Today my bishop mentioned that tithing, by definition, means a tenth.
This piqued my interest. I’ve been moderately active in following commentary posted on the internet. So I happened to be aware that early members of the Church of Jesus Christ did not have our modern understanding of the tithe. While many gave their all, Steven Harper in his LDS Perspectives interview pointed out that Bishop Partridge originally proposed members of the Church donate a mere 2%.
So when my bishop said that tithing, by definition, is a tenth, I did a quick google search. By golly, it turns out that this is a universally acknowledged definition for the term “tithing.” Digging a bit deeper into the Hebrew term used for Malachi 3:8, it turns out the “tithe” Malachi chided the people of Judah to give to the temple was, in fact, a tenth. 1
So if the early members of the Church didn’t understand tithing to be a tenth, it was more a feature of their lack of education than anything else. It certainly wasn’t the Church that invented the definition that a tithe is a tenth. This bit of trivia is useful if you have people in your life who have unfounded ideas about the reason leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ teach that a tithe is a tenth of your increase.
What is Increase?
Then we get into the question of what increase is to be used as the basis for a tithe.
Let me put forward an example.
Say an individual had a thriving manufacturing business. Each year they sold $1 billion in widgets. But in this case it took $500 million in raw materials to create the widgets, along with $450 million in labor and shipping, etc., to transform the raw materials into widgets and get the widgets to customers. Thus the individual couldn’t pay a tenth of the $1 billion ($100 million), as after expenses they only would have $50 million.
For those of us who are salaried workers, the math is easier. Just figure what portion of your income you agree is your increase, then slide the decimal point over. Easy. 2
Another thought prompted by today is the principle of paying tithing first. When the “increase” of an individual’s labor was the fruit of the field, then the portion given to God was to be the first fruits. The way this looks in our modern times is that payday arrives, and we go online to make our tithing donation before paying our other bills.
It may be that you are not there at this time. Heaven knows that there have been times in my life when I wasn’t “there” for stretches of time. However the Lord loves me and has gone to some lengths to act the “repo man” in my general direction. Faithful folks get to talk of the times they paid a tithe in faith and were showered with blessings. And I have those stories too. But the stories that stick in memory are the times when we figured to pay our tithing later, and some disaster occurred that removed from our hands the amount we had planned to tithe (and we still ended up paying tithing later anyway, so the ill wind was an unmitigated loss).
Building up the Work of God
A final thought about tithing is that we are donating these funds to the Church of Jesus Christ.Individuals with world-class training in financial matters can do much more with the combined monies than feckless I could do with my portion. When I have faith that God lives and that He loves all His children, I feel privileged to be able to contribute to the work that will offer salvation to those children of God.
There are times when there is no monetary increase from which to donate a tenth. That is fine. It is worth remembering that many early Saints would donate a tenth of their days to building the temple. Our days and hours are also a resource we can devote to serving God’s children.
My bishop gave a great example of how they have arranged things in their family to teach their children the mechanisms of the tithe. Based on the urging of his wife, the bishop was persuaded to give his children an allowance (for doing, as he claimed, absolutely nothing). With this allowance, they would count out the money so it was obvious that a tenth part was to be placed in the “tithing” portion of the child’s bank, with a second portion of the money going to savings for mission/education and a third portion going to the child’s personal priorities.
For better or worse, it is not just children who are in need of instructions regarding the mechanism of paying a tithe. Those who have participated in Self Reliance workshops know that these workshops are not about relying on yourself per se. They are about becoming capable of caring for yourself and your family, and making yourself someone who can also care for those around you. A first step in that journey is giving your monetary first fruits to God. It is a crucial part of an individual’s journey from feckless ignorance (sour fruit or naughty figs 3) to wise stewardship (fresh, good fruit).
Living Waters versus Dead Seas
In Israel and in Utah there exist large bodies of water connected by rivers named Jordan. In each case the sea that produces the river is historically a sea populated by fish and bounty, while the sea that only receives is toxic to most life.
Tithing gives us a chance to be a living sea, a source of abundance. When we refuse to give of that which we have, we risk becoming toxic, like the so-called Dead Sea.
Let us choose to be living waters of abundance for the benefit of those around us, rather than feckless or miserly takers, like the Dead Sea.
- Wikipedia has a nice article on how tithes were administered in Israel. A lazy reading might leave you thinking they only paid a tithe in the seventh year, but a tithe was paid every year. In years 1,2, 4 & 5 the “second tithe” was provided for consumption by Levites generally. In years 3 & 6 the tithe was for the support of the poor. In the 7th year the tithe was specifically for the use of the tabernacle. ↩
- This business of calculating based on tens isn’t new to the metric system. It turns out surveyors circa the 1800s used a specialized chain (or rod) that was 66 feet long, but divided into 100 segments. An acre was 10 square rods (e.g., 5 chains wide and 2 chains long). So the most economically important measure in the life of most people of the 1800s was based on multiples of ten. ↩
- c.f. Jeremiah 24:2 ↩