Why American Churches Should Pay Their Taxes

Why American Churches Should Pay Their Taxes September 5, 2023

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I’ve always found it strange that Christians in America act as if tax exemption were a God-Given right, or that it was somehow commanded in the Bible somewhere. The truth is quite the opposite.

In Matthew 17: 24-27 a group of tax collectors asks Peter if Jesus pays taxes and his answer is, “yes, of course he does.”

Here’s how the rest of that passage goes:

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Before I go any further I want to point out that when Jesus asks Peter the question about whether children pay taxes it’s meant to illustrate something Jesus says elsewhere about paying taxes which is simply this: We do not belong to the Empire, we belong to God.

So, the reason why we are taxed is because we are not the children of the Emperor [or the Empire], therefore we should pay our taxes as a way of illustrating that we do not belong to that family.

But, the point of this text is quite clear: Jesus paid his taxes, and his disciples paid their taxes, and if we are not of the Empire, we should pay them what we owe them.

The other, more popular conversation Jesus has about paying taxes is found in Matthew 22:17-21 when the Pharisees try to trap Jesus with this question:

Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The Apostle Paul was also a strong advocate for paying taxes, as evidenced in Romans 13:6-7 where he echoes the words of Jesus, saying:

“Pay, then, what you owe them [the State]; pay your personal and property taxes, and show respect and honor for them all.” 

So, if Jesus paid taxes, and if his disciples paid taxes, and if the Apostle Paul paid taxes, and also told us to pay our taxes, then why are so many American Christians convinced that their institution is exempt from paying taxes?

Well, the short answer is, American Evangelicals really don’t care what Jesus says. If they did they’d care for the poor, beat their weapons into garden tools, refuse to return evil for evil, care for the sick, love their enemies, avoid entanglement with the State, and pay their taxes.

What the institutional church in America is, more than anything, is “American”, not “Christian.”

American Christians believe that their nation is the greatest nation on earth. They believe God has blessed them more than any other nation. They believe that whatever God is doing in the world it will be done here, in America, or by Americans, or through Americans. God needs America to accomplish God’s ultimate plans for the World. Whatever America does is what God wants, and the US Constitution carries more weight than anything that Jesus or the Apostle Paul has to say…especially if it happens to be something they would really rather not take seriously. You now, like turning the other cheek, caring for immigrants and refugees, feeding the hungry, or paying their taxes.

Now, that might seem counterintuitive at first. I mean, if American Christians are so American, then why not show their support by paying taxes? Well, because, as Jesus puts it: They are true children of the American Empire. Therefore, they should be exempt.

But, another big reason, of course, is that, by not paying taxes, American Churches maintain economic power in our nation.

How much economic power?

Well, according to dozens of online sources, Christian churches in the United States earn around $74.5 billion each year. 

Now…imagine if we taxed those Christian Churches on that income? That’s a HUGE economic impact on our community. Especially when you consider that most Churches spend their money on overhead: Pastoral salaries, Facilities, Utilities, etc.
In comparison, very few Christian Churches spend even a third of their money on caring for the actual people in their community who need help with food insecurity, income inequality, afterschool programs, job assistance, etc.
Now, yes, a few Churches in America actually do spend a good portion of their income on taking care of the families and individuals in their community who truly need help. Those Churches – at least in my opinion – probably deserve tax exempt status because they are actually giving quality care to people in their sphere of influence and making a positive difference in the lives of people.
So, what if we proposed a new restriction that allowed Churches to remain tax exempt, but only if they can prove they’re actually providing tangible benefits to the people who live in the surrounding community? That would make more sense than arbitrarily granting every religious 501(c)3 tax exemption status, regardless of whether or not they provide any actual positive benefit to our society.
Because, as it stands now, Christian Churches in America enjoy almost $75 Billion dollars in revenue, even if the majority of that income goes to buy private jets for the pastor, or build massive worship centers, or enrich the organization itself.
Still, my point is that American Christians really don’t care what Jesus says, or what the Apostle Paul says, especially when it comes to paying taxes.
Keep that in mind the next time some American Christian tells you they believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, or that they’re following Jesus.
**

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Keith Giles is the best-selling author of the Jesus Un series. He has appeared on CNN, USA Today, BuzzFeed, and John Fugelsang’s “Tell Me Everything.” He hosts the Second Cup with Keith podcast, and co-hosts the Apostates Anonymous podcast, and the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast.

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