With religious freedom a major topic of national discussion, it was only a matter of time before the issue of church tax-exempt status came up. In a recent speech to a gathering of SBC pastors, ex-pastor, former presidential candidate, and Fox News staple Mike Huckabee said:
"The recent revelations that the Internal Revenue Service has been targeting people of faith—people who are conservative, people who are pro-Israel—and have been picking out the parts of belief and speech and faith that government seems to approve and that which it doesn't approve has brought up a very important reality that I think, sooner or later, as believers, we need to confront ... we need to recognize that it may be time to quit worrying so much about the tax code and start thinking more about the truth of the living God, and if it means that we give up tax-exempt status and tax deductions for charitable contributions, I choose freedom more than I choose a deduction that the government gives me permission to say what God wants me to say."
I have more than one problem with Huckabee's politics and general paradigm. Additionally, having had my father (a pastor) decide to form a new ministry technically as a "for profit" business, though thoroughly Christ-centered in practice, it's a subject that I've personally thought through a good deal. Typically (my father excluded here), the conversation runs in channels that I don't count particularly credible. (At least from a cursory Google search on "Tax exempt church," Conspiracy theories and internet ads for "untraceable" AR-15s are the norm here, if that paints a picture.)
The typical subtext in many of these conversations—that the government has gone out of its way to train its crosshairs on the church—is baseless. I'm not concerned about a cackling, demonic Obamachrist plotting the enslavement of Christians. But Huckabee's question is relevant, and ranges far wider than just the right-leaning Christians he was addressing.
In maintaining tax-exempt status, the church maintains a connection to the American government that in my view, is closer than it should be. It is indisputable that some degree of freedom is exchanged for tax-exempt status. How problematic that is depends on your interpretation of Scripture and tax law, but there it is.
However, Huckabee's implication that shrugging off tax exemption will open the door to free political speech from the church is just as troubling as the governmental connection that he's recommending we step out of. The basic paradigm—that the church is inextricably woven with the politics of a nation—is broken. Huckabee's solution is, in my view, hardly different at all from the reality he's lamenting.
At its root, the issue here is not whether or not your organization is a non-profit. That's just the symptom of a systemic problem. I think the problem is that we persistently confuse political agendas with the work of the kingdom.
In a brief online exchange, my friend Brandon said
"...marginalization and non-privilege are historically great crucibles for faithfulness. The deeper crisis would be if exemption hinders our imagination or witness to the lordship of Christ."
Pulling this bit of cultural yarn unravels all kinds of sweaters: ecclesiological, financial, legal, emotional. But I think we need to give it a tug. The church has choices, many choices, as to how she organizes herself. There are leaders that I respect both in and outside tax-exempt organizations. But it's time that we consider what tax exemption says about us, and how it shapes our voice and mission.
What do you think—does tax exemption hinder ministry imagination or witness?
EDIT: Here's a post on the administrative/ legal considerations of churches that decide against tax exemption from my colleague Matt over at Managing Your Church.