Tithes and Offerings

Tithing image from lds.org

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

The Firstfruits

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.

Teaching Tithing

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. c.f. Jeremiah 24:2
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

11 thoughts on “Tithes and Offerings

  1. Yes, paying tithing is a blessing. Thank you.

    I know we talk a lot about paying the Lord first, paycheck by paycheck, but I’m not sure that is a correct or mandatory principle. As I understand, we need to be square at tithing settlement once a year, not every payday. And I’m mindful of Romans 13:6-7 (see especially JST Romans 13:6-7), which tells us to pay our other debts first, and then to pay our tithing afterward. But I admit that other Latter-day Saints see it differently.

  2. I’m not a perfectionist in accounting for every return or increase in my tithing immediately. Sometimes I wait for the end of the year to calculate, primarily for ease of calculation, but also because the increase changes (how do you tithe revenue on a randomly depreciating asset?)

    But this post did bring to mind an area where I should tithe but I’m currently not. It will take some thought to figure out what’s best there…

    Along similar veins, do teachers tithe their health insurance? Do non teachers deduct their health insurance from tithable income? If your income includes paid vacation, do you tithe a portion of those days as well?

    As government taxation and employee benefits rise, reducing after tax net incomes we see a big change.

    Imagine 70% taxation to pay for housing, food, transportation, and health care in the alleged progressive utopia. Would you pay net or gross?

    Ok what about if your employer matches 50% of your contribution. Should you pay on that as well since it’s generated as a direct result if your labor and in a free society it would be paid to you and ultimately comes back to you in the form of some benefit?

    I realize many of these questions come up at tithing discussions and the answer is between us and the Lord.

    But I can’t help but see an issue with government encroachment changing things to where at some point more counsel will be needed.

    All that said, I think it’s a good idea to pay as frequently as possible and practical. Not everyone entirely unrelated, but I used to not stress about paying an immediate fast offering every fast Sunday. Often I’d forget to return to the envelope for a week or more.

    Then when reading Isaiah 58, I felt a strong rebuke that I should make a more concerted effort to link my fast with an immediate offering.

    I feel there is some aspect of that principle with our labor and income and our tithes.

  3. I recall the anguish of a young girl after the family home burned. She had saved her tithing in a container in her bedroom, and it was gone along with everything else that had burned.

    I really liked it back in the day when I could set up a recurring payment straight to the Church. But it’s still trivially easy to pay tithing in a few seconds.

    As to how other people prefer to handle disposition of their tithe, there are few wrong answers as long as a tithe is given. I’ve had years when there was a large check at the end of the year, other years where there were several large checks (nominally quarterly), and years when tithes were paid every time I received my salary. I know which I prefer.

    One place where the question of basis for tithes was interesting was Italy, where part of the government taxation went to support the Catholic Church (as I was given to understand). Given that Italy had an interest in maintaining important buildings in good repair, it made good economic sense to devote a portion of tax income to maintenance of the dominant Church. But I prefer the sort of taxation policy that encourages all legitimate religions rather than only the dominant religion. It makes tithes for adherents of the non-dominant religion less fraught.

  4. The First Presidency came out with a letter in the ’70s that said “increase” is interpreted to mean “income.” So, we get into all sorts of discussions on how to define “income.” I don’t view gifts, money or actual presents, from family and such as “income.” A gift is not income — it’s a gift, a donation. Nor do I really think of “gain” from most assets (think appreciating homes) as income, either. My approach over the years has been pretty easy. Not that I think the IRS has a lock on the definition of “income,” but I figure if anybody wants to call something income, it’s the IRS. Therefore, I pay tithing on my 1040 Line 22 Total Income.

    I once had the bright idea to put monthly tithing in savings, thinking I would earn interest and at the end of year pay my tithing as well as tithe on the interest earned. Certainly an okay thing to do, but as for me and my house, life just didn’t go very well. Went back to pay as you go and life was much better.

