handle it now.
And the tithing in 2 Chronicles 31:5 is of “increase of the field,” specifically listed as “corn, wine, and oil, and honey.” But surely that is not meant to be a complete list of the only things that need to be tithed.
Indeed, most of our scriptures on tithing come from an agrarian society, and so “increase” would imply that if you start with 100 cattle, and over a calving season end up with 110 cattle, your increase would be ten, and your tithe would therefore be a single cow.
This would take into account the fact that some cattle would be lost to predators and thieves, and that you would slaughter some to eat them. Yet it is the increase, not the total, on which you offer tithing.
Adapting these scriptures to our modern money-based economy requires intelligent and prayerful thought and discussion. When I was young, Church leaders stressed that when it comes to salaries and wages paid in money, our employers pay the overhead costs and take the risks that ancient farmers would have borne themselves. Therefore, the entire amount of our salary is increase.
It was explicitly stated again and again that tithing should be based, not on our net income after taxes were withheld, but on our gross income. This view of the tithing doctrine, which seemed authoritative in the 1950s and 1960s, is no longer explicitly stated — but it survives as folk doctrine, along with many misapplications of the principle.
Nowadays, the Church firmly resists any and all efforts to state a specific law of tithing that applies in all cases throughout the Church. Instead, we are told we must counsel with our bishop to determine our fair obligation to the Lord and the Church, and when we live up to the law worked out in that discussion, we are full tithepayers.
The trouble is that many of us lay heavier burdens on ourselves than the Lord requires, while others find ways to make the burden conveniently light, perhaps too light. Yet none of us but the bishop is given the right to judge, and wise bishops do not impose a judgment on each member, but rather help the members reach their own prayerful, spiritually guided decisions about how the law of tithing applies in their particular case.
There are countries in Europe, for instance, where taxation is so intense that hardworking members take home only a fifth or so of their earnings. If they tithed ten percent of gross income, they would have to live entirely on half of their take-home pay. In such places, bishops are counseled about how to help member interpret the tithing law — and the counsel they pass along to the members may be different from the counsel offered to Saints in the United States.
The Blessings of Tithing
The goal of tithing is for grateful members to share their prosperity with the Lord, and even if their increase is small, to not covet their own money, but give the Lord his due. The promise we receive is that we will be blessed for the sacrifice.
Such blessing does not follow Reverend Jim Bakker’s famous declaration, “I realized that if I can believe in God for a Chevrolet, why can’t I believe in God for a Cadillac?” We don’t pay tithing in order to profit from it, but rather so that we can participate in helping provide the financial support on which the organization of the Church depends.
In my experience, what the Lord promises us is “plenty,” and by “plenty” I think it’s fair to say the Lord means “enough and to spare.” Whether we receive “plenty” because our income increases or because we reevaluate our expenses so that a smaller number becomes “enough” for our needs is a question to be individually answered.
But I don’t think the Lord responds to the tithing of millionaires with more blessings than he gives to struggling tradesmen with variable incomes. In fact, I’ve known millionaires who bankrupted themselves by unwise overspending, and frugal laborers who always had “plenty” because they kept their families’ expenses well within their post-tithing income.
I don’t think the Lord’s blessings for tithepaying will trump our own foolishness in money management. Nor does the tithepayer receive celestial insurance against the kind of medical or employment catastrophe that can utterly disrupt a family’s careful management of their finances.
The blessing of tithing is not that you will never suffer financial reverses — especially if you are incautious or profligate. Rather, the blessing is that when reverses come, and you adjust your spending and lifestyle accordingly, you will be blessed to find a level of spending that you can manage while still paying tithing.
A Matter of Debt
Yet there are others who think their “increase” should mean “money left over after all expenses are met.” The trouble here is that in most of our families, it is very easy to reduce “leftover” money to zero — because desired items become more and more “necessary.”
In fact, far too many of us, heedless of the counsel of prophets, feel no qualms about entailing our future earnings by credit card or debt-financed purchases today. This puts some members into an awful bind:
What if I can only pay my tithing by skipping payments on credit cards or other debts? Or what if, having paid those debt obligations, I really can’t pay tithing without endangering my ability to feed and clothe my family?
