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 sate. 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!
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume can be found wherever fine books are sold.