Time to Tax America's Churches

There is a lot of talk about the ways in which the Government does Christians wrong. Taking prayer out of schools, legalizing abortion and physician-assisted suicide, supporting same-sex marriage, to name a few of the more contested issues.

How come nobody talks about the ways in which the Church does the Government wrong?

Ed Young Jr. is CEO of Fellowship Baptist Church of Grapevine, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. An estimated 24,000 people attend one of the five Fellowship Church locations each week. That 10,000 square-foot parsonage he lives in is no humble abode.  It is valued at $1.5 million.

Ed’s father is CEO of Second Baptist of Houston, reportedly the second-largest church in the nation. (Joel Osteen’s church is first). As CEO, Ed Sr. overseas an annual budget of $53 million.

Last year Ed Junior went before Fellowship’s congregation and told them outright that they needed to have their tithes automatically withdrawn. Cards were handed out and people were told to provide the routing numbers for their bank accounts. The way to be a spiritual leader, Young yelled, is to “bring the tithe.”

Church in America has become big business. Billions of dollars worth of tax-free enterprise. The local church, big and small, is the lone place where fiscal accountability is totally self-governed. There is very little outside oversight. For far too many of these celebrity pastors, that’s like putting a kilo of cocaine in front of Charlie Sheen and telling him to behave himself.

Here’s how the IRS sums up its approach to churches:  Congress has enacted special tax laws applicable to churches, religious organizations, and ministers in recognition of their unique status in American society and of their rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Churches and religious organizations are generally exempt from income tax and receive other favorable treatment under the tax law.
Once a minister establishes himself at the Rock Star of multi-million corporation, who is that brave soul who stands before that minister and says, “Nope. You can’t do that.”
Who among them pulls young Ed aside and says, “What the hell where you thinking, Bonehead?”
Once an organization has been declared exempt,  the Wicked and Saved have free reign to rape and pillage their own churches, er, villages. Bernie Madoff , AIG, and the mortgage companies were held to a higher standard of fiscal accountability than America’s churches. That’s how low the bar is for the spiritual and pseudo-spiritual among us.
When one considers what taxes are used for — educating the masses, feeding the elderly, serving the handicapped, binding the wounds of soldiers, housing the homeless, providing clean water and paved roads, to name a few — it would seem that paying taxes is something any church would do voluntarily.
If a church really wanted to set an example, if they really wanted to serve their community, wouldn’t they insist upon paying their fair share instead of claiming Sanctuary exemption?
We are facing hard economic times. A lot of much-needed revenue could be generated by taxing the Church.
If we are really interested in living out a life of faith, instead of just preaching about it, isn’t it about time the Church picked up its cross and carried it instead of pushing the tax burden off on everyone else?
About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.

  • http://www.susanisaacs.net Susan

    If you’re Mormon, you have to submit your IRS copies to the church and they bill you for 10%. If you don’t pay, you’re excommunicated. All those bike helmets to buy. Hey at our church, 10% of the parishioners pay 90% of the costs. I’d love to pressure the freeloaders to pitch in. But demanding my routing number or handing me a bill isn’t a good way to do it.

    Maybe the IRS can enforce the Alternative Minimum Tax on wealthy churches, and let the little store fronts float by like they’re under the poverty line.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Susan: There are other churches besides the Mormon who require that. I personally know of a Baptist Church that portends to be a “Community” church. It is a mega-church, for sure. And before a person can serve in any capacity, or “join the roll” they are required to provide their W-2 information and to be “taxed’ er…tithed on that. They sign a document to that effect.
      But yes, you are right, most churches have 10 percent carrying the load for the other 90 percent.

    • Diane

      Now, that’s what I call a “cheerful giver!” LOL

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    Karen, I’m going to disagree with you here, for two reasons: (1) some of the facts you cite for support are not quite correct; and (2) the potential for govt to abuse their ability to tax a church is too strong.

    Regarding #1:
    a. While Bernie Madoff did get what he deserved, most of the execs responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown did not receive harsh consequences, and in fact, many of the ones who caused the problem ended up in paid advisory roles to help pull the loan industry out of the hole they put it into. I bring this up to point out that govt regulation of the loan industry didn’t help prevent corruption, so there is no reason to believe that govt regulation of church finances is likely to help.
    b. the churches offering the most spiritual help to communities are much smaller than the megachurches you mention, and they live on shoestring budgets. Taxing them would hurt most of them and be devastating to some of them. I know of a couple of ministries I am involved in in which the poor in our town would be affected the most if we were to be taxed.
    c. “The local church, big and small, is the lone place where fiscal accountability is totally self-governed.” Many churches have more accountability than you think. Denominational churches, in most cases, have people outside of local churches looking at their finances. And many non-denominational ones are part of 3rd-party accountability groups, and others undergo annual financial audits.
    4. Grapevine is a suburb of Ft Worth, not Dallas. ;)

    This is not in any way to excuse Young’s living in a $1.5 mil home, or the other methods he employs to bring in the tithes. Let me be clear about that.

    Sometimes we see a really bad situation, and want to fix it, and come up with a fix that has its own set of problems.

    • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

      Yes, I did just offer a bullet list that went a, b, c, and 4. Yes, I did that.

