Is Tithing Fire Insurance? Mormonism and the Tithe
Many orthodox Christians tithe, and some consider tithing a commandment that God expects all Christians to obey. In this respect, the teaching of the LDS Church that tithing is an obligation or “law” is not particularly unusual.
What is unusual and worth careful evaluation is the teaching of the LDS Church that those who tithe are promised to be spared from the fiery judgment at Christ’s second coming. In its chapter on tithing, the LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles briefly quotes the main LDS scripture on this point without explaining it. “Latter-day revelation tells of another blessing for those who tithe: ‘Verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming’ (D&C 64:23)” (Gospel Principles, 188).
We will consider three questions of relevance to this teaching here:
- What does D&C 64:23 mean in the context of LDS doctrine?
- Does the New Testament teach that Christians are commanded to tithe?
- What is the best “fire insurance” to protect us from the Final Judgment?
A. Tithing as “Fire Insurance” in LDS Teaching
In the classic 1963 film Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier plays Homer Smith, an out-of-work African American who helps a group of German nuns build a chapel. An irreligious man named Juan (played by character actor Stanley Adams) is asked why he is helping Homer with the project. “To me, it is insurance,” he explains. “If they are right about the hereafter I have paid my insurance.”
The LDS Church clearly does not teach that someone who has no faith in God can “pay his insurance” in order to be saved in “the hereafter.” However, it is rather surprising to learn that it does teach that believers literally need to pay fire insurance to protect themselves against the fire of divine judgment. Joseph Smith clearly presented this teaching in D&C 64, quoted briefly in Gospel Principles. The statement becomes even clearer when read in context:
Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming. For after today cometh the burning—this is speaking after the manner of the Lord—for verily I say, tomorrow all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, for I am the Lord of Hosts; and I will not spare any that remain in Babylon (D&C 64:23-24).
In September 1831, when the Lord supposedly gave Joseph Smith this revelation, Joseph had not yet given any indication of the distinctions of the three heavenly kingdoms that is now a fundamental aspect of LDS doctrine. Joseph put forward that idea for the first time five months later in D&C 76, a pivotal text in the development of LDS doctrine. At the time he delivered the revelation now known as D&C 64, then, it reflected the traditional Christian belief that all humanity would be divided into those who would be destroyed at the Final Judgment and those who would not. At the second coming of Christ, the wicked were to be condemned and burned up in the fire of divine judgment while the righteous would be spared. This is the clear, consistent teaching of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 15:30; 22:17; 2 Nephi 9:16-26; 26:4-8; 28:22-23; 30:10; Jacob 3:11; 6:3-11; Mosiah 3:24-27; 26:22-27; Alma 5:31-62; 12:17; Helaman 14:18; 3 Nephi 27:11, 16-17; Mormon 8:17-21). Joseph taught the same doctrine in his earliest revelations (D&C 29:9, 27-28; 43:32-33; 45:50, 57; 63:17-23). Notable among these many statements is the following, which the above-quoted passage from D&C 64 clearly echoes:
For the hour is nigh and the day soon at hand when the earth is ripe; and all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that wickedness shall not be upon the earth (D&C 29:9).
Despite these numerous statements that Joseph claimed were divine revelations, he quickly developed a very different teaching about the Final Judgment that required redefining numerous biblical terms. In Joseph Smith’s redefinition of Christian doctrine concerning the eternal destiny of human beings, found in D&C 76, the wicked that would be subjected to a fiery judgment are defined as those people who rejected the gospel or refused to become part of the LDS movement, or (worse still) those who accepted it and then rejected it. Regarding those who refuse to accept the LDS gospel and remain unrepentant in their wickedness, D&C 76 has this to say:
Last of all, these all are they who will not be gathered with the saints, to be caught up unto the church of the Firstborn, and received into the cloud. These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. These are they who suffer the wrath of God on earth. These are they who suffer the vengeance of eternal fire. These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work; When he shall deliver up the kingdom, and present it unto the Father, spotless, saying: I have overcome and have trodden the wine-press alone, even the wine-press of the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God. (D&C 76:102-107)
An even worse fate awaits those who accept the LDS gospel and then prove unfaithful to it:
Thus saith the Lord concerning all those who know my power, and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power—They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born; For they are vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity; Concerning whom I have said there is no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come—Having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame. These are they who shall go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels—And the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power; Yea, verily, the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord, after the sufferings of his wrath. (D&C 76:31-38)
After this revelation, Joseph reiterated in a later revelation the idea that tithing was necessary to protect God’s people from the coming day of judgment. However, in this later revelation he emphasizes that those who fail to be faithful to the commitments expected of the Saints, including tithing, are “apostates” (D&C 85:2) and are not to be counted among the people of God:
It is contrary to the will and commandment of God that those who receive not their inheritance by consecration, agreeable to his law, which he has given, that he may tithe his people, to prepare them against the day of vengeance and burning, should have their names enrolled with the people of God (D&C 85:3).
