Some years ago a youngish man, who only lived in our ward a short time, was giving a talk in sacrament meeting. I don’t really recall the talk, except that he mentioned in the course thereof that it is acceptable to pay one’s tithing on one’s net income. After he sat down, a SP counselor, who was presiding, stormed up to the podium and red-facedly “corrected” this scandalous misinformation, telling us forcefully and in no uncertain terms that we are to pay tithing on our gross incomes. Ironically, however, as I’m sure you all know, he was wrong. (So much for the protection of having a presiding authority on the stand ready to remedy such mistakes.) The Church’s official position has long been that we are to pay 10% or our “increase,” which has been interpreted to mean “income.” No one is authorized to make any statement other than that. Which is to say that how we calculate tithing is simply between us and the Lord.
This official Church position doesn’t stop members from talking or wondering about it. My impression is that a lot of members simply aren’t very comfortable coming to this conclusion on their own, and would much prefer to be told how to calculate their tithing so they wouldn’t have to take the responsibility themselves. Personally, I like the Church’s policy in this area. I agree with President Hinckley, who used to talk about the virtue of not having some sort of a voluminous Tithing Code with its accompanying Regulations.
There is indeed an issue there in choosing between net and gross income, but we act as though that’s the only issue. People who obsess over this particular decision point simply haven’t thought very seriously about it. Some examples:
- 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.
These are just a few examples that I came up with off the top of my head without even thinking very hard about it. (Please feel free to add additional examples in the comments.)
You could use U.S. Federal income tax law as a proxy for answering these types of questions. Is that always going to be a good idea?
My basic point is that I know a lot of Saints who are kind of pompous about the fact that they tithe on their gross incomes, as if they’re super spiritual for doing so. But I can’t help but wonder whether they’ve really thought very seriously and hard about what really makes sense as we try to navigate the undefined country of tithable income.