      • Karen Spears Zacharias

        James: Studied Georgia history, not Texas. Fort Worth, Dallas, all the same to me. :)

        Regarding your bullet points and # 4

        - Corruption is more likely to exist in a system that has no checks and balances. It’s true what you say about the lack of accountability for our mortgage companies and many other financial institutions. So it occurs to me that if those who are reportedly required to report to others are getting away with such corruption — what are those who aren’t held accountable getting away with?

        - True too. We don’t seem to mind breaking the backs of individuals who live below the poverty line. We put an unfair tax burden on working class families, while giving tax breaks to the rich, so why exempt the churches based upon income levels? Let’s face it, some of these ministries and churches exist to serve themselves and not others anyway.

        -Let me get this straight: You are saying that churches who are part of denominations have a lot more accountability than we realize. Uh…how does that work again? Isn’t a denomination considered a religious institution and thus exempt itself? When I belonged to one of the largest denominations in the nation, what I saw was the way the little church was required to support the programs dictated by the fat cats living high on the hog. Having worked for them, I saw how pastors at the local small churches struggled to put food on the table while their “tithe” to the denomination was allowing the fat cats to fly around first class and dine at some of the best restaurants in America. Having one tax-exempt group hold another tax-exempt group accountable is like putting the boys in charge of the girls at summer camp. You are going to have trouble.

        4. Refer to above statement.

        • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

          Karen, on the third point, I was saying that there are auditors out there who specialize in auditing nonprofits, and if they do not report accurately, they not only risk their reputations (and the possibility of getting any further business), they also risk jail if they intentionally fudge the numbers in their reporting.
          I started to delete the part about denominations, because the truth is that I haven’t been part of one as an adult, so I withdraw that part of my comment. You are in a much better place than me to comment about that.

          • Karen Spears Zacharias

            True what you say about non-profits. They are held to a higher accountability than tax exempt churches and religious institutions.

        • http://koinepdx1.blogspot.com AF Roger

          RE denominations. Depends on how the denomination is run and organized. Mine operates constitutionally. The national church has one (adopted, reviewed and amended by national conventions of clergy and lay members). So does every congregation. Budgets are prepared, wrestled with, pared and parsed by lay members on behalf of an elected council who must present it to the entire congregation annually for a vote. Or it goes nowhere. We sink or swim together. Nothing happens by fat cat decree or Byzantine finagle. The thing that’s killing us right now is the still uncontrolled cost of health insurance packages for clergy and staff.

          I once heard someone say that the followers of Christ began in Jerusalem as a way. When the church became largely Gentile, it became a movement. When the church became largely Western Eurpoean, it became an empire (and actually the antecedent model for Hitler’s Third Reich). When the church hit North America just in time for the serious Industrial Revolution, the church became an industry.

          There may yet be an additional phase of that development since culture is now dominated by an amalgamation of entertainment, sports, consumer products, and advertising. Yes, the industrial church has morphed into the consumer church. Meanwhile, Ezekiel 34 is being fulfilled in ways unimaginably egregious 2500 years ago. Some shepherds are not shepherding the flock but fleecing the flock. Big time. Funny how we abhor dictators here in the USA but seem to fall all over ourselves to anoint them–and gladly turn over the care of our own souls to them when Jesus appointed us and anointed us to be free and fully responsible for our own souls. Why else did he take the flask containing the Holy Spirit, pull the stopper out and turn it upside down? Then He broke the flask. Forever.

          Tax churches? I see the appeal of the idea when some have become consumer industries and financial empires. But watch out. Roger’s Rule of History, borne out repeatedly in the last 2K years of Christian history, is this: When religion uses government as a tool, blood flows. The reciprocal is also true: When government uses religion as a tool, blood flows.

          Before we wring tax revenue from all churches, let’s see where our money is going right now and what our “leaders” have so far proposed to do about it. Check this out: http://www.politifact.com/ohio/statements/2011/mar/28/dennis-kucinich/rep-dennis-kucinich-says-gop-budget-cuts-dont-targ/

          Last paragraph says a mouthful: “The General Accounting Office and the Defense Department’s inspector general say it (the Pentagon) does not and cannot even track how or where it spends its money.”

          Some shepherds are still fleecing the flock. Sure. Because we let them. And if where we spend our money truly identifies who our god/God is, then I’d say our “one nation under God” must now be under Mars, god of War.

          We spent a billion dollars in Libya last week. Without a vote. And the only things we are proposing to cut are the things that will harm poor people here? A favorite Christian thinker of mine once wrote, “Much of Israel’s history in the Old Testament could be summed up in the statement: “So God gave the people what they wanted, and He made them sick of it.’” Looks to me like we wouldn’t be where we are today unless we wanted to be here. After all, if I drive in the direction of LA, I can’t wonder why I’m not in NY. And we’ll keep going the wrong direction until we get fed up enough to our faith where Christ is–which isn’t with weapons systems, Wall Street or the US Budget, near as I can tell.

          Time for sackcloth and ashes, I’d say. And who knows? Maybe taxing churches would actually do that. Might actually force us out of business, might enable us to worship in Spirit and in truth as Jesus said in John 4.

          • http://koinepdx1.blogspot.com AF Roger

            Read “fed up enough to PUT our faith…”

        • http://na janet randolph

          Apparently you have had bad experiences in some unfortunate church-related situations. As for me, my husband is a staff member of a middle-sized Baptist (yes, Baptist) church in Tennessee and has been in the ministry for over 40 years. While I am aware of mega-churches like the ones you cited, I think you do a disservice to those who are sincerely trying to follow their call to ministry by lumping them into the same category.