    I don’t understand the rationale of people who think they should pay after tax is deducted. Taxes are no different than a cell phone bill or utilities or groceries. Imagine if all government services were privatized, and we received invoices from 100,000 entities every month. (Though it would be nice to pick and choose only those services we wanted, obviously that isn’t practical in real life). Taxes are the equivalent of paying for all the governmental services we receive, so why would they merit some sort of consideration different that the other bills we receive and pay? While I may not agree or be happy with the way my tax dollars are spent, I don’t think I should not pay tithing on that portion of my income that goes to pay taxes and social security. I probably won’t pay tithing on my SS payments when I eventually receive them (presuming SS is still around in 10 or 15 years) because I will have already have paid tithing on the money that went into the system in the first place.

    I’ve seen some people claim a “loss” and not pay on their income. We don’t tithe on losses, nor does it make sense that if you lost something valuable, it should be counted some way against your income. For the vast majority of W-2 employees, tithing should be a pretty straightforward calculation. Even as a sole proprietor, things really aren’t that complicated for me since I just go off 1040 Line 22.

  5. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, the Bankruptcy Code allows individuals to deduct 15% of their income as charitable contributions. Many in Utah take advantage of this deduction for tithing because it generally reduces dollar for dollar the amount they repay each month to their creditors. Verification is sometimes initially required, but seldom thereafter during the 3 to 5 years of a repayment plan. This creates an opportunity for abuse.

    But it also seems an odd ethic to intentionally pay less to creditors so you can pay more to the church.

  6. Kevin,

    I would hope that the intersection of bankruptcy and tithing is small on a global scale. But I see that Chapter 13 practices vary significantly between states and even districts within states.

    You appear to be writing from the perspective of an area where local practice acknowledges the benefit associated with charitable contributions, even when folks are engaging in a “soft” bankruptcy. And it seems you are writing from an area where those paying tithes are predominantly from a particular religion.

    Governments and municipalities enact laws that may or may not be proper or just. But one thing the recent re-reading of the Book of Mormon highlighted to me is that the proper response to wrongful government should be to work with the system towards change whenever possible. I would therefore hope that your unease expressed here is a mere outgrowth of activism elsewhere, rather than indirect sniping.

  7. When I was a young girl I heard about a loss suffered by my grandmother. She misplaced her handbag on the bus on her way home from the bank after cashing her paycheck. This was all she had to pay her rent, her food, and all of her other bills. That evening a man came to her apartment and handed over the purse. He was thin and shabby. He explained in effect: ” When I looked in the purse and saw the cash I was tempted to keep it. Then I saw your tithing envelope and looked inside. I realized that the money in the purse was everything that you had made in the past month and you had paid an honest tithe as well as a fast offering on a very small income. It was your address on the tithing slip that allowed me to find you and return your purse.”
    That was a potent lesson for me as a child. My grandmother was fiercely independent and as a widow for fifty years she worked a number of different jobs including several that were menial and even disgusting, such as janitorial work in a mortuary. Recognizing the needs of her children’s growing families she did not expect help from them except as they paid her for childcare. With her as my example I could never justify finding a way to skimp on tithes and offerings. She made the story of ‘ the widow’s mite’ personal.

  8. For a chain of length 4 rods or 66 feet, an acre is 10 square chains.

    For a chain of length 72.6 feet, 100 square chains is 12.1 acres.

    I have a vague idea of the size of an acre because my grandparents used to have a house on a one-acre lot that included a pasture in the back, but I usually think of acres from the other side. Because a square mile (5280 feet X 5280 feet) is 640 acres, a single acre must be 43560 square feet (66 X 66 X 10).

    Wikipedia has an article about Gunter’s chain, “an actual measuring chain of 100 links” that was introduced in 1620 and was 66 feet long.

  9. Cool. The fellow giving the talk said it was 66 and I wrote that originally, but then I made the mistake of checking online. Got some bum dope online this time. I’ll correct the post when I have time to sit at my computer.

    However, the point stands that important measures were multiples of ten.

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