“Mankind was my business!”
-Jacob Marley, in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

“His wealth is of no use for him.  He don’t do any good with it.”
-Fred, in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens  

Last week, Jana Reiss wrote a follow-up article to her 2020 article announcing her decision to stop paying tithing to the LDS Church.  I won’t reiterate her reasoning here–you can read it for yourself–but I have been curious about some of the responses I’ve read to her position both on her article and in a recent BCC post.  

I will state at the outset that I stopped paying tithing to the Church after the news of the Church’s 100B+ investment fund broke.  I had been on the fence about it for a while because the Church was spending money on amicus briefs supporting employment discrimination against LGBTQ+ folks, but I paid anyway in 2019–just days before the news broke (and the Church issued its absurd response).  In 2020, I attended tithing settlement and declared myself a non-full-tithe-payer.  I haven’t been to tithing settlement or renewed a temple recommend since then.  

I’m not telling readers this to say you should do what I do, but to be fully transparent about how I’ve approached it.  I do not think people who tithe to the LDS Church are evil or wrong or stupid, and my purpose in writing isn’t to persuade anyone with respect to their own practices  That said, I am skeptical of the arguments that many “ProgMo’s” are making in response to Jana’s piece and in justifying the Church’s definition, expectations, and practices around tithing.  (I don’t like the term “ProgMo”, btw, but for my purposes here it’s my best umbrella term.)  Those justifications don’t pass the smell-test for me.  I have to wonder if there is something else going on … and I think there is.  But I’ll get to that.  First, let’s discuss the public justifications–again, with the massive caveat that my point is to engage with arguments and reasoning, not to cast judgment on the people making those arguments.  Then I want to talk about what I think might really be going on with these justifications.  

  1.  Justifications & Responses   
  • “God defines tithing as money given to the Church, not to other charities.”

At the outset, I fully acknowledge that the current teaching of the LDS Church is that tithing = a tenth of your income to the Church.  While I know some people who declare themselves tithe payers even if their money goes to other organizations (Jana is in that camp), and I also know of Bishops who accept this version (leadership roulette strikes again), I’m not in that camp.  I do not declare myself a full tithe payer because I don’t pay the kind of tithing that the Church obviously means when it asks that question.  I simply think that’s the wrong question to be asking.  

That said, I struggle quite a bit to make the leap from “a Church leader told me that God told him that tithing must be paid to the Church that the leader runs” to “God has defined tithing as money paid to the LDS Church.”  

First, we know that the definition of tithing has changed over time within the LDS Church itself.  Indeed, there is no scriptural basis for the current definition of tithing–Malachi isn’t talking about people paying tithing; he’s talking about religious leaders hoarding the offerings (sound familiar?) and the D&C’s iteration of tithing doesn’t resemble what’s done today (plus, it’s the D&C – the same book of scripture that brought us Section 132, so I mean come on).    

Second, while I realize that this is a common line of thinking among many Church members (“when the prophet speaks, the thinking is done”) it’s typically not one you see among “ProgMo’s”, so it’s jarring to see people who are otherwise fairly comfortable grappling with things Church leaders have done or said in the past (or present) refusing to engage on the tithing piece.  

This is particularly true here where there is such an obvious conflict of interest between the speaker and what’s being said.  Of course, I’m not arguing that Church leaders are lining their own pockets with tithing dollars–they aren’t (well, not exactly, although it is their salary and living).  But Church leaders’ jobs are to protect the institution of the Church.  So of course, it’s convenient for them to tell members they have to financially support the Church before doing literally anything else (including meeting their own sustenance needs).  I remember the day I realized (way too late in life for a thinking person) that when a bunch of men say that God says that men should be in charge, maybe I should treat that with a bit of skepticism.  Likewise, when a bunch of Church authorities say that God says that we should our money to the Church … well, perhaps some skepticism is warranted.  

Of course, we can’t know the inner thoughts of Church leaders.  Perhaps they sincerely believe in the definition of tithing that they teach–they probably do.  I’m not saying that they are doing any of this in bad faith.  But when it comes to judging right and wrong, and whether something comes from God or not, I do not think it is sound to make that judgment based on the identity of authority of the person who makes the statement.  Rather, I think we have to make that judgment based on the fruits of the teaching and whether it it consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

To me, nothing about a Church amassing 200B+ of wealth and giving only a pittance to people in need is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and I’m not seeing good fruits from the hoarding.  So I base my judgment about what God might think of how we use our resources based on that, not based on the bare fact that someone with a particular calling has told us what God thinks. 

