I have some tithing-related questions. Your input and assistance is greatly appreciated…
1. Mormons don’t debate the intricacies of tithe-paying very often. At least not in my experience. To the extent one wants to argue about tithing, the “gross” vs. “net” distinction is where all the fun is. But, truth be told, there isn’t much to argue about (nor much fun to be had). After all, the Church doesn’t seem to want to micromanage how Churchmembers think about tithing. There don’t appear to be any hard-and-fast rules about how to perform one’s “income” calculations. If there are handbooks explaining how to think about “income” and “increase,” I’m not aware of them. The Church has no regulatory body that decides novel tithing questions. One cannot seek a “private letter ruling” from the Church. Yes, there are some General Authority quotations out there that you can hang your hat on if you want to argue that tithing must be paid on “gross” income, but I don’t find them dispositive. I’m not willing to grant definitive authoritative status to random General Authority quotes in other contexts (no matter how strident and self-assured the authorities), so I see no reason to do so here. And if the Church wanted to put out a handbook telling us all how to think about this question, it could easily do so.
Having said that, I personally believe that one should pay tithing on one’s “gross” income. I think this is the better practice. There are basically two reasons for this: (1) I was raised to believe one should pay on the “gross,” so I have always done so. In short, I’m used to doing it, and it just feels right; (2) If it is permissible to deduct federal and state income taxes before I calculate my 10%, it’s not clear to me why I shouldn’t also deduct sales taxes, medical expenses, rent, food, trips to the movies, etc., etc., etc. In other words, I don’t know where to draw the line, yet surely one needs to draw it somewhere. Thus, I figure it’s better just to pay on the whole enchilada.
However, after speaking with a friend last week — who happens to be a Bishop, a trust officer at a bank, and someone who has advised many, many high-net worth Mormons on tithing-related questions — I can perhaps add a third reason to my list. It turns out that paying on the “gross” is Church policy after all! And while we were on the subject, he let me know about a number of other Church policies with respect to tithing in certain “increase” scenarios that I put to him. I was somewhat perplexed by all this, and so I asked him:
“Bishop, how can you say that the Church has specific “policies” about whether X, Y, or Z constitutes a full-tithe, when there is no conceivable context in which a tithe-payer facing these questions would ever be in a position to learn about the policies? When we talk about tithing in Elders Quorum or Relief Society, the manuals provide no specific details on these questions. When someone goes in for a temple recommend interview, the Bishop or Stake President simply asks whether you’re a full tithe-payer. He doesn’t ask you how you personally define your tithing obligations, nor does he ask a series of follow-up questions that flesh out the nature of your compliance. So of what consequence are the Church’s supposed “policies”?”
The Bishop responded by insisting that while I was correct about the nature of the temple recommend interview process, in point of fact, Bishops are supposed to be instructing their congregations about the nuts and bolts of the Church’s policies on tithing; to the extent they don’t (and he acknowledged that they often don’t), they are failing in a crucial aspect of their stewardship. My reaction to this was to think that what the Bishop said made some sense, and yet it still seemed somewhat unsatisfactory. Even if Bishops should say more than they do, there is surely no way that they can anticipate and address the myriad tithing-related questions that are likely to be present in the minds of a large group of Churchmembers with diverse incomes and financial circumstances.
Interestingly, when I related the substance of this interchange to a relative who was asking me for some advice on certain tithing-related questions, she and her attorney decided to contact the LDS Church directly with a number of specific tithing questions that she had. While I did not participate in the ensuing discussion myself, apparently a Church representative talked with my relative at length and spelled out for her “official church policy” on some of her questions. I found this odd. My relative had no obvious religious obligation to contact the Church and pose her questions to anyone. The Church never would have made plans to initiate the conversation with her itself. Yet, had her attorney not come up with the idea to contact Church headquarters directly, she would never have been informed of “official Church policy” concerning her questions.
So I want to pose the same question to you that I put to the Bishop: What does it mean to say that the Church has a “policy” about how to calculate your tithing, if it provides no clearcut means for Churchmembers to figure out what the policy is? What is the point of having a policy, if you’re not going to communicate it to those to whom it applies?
2. As I understand the Law of Tithing, we are supposed to pay to the Church 10% of our “increase.” A potential question arises as to what constitutes “increase.” I see little justification for treating traditional “income” as “increase” but not treating gifts similarly. (Does anyone disagree with this?) Thus, if Mommie Dearest gives me $10,000, I owe $1,000 to the Church in tithing (and no issues of “net” vs. “gross” are implicated). But what if my $10,000 gift is in some tangible, non-cash asset? Suppose, in other words, that Mother gives me a $10,000 watch for my birthday. Do I have an obligation to determine the fair market value of the watch and cut the Church a check for 10% of the value? Does your answer change if the watch is only worth $100? What if the gift is a $5,000,000 piece of real estate instead?
Furthermore, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that I do owe the Church $1,000 for having received the watch. If there really is no way I can realistically raise the money, do I have an obligation to sell the watch in order to raise my tithing funds? Does your answer change if Mother really, really, really wanted me to have the watch, and to wear it religiously after she is dead and gone, because it is a family heirloom she inherited from her grandfather, and my parting with it would devastate her emotionally, and leave all my ancestors rolling over in their graves?
Finally, if you are someone who does believe I owe tithing on a large cash gift, but you don’t believe I owe tithing when I receive a large non-cash gift, what do you make of the scenario when Mother hands me $10,000 and says, “Aaron, here’s some money that I’m giving to you for the specific purpose of going out and buying yourself that $10,000 Rolex we saw at Ben Bridge yesterday.” Does your answer change if Mother instead says, “Aaron here’s $10,000. I want you to go out and buy yourself a really nice (unspecified) watch!” If so, why?
For what it’s worth, this is not just an academic exercise. As I already said above, I have a relative who is currently asking me for advice with respect to her tithing obligations in some rather novel, real-world “increase” scenarios, and your answers to my questions will hopefully help me better think through her (not entirely analogous) dilemmas and provide her with some concrete answers.