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Flunking Sainthood

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Mormons spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about the ins and outs of tithing: Gross or net? Cash or appreciated stock? Weekly, monthly, or annually? For example, check out Kevin Barney’s excellent blog post at By Common Consent and the many comments it generated, as people discussed whether to tithe on inheritances, child support payments (a question I’d never considered), or windfalls. And what if you live in Denmark, a country with a functional 70% tax rate? Is it appropriate or even possible to ask the Danes to tithe on “gross” income?

As Kevin points out, the LDS Church has no official position on these questions, let alone the gross-net dilemma. A person is considered a full tithe payer if she declares herself to be giving ten percent of her income; the precise definition of that income is between her and the Lord.

Here are some of the good questions Kevin raised:

  • “If you own a business, do you tithe on gross receipts or do you deduct costs of goods sold and other expenses first? (In this context, “gross” income can be a very misleading concept.)
  • If you receive health insurance as a benefit, do you tithe the value of that? (I’m a partner in a law firm, and so I have to pay the full cost of my health insurance with distributions I receive as part of my draw. Does it or should it matter how the benefit is paid?)
  • Do you tithe on the value of bartered services? If you trade babysitting services with another family, is the fact that you don’t exchange cash determinative as to whether it is tithable?
  • Do you tithe on the value of home production, such as the harvest from your garden?
  • Do you tithe gifts?
  • If your spouse dies and you receive a life insurance payment, do you tithe that?
  • If you sell your house, what if anything do you tithe? Does it matter whether you roll the proceeds over into a new house?
  • What if you’re in a European country with tax rates substantially higher than what we have in the U.S.? In such a situation is tithing on one’s “gross” income even feasible? I’d be interested in comment from European Saints.”

All of these questions are ones that Saints should think and pray about, and I love the way he approached it. But in the Church I’m struck by how many people are stuck in the “tithing to get gain” mentality.

I’m reminded of a talk I heard not long after I joined the LDS Church in my 20s. The speaker weighed the value of tithing on his gross income (before taxes) or net income (after taxes). He said that he could see the temptation of calculating his tithing off of net income, which would of course mean sacrificing less of his pay, but that he would be depriving himself of “gross” blessings if he did so. In his thinking, tithing was a bargain he struck with God, a talisman to generate good things, including more money for himself.

(As an update, he has since left the Church entirely. Apparently the “give to get more” transaction as he conceived it didn’t entirely work out.)

Over the years I have come to see the flaws in this way of thinking, which is entirely pagan. And while paganism is a real temptation–who wouldn’t want to discover a system by which we could reliably ward off evil and generate health and prosperity?–it’s not the path of Christ.

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