Tax Exempt Gospel

Tax Exempt Gospel June 18, 2012

This piece was originally posted at The Christian Post on June 18, 2012.

A tax exempt gospel does not mean we are offering the gospel free of charge.

I have heard Christians speak about the possibility of churches losing their tax exempt status if they do not comply with this or that social policy put in place by the U. S. federal government. I spoke recently about this concern with several friends who are Christian leaders. Their responses gave me much to ponder.

One pastor friend said, “American society has become increasingly vigilant regarding the separation of church and state. How much longer can the faith community expect to receive special tax treatment?” He and fellow leaders at his mega church have pondered that they might lose their buildings and have to become a network of house churches if they lose their tax exempt status, since they could not afford to pay the taxes on their buildings. They are not operating out of fear, but are simply seeking to prepare for this possibility.

Another pastor friend remarked that churches may have come to rely too much on their tax-exempt status and in the recent political trends have become “partners” with the government in delivering services (and sometimes messages). So, what happens if churches lose their tax exempt status? What kind of public witness will they have?

Another friend is a lawyer (this is beginning to sound like a bar joke: Two pastors, a lawyer, and a theologian walk into a bar…). He told me that there is a very slim chance that churches would ever lose their tax-exempt status. He added that it is not impossible for churches to lose their tax exempt status, supposing that the First Amendment could be overturned or radically reinterpreted by the Supreme Court (of course not by this court, nor any Supreme Court America has ever had). Unlike other non-profits, churches are protected constitutionally from being taxed by the federal government. The government would first have to take away all other non-profits’ tax exempt status (such as Mercy Corps and Art Museums), if they were to remove the constitutionally protected tax-exempt status of the church. He didn’t think there was any chance that this action would occur. As he sees it, the rich and powerful decision makers profit greatly from tax exempt organizations (such as The Gates Foundation); there is no way they would let that happen.

Whether or not the fear or concern or consideration that churches could ever lose their tax exempt status is based in reality, I still think the subject raises important questions that reflect a larger concern out of which people live. Do we seek to protect the freedom of the gospel through certain political freedoms? If churches lose their tax exempt status, or religious freedoms in various contexts, and gain instead imprisonment for disturbing the peace through civil disobedience, would it mean that we could no longer deliver the gospel free of charge? Would the gospel no longer be free, if the gospel is taxed, or if Christian leaders are imprisoned for Christian ethical stances?

I certainly champion the freedom of religious expression for all in America. Nonetheless, if for whatever reason, the church were to lose its tax exempt status, it would not mean that the church would no longer be free to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. We would be free to preach the gospel, no matter what the situation or consequences. The Apostle Paul was imprisoned for preaching the gospel in various settings. Paul was placed in chains, but the Gospel was not in chains, and Paul’s heart was free. As Paul says during his second Roman imprisonment in his swan song letter, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained.” (2 Timothy 2:8-9) Such freedom!

Paul wrote several of his epistles from prison cells. But even when he was in chains, the gospel still went forward free of charge, and the gospel was unleashed through his imprisonment. In fact, based on what Paul writes in his letter to the church of Philippi from his prison cell during his first Roman imprisonment, it is quite possible that members of Caesar’s household came to faith through Paul’s imprisonment in Rome! (Phil. 1:12-18; 4:22) Paul’s freedom went far beyond whether or not he was in chains. His freedom also extended to finances. Paul chose not to ask for or accept money from the church in Corinth, even though it was his right to do so. He did not want anything to stand in the way of the gospel going forward unhindered (1 Corinthians 9:12). What was Paul’s payment or reward then? He tells us himself: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” (1 Corinthians 9:18)

Perhaps our tax exempt status in America has actually hurt the American church in some ways. Perhaps we have been enslaved to thinking that we need freedoms from outside to have freedoms within. But the freedom that God offers us is never dependent on whether or not this or that state grants us religious liberty. Otherwise, the church in countries that oppress the faith would always see fewer conversions. But this is not always or often the case. Many times, the gospel has spread and the church has grown most in countries where the faith has the least amount of official freedom and sanction.

Perhaps we feel as the church that we need to cultivate connections with this or that political party to advance the good news as we see it. Christian conservatives and liberals alike have been guilty of so aligning themselves with this or that candidate and party to gain influence only to end up losing influence where it mattered most. The power of the gospel is not dependent on how much favor we have with the political powers. Contrary to popular opinion in many circles, the orthodox community of the early church father Athanasius did not seek the approval of the emperor Constantine to gain influence for its theological positions over against its opponents. As one online article states, “Athanasius writes concerning this in ‘The Monks’ History of Arian Impiety’ (AD 358) saying, ‘When did a decision of the Church receive its authority from the emperor?’ and ‘never did the fathers seek the consent of the emperor for them [councilar decrees of the Church], nor did the emperor busy himself in the Church.’ He goes on to say that the heretics banded with the emperor. (See Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume I, by William Jurgens).”

Karl Barth wrote that a church that demands rights in the sphere of the state is a spiritually unfree church: “Whenever the Church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a Church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the State, an impenitent, spiritually unfree Church.” (Karl Barth, “The Christian Community and the Civil Community,” in Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings,1946-1952, ed. R. G. Smith, trans. E.M. Delecour and S. Godman {London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1954, p. 31}).

Beyond Athanasius and Barth, Jesus said we can gain the whole world and yet lose our souls: “ What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matt. 16:26-27). Jesus makes this claim to his disciples in the context of talking of his approaching passion and death in Jerusalem at the hands of the rulers. Jesus has a very clear sense that they are not in control. His Father is in control, and so he is free, even when he is bound and nailed to the cross, for he will rise again!

How does the church offer the gospel free of charge if we need to promote or protect our religious freedom and status with the powers that be? While I would hate to see churches and Christian organizations lose their tax exempt status or equivalent freedom for whatever reason, I can think of worse things, such as being spiritually imprisoned based on fears of losing political or economic influence with the fallen powers.

If our hope is in gaining power and influence in the world, we lose sight of our true hope and power and wealth in Christ. If we set our minds and hearts on gaining freedom in the political sphere, no matter how God-ordained such freedom is, we lose sight of where true freedom lies. The result is that people are not converted to freedom in Christ, but converted to a life of entitlements. We end up becoming spoiled brats and suckling babes who look to Washington or another power base to care for us, rather than the Lord. So, we may come away with a tax exempt gospel, but at what cost to our souls? A tax exempt gospel that taxes our souls and keeps us from being free to speak God’s truth in love is too great a price to pay.

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