We were treated this past week to a priesthood lesson on the law of tithing, which we were told is a simple rule that can be lived perfectly. We owe this particular trope, I believe, to President Spencer W. Kimball, who suggested that on the road to perfection, we master the commandments one at a time. He recommended beginning with tithing, because it’s easy to count to ten. At ten percent we are “perfect” in obeying the law of tithing, and we can then move on to perfect ourselves in incremental obedience to the next commandment.
This formulation of tithing treats it as a clear and bright-line command. In legal scholarship, such bright-line commands are called “rules” — for example, “Drive at 55 miles per hour.” In contrast to rules, legal scholars have also recognized in law a different kind of imperative called a “standard” – for example, “Drive at a reasonable speed.” Unlike clear, hard-edged rules, standards are fuzzy and highly fact dependent, and change from situation to situation.
The gospel, like law, appears to have its share of bright-line rules, like “No sexual intercourse outside of marriage.” It also has lots of fuzzy standards, like “Love your neighbor” and “Magnify your calling,” and of course the (in)famous “WWJD” – What would Jesus do?
Rules are clear and easy to understand; they tell you in advance what behavior is expected. Because of this, they’re cheap and easy to enforce. Standards, on the other hand, are uncertain and expensive to enforce, because someone has to decide how they apply in each situation. They also tend, as my eleven year old daughter points out, to lead to infinite recursions — “When I ask myself, ‘What would Jesus do,’” she says, “The answer is ‘The right thing.’ But what is the right thing? Obviously, what Jesus would do. But what would Jesus do . . . .?”
Despite their attractive simplicity, rules also have a tendency to modulate into standards – consider that you typically can drive 5 to 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, and the police will not bother you as long as the pavement is dry, traffic is moving smoothly, etc. Gospel rules like tithing, it seems to me, are no different. Anyone who thinks tithing is a clear and simple law just isn’t paying attention. Consider:
1) As a graduate student, I was provided with a living stipend. The Chair of the department called me in when I first arrived and said, “We know that you’re a Mormon. We had a Mormon student in the program once before, so we know you give 10% of your money to your church. We’d like to ask you not to do that. The stipend money is for graduate students to live on; if you feel that you can live on 10% less than what we’re giving you, we’ll give that to some other student who needs it.”
I thought about that for awhile and eventually decided that if I accepted the money, it would be dishonest to pay tithing on it. I have since then occasionally been confronted with variations of the same problem with grants or research stipends, where I concluded that the money actually belonged to someone besides myself. At the same time, it was a little troubling not to pay tithing on money I had control over and was using to live on.
2) In a different column of the tithing calculation, I work for an employer who pays a portion of my health, life, and disability insurance. Due to peculiarities in the tax and federal employment laws, it costs the employer less to do this than to give the money to me as salary. I never thought about it much until my employer began listing this “invisible income” on my pay stubs. It is in some sense an “increase” to me – if the tax laws were a bit different, I would get it as salary and have to pay the full price of my insurance. Is the employer’s contribution titheable?
3) I have no idea why I pay tithing on the gross amount of my paycheck, rather than the take-home figure, except that I’ve heard for years that is what we typically should do. I have never heard a satisfactory justification for this. The usual mantra is that federal and state withholding is like paying a bill to the government, and you don’t calculate tithing after paying your other bills. This analogy is of course patently absurd from an either an economic or accounting standpoint, or just as a matter of plain sense.
4) I also have no idea how to correctly pay tithes on my retirement fund, which by the time I need to use it will comprise previously untithed deposits by various employers, previously tithed deposits by me (since I have been paying on my gross paycheck) and previously untithed interest or appreciation on my portfolio. There may be some enormously complicated algorithm to sort this out so as to avoid double tithing. Fortunately, I have another thirty years or so to figure this out.
The stock response to such concerns is to say not to worry about it, that tithing is between the Lord and me, and I should pay whatever I feel comfortable about. Which is a perfectly fine response, except that it converts the bright-line tithing “rule” into a fuzzy fact-dependent “standard” — I should pay some amount of tithing, “n,” where “n” is 8% or 12% or 32% or whatever per cent I feel the Lord would approve in my particular circumstances.
Which makes me wonder. Legal scholarship on rules suggests that there are almost never any real bright-line imperatives in law, and when there are, they tend to modulate into standards. Is the same true of the gospel?