          • Karen Spears Zacharias

            Janet: No bad experience on my behalf. I’ve spent most of my life in mid-size churches and a mega-church or two. So, no, I’m not speaking from experience.
            Just concerned about the abuses.

    • liz

      I’ve seen first hand the ‘accountablity’ of the denominations & of the non-denominational. If a church claims they are accountable to the NAE – it means very little at all. Their power doesn’t extend to removal of leadership.
      I’ve recently seen a successful pastor questioned by his congregation over miss use of church credit cards-the denomination came & declared him clear. He brought thousands of dollars into the denomination. He will be given another big church. The church self-policing is self-protecting. If this law was to change-pastors would leave their ‘calling’ in huge numbers. I wonder if people would stop tithing if they couldn’t take it off their taxes.

      • Karen Spears Zacharias

        Self-policing rarely works when money is involved.

  • http://www.iamdrinkingcoffee.com James Jones

    It is good to be held accountable. It is the abuse of a good thing that hurts the masses. That is true with CEO bonuses, tax breaks, etc. I have been told we (Christians) could do so much more to help the needy on our own if it were not for being taxed by the government (hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm). Yes, the government has been irresponsible for how they spend a lot of the budget. But, God’s people must reflect concern in how they spend their money, too. Whether you keep the churches tax free, or have them taxed, the needy will be hurt in the process as long as the love for God is exempt from the mix.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Most of the needy are already being cared for by non-profits which are held to a higher accountability fiscally than the churches.

      • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

        Second time you’ve made this statement, Karen, and I’m left to scratch my head… basis?

        • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

          [Never mind... I see your comment below.]

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    This is off-topic, but when the NBA All-Star game, and then the Super Bowl, came to Arlington, I started noticing people refer to everything around here as “Dallas” and it rubs me the wrong way. I tend to bring it up at the wrong times, and did so here in a way that was a little distracting. Sorry. :)

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      And again, I see. :)

  • http://tothetuneoftim.blogspot.com Tim M

    Karen, I like your article, and in theory, if we could find a proper threshold to regulate such “church” operations, I tend to agree to your suggestion of taxing churches, especially megachurches.

    What this made me think about immediately, however, it the OT model of tithing, which as pointed by out Barna and Viola in “Pagan Christianity” worked out to about 23.3% annual tax rather than the voluntary model we have now. They argued that the NT model abolished the OT giving laws, and thus any tithe should’ve voluntary and pastors should never use OT models as a guilt-based motivation.

    So then I wonder where that leaves us. For one, I rarely give to my local church (who has $2.8M budget) because I don’t agree with how 55% of the budget goes to personnel and only 10% goes out to support the poor, the 3rd world, and our members who are struggling with unemployment. If 90% went outside our walled kingdom, I would be more interested in giving. Instead I give to orgs like Cross International where 97%+ go directly to need.

    Likewise, I don’t really trust government to wisely handle tax income, so I’m not likely to support more money to government. I guess this is a long way of suggesting that the threshold I mentioned before could be a minimum % of money that goes out of churches in order to maintain tax free status.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Tim:

      Not that I trust them either. I’m with Roger on this one — we can always find the $$ for war, but rarely find the $$ necessary to care for the wounded when they return.

      I just think we need a better form of transparency and accountability that we do not currently have in place.

  • http://katdish.net katdish

    I just feel so blessed to live where the 2 largest churches in the nation call home. I drive by Dr. Young’s west side campus on a regular basis and read about all the great things they’re doing there on the ginormous, $300,000 blinking sign. (The only reason I know it costs $300,000 is that my husband was on the building committee at our old church and part of his duties included pricing those signs.)

    I gotta say, the idea of the federal government getting involved in church finances doesn’t really give me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Me neither but there’s more than one way to skin a snake. If churches are going to be run as businesses, if they are going to adopt the corporate structure of Wall Street, if they are going to set their pastors up as CEOs, then by golly, let them pay their fair share and help carry their portion of the burden.

      • Mary Bartram

        and the people said, “AMEN!!!!”

  • http://BeautyofGardening.com Joetta

    My small church, about 200 people, feeds more than 200 people every week. The huge food bank in my town only allows the poor to come to them for help six times a year. My small church also ministers to elderly people, who can’t pay them anything financially. We also tutor kids in the summer, so they go into their next year of school stronger – for free! I also volunteer at a food bank at another small church nearby. I know of another church that opens their doors to homeless families to sleep on their pews. I could go on and on. I don’t know how to possibly collect the facts, but I would bet churches do more of the good works you cite are done by taxes, all without making people feel ‘less than’, which is certainly what the government processes do.

    Taxing churches will end a shockingly huge amount of real ministry.

    Yes, mega-churches and rock-star pastors abuse the system. The only thing I don’t understand is, why do people keep going to those churches, and giving their money to them? If you want to attend those churches, give your money elsewhere. If you really don’t believe you’re free to do that, study the teachings on tithing for yourself. Pay special attention to the verses about tithing in the passages after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Joetta:

      Yes, there are many, many churches and pastors out there who are doing just as you testify too. Helping the needy. Serving the poor. Loving the orphan. Carrying the AIDS afflicted. Digging the wells. Burying the dead and encouraging the living.

      I don’t think that taxing these churches will stop that ministry.

      People with hearts like those you’ve mentioned will always find a way to serve. Always. Because money is not what compels them and those who give because they want to serve in that capacity will continue to give.