The answer is not a pleasant one: Just because your present paycheck can have a tenth carved out for tithing does not mean you are morally right to do so. If you have already promised that money to legitimate debtors, then it is not yours to dispose of.
What good does it do us to be able to say to the bishop, “I am a full tithepayer,” if we cannot also say, “I am honest in my dealings with my fellowmen”?
When we make a covenant to repay a debt — that is, when we swipe a credit card through the card reader at Target or Home Depot — it is essential that we already know the answer to this question:
Can I repay this debt on the promised schedule and meet my family’s other needs and pay a full tithing to the Church?
If the answer to that question would be no, then you are either defrauding the credit card company — for they will lend you the money to make that purchase, and will only discover later that you did not plan to repay it — or you are committing yourself to not pay a full tithe, because you have already spent (or promised) the money out of which that tithing would be paid.
Money you owe to creditors is not your money in the sense that you cannot honorably use it for any purpose but repaying them on the promised schedule.
Yet the fact that you already spent it does not remove that amount from the total you should count as increase, and on which tithing should be paid. We can’t stand before the Lord on judgment day and explain the paucity of our tithing by saying, “But, by the time I got the money, it was already gone.”
So might the foolish virgins have explained their running out of oil. But it was their duty to make sure they had plenty of oil for the evening’s lamplight.
Increases and Losses
It is a blessing to us that the Church leaves it up to individuals and their bishops to work out the specifics of tithing in their lives. The trouble is that many people rely on folk doctrines based on the old teachings: Pay tithing first on ten percent of your gross!
This might well have been good advice, but this was not the commandment. Even in cases where it would be a full tithing, it only applies to people whose employers cover the cost of their office or shop, their equipment, their raw materials, so that their salary represents pure increase.
What if you are required to buy your uniform for work out of your own money? That is then an expense deducted from your increase. What if you work from home, and your office, office furniture, supplies, lights, and so forth must be paid for by you, rather than your employer? Is some portion of your house payment and power bill to be deducted from your tithable income?
Some people shudder at the thought — so ingrained is “ten percent of gross” that to them this sounds like trying to cheat the Lord.
But we need to remember that the Lord could have said, “Tithe your harvest.” The words were available, had that been what he meant. Instead, the prophets said, “Tithe your increase,” and that means that obedient Saints will comply with the intent and meaning of the law, as best we understand it.
I remember when I went to talk to my bishop preparatory to asking him for a temple recommend so I could marry. “I’m behind on my tithing,” I said. “I only make $12,000 a year, and I’m trying to repay as much as I can of the $30,000 I lost with my theater company. It may take me a while to catch up.”
What he said to me is not to be taken as counsel to the entire Church — he was speaking with authority only to me, in my situation at the time. But he clearly understood the purpose and the commandment of tithing, and here is what he said:
“First, when you repent of nonpayment of tithing, you are not required to go back and repay everything you missed in past months and years,” he said. “As long as your repentance is sincere, you only need to pay a full tithing from that point on to be a full tithepayer.”
Then he smiled and said, “However, that rule doesn’t apply to you. I don’t think you have anything to repent of. Tithing is paid on your increase. This year you lost $30,000 in your theater company, and had an income of only $12,000 from your employer. I’m no expert on math, but I can’t find a way to make any portion of that seem like ‘increase.’”
He went on to explain that you can’t forward your losses into future years. I may not owe tithing this year, but next year I can’t keep deducting the previous year’s losses.
I explained to him that the losses were probably because I wasn’t a very good manager. And that the decision to try to start a theater company was probably a stupid one in the first place. “The law of tithing doesn’t include a stupidity exemption, does it?” I asked.
“If your theater company had made money hand over fist, you would have tithed the profits, wouldn’t you?” he asked.
“The Lord doesn’t penalize us for being unable to predict accurately how our investments are going to turn out. You didn’t set out to fail, did you?”
