Why I Refuse To Pay Tithing To The Mormon Church
By David Metcalfe
February 26, 2019
There are three reasons people pay tithing to the Mormon church:
1) People tell you to
2) You’ll be blessed in return
3) It’s the right thing to do
I’ll tell you right now that I hate the first two reasons. “People tell you to” is drawn from authority and social expectation, and relies on the individual’s ignorance, and is therefore sufficient for children or stupid adults (of which there is always an abundance). This is an unfortunate, but maybe necessary, reason for some people who cannot understand scriptures or morality for themselves.
But “you’ll be blessed in return” is one that I actively oppose (at least in the common way it is presented). People talk about how paying tithing resulted in them actually getting wealthier, because the Lord blessed their finances. I’m sorry…I didn’t realize Sunday morning was an investment seminar. Maybe we should have Tai Lopez give a talk at this year’s general conference?
If I want a good return on my investment, I will get a mutual fund or a real estate property. But the other way “blessings” are discussed is in the sense that it makes you happier. I’m sorry…I didn’t realize Sunday morning was a trip to Disneyland, where a casual, self-serving, momentary happiness is the ultimate goal and measure of success.
My own personal happiness is subjective, and is a terrible way to make an estimate of what is actually right or wrong. A rapist may be happy by raping people, a thief may be happy when he steals from people, etc. In the case of tithing, what if I felt that spending my money on a nicer vehicle made me feel happier than paying tithing? Are we really supposed to rely on what each individual “feels” makes them happier?
Christian morality is not based in “feeling happy”. Jesus does not say “love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you, on the condition that it makes you personally happier.” Loving others, being kind, showing courage, etc. are virtues independent of whether or not you decide they make you feel happy. Pursuing your own happiness is not a virtue outside the walls of Disneyland.
Christian morality presents an objective concept of virtue to be strived for, independent of what we think about it. Don’t want to love all people because being racist makes you feel better about yourself? Too bad, you’re wrong. Don’t want to practice self-control because indulging lust makes you feel good? Too bad, you’re wrong.
The question we should be asking in regards to tithing is not whether some authority figure told us to, or whether it makes us wealthier or happier. We should be asking one question: is it the right thing to do?
Is Paying Tithing The Right Thing To Do?
If Christian morality is supposed to present some kind of objective morality beyond our feelings, how do we know what that morality is? Well, that’s a big part of what scripture is for. As we understand God’s heart for mankind, we understand the heart we are supposed to have for others. The scriptures talk about God’s view of money lots, but here are a few that sum up the general approach:
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” -1 John 3:17
“And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” -Luke 3:11
“But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.” -2 Nephi 9:30
I often tell people that my mind is agnostic but my heart aligns very much with Jesus Christ. I find something very profound in the concept of a divine being caring so much about the persecuted, the poor, the downtrodden. Kings typically cared about themselves. They felt they had a “divine right” to rule, and were innately better than other people. But Jesus, who had more than a divine right to rule over people, instead came as a servant. He healed the sick, spent time with sinners, and washed people’s feet. He was of low social standing, and never sought material gain. He spoke often, and very critically, of the practice of gaining and hoarding money for selfish gain.
We see very clearly, in the over 300 scriptural references to helping the poor, that it’s important. We should ask then: is the Mormon church doing an effective job of helping the poor?
A 2016 article in “Deseret News” says that the church gives 40 million dollars per year to help the poor (Jones, 2016). Impressive, right? Well, not really. In a Larry King interview in 1998, Gordon B. Hinkley (then president of the church) said the church receives about 5 billion dollars per year (Larry King Live, 1998). Now, with the expansion of the church and inflation, the number is estimated to be around 8 billion dollars per year (Winter, 2012). But the number is estimated by some to be much higher. “The Salt Lake Tribune” published an article last year citing an estimate of 33 billion dollars per year in tithing, plus 15 billion dollars from investments (Stack, 2018). But, for argument’s sake, let’s be conservative and go with the 8 billion dollar estimate.
So, if the church gives 40 million dollars, out of 8 billion, that’s 0.5%. Umm…what? For a religion that’s based on a guy who talked about helping the poor constantly, that’s more than odd…it seems contradictory (btw, the 33 billion dollar estimate would mean just 0.12%).
But, if not to the poor, where do all these billions of dollars go?
What you’ll hear from bishops, members, church leaders, and the LDS website over and over again is buildings. Those are some expensive buildings.
I should first mention, before getting into buildings, that the church runs some programs that would likely be quite expensive, but in my opinion, justified. They substantially subsidize post secondary education at Brigham Young University. BYU is an excellent university by secular academic standards; it graduates many accomplished professionals, and contributes significantly to research in high quality journals. The students pay just over $5000 per year of tuition for most programs, which makes it much more affordable and accessible.
While young people are encouraged to save up their own money for their missions, some come from poor families and cannot afford it. I am happy to see money supporting a young person’s desire to travel the world and share the gospel with people. And, after all, they will be paying it back, in a way, with tithe money in the future, when they have the opportunity to work.