      But taxing the churches and religious institutions will put into place some much needed accountability.

      • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

        So, you want government accountability mainly for megachurches that you consider to be paying their leadership too much.

        You don’t really care that in so doing, you necessarily obligate Joetta’s church and thousands just like it to be placed under the same scrutiny, as-if their local leadership cannot possibly be sophisticated enough to make decisions for themselves.

        I stand with Joetta. And I’m appalled at the idea that her group “needs accountability” from government.

        I have a better idea… let’s continue to let the local governing board of those who choose to worship where they do to make their own decisions…

        But also, and here’s what can be done more appropriately and with almost no such big-brother-ism… let’s simply begin to do public awareness campaigns that educate religious laity to ask questions and seek answers… and overall, that encourage transparency… so that the grassroots activate and exercise an optimal level of accountability within their own faith community.

        So… no need to siphon off dollars from Joetta’s church… (what, so some of those dollars can then be spent on a staff of bureaucrats charged with looking over the shoulder of Joetta’s leadership?)… instead, her church can spend those dollars more effectively than any government agency… leave them alone and let them give *full* cups of cold water… no skimming off the top for the feds… let the feds do their good works with my tax dollars, and let the church do their good works with my voluntary contributions.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Public education campaigns will work with churches like Joetta’s since they are already doing the right thing but what about folks like Ed Young Jr. You think a public education campaign is going to change someone like Young, like Creflo Dollar or even like the Westboro Baptist folks, who use their religious standing to serve their own purposes, whether those be financial or mean-spirited?
          If our soldiers are going to die for the right for folks like Westboro to stage protests then by golly let’s at least make them pay tax dollars to support those soldiers.

          • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

            Ahhh.

            So we finally arrive at that liberal mantra in that last sentence… “make them pay.”

            Emphasis on “them.”

            The reality is that this says, “Whoever *we* don’t happen to agree with, make *them* pay.”

            Which is just fine as long as you and I are part of the “we,” right? ;)

            So, no… I have to protest.

            Unless *they* (whoever they are) committed a crime in gaining whatever they gained, it is *immoral* to impose on others on that basis.

            (And nevermind, of course, that they already *do* pay, in actuality, filing a 1040 like you or me… this would be making them pay again since they are “they” and not in power, and thus, the “we” in the equation.)

            To the contrary, Karen, I believe the dark side, eventually (though maybe too slowly to suit you), loses support, financially and otherwise. People eventually figure it out, and walk away, sometimes loudly but more often quietly. History is strewn with organizations that fell apart because the grassroots lost trust (PTL Club) or succumbed to the reality of better virtues (KKK).

    • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

      Joetta, just caught that last paragraph, and would humbly submit to you that not every “mega-church” is “abusing the system”… and possibly not even most of them, depending somewhat on what one wants to call a “mega-church.”

      • Karen Spears Zacharias

        True, Greg. Corruption is not dictated by size. I interviewed a pastor last year who told me about how he’d skimmed money from the church’s daycare center because he was angry that the congregation was expecting so much out of him. He felt he deserved the money he was stealing since they weren’t paying him well.
        But it is also true, and I think Jesus makes reference to this, that the more money a person makes the greater the temptation. I wrote about that in Doublewide when I interviewed Sister Schubert. She said when she was making $5 million a year it was much harder to tithe than when she was making $50,000. The greater her income, the harder time she had in contributing 10 percent.

    • Donalbain

      Treat a church exactly as you would any other organisation. The money spent on actual charitable works would be tax exempt. The rest would not.

      • Karen Spears Zacharias

        I really like this idea.

  • http://www.readingwritingrevolution.net simply scott

    I’ve seen too many statistics that show that churches use less than 10% of their income for charitable activities in the communities they support, but I see an awful lot of gigantic, magnificent churches. That means there are a lot of big screen TVs in congregation party rooms, lots of congregation-only picnics, and lots of pastors driving Cadillacs around here. The needy sure aren’t getting it.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      All too true.

      We live in a world of stark contrasts.

  • Scott Orr

    I usually agree with you Karen, but this is so typical; punish the little guys for the sins of the big guys. Sorry, can’t agree. One other thing to think about – do you really want Pat Robertson and his ilk ‘having a say’ in how the government is run? You’d better believe that, if churches were taxed, the ‘big boys’ would be courted.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Scott: It’s perfectly fine with me that you don’t agree with me. You join the ranks of some of my most favorite people — my husband and children. :)

      Not trying to punish the small guy but do you really think that these folks aren’t already wielding influence with their $$ over local politics and national ones? Seriously?

      How do explain Joel Osteen being the go to guy for CNN on all things preacher?

  • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

    Charitable organizations whose purpose is to provide community supports and services routinely do a better job than similar government agencies.

    Intuitively, we explain that in a number of ways: for instance, that the underlying motivations of non-profit staff/volunteeers tend to be more intrinsic and a matter of the heart; that there is less bureaucracy involved in decision-making; that unlike their government counterparts, these agencies do not go on end-of-the-year shopping sprees in an effort to ensure that they do not leave the appearance that they didn’t need all of their budget in a given fiscal year.

    So, I’m scratching my head as to why it makes sense to take some of these community agencies’ money and let government agencies spend it instead.

    And, hold the bus… these agencies survive largely on *DONATIONS*… unlike the government, they can *ASK* for tithes and offerings… they cannot demand it on the penalty of jail time.

