I recently read a biography of Martin Luther by D’Aubigne entitled “The Life and Times of Martin Luther.” It is a good read for anyone interested in the Reformation. It certainly was a different time where one could find themselves at odds with the church hierarchy and be rewarded with not just excommunication, but death.
Of all the issues that Luther recounted in his 95 theses, the practice of indulgences elicited the most venom. Indulgences were long a practice of the Holy Roman Church where the time in purgatory could be reduced, either for one’s self or a relative. This was accomplished by purchasing a defined reduction in the time spent; paying for one’s sins prior to the entry into heaven and backed by the office of the Pope. The story is told of the wife of a shoemaker who purchased such a letter for a gold florin and died shortly later. When the shoemaker was accused of contempt of his religion for not causing a mass to be held for his wife, he answered by producing the indulgence letter stipulating that his wife, upon her death, immediately enter heaven. Hence no mass was needed. It seems that the sale of any product was enhanced by a jingle reminding the prospective buyer of its value. Such was the case with indulgences with this little ditty:
“ As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs.” (page 100, Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton)
During this time, the Holy Roman Church was working to rebuild the Church of Saint Peter. The original structure was built during the time of Constantine and had been condemned. Pope Leo, eager to continue the construction begun by his predecessor, pressed the use of indulgences to a greater level. The monies collected through the sale went to fund one of the greatest construction projects of that era.
In these enlightened times, it is easy to look back and make light of the logic of that time. The basic idea being that we could gain protection in the afterlife by putting money toward a letter which frees us from ‘purgatory.’ The money, in turn is used to support church building projects. Today, we seem to consider tithing in the same light. How many lessons have been given where tithing is characterized as ‘fire insurance?’ Certainly there is support for this idea from D&C 64:23, “…for he that is tithed shall not be burned at this coming.” This term was also used by the proponents of indulgences to induce fear into the potential buyer. The payment of tithes was used by President Hinckley as a marker of the condition of the church. Can the success of the church of Christ truly be measured by the money flowing into its coffers and the vast building projects that are completed? It seems to me that these are easily characterized as the works of men, not the works of God. There is, however, a more disturbing aspect to the focus of tithing in the today’s LDS church and culture. Tithing was formally defined in Section 119 which was an answer to a prayer by Joseph Smith where he sought to understand what the appropriate tithe should be. In the commentary of Section 119 we read:
“The Lord had previously given to the Church the law of consecration and stewardship of property, which members (chiefly the leading elders) entered into by a covenant that was to be everlasting. Because of failure on the part of many to abide by this covenant, the Lord withdrew it for a time, and gave instead the law of tithing to the whole Church.”
So, the law of tithing was instituted within the Church as a temporary substitute for the higher law of consecration which the members failed to observe. Perhaps, one way to view this situation is to present the law of consecration as the celestial law being supplanted by the terrestrial law of tithing. As we read above from Section 119, it was because the members of the church failed to live the higher law. Should we be satisfied that we are measured by this ‘inferior’ metric? Should we not be pleading with the Lord to make us worthy of the return of the law of consecration rather than using tithing as a marker of how well the Church is doing?
As we read in the New Testament, Acts 2:44:
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common”
This circumstance was also found in the church after the Nephites were visited by Christ as we read in Fourth Nephi 1:3:
“And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.”
These two societies demonstrated aspects of the law of consecration, having all things in common. Are we, in our material world, setting our sights on the wrong goal? Has tithing become the end rather than a temporary way station as we move toward the higher law?
What think ye?