The implication of this passage is that Mormons who fail to tithe are potential apostates and therefore potential subjects of the fiery wrath of God that will come on the “sons of perdition.”
No later revelation clarifies or defines explicitly in what way tithing ensures a Mormon’s preservation from the fires of judgment, but this idea has remained a doctrine of the LDS Church, as can be seen from its inclusion in Gospel Principles. LDS leaders and teachers have periodically emphasized this particular idea.
“Second, we should fear the consequences of disobedience. It is written: ‘Behold, now it is called today (until the coming of the Son of man), and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people: for he that is tithed shall not be burned (at His coming).’ O, say you, do you believe the Lord will burn the disobedient? Yes, I do. We are told that when God shall again cleanse the earth it shall be by fire, and it is evident that all who are not in harmony with the laws of God shall be consumed by the burning.… It is a precious promise that he who is tithed shall not be burned at His coming.” Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era 2 (Aug. 1899): 783-84.
“There are many who accept this declaration merely as a figure of speech; but it is a statement given in complete earnestness and solemnity…. Again, it is not a figure of speech that is meaningless, or one not to be taken literally when the Lord speaks of the burning. All through the scriptures we have the word of the Lord that at his coming the wicked and the rebellious will be as stubble and will be consumed.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation (1946), Lesson 46.
“A further reward for paying tithing is a guarantee against being consumed in the burning which is to accompany the second coming of the Savior. In the eighty-fifth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord explains that his purpose in tithing his people is ‘to prepare them against the day of vengeance and burning,’ (D&C 85:3) and in the sixty-fourth section he says, ‘Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming’ (D&C 64:23).” Marion G. Romney, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign (CR), May 1979, 40.
That the LDS Church views tithing as “fire insurance” is not a caricature or even a mere inference from its teaching; it is something LDS leaders have said explicitly:
“Leaving the temporal blessings, which are not the greatest, we find tithing to be the best insurance against the worst of fires. The Lord declared to the Prophet Joseph that this is a day of tithing for his people, and that he that is tithed, shall not be burned at his coming (Doctrine and Covenants, sec. 64:23.).” George H. Brimhall, “Tithing,” Improvement Era 12, 4 (Feb. 1909).
“Against this burning, it would seem the better part of wisdom to take out some ‘fire insurance.’ For those who say ‘We’re not going to burn,’ it would be prudent to remember that it wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark!” Let us prepare then by being tithed.” President A. Theodore Tuttle, “Pay Your Tithing,” Conference Report, April 1970, 86.
“Some years ago one of our brethren spoke of the payment of tithing as ‘fire insurance’; that statement evoked laughter. Nonetheless, the word of the Lord is clear that those who do not keep the commandments and observe the laws of God shall be burned at the time of his coming.” Gordon B. Hinckley, “We Need Not Fear His Coming,” fireside address, Brigham Young University, 25 March 1979.
Is tithing “fire insurance” against the judgment that will take place at the Second Coming of Christ? To answer this question, we must first consider what, if anything, the New Testament teaches about tithing.
B. Are Christians Commanded to Tithe?
There is no question that Israelites were commanded to tithe under the Mosaic covenant (Leviticus 27:30-32; Numbers 18:24-28; Deuteronomy 12:6, 11, 17; 14:22, 23, 28; 26:12). As these passages make clear, the tithe was a tenth of what the people of the other eleven tribes produced that was to set aside for the support of the tribe of Levi, which was given no territory and which was responsible for the religious life of the nation. While that religious system remained in place, Jesus affirmed the validity of tithing as part of God’s law for Israel. Yet whenever he mentioned tithing, it was in the context of criticizing some of the religious leaders for being zealous for tithing while exhibiting pride and self-righteousness and neglecting justice and mercy, “the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23; see also Luke 11:42; 18:12).
There is no reference in the New Testament to tithing as a Christian practice. The only New Testament reference to tithing outside of the Gospel passages just cited is found in Hebrews 7:1-10. In this passage, the author contrasts the Law’s requirement for the Israelites to give tithes to the Levites with an event in which Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils of his recent battle to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20). The lesson that the author draws from Abraham’s act is not that Christians should tithe, but that Melchizedek foreshadows Jesus as a priest greater than any of the priests in the Levitical order. One might suppose that if Abraham tithed then Christians should also tithe, since Abraham lived before the Levitical priesthood existed (he was Levi’s great-grandfather). But Abraham’s gift to Melchizedek was not a “tithe” of Abraham’s earnings or income but a transfer of a tenth of the plunder from a battle that Abraham had just won. From this context it appears rather clearly that Abraham was giving Melchizedek a one-time gift, not engaged in a regular practice of what we would call tithing.
We have quickly exhausted references in the New Testament to tithing. The early church did, of course, practice giving. Their charitable giving had two functions. The first was the support of poor believers, especially the poor Christians in the Jerusalem church. The New Testament passages that are typically cited on the subject of tithing actually refer to Paul’s collection on behalf of the poor saints in Jerusalem. For example, his often-quoted statement that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7), quoted in reference to tithing in Gospel Principles (186), appears in the context of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem saints (see all of 2 Corinthians 8-9).