    So, while to some I guess it makes for an interesting political balloon to float, it’s not one that even barely gets off the ground.

    Having said that, we do agree that a $1.5 million home for a church leader is nuts. Time will tell if such a church leader’s leadership is able to survive the perceptions that follow. But I consider it a matter of morality to let those people who worship in that group to make their own determination of whether his/her spiritual leadership is that valuable to them… there is something just as obscene to me that there are those on the outside who feel they should be able to dictate to others what their leaders should make.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Greg:

      A community organization that is non-profit is held to a different standard of accountability than a church or religious organization that is tax-exempt.

      So, yes, I think a lot of the non-profits do a terrific job. Many churches do as well.

      But far too many are using their tax exempt status to fill the coffers of their own households.

      And I don’t think there is anything obscene about voters saying that as long as churches and religious organizations are going to model themselves after Wall Street’s corporate structure then they can be expect to be taxed like one.

      • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

        “…held to a different standard…”

        Karen, I believe you’ve been wrongly informed on that.

        Routinely, the only accountability that community organizations must fulfill is to register with their state’s Secretary of State… their almost-non-existent level of accountability is why there are good people such as at Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and Better Business Bureau, who fill the void and provide information important to donors who want to scrutinize before contributing.

        If you do this to churches, there is no rationale for not doing it to community service organizations. All exist out of an interest for serving human needs.

        So, if a set of donors want to give big bucks to a bloated charity, that’s up to those donors’ discretion. Now, certainly, I side with you and think it’s a really really bad idea… and further, I would be open to legislation that forces tax-exempt organizations to a higher level of transparency.

        But let local people’s good common sense work… where there is transparency, people are smart enough to make choices for themselves as to what is appropriate.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Ah… Greg… I don’t know if you saw the headline or not but Common Sense was taken hostage years and has been held in a POW camp ever since.

          I may be wrong on the non-profit status. Surely someone else smarter than me knows???

          Do non-profits share the same tax exempt status as churches and religious organizations?

          Isn’t the church automatically provided tax-exempt status whereas the non-profit has to prove its exemption? (thus a layer of accountability)

          And then there’s this entertaining little tidbit:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tEVNABNT40&feature=player_embedded#at=90

          • http://www.drgregthompson.com Greg

            I did not see that headline, Karen… probably a Huffington Post something(?). ;)

            I do need to modify something I said above… that is, last I knew which was 2005-ish, 501(c)3′s who took in income above $25K annually must file financial information with the IRS.

            (I’m not a CPA, but I was in a leadership position with a very small non-profit back then.)

            Would I mind something like that for faith communities?

            No. That’d be fine…

            Increases transparency, which is the theme of the position I hold.

            Transparency, good.

            Government skimming money off the top from community service orgs, bad.
            :)

          • http://thesometimespreacher.blogspot.com/ Andy Holt

            Churches are non-profits, at least here in Ohio. I just filed articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State for a church, and there is no distinction between a church and a non-profit organization. A church is simply a type of non-profit.

            Also, to those who accuse churches of not giving enough money to the community through charitable giving, I respectfully submit that churches serve a unique purpose in the community–that of proclamation of the gospel. A church’s contribution to the community cannot be measured simply by dollars donated or meals prepared.

  • http://www.activefaith.wordpress.com Stephen Enjaian

    I’m not sure what you mean by accountability or how you think giving church taxing power to the U.S. government would solve the problem of abuse by some churches. Congress continues to raid the Social Security fund and still runs a debt and deficit that defies description. Before the banking mess, the chairmen of both the House and Senate Banking committees assured us that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were doing fine and pressured them to make more risky loans. The U.S. government cannot even make itself accountable. What has it done recently to make you think that it would do any better with churches?

    Your solution to the problem of churches being run like businesses is to treat them like businesses. That is supposed to solve the problem? With some notable exceptions, we Christians in America are in love with the world and its comforts. Suggesting that Caesar is competent to solve that is a distraction.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Do you have an alternative way of putting an end to the abuses currently taking place in Corporate Church America?

      • http://www.activefaith.wordpress.com Stephen Enjaian

        That’s a fair question. Short of persecution, which would refocus our attention on the Kingdom of God right quick, I think that a lot more people shaming the chief perpetrators would help. Actually, the thrust of your post is quite good in that you are using shame in a corrective way.

        The problem of culture comfort in the Church is a very deep moral one, which government is simply not equipped to handle. Taxing churches won’t make churches more accountable but it may be one means that God eventually uses to get our attention. I’m not holding my breath expecting that more naked will be clothed, more sick healed or more poor will have the Gospel preached to them.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Stephen:

          Nor am I.

          Holding my breath that is, as evidenced from the post, right?

          I just really think this notion that we should let these offenders get away with fleecing the flock appalling. We’re like physicians in that we rarely rat on our own. We go about our merry way, figuring that as long as people are being duped by the likes of these “Preachers” well, then, they get what they deserved — taken.

          There is no accountability.

          Even Bernie Madoff went to jail.

          While Ed Young Jr. still preaches every week as does Bishop Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, Mike Murdoch, and let’s not forget that PTL was bought and remains in business under a different name.

          When it comes to fleecing the flock, it seems that the Church and State may be in bed together.

