The tithing code
Mormon scripture states that members should be tithed, that they “shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually” to the church. In order for members to qualify as worthy of god’s stamp of approval, i.e., to receive a recommend to enter a Mormon temple, they must indicate in a private interview with their ecclesiastical leaders that they pay “a full tithe.”
But what is a full tithe? Unfortunately, the church doesn’t give very much more clarification than what is stated in the scriptures. The word “interest” has been defined to mean “income,” but beyond that, the members are left to themselves to determine exactly how to calculate what counts as income and what doesn’t. It’s hard to blame the church authorities for not wanting to create a tome equivalent to the US tax code to clarify the tithing code. For one thing, it would encourage pharisaic dedication along with its attendant loopholes. But perhaps even more convincingly, by making a statement that determining the amount to be paid as tithing by each member is a decision to be arrived at by the member in consultation with god, my guess is that the amount donated is, on average, higher than it would be if they published a set of guidelines.
Why is that? Because many church members love to be righteous and to display that righteousness through their actions. The LDS church is one where much is required, and the members are only too glad to step up to the plate and deliver. Without official guidance, members often debate amongst themselves how tithing is to be paid. Pay on gross or net? Well, do you want god to bestow gross blessings or net blessings? Pay on gifts? Pay on bartered services? Pay on inheritance or allowances? Pay on the cost of services that are shouldered by the employer but that directly benefit the employee? These could all be defined as “increase” and hence would qualify as income. There are a lot of questions, and no real official answers.
Which would be fine, except for one problem. The ecclesiastical leaders, although they are told that members only need to answer whether or not they pay a full tithe, are just as human as the rest of the members, and sometimes incorrectly assume that the guidance they feel they have received from god for their own lives is also applicable to the members of their congregation. If members are comfortable with the amount they are paying and answer the question with a simple yes or no answer, there is usually no problem. But if they ask for clarification from their leaders during that private interview, there is the potential for the leaders, contrary to official policy, to give a wide variety of advice on what constitutes a full tithe.
Why does this interest me? Because after having been a fully committed tithe-paying member for all of my life, I have left the church and do not want one more dime of my money given to the church. Yet each month I give a sizeable amount of child support money to my ex-wife, which may end up being subject to tithing according to the whims of her leaders. If the topic never comes up, she could get away with not paying tithing on the child support money. But if, even in casual conversation, the leaders become aware that she is not paying tithing on that money, they could exert overwhelming pressure on her to remedy the situation and remit tithing not only on future payments, but on all the money she has received from me from the time of our separation. All they would have to do is tell her that she no longer qualifies for the temple recommend.
While I have talked with my wife and she agreed not to pay tithing on the money that I give her for child support, she would absolutely have no question of paying tithing on it if her temple recommend were at stake. So the other day I called her bishop. I asked him what his opinion was on a mother paying tithing on money she received as child support from her children’s father. His immediate response? “Of course she should pay tithing on it.”
I was a little surprised that he thought it would be so clear-cut, but I figured it was simply from not having examined the issue in depth. I launched my counter-attack. “Are you aware that the laws of the great state of (redacted) do not consider child support to be income for the receiving parent?”
His response: “Tithing is a law from God. It’s not about what the state considers as income.”
I countered. “Okay. Let me explain how this works. I am divorced from Wife. She no longer has any claim on any money I receive from my job. She has custody of my children. The state demands–and perhaps more importantly, I desire–that my children be financially supported. Therefore, I send money to her each month. This is not money for her. This is money for my children. As the custodian, she determines how best to spend the money in support of my children. But it’s not her money.”
He told me, “Well, you can look at it however you want, but the simple fact is that she didn’t have the money available to her until you paid her, and now she does. That’s an increase. That’s income.”
I took a step back. “Okay. Let’s say we were still married. She is a member and I’m not. I earn money from my job, and I don’t pay tithing on it. She earns money from her job, and she pays tithing on her income. We both put our money into a shared bank account. She goes to the store and buys school clothes for the children. Since only a portion of the money she just spent was from her income, does she now owe tithing on the additional money that came from my paycheck?”
“Well,” he said, “she is using money that hasn’t been tithed. That’s an increase.”
“But it’s not her money. It’s mine. I just asked her to spend it on the children for me. If I had gone to the store and spent some of her money and some of mine, would she be obligated to pay tithing on it?”
“No…” he admitted, a little too hesitantly for my taste.
“It’s the same principle. I am sending her money and asking her to spend it for the benefit of my children on my behalf.”
He retreated a bit, but only to call upon higher authority. “I’ll need to check with the stake president and get back to you on this.”
“That would be great. Thank you.”
He called back about fifteen minutes later. “Normally,” he said, “we’d ask for tithing to be paid on this money. But in this case, we don’t want to cause any additional problems between the two of you, so we will allow her not to pay tithing on her child support money. I would just hope that you would be comfortable with your wife and children paying tithing.”
“I’m very comfortable with them paying tithing. In fact, if they believe in the church, I would actively encourage them to pay tithing on their income. But I wouldn’t expect anyone to tell them to pay tithing on my income.”
“At the point you are giving it to your children, it becomes their income.”
“They aren’t doing anything to earn it. It isn’t their allowance. It isn’t their salary. It’s my money that I am spending on my children. If you were to go shopping and buy a box of Lucky Charms and your adult children came over to your house and together with your grandchildren ate the entire box and you didn’t get any of it, would you ask them to pay tithing on the value of that box of cereal?”
A long pause, which I took as either confusion or his admission of the validity of the argument. I continued, “It’s the same principle. It’s my money. I earned it. Wife is spending it. The children benefit from it. But it’s not Wife’s money, and it’s not my children’s money.”
He sighed. “I can see we aren’t going to look at this the same way, but I want you to know that we aren’t going to require Wife to pay tithing on this income.”
It wasn’t exactly the response I was hoping for, but at least the main thrust of what I desired was being respected. “Thank you,” I said. “And she won’t be barred from receiving a temple recommend because of this?”
“No. She will still be considered worthy.”
Thank god. I didn’t say it. But a part of me wanted to.