The second purpose of charitable giving in the early church was to support apostles and other Christian leaders in their ministry. In his earlier epistle to the Corinthians, Paul asserts that it is proper that those whose work is the proclamation of the gospel “should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Just as the Law taught that “you shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (Deut. 25:4), so a Christian minister should not be prevented from meeting his material needs while he is serving other believers (1 Corinthians 9:9-11). In a later epistle Paul makes this same point with regard to elders in the local church, even quoting the same Old Testament text—and also pointing out that Jesus taught the same principle (1 Timothy 5:17-18; see Luke 10:7).
Ironically, the LDS Church denies the legitimacy of a “paid clergy” and claims that it has no paid professional ministers. (In fact, its General Authorities and some other leaders are given “living allowances,” which is simply a euphemism for a professional salary.) Yet Paul explicitly taught that full-time Christian ministers had a right to remuneration from those to whom they ministered
In any case, the New Testament does clearly teach that Christians should give of their material resources to help the poor and to support those whose regular work is Christian ministry. However, nowhere in the New Testament is such giving regulated in the form of tithing. God expects believers to give generously and to meet the needs of those who are legitimately depending on their support. He does not expect a particular amount or percentage from everyone. Nowhere in the New Testament does God threaten Christians, or anyone else, with the fires of judgment if they fail to pay a tithe or give money or offerings of any amount or type.
It is interesting to note that the apostle Paul told the Corinthians he had chosen to forego his right to ask them for material support while he was ministering to them, in order not to have such support become a stumbling block that would keep anyone from accepting the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:12-18). If tithing or any other regular giving was obligatory for believers, it would make no sense for Paul to have released Corinthian Christians from that obligation. He would in fact have been doing them spiritual harm if he had failed to teach them the necessity of such giving as “fire insurance” for the coming judgment. Perhaps surprisingly, then, Paul’s lengthiest discussion of the subject of giving to support Christian ministry actually makes it clear that it is in no sense a requirement for salvation.
If any Christian reading this is giving a tenth of their income to support Christian ministry, the last thing I would wish is to discourage anyone from such giving. God is a generous, giving God, and his people should be generous, giving people. Tithing per se, however, is not a mark of true Christianity. Some people who give ten percent of their income are actually being rather stingy with their resources. Others who give much less than that percentage are generous to a fault.
More importantly, we need to make sure that what we are supporting is a genuine, biblically faithful Christian ministry. If the LDS Church is truly advancing the kingdom of God as it claims, then it deserves the support of everyone who loves God. If it is not, however, then those who wish to honor God, once they come to understand the truth, should give of their resources elsewhere.
A religious organization that honors God with its money should be open and candid about what it does with that money. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with the LDS Church, which controls billions of dollars in resources (lands, farms, buildings, businesses, etc.) but refuses to provide a complete, specific accounting to the public or to its own members of its financial resources. At the same time, the LDS Church requires its members to give an accounting to their bishops of their faithfulness in tithes and offerings. That is, the LDS Church requires transparency in giving by its members but fails to exhibit transparency in its own finances. This is the reverse of the way it should be: the religion should be transparent in its own finances but protect the confidentiality of its members’ finances.
In questioning the practice of supporting the LDS Church financially, we are not singling them out while ignoring other dubious ministries. There are plenty of other professing Christian ministries that informed believers should also not support. For example, many TV evangelists and other preachers of the “give-to-get” message are selling a false gospel. Anyone who tells you that you should give money to their ministry so God will bless you financially is concerned about their own financial “blessing,” not yours. And frankly, anyone who tells you that you should tithe as “fire insurance” does not understand the gospel. This leads to our final question on this subject.
C. What Is the True “Fire Insurance” for the Final Judgment?
If tithing is not really “fire insurance” for the future judgment that God will bring on the wicked, is there something else that we need that will be such insurance? Yes, there is. God has provided the only reliable, trustworthy fire insurance policy that will protect everyone who has it in the Day of Judgment. But there’s a catch—you can’t pay for it. Someone else already has.
“The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Jesus Christ is the only sure way of escape from eternal judgment. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said, “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Paul taught that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:9, 13).
A fiery judgment is coming, and Jesus is both the Judge who brings the fire of judgment and the Savior who protects his people from that fire. It is “the Lord Jesus” who will come from heaven “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). To “obey the gospel” means to do what the gospel tells us to do, which is to relinquish all claims to justify ourselves by our supposed good works—including our giving or tithing—and to trust in Jesus Christ alone as our Savior. The person whom God accepts as right with him is not the ultra-religious person whose confidence is in his morality, fasting, and tithing, but the sinner who humbly confesses his sin and whose confidence is not in his own works but in God’s mercy:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayedthus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)
For Further Study
Salvation God’s Way. Resources on the subject of salvation in Christ.