  • kimpuzey

    Dear Karen, You know I am a Mormon. I tithe and make additional offerings. My membership is not dependent upon my voluntary contributions. I have served as part of the lay ministry; missionary, bishop, Sunday school teacher, etc., for many years and have received no compensation whatsoever. Most of the tithing goes toward building places of worship. The next largest amount goes toward educational facilities such as Brigham Young University. My children have received a good private education at a reasonable cost. There are other aspects of giving for humanitarian service and care for the poor and needy. Three of my children have served missions. These cost about $10,000. The missionary or the parents pay expenses of the missionaries. In addition, I pay taxes. I do not resent my taxes, tithes, or offerings. One way of giving that Mormons practice is fasting for two meals each month and giving the money to the poor. I have applied that to my attendance at my local Rotary club. By skipping lunch the last few years, I have been able to divert $6000 toward other worthy projects. My giving gives me a sense of well being. I hope others feel likewise. Thanks for all you do, Karen. You are a blessing to many people. Kindest personal regards, Kim

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Kim: And what a lovely family you have raised!
      I like this idea of fasting meals in order to feed others.
      Unfamiliar as I am with the way Mormons handle the $$, it’s good to know that unlike some others, your membership is not dependent upon whether you tithe or not.
      I think Roger brought up a good point about our taxes being used inappropriately for the war machine instead of helping the poor or the disenfranchised.
      I am not suggesting that the government gets all this right — but what I am saying is that we need some checks and balances in place. Too many abuses are taking place and we have been slow to admit that.
      Churches and religious organizations have adopted the practices of corporate America without ever asking the question of whether they value the same things.

  • chuck

    Karen. I appreciate your thoughts. But, I’d like to at least say that there are also churches (and pastors) that do not abuse their position like the ones you mention. As a pastor of a Christian church myself, I only take what I need – and everyone in my church knows exactly what that is – we make that public. I figure, if I’m not okay with everyone knowing what I make, I must be making too much. I could take more, but I don’t need more. I would gladly accept more governance over our church finances – i don’t know why that would be a problem for anyone operating with integrity. But if you are arguing for taxes to be applied to churches, then it should also be applied to all non-profits and specifically all 501c3 organizations. You can have the same tax status and not be a church – and there are MANY out there! Personally, I would’ve loved it if you were more rounded in your critique…and not just pulling out the exceptions of a couple of pastors that seem to be extreme. I’m not suggesting they are the ONLY ones operating like this, but their lifestyles and exercising of authority certainly cannot be applied as a formula for all.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Chuck:

      I think we have made mention numerous times in this discussion that many churches, many pastors are just like you — welcoming the transparency & accountability.

      Self-governing does not seem to work well when there is big $$ involved.

      Even governing with oversight doesn’t seem to work well when there is big $$ involved.

      The essay is addressing a growing problem in this country: Churches adopting the CEO corporate structure way of management without asking if they value the same things as Corporate America.

      And, of course, the problem is that all too often the answer to that question is Yes.

      I’m just saying if we are going to embrace that model then so be it.

      Let’s get taxed like a corporation, too.

      • chuck

        With that premise of values, I agree. Instead of taxing churches, maybe the government should put a requirement on a certain percentage that has to be spent on others :) Maybe that would actually help us “love others as we love ourselves” by spending on others what we spend on ourselves.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Love this idea.

  • jaz

    I’ll be happy when the secular corporations that make billions in profits actually start paying taxes in this country. Then we can talk about the churches.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Good point buddy.

    • http://thesometimespreacher.blogspot.com/ Andy Holt

      Just saw a report that GE’s tax bill is $0 this year. …Yeah, let’s make sure the people who are supposed to be paying taxes actually do so before extending the tax burden to churches and nonprofits.

      • Karen Spears Zacharias

        Hadn’t seen that report, Andy, but I certainly understand what you are saying. But I hear the words of my granny: Two wrongs don’t make a right.
        Just because GE gets away with the same thing that Ed Young Jr. gets away with — bilking the masses — doesn’t make either of them right.

  • Steve Taylor

    Serving with a denominational body, I would agree with Roger’s assessment. Currently, we are engaged in a very extensive yearly audit by a very reputable professional CPA firm. Our expenditures are closely monitored in regard to the directions of our area denominational constituency of elected representatives serving over 235,000 lay and clergy members of approximately 825 congregations. Our polity also requires that local congregations be subject to similar audits. So, accountability and transparency of fiscal activity is a very serious issue of stewardship, effectiveness, and fiscal integrity.

    On the issue of taxation, Karen, I really appreciate another intriguing conversation. Again, I find myself agreeing with Roger. America, as wondrous of a social project as it may be, will never live or act in congruence with Kingdom principals in anything other than the most superficial ways. Thus, supporting such endeavor through the coffers of the church seems a significant contradiction to this notion that discipleship is tied to love and forgiveness. Of course, a fair critique is that the activity of the Church too often seems contrary to the called action of the Body of Christ.

    So, I would humbly suggest, and I may have offered this here before, but if so, it probably bears repeating … Jesus refuses the claim of Caesar over his life, especially as a point of worship. Remember, he asks the followers of the Pharisees and Herod to hold up a coin with a graven image, an image of Caesar – the divine one, an image explicitly forbidden by Judaic law, and then says, “give to this image, this false God, what it is due.” And what is a false God due, particularly for these people who have a first law that says something about no other Gods? Nope, Jesus does not equate nationalism to Kingdom, not in that day nor in this, not with regard to Rome, not with regard to other nations, and not even with regard to the United States of America.

