Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


Gross or Net Blessings? Mormon Tithing

posted by Jana Riess

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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.



  • Michael Todd

    Technically, there is no New Testament command on tithing. Once they get kicked out of the synagogue, the early Christians are veritably illegal for almost three hundred years, thus no public presence. With all that being said, I take the relaxed, but slightly competitive view of tithing. Tithe what you wish, but please try to at least outgive the compulsory tithe of Muslims – 2.5%.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The questions on the details of how to calculate tithing are exactly like questions on what constitutes “income” for Federal tax purposes. Questions like that gave me a migraine headache that made me miss the final exam for my income tax class in law school. Thankfully, the LDS Church has not followed the IRS and created bookshelves full of revenue rulings interpreting the rule for various factual situations, but has instead left it up to the conscience of the individual member in the knowledge that God knows the facts and will judge his sincerity.
    By making the matter of donations a confidential one, where most fellow members don’t know what you have given, the incentive to give more in order to brag about your generosity or your wealth is greatly reduced. Paradoxically, the level of giving is much higher for the LDS than in most other denominations.
    I once had the occasion to investigate a theft from the donations collected from a typical congregational “passing of the plate” in a military chapel service, and I was surprised at how low the level of donations was. The fact that the people attending the service knew that the chaplain was being supported by the government may have influenced their level of donations, but other information I have read indicates that the level of donation I observed in that case is fairly typical of Protestant congregations.
    Just as is the case in some smaller Protestant congregations, the pastors of Mormon congregations are self-supporting, taking no compensation, even part-time, from the people who attend. That uncompensated labor, and the similar donations of time by organists and other leaders, are in-kind donations worth many millions of dollars each Sunday across the worldwide LDS Church. While the inherent professional skills of bishops and other leaders can vary dramatically, this system in many cases coopts for the LDS Church the skills of people like Mitt Romney for 20 or more hours a week. The benefit that this system provides to members who get leadership experience in a supervised apprenticeship is a significant one. One of the benefits to the LDS Church is that, when a congregation grows enough to be split in two, there are usually enough experienced people in each congregation to staff all of the new leadership positions.
    Then there is the even more intense donation of time to full-time missionary service for one to two years for young single men and women and retired couples. In some cases, experienced specialists in many professions contribute services that are worth a hundred thousand dollars a year or more. For example, a friend of mine, an attorney, is going to spend a year in Hong Kong in the Church’s Asia legal office.
    Over and above tithing, Mormons are also asked to make other donations which are specifically NOT countd toward the tithe, something that, so far as I know, is a distinctive and unique practice. Mormons fast for 24 hours on the first Sunday of each month, and donate the money not spent on food to a fund to help those in financial need. Beyond that, contributions are made to support specific missionaries when their families lack the means, and to aid humanitarian effports, and to build up a loan fund that pays for education in the developing world, where the benefited members are expected to pay back the loans as their income increases. The building of a new temple is the occasion for added solicitation of special contributions. Then there is the support needed by the Boy Scouts. Even if one can quibble about the exact percantage of one’s income that the tithe equals, these other contributions take the total gifts up several percent.
    I discovered last year that the United Way campaign in my community, which is supported by my employer, is willing to act as a conduit for donations to any qualified 501(c)(3) tax deductible charitable organization. I designated my contribution to go to my bishop, and instructed him to apply the amount toward the Fast Offering account. It took about 6 months and some extensive discussions with the local united Way chapter, but they finally got the system flowing. My company is happy to be able to show the amount I donate in this way as a contribution to the welfare of the community (which it certainly is), United Way is happy to get the “float” between the bi-weekly payroll deductions I make automatically and the quarterly checks they send to my bishop, and I know that my contribution is going 100% to help people in need, with absolutely no overhead.
    Mormons are taught that tithing is a temporary requirement, and that their underlying obligation to God, not to “buy” God’s blessings but out of humble gratitude for blessings already received, is actually unlimited, so that neither tithing, other offerings, and the donation of one’s efforts, either part-time or full time, are ever enough to repay the debt we each owe to God for providing the atoning sacrifice of his Son. This is not “bargaining” with God, but the manifestation of a broken heart and a contrite spirit, a sacrifice not primarily of material possessions, but of ourselves, fulfilling the teaching of the sermon by King Benjamin in Mosiah Chapter 3 of the Book of Mormon. And the studies I have read about report that people who have learned to make such sacrifices also tend to give more of their resources to other causes in the community.
    Incidentally, within the last year a (non-LDS) guest speaker at BYU reported his research, which found that people who make larger donations (Mormon or otherwise) also tend to be more prosperous, that is, that donations precede increased prosperity. Not that Mormons can expect to become winners of the Idaho Lottery, but that they can expect, in the long run, to be more prosperous in their chosen line of work than if they did not make those sacrifices.

  • ceric

    Tithing is a sacrifice
    Obedience to the law of sacrifice brings great blessings and as we pay attention to the pattern in the temple it is preparatory to greater things. (as an aside, this is one reason why being a full tithe payer is necessary for a temple recommend)
    From the Lectures on Faith
    “The faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things. It is through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life. And it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. 12. But those who have not made this sacrifice to God do not know that the course which they pursue is well pleasing in his sight.”
    So when it comes to the gross or net misnomer, I agree it’s no one’s business but yours and the Lord’s. But the point should be well taken that if the course you are taking is intentionally to lesson the sacrifice you are certainly lessening the degree to which you are blessed – in terms if testimony ie. that our course is pleasing in God’s sight. Greater sacrifice, brings greater testimony of this. Of this I don’t think there can be any dispute, and it is most certainly not pagan.

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