  • “Of course we should also donate money to other charities.  Tithing is not the entirety of a person’s charitable giving and doesn’t take away from that.”

This is of course technically true–you can give money to the LDS Church AND you can give money to other causes–but we need a reality check here.  For tithe-payers or former tithe-payers, how many of you gave the same amount to other charities as you did to the LDS Church?  10% of your income to the LDS Church and another 10% to other charitable causes?  Most years I have given money to both, but I wasn’t giving anywhere near the amount to other organizations as the Church.  Who really has 20% of their income to give away?  I would suspect that there is a large number of people for whom the Church is their *only* form of charitable giving, and an even larger (probably the majority) of people for whom the Church is the lions share and they also give to other charities but in smaller amounts.  

Charitable giving is literally zero-sum.  What you give to the LDS Church, you no longer have to give elsewhere.  If you are interested in maximizing the amount of good your money does to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the earth, or whatever else it is you think God wants you to do, then every dollar you give to the Church is a dollar of yours that’s not going towards that.  

  • “It’s not my job to judge how the Church uses my tithes.  I may disagree with how the Church spends money, and I hope that they start donating more to worthy causes.  My job is simply to exercise faith and pay my tithing, and if I do that I know I am square with God and God will hold Church leaders accountable if they mismanage funds.”

I am very troubled by this line of reasoning.  This is the same line of reasoning people use when they say “when the prophet speaks, the thinking is done.”  It’s the same line of reasoning people use when they absolve themselves of any responsibility to make their own moral judgments and instead say that if a leader leads us astray and we follow, then the leader will be held accountable, not us.  That’s an outsourcing of our moral authority and agency, and an abdication of responsibility over our stewardship of resources we’ve been blessed with.

Again, what surprises me is that the same people who are making these arguments might, say, oppose the Church’s position on gay marriage or the way the Church is handling the BYU’s.  So why does the Church get a pass when it comes to tithing?  I can’t really square that.  

Not only that, but I believe we have different experiences on earth and in life so that we can learn more about God and contribute to the Body of Christ.  If we rely on the Church to decide who needs what help, the Church is not going to be aware of needs that we might be aware of because of our own life experience.  

As an example, this summer my family became aware of a conservation project for the last wild tributary to the Colorado River, and we donated money to that project.  Is that what everyone else needs to do?  No, although that would be great!  But it’s an example of a need that we became aware of through our own personal experience.  Other people become aware of other needs.  Why would God put these needs in our paths if we aren’t meant to address them but rather to count on Church leaders (who do not have the same life experiences as we do) to address them?  

  • “Tithing isn’t about money, it’s about faith.  God doesn’t need my money, but He does need me to sanctify myself through paying tithing.”

First, it is absolutely correct that God doesn’t need our money.  And the LDS Church definitely doesn’t need our money either as it’s got quite the nice nest egg.

You know who needs our money? 

Hungry people.  Refugees.  Widows.  Orphans.  Queer kids.  The mentally and physically incapacitated.  

I don’t think it takes any less faith to part with our substance and donate to organizations that are using money in ways we feel good about than to give the money to the Church instead.  As one commenter noted on BCC, do we have the faith not to pay tithing?  

Second, by making tithing about our own personal development and sanctification, doesn’t that kind of make it about us?  About our own worthiness?  If we are paying tithing because we believe it will help us become holy, even if the tithing is totally pointless to pay because the organization we are paying it to doesn’t need it, doesn’t that make us selfish?  

Not only that, but I don’t see how it’s any less sanctifying to donate to organizations in need.  Shifting from the majority of my contributions going into the black box that is the Church financial institution to the majority of my contributions going to needs I see around me has put me more directly in touch with those needs. 

I pay attention to what my community needs.  I pay attention to what my kids and family value and how we can use our resources to support those values.  

Rather than just checking a box and donating to the Church, then assuming that the Church will figure out to do with my money, I have to be actually open my eyes to the world around me to identify needs and research how I might be able to contribute.  Now, do plenty of full tithe payers do that?  I’m sure they do. There are probably a lot of people out there who are better than I am.  But my point is that tithing in a perverse way encourages us to look to the Church to solve problems and to ignore what’s around us.  Maybe that’s not its intent, but I suspect it’s the impact for many. 

  • “I’ve been blessed for paying tithing.  I would never deprive myself or my family of the blessings of tithing.”

I’m not here to challenge anyone’s testimony of tithing, but the reality is you can never prove that whatever blessing you got was a result of paying tithing.  Correlation is not causation.  