    Jesus continues to have an alternative vision of his culture. “We have found this man subverting this message,” the religious authorities charge. He was a danger for the status quo. He thought and did things which were not acceptable by the folks who were running the show. And then, in living out his message of peace, he takes a donkey instead of the steed of the warrior and refuses violence when the oppressors come to claim him.

    This was truly dangerous. Aligning one’s self with people, fully, wholly, especially those on the bottom. “Woe to you Pharisees and hypocrites.” His life was a direct affront to their authority. And so, he sent a social shockwave across his cultural reality.

    Finally, in the spot where he is most aligned with the vulnerability of the human condition, where he is most helpless, seemingly even rejected by God, there with spikes in his hands, struggling for breath, suffering in agony, he cries for the forgiveness of those who kill him. He rejects the sword as the point of power and instead claims that only through grace is life possible.

    This is the Jesus that gives us the base for how we are to live in the world. Government can never embrace such love, will never live out such reality, can never love the enemy without regard to self, will never embrace the street person rather than the CEO, won’t ever hold up to be emulated the one who is most despised by society, and is not ever going to reject power for meekness, vengeance for grace, and violent action for forgiveness. Government, and indeed our American society itself, will always look at such claims as either nonsense, sheer naivety or both. And yet, Jesus does exactly these things, over and over, and calls us to do the same.

    So, where I constantly struggle with my own collusion with and participation in denominational systems that too often look contrary to gospel relationship and being, I do believe that ultimately only the church has any possibility of congruence with life in Christ and, at its best, must be a counter to the state’s systems of power, privilege, and possession.

    Thus, in such witness, I humbly offer one small act: The only dollars that should ever be placed on the altar, are those dollars that go to the direct service of the poor. Any other funds — upkeep of the facility, clergy and staff salaries, non-missional programming, should never come close to this space of holy memory and form.

    Thanks again, Karen, for really great ponderings.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      You know what I love about your lofty ideas? Is that you stuff all those words into a pair of combat boots and send them into the LZ, kicking.

      Okay. I admit it.

      You’re right.

      I wanted everybody to do this one thing — this pondering the matter.

    • http://thesometimespreacher.blogspot.com/ Andy Holt

      Wow! Steve, thank you for writing this. You’ve put into words what I felt in my gut, and managed to convict the heck out of me at the same time.

    • http://koinepdx1.blogspot.com AF Roger

      Steve: Thanks for your once-again careful critique and presentation of the issues.

      I love the concept put forth in your penultimate paragraph. In realize that in the new four-year-old worship ministry I lead we have been doing exactly that. Yes, at a worship service with homeless folks, we take an offering. Over the past four years, it has grown to over $8,000. People contribute from the change they receive from recycling cans and bottles, from the Street Roots newspapers they sell. Others have minimal jobs that don’t pay enough to ever cover rent. They sleep outside. But they want to contribute. The bulk, of course, comes from a handful of volunteers and from my wife and me. But our weekly $15 are not as significant as the 7 cents put in by the man who has nothing left in his pocket after that. In the first three months of last year, this little community gave $800 to Mercy Corps for disaster relief in Haiti. This winter, we helped with utilities assistance for people with housing but lack of heat. Yes, people with no housing at all helped warm those indoors…. Last week, we voted to send all our offerings for the next couple of months to Mercy Corps to help in Japan.

      We don’t tithe our offerings. We give 100% away. All of it. Which means I operate the ministry at a net loss to my household finances. I’d come out ahead if I simply wrote the check directly to Mercy Corps myself and stayed home. But then there would be no worshiping community that lives the gospel as we hear it. Perhaps the most important thing we do is not the offering itself but the opportunity for otherwise marginalized people to help someone else and feel good about it.

      Two months ago, a young immigrant from Ukraine became incensed when we took the offering during worship. She spoke up saying this was a disgrace, shameful. Such a thing should never happen in church. My wife talked to her later. The young woman thought my wife and I kept all the money personally and would use it to buy expensive suits, shoes and a Mercedes. That’s all she’d ever seen preachers do. She’d never seen a worshipping community give everything away.

      Thanks to your thoughts, I’ll see that little bread basket with the cloth napkin in it holding a few bills and coins very differently. It’s the oil and meal that fed Elijah and the Zarephath widow without running dry.

      • Steve Taylor

        I’m humbled by your witness, my brother. Truly. Thank you for this sharing.

  • Jerry

    Chief Justice John Marshall once said “the power to tax involves the power to destroy” I believe that this still holds true today and given the majority of the churches in this country are under one hundered members I doubt they would be able to defend them selves if the gor=verment decided to use tax policy to coerce a particular behavior from a church, say hireing an openly gay pastor in a conservative evangelical church, remember that the SCOTUS has aolready held that a law of general applicability that merely has the effect of impinging on religious practice is not a violation of religious freedom.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I take it he wasn’t talking about Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan at the time, but about how we could end up destroying ourselves?

      I’d have less trouble with an openly gay pastor in the pulpit than I do with folks like Ed Young Jr. or any one of the growing list of people who are hawking Jesus for their own selfish ambitions.

      Now there’s a sermon I’d like to hear — could we get a sermon titled Selfish Ambitions?

      Wonder what Young Jr. would have to say in such a sermon as that?

      • Jerry

        I certainly don’t want to approve Mr. Young’s behavior, I jsut see the corcive nature of the state more of a problem than the MEMBERS of his church failing to discipline their pastor. And if they fail to do so they are getting the pastor they deserve!!