And so, for that time, that year, that situation, we worked out my status and my temple-worthiness. I left his office greatly relieved — but with a renewed resolve never to be in a situation where I could not pay tithing because I was so saddled with obligations that honor required me to repay.
In our conversation, my bishop gave me this example. “Suppose Brother Smith owns a grocery store. The store brings in a million dollars a year. Does he pay $100,000 in tithing?”
I thought for a moment. “No, because he has to pay for the goods he sells.”
“And he has to pay the salaries of his employees. And grocery stores sell at a very slight markup, compared to furniture stores or clothing stores. It might easily be that a million bucks in sales represents a loss. Or the profits might be only $50,000.”
“So ... $5,000 tithing?” I said.
“I don’t know,” said my bishop. “Of the salaries he pays, is one of them to himself? Suppose he pays himself a regular salary of $30,000 a year, so that the $50,000 in profit is after that salary is deducted as an expense of the store. If he didn’t own the store, but merely managed it, then that salary might be the only amount on which he owed tithing.”
“Three thousand, then,” I said. Thus proving I could divide by ten, at least when the original number ended with zeroes.
“But Brother Smith does own the store. So the profits all go to him.”
“Salary plus profits — tithing of $8,000,” I said.
“But of that profit, he invests $40,000 in renovations and improvements to the store.”
“Keep this up and the math is going to get too hard for me, bishop.”
“That’s why Brother Smith and I — if he existed — would discuss his tithing situation privately, and work out a figure for his increase each year that both he and I could accept as honorably fulfilling the law of tithing.”
Many people have multiple sources of income. For instance, a married couple has one spouse who works in a salaried position, while the other sells some product out of the home. In addition, they own two rental properties, from which they earn income.
If they simply paid tithing on every dime that entered their house, they would not be obeying the law of tithing. It’s true that the salary is probably all increase, since the employer pays the overhead. But if the spouse that sells a product has to buy the inventory first, then increase can only be calculated by subtracting the cost of the inventory from the earnings from sales.
And what if the rental properties barely bring in more money than the mortgage payments on those properties? And what if the expenses of repairs on those rental houses are greater than the difference between rents and mortgage payments?
Instead of paying a tenth of every dime that comes into the home, they would calculate tithing on each source of income separately and then applying that appropriately. The rental houses may be running at a loss, reducing the amount of tithing owed on the salary.
But with the sales and inventory costs, do you deduct the inventory cost for each item as it is sold? Or take the cost of the whole order and deduct it when it’s paid, and then treat every dime that comes in from sales as increase? Either approach would be morally defensible; it’s really a matter of bookkeeping.
And the principle of paying the moment money comes into the home only works with salaries and wages. My income, for instance, is completely unpredictable. I don’t know what my annual earnings will be until they arrive, and we can’t work out the amount of increase until well after tithing settlement time.
But each year at tithing settlement, we can affirm that the previous year we were full tithepayers, and we intend to be on this year’s increase when we finally know what it turns out to be. The law of tithing does not come with a payment schedule; you don’t tithe your increase until you have it, and know what it is.
So folk doctrines about tithing based on those old admonitions to pay tithing first, out of each paycheck as it arrives, based on gross receipts — we need to remember that this was a wise rule that only applied in certain cases, and not in others.
Because if you happen to overpay tithing, you can’t go to the Church and ask for a refund.
On the other hand, if you feel that your tithing payments were not really enough — that after scrupulously calculating your increase, you feel as if you could have given more to build up the Kingdom of God — then look at the other lines on the tithing slip.
The Law of Consecration suggests that when we have a surplus — money left over after our family’s wants and needs have been met — then we can donate our surplus — all of it, if we wish — to the Fast Offering fund or the Missionary fund.
We are also free to help people privately in ways that can’t readily come out of Fast Offering funds. Is there a family that desperately needs a larger or more reliable car? Maybe you can help them get into a car that meets their needs (and whose payment they can afford). Or maybe there’s a child who needs braces, but the family can’t afford them; or a broken pair of glasses that needs replacing, but the family budget doesn’t have room.
