I was raised by only my mother from the age of 8 until my mid-teens. During that time my father paid very little child support and even went to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. We struggled financially. There were times when we could not afford heating or food. For a short while my 3 siblings and I lived with my Mum in a single room in sheltered housing. My mother went to university while working full-time so that she could provide for us. My Dad is not now a member of the Church but if he had returned I wonder how the Bishop would have handled this question in the temple recommend interview: “Do you have financial or other obligations to a former spouse or children? If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?” Would the Bishop have required my father to be ‘current’ before giving him a temple recommend and what type of stipulations would the Bishop have placed on being current? I raise this question because I am sure that there are wards where this question is treated quite light or merely as aspirational. I applaud the Brethren for including this question in the Temple Recommend interview but I fear that local leaders are not thinking through the importance of this question as it pertains to our temple covenants.
The book of Malachi contains emphatic condemnation of those who fail to pay their tithes. According to the KJV, the messenger asks “Will a man rob God?” “Wherein have we robbed thee?”, reply the people. “In tithes and offerings!” One perspective on this motif of theft argues that when we (as stewards of the earth) fail to render to God what is rightfully His then we are guilty of stealing from Him. The text however provides evidence for another possible reading. The reason God desires these tithes and offerings is so that “there will be meat in [his] house”, but why? Tithes and offerings were not merely a matter of piety but a mechanism through which the produce of the land was redistributed to both Temple personnel and other groups – in particular, the vulnerable or the precariate. Refusing to pay tithes and offerings was ‘tantamount to upsetting the cosmic harmony’ that assured prosperity in the land and was a refusal of the shared sense of peoplehood. Rather than robbing God (how can we take anything from Him?), when we fail to meet a financial obligation to care for a former spouse or children, we rob those in the land (our families) who have a claim on the fruits of the ground. In particular we fail to provide to specific people part of what was promised to them through the marriage covenant and through the act of bearing those children.
If theft seems to be too strong a metaphor then I would argue that this is precisely what the scriptures describe as ‘grinding the faces of the poor’ (Isa 3.15). When someone fails to pay their child support (i.e. retaining what should be given to another) they reinforce the precarious economic position of the poor and exploited in society. This is a form of oppression.
Certainly I can envisage exceptions which require that a person might not pay all of what is owed – the Temple Recommend certainly has scope to be aspirational where circumstance prohibits full adherence. This, however, should be the exception rather than the rule and should be coupled with the assumption that if the person cannot meet these obligations, perhaps their financial situation is so serious that they might need church welfare. In fact, in my personal opinion, someone should meet their financial obligations to their children before they give their offerings to the Church. Obviously this is to be done with the Bishops approval but this seems to reflect the spirit of Malachi 3.
In my opening paragraph I mentioned that I applaud the inclusion of this question in the Temple Recommend interview. My reason for such hearty support is this: almost every interpretation I can imagine for why a Bishop might be lenient toward someone who is not current with their financial obligations are grounded on patriarchal privilege. A working male (who is also a Bishop) can all too easily feel and understand how hard it is to meet financial obligations to a ex-wife, especially when that money is so hard-earned. This, to me, is a blatant manifestation of the system of patriarchy that has continued to leave women poor and powerless.
This question is a radical break in that framework which should cause Bishops to reflect more carefully on that privilege. This break is evident when we consider that this question could very well have been subsumed under the previous question: “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?” That it is not included, but is offered as its own point of worthiness, suggests that we should be taking this issue very seriously.
This is not a proscriptive post. I am not calling for a blanket prohibition on all those who cannot pay child support but I think the Brethren clearly want Bishops to withhold recommends from those who will not pay. Rather I hope that Bishops recognise the seriousness of this sin. I hope they remember the families like mine who are suffering economically and emotionally because of this failure. How can those who fail to pay make the covenant to consecrate all that they have to Kingdom of God when they are leaving their families financially destitute? I believe that promise, in such circumstances, would be a mockery of what it means to consecrate.
Some of the comments in the post are drawn from a conversation with friends. I appreciate their wisdom and thoughtfulness on this difficult issue.