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          I agree about the state but I don’t agree that they are getting the pastor they deserve, Jerry. I think there’s a reason pastors are referred to as shepherds and the people as sheep.

  • RobS

    I expect churches of all sizes could have teachers that only tickle the ears of those that attend with what those want to hear. The Bible says some things about those teachers (& their reward) as well. I’m not sure if a solution to their actions is a tax that implicates all churches (& likely more non-profits) across the country.

    But I’m thinking that many things church offerings go to are taxed — salaries, telecommunications products, that (disliked) building loan means interest income for a bank that is taxed … so much of the church being involved in society with numerous taxes just means that post-tax giving is taxed again as it’s distributed through society.

    But if GE made $5.1 billion and pays no tax, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by much more.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      True enough, she said shaking her head sadly.

  • Donna

    There are a relatively few churches in the US of the scope of those you mentioned in the article. I pastor a small church and live in a small parsonage – like thousands of other pastors in thousands of other pastors. I pay taxes and I pay social security on the fair rental value of the parsonage. – like thousands of other pastors. We lead people to Christ, minister to the homeless, and a myriad of ministries in myriads of communities and cities all over the country. The members of my church give sacrificially and minister tirelessly. Come visit us some time. To add the burden of taxes would curtail some of our ministry.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Donna:
      I don’t doubt what you say for one minute. I know what you say is true of a good many pastors.
      I’m just saying that too many have gone on to greener pastures and that we need a higher accountability for churches to keep this from happening.
      I don’t care if that is truly done by taxing or some of the other means suggested here — like allowing churches to write off only the amount that is truly dedicated to charitable giving the way we do individuals.
      We have to quit pretending that just because the bulk of churches do the responsible thing that it’s okay to ignore those churches and religious organizations that don’t.
      I’m pretty sure the way to stop the Westboro Baptist people isn’t by putting them in the headlines everytime they protest a soldier’s funeral but to start taxing them or holding them accountable from a fiscal standpoint.
      The same goes for the hundreds of ministries across the nation that are claiming to be followers of Christ, but are simply con men and women in clerical collars.
      Our people are too trusting.
      We need a better system.

      ksz

  • Thorby

    Karen – Good article. I admire your courage in going against the grain.

    Even if I were to pastor a small church and live in a small house, I’d still be preaching for money and not solely to serve God. If I truly want to serve God by preaching, I’ll do it for absolutely no material gain. For this, I’ll keep my regular, non-religious, Monday to Friday job.

    When a Sunday message is prepared for money, it will be no longer be “let’s teach about the Bible and hopefully answer deep theological questions” but instead “let’s do something this Sunday that will attract more followers and revenue”. When I attended Fellowship Church I saw this happen in an exaggerated way. However, I believe that preaching for money, even if just to cover the basic bills, is still preaching to serve yourself and not God.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      With all due respect, Thorby, I disagree. I don’t have a problem at all with people being paid for a job well done — whether that job is being a postman, a soldier, a journalist, a teacher, an accountant, or the server at the restaurant.
      Listen, I know what it is like to toil over a message, to have to take time to read up on all things relevant and alot of things historical in order to show myself approved. I know what it’s like to spend nearly every waking moment either writing a message or living one. I know that a good plenty of pastors are overpaid and underworked (as are many writers, journalists, teachers, and you fill in the blank.)
      I don’t have a problem with the teller at the local bank making a salary. Where I take issues with the bank is when the bank pays its CEOs criminal wages at the expense of others.
      Where I have problems with the church is when people like Ed Young Jr., Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, Bishop Eddie Long, and hundreds of others who exploit the name of Jesus for selfish ambition.

      Perhaps you disagree, but I make a distinction between the bank teller and Bernie Madoff.

      Just as I make the distinction between the hundreds of hardworking, good-hearted pastors I know and honor, versus those who are, like Madoff, simply trying to bilk the masses in the name of Jesus.

      ksz

  • Dan

    If you begin to tax the churches, it should not stop there.

    Tax the hospitals, medical facilities and all nonprofit corporations.

    While you’re at it Tax the not-for-profit homeless shelters, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts the non-for profit political groups, the American Cancer Society … this could go on and on.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I’m okay with that.

    • P.E.C.

      Way to go Dan, you’re a moron. The whole point here is that churches are ineffective in the way of helping people. Taxes actually pay for useful things like EDUCATION. Which if more people had a PROPER education instead of “mah momma told me (insert deity here) made me speshul”, they wouldn’t be so easily duped into giving away their hard earned money.

  • Al

    Ed Young is the same kind of religious huckster as all the rest who swindle the rich into being less rich and the poor into being destitute so that he can live a luxuriant lifestyle, free of worry or want. Before religious organizations pay CEO styled salaries, they should pay Uncle Sam at least 39% of the ‘booty’ to be adequately respectful to a government which permits them to engage in this kind of thievery. Religious organizations aren’t patriotic at all, so receiving taxes from churches isn’t expected to happen without mandated legislation. It’s time for religious organizations to pay taxes to enjoy the constitutional right to dupe gullible citizens.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    How about if we first start by demanding that churches open their books, like every other nonprofit does in return for tax benefits? The churches are OK with God knowing what money comes in and where it goes, but they’re embarrassed to let ordinary man know?

    It’s a contract: you get nonprofit status in return for showing the books. Churches need to live up to the obligation.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Sounds good to me.


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