So you tell your bishop that when such cases come up, he should let you know what’s needed. He can either keep your participation anonymous — you give him the money and he passes it along as coming from “somebody who cares about you” — or he can put you in direct contact with the people in need.
He’ll know whether it’s all right to pass the money through the Fast Offering fund so it’s a tax deductible donation. Most of the people I know who do this sort of thing do not care if it’s tax deductible.
The attitude that they have is: I already tithed my increase, for which I took a legitimate tax deduction. But now I’m sharing my surplus, and there’s no reason my lawful taxes should be lowered because this is how I choose to spend my discretionary income.
But whether you give these gifts in a tax-deductible way or without regard to taxes is entirely up to you. In fact, all of this is between you and your bishop, as you find your path to complying with every requirement for temple worthiness — tithing and honest dealings.
If this is all so private and personal, why have I spent so many words “meddling” in your ideas about tithing?
Because I’ve seen too many Saints who feel guilty or are even denying themselves the blessings of the temple, because they think they are not keeping the law of tithing when in fact they are.
Others are making sacrifices far beyond what the law requires, because they are paying on gross receipts and not on increase.
And other Saints may appreciate rethinking their tithing and talking to their bishop about it, because they may want to raise the number that they consider “increase.”
Still others, wanting to contribute more, need to be reminded that in Malachi 3:8 and 3 Nephi 24:8 we are told that we should bring the Lord tithes and offerings. Once we have complied with the letter of the law of tithing, we can then contribute freewill offerings out of our surplus.
One of the problems with the folk-doctrine version of tithing law is that it comes along with a sense of judgment — or even condemnation. When we tell each other definitively what tithing must be, we’re also saying, If this is not what you’re doing, then you are unworthy.
If you think that you have a perfect understanding of the law, you are wrong, unless you include with that the fact that each household’s tithing is a private matter between bishop and householders, and no one else is fit to judge.
If someone asks you about what tithing should be, your answer, to be correct, must always begin and end with that principle of privacy between bishop and Church member.
And even with your own tithing, remember that your bishop, not you, is called as the judge of the stewards of the Lord’s property. If the bishop tells you that you are a full tithepayer by such-and-such a standard, do not let the ideas of others supersede the bishop’s declaration.
Also keep in mind that tithing is a free offering. The Church does not do payroll deductions; nor does the bishop audit your books on tithing matters. If you decide not to pay a full tithe, then as long as you aren’t trying to get a temple recommend, it’s between you and the Lord.
The Spirit of Consecration
There is yet another kind of offering to the Lord. When we reach out and help a neighbor — in or outside the Church — we also serve God, for he told us, “When I was hungry, you fed me.” And when we say, “When did we ever feed you?” he will answer, “If you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
These contributions often do not take the form of cash, but are given as time, as extra effort, as the offer of a “roof’s safe shelter overhead.” They consist of the friend who tends the children so you can go to the doctor — or do your Christmas shopping, or take a class.
They are the lawn that somehow got mowed during the crazy crunch time. The borrowed car or lawn mower returned with more fuel than it started with. The vacation home that is lent to a family whose mother is coping with cancer, so that they can have a vacation they could not otherwise afford. The flowers planted in the shut-in’s yard, and then watered and cared for by the givers of that gift.
Obedience to the law of tithes and offerings takes so many different forms — tailored to the situation of every Saint and every family. Some whom the bishop tells they owe no tithing feel the need to contribute anyway: Thus the widow’s mite comes into the Church out of faith and charity.
The specifics of the Law of Consecration outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants applied to the agrarian or mercantile economies of Joseph Smith’s day. In our money-only economy, the law of tithing, with supplemental offerings and acts of charity, allows the Saints to live the Law of Consecration completely and perfectly. It is a covenant we can and do already keep.
The Church’s ability to serve members in every nation is greatly aided by the fact that so many of the Saints obey the law of tithing, their hearts and hands opened to help the work of the Lord.
And because of this, the Saints are also blessed with the only kind of prosperity that the Lord has ever promised: “Enough and to spare.”
|Copyright © 2024 by Orson Scott Card
|Printed from NauvooTimes.com