I also really challenge the idea that God only blesses people who tithe to the LDS Church.  Would you honestly argue that God will “bless” someone who paid 10% to the LDS Church but not someone who paid 80% to Catholic Charities because they chose the wrong Church?  

Finally, this is pure prosperity gospel and it’s, frankly, quite disturbing when you really think about it.  My friend was a full tithe payer and her husband died, leaving her with several young children.  A family in our community were full tithe payers and two of their three young children were hit and killed by a distracted driver as they walked to school.  

I don’t believe in a God from whom we can purchase blessings or protection, let alone who picks and chooses who to bless or protect.  

  • “Charities don’t use their money well, they pay a lot of overhead, and I’ve read research that says they do more harm than good.”

Do you know why we know what charities spend on overhead?  Because they are transparent about their finances!  Do you know who isn’t transparent?  Yeah, that’s what I thought!  

Spending money on overhead is a debate that is beyond the scope of this post, but I have dear friends in the nonprofit world who are well-educated, extremely skilled, and could be making a lot more money in the private sector.  If we want people to run organizations well, we need to pay them a competitive salary.  If they can’t prove their worth, then the nonprofit board can get rid of them.

But in any event, we can all do our own research about how to use our resources in a way that is consistent with our values and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Cherry-picking problems with charities isn’t really a reason not to face the question of tithing.  

  • “Tithing is particularly unselfish because I have to let go of my ego, pay with no strings attached, and I don’t get any attention for it.”

Charitable organizations typically do not allow donors to specify exactly how their funds will be used.  Yes, you can pick general categories, but once you give the charity your money, it’s gone.  As for attention, while philanthropy is typically associated with lots of attention (naming buildings, museums, news articles, etc.), run of the mill charity work has never brought me any meaningful attention and if I was worried about that I could always donate anonymously.  

  • “I pay tithing because God gave me everything I have, nothing I have is actually mine, and it’s a sign to God that I understand that.”

I’ve already addressed this point.  Sure, it’s good to acknowledge that God gave us everything and to give some of that back.  But giving money to the LDS Church is not the same thing as giving money “to God.”  (If anyone has God’s routing info, LMK.)  Conflating “the Church” with “God” is highly problematic.

  • “I prayed about it and I felt the spirit confirm that I should pay my tithing to the LDS Church.”

Look, again, I’m not trying to discredit someone’s personal spiritual witness.  Maybe it’s great for you to pay tithing to the LDS Church.

Or maybe you have confirmation bias and the social pressure to conform on tithing is tipping scales in its favor.  Just saying.  Feelings aren’t facts.      

  1. What is really going on?

I’m struggling with how to express this because I want to reiterate for the millionth time that I don’t want to judge anyone for paying tithing.  I’m not them, I don’t have their life experience, I haven’t had their spiritual promptings, I don’t know what’s in their hearts or minds. 

But I do know my own heart and mind, and my own life experience.  And this I can say for sure:  the decision for me not to pay tithing in 2020 felt like a true crossing of the rubicon.  It was an unusually tough decision even though it was very clear to me that the Church was not spending money in a way that aligned with my values or with the gospel of Jesus Christ as I understood it, and even though I had felt comfortable “disagreeing” with Church leadership for some time, and even though I personally really didn’t feel good about paying tithing (as defined the Church). 

And the reason for that is simple:  not paying tithing immediately disqualified me from holding a temple recommend in a way that no other action (at least no other action I was interested in) would do. 

While some people declare themselves tithe payers despite paying to other organizations, I wasn’t comfortable or interested in doing that.  So not paying tithing meant that I couldn’t accompany my only daughter to her first temple trip to help her change for baptisms.  It means I’d become a second (actually third, as a woman I’m already second) class citizen at Church.  You can nuance your way around a lot of temple recommend questions (and some people nuance their way around this one), but for me this was a bright line.  

Because that was my experience, I do wonder if the carrot of a temple recommend / the stick of a spiritual and social demotion is lurking in the background of people’s insistence on paying tithing despite their having deep reservations about the way those funds are being used.  I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I also suspect my experience is somewhat common.  And that–the way that the Church tethers tithing to temple recommends–is troubling to me, as is the continued defense of that practice and the continued insistence that we look the other way as the Church sits on its investment like Smaug while the homeless sleep in zero degree weather in the shadows of our temples.  

Questions:

  • What reasons for paying tithing (to the LDS Church) have I missed?  Which arguments are more or less compelling to you?  
  • Do you think that social pressure & temple recommends tend to factor heavily in people’s willingness to look the other way when it comes to tithing?  Has this factored into your feelings or decisions?  Have you changed your tithing practices over time? Why or why not?