When people work, they should be able to provide for themselves and their families. There are certain positions in the church where it is of great benefit to have someone serve in a capacity that makes it difficult or impossible to have a separate career. The church employs tons of people both full and part time. This includes institute teachers, custodians, administration, church leaders, and other necessary positions. I don’t have a problem with people doing work and getting a reasonable salary for it.
Now, let’s talk about buildings. Building, maintaining, and operating them can be expensive. The church is estimated to own about 35 billion dollars worth just of temples and churches alone (Henderson, 2012). The churches are nice, but not extravagant, so not an outrageous expense. Temples, on the other hand, are really, really, nice. They are made with fancy materials, and made to very exact specifications. According to some reports, the San Diego temple cost about 24 million dollars, and the Calgary temple cost 22 million (Perry, 1993). Imagine how much real estate in Manhattan and Hong Kong costs (both of which have temples), and Calgary and San Diego were built quite a while ago. So, let’s be conservative, and say the average temple costs 15 million to build. With around 160 temples, that’s 2.4 billion dollars!
Maintenance and operating costs have been said to be somewhere in the range of 500,000 to one million dollars per year (again, this is conjecture, but nonetheless seems reasonable). So, let’s be conservative and say each temple costs 500,000 dollars per year to be maintained. That’s 80 million dollars per year! Twice the amount they give to the poor.
The ordinances that occur in temples are crucial to the faith itself. Eternal marriage, baptism for the dead, endowment, and other ordinances are performed to help the member progress in their relationship with God and one another. I would never ask the Mormons to get rid of temples, but I would ask: do they have to spend so much?
I think it’s good for people to eat food, but I don’t think they should eat $100 meals when more than a billion people don’t have enough to eat. I think it’s good for people to drive a car if necessary for transportation, but I don’t think they should own 50 one million dollar cars while single mothers take the bus with their children to day care. I think faithful Mormons should take part in temple ordinances, but I don’t think they should spend 20 million dollars or more on each one when billions of people lack basic needs.
You may ask, “well, David, you don’t support a $100 meal or 50 one million dollar cars, but what about a $20 meal or 2 one million dollar cars?” And I’ll tell you, there’s a grey area. In that grey area, I’ll let people follow their conscience. But on either side of that grey area, in the extremes, are black and white. Mormon temples, from what I can tell, are in the black.
Alright, So Should I Give To Them?
I guess we have to ask what Jesus wants our money to do. I would have a tough time, based on the Jesus I know, thinking that he would delight in seeing fancy buildings built in his name just blocks from starving children. But I should recognize that temples are a part of the expenditure, not the sole expenditure.
I appreciate and support missionary work, institute class, Brigham Young University, the church’s employees, and the humanitarian work that the church does. I would very much like to see increased financial transparency from the church (if they’re handling it well, that shouldn’t be a problem, right?). I shouldn’t have to go digging around old newspapers from Utah to get approximate data. The church should confidently publish its general financials on its website, and each member should be aware of where their money is going.
There is almost nothing in this world I hate more than poverty. It’s what drives my studies of economics and political philosophy. It’s one of the most important aspects of my relationship with Jesus (a guy who clearly hated poverty). I think that, in many ways, my acknowledgement of it defines me as a person.
I only want to use my money for four things: survival, education, relationships, and giving to those in need. The church has certainly been valuable in providing me with education, at institute and church, and relationships with certain people. The church hasn’t provided me survival, and I wouldn’t expect them to. Although, I do believe that they would help me if I lost all my money and was homeless. It’s nice to know that is there, and that it gets used practically from time to time for those who fall into such unfortunate circumstances.
The church gives such a minor amount, around 0.5%, to those in need. 0.5% does not reflect my passion to alleviate poverty. I want the opposite; to give to an organization that gives 99.5% of its donations to the poor. Those exist, and there are certain charities that I believe in very much and donate to whenever I have extra money.
I think it would be right for me to give a small amount of money to the church, in relation to the things they do that I think are truly good things. It may be possible, I suppose, to direct my finances to certain things. Like, I’m sure there would be a way for me to only tithe toward the humanitarian fund, right? I don’t know, I’ll ask about that later. So, maybe I don’t actually refuse to give to the church, but I do refuse certain reasons people give me, and certain expenditures that tithes go to. And wherever my money goes, I want it to reflect God’s love abiding in my heart, because,
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Henderson, P. (2012). Mormon church made wealthy by donations. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-mormons/insight-mormon-church-made-wealthy-by-donations-idUSBRE87B05W20120812
Jones, M. (2016). LDS Church Welfare. Deseret News. Retrieved from https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865657898/LDS-Church-welfare-humanitarian-efforts-average-40-million-per-year-apostle-says.html
Larry King Live. (1998). President Gordon B. Hinkley on Larry King Live. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAsNMWwRXvs
Perry, T. (1993). Mormon temple rises above ordinary. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1993-01-04/news/mn-912_1_san-diego-temple
Stack, P. (2018). Historian digs into the hidden world of Mormon finances. Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.sltrib.com/religion/local/2017/10/14/historian-digs-into-the-hidden-world-of-mormon-finances-shows-how-church-went-from-losing-money-to-making-money-lots-of-it/
Winter, C. (2012). How The Mormons Make Money. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-07-18/how-the-mormons-make-money