Between December and January, Bishops frantically try to meet with members to conduct tithing settlement. During these interviews the Bishop asks members whether they are paying a full tithe and the response is usually quite simple: Yes, no, or part. However, there are also some circumstances in which members may be exempt from paying tithing. Young missionaries, for example, are not required to pay tithing. In addition, the CHI also states that “Members who are entirely dependent on Church welfare assistance” are also exempt.
Most members, I suspect, would feel comfortable with this exemption and yet those who receive state benefits are not similarly exempt. How can we reconcile these two?
The most parsimonious explanation, it seems to me, is that the church sees minimal value in receiving tithing on money it has already given to its members. In other words, imagine someone requires $1000 in welfare. It makes little sense for the church to require that individual to pay $100 of this money back to the church as tithing, especially if this just recreates financial difficulties. Perhaps, the church could estimate the need (i.e., in this case $1000) and then just include an additional ‘tithing payment’ (i.e., $100) which is then given back to the church. However this circularity is redundant from the church’s point of view.
Again, I suspect that most members would not have a problem with this policy.
While I agree with the logic, this type of reasoning also obscures two dimensions to the tithing debate that are worth considering.
First, paying tithing, at least as commonly described in our rhetoric, opens the door to particular blessings. Mary Fielding Smith’s retort to the man who tried to persuade her to not pay tithing is typical of this. She famously said: “Would you deny me a blessing?” While this circularity may be redundant for the church, it may not be redundant for the tithe-payer. Is the church denying those on church welfare the blessings of paying a full-tithe?
Most – and I agree – would argue that those who are on church welfare still receive the blessings of paying a full-tithe because they are unable to do so. That is, the Lord blesses these individuals and families according to the intent of their hearts rather than according to whether or not they contribute. In the eyes of the church and its members, failing to pay your tithing when you are receiving help from the church does not alter your standing with the church or the Lord.
The second issue that is partially obscured concerns need. Church welfare provision is assessed by a bishop based on need and the bishop then meets that need in the best way he can, according to the resources available. In most cases, this assistance is given in cash – not necessarily directly to the recipient but through another party. This might include paying for a heating bill or rent. In meeting those needs in the most efficient way, the church exempts welfare recipients from paying tithing because meeting their need is the priority.
This brings me, finally, to state welfare. The similarities with church welfare are quite striking. Members who are ‘entirely dependent’ on state welfare are receiving cash support (usually not directly) in order to meet urgent financial needs. Recipients of welfare in most countries (the UK included) are almost always still living in poverty; that is, their welfare payments rarely move them out of poverty but merely maintain life and health. If these members had received help from the church, then they would be exempt from paying tithing (and presumably are not losing blessings because of it). However, because recipients of state welfare receive help from a source outside of the church these members are expected to pay tithing. Very often paying tithing places them in additional financial difficulties. In short, in the eyes of the church, failing to pay your tithing when you are receiving help from the state does alter your standing with the church and the Lord.
The challenge here seems to be a contradiction between how we frame the tithing experience. For state welfare recipients, some Bishops provide additional church welfare so that such members can pay their tithing and obtain the blessings. However, we do not observe the same practice for church welfare recipients.
Here is the crux of the issue: either paying your tithing is always important, regardless of whether you can pay, in which case recipients of church welfare should not be exempt, or in some circumstances paying your tithing does not alter your standing your before the Lord. Whether this makes sense for the church (and I agree that it is rational for the church to have their current policy) perhaps obscures what is most important in this dynamic, which is the member of the church.
Developing a cross-national policy on such issues which takes into account the various welfare regimes across the world would, of course, be impossible. Focusing only on those who are ‘entirely’ dependent circumvents these debates by honing in on the level of deprivation experienced in each location. That is, if you are entirely dependent on church or state welfare in your particular country then you meet this exemption criteria.
Separating the source of financial aid from whether you are exempt from paying tithing or not would help local leaders serve those who desperately need help.
1. I am not worried about whether this event actually occurred or not. It is only important that we use this story to serve this rhetorical end.