Is Church Tax Exemption Muzzling the Gospel?
Huckabee's recent SBC speech highlights an important question.

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.

June 12, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 22 comments

Mike Schroeder

June 29, 2013  10:21am

This may have already been said, so forgive me if I'm repeating it. Churches (i.e., those organizations that meet the requirements for a church) are automatically tax-exempt under the Internal Revenue Code, meaning there is no need to incorporate under code section 501c3. 501c3 was never intended for church organizations. But the legal profession, recognizing another "cash cow" opportunity, duped the ignorant church community into believing that they must incorporate under this section of the code in order to be tax exempt, and like a herd of sheep, about 95% of them went for it. This is not true, of course, as such a mandate would be in violation of the first amendment establishment clause. The greatest danger of incorporating under 501c3, is that the organization doing so is voluntarily placing itself under the jurisdiction of the government, thus handing the government the authority to censure its speech.

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Teresa

June 22, 2013  6:36pm

We seem to forget that being a designated religious organization protects us from some other forms of government intrusion– like mandated "equal employment" of individuals based on their religious beliefs, including sexual orientation. Or opening us up to charges of "hate speech" even more than we are now. Even setting aside the money, switching to a for-profit status would not necessarily give us more freedom to speak the truth without consequences!

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Dave

June 21, 2013  12:42pm

Two brief thoughts: 1) Once again a potentially interesting conversation is hijacked by those whose ax to grind is eliminating paid ministers. No matter the topic, they twist it to their agenda. Sad for Out of Ur. 2) Tax-exempt status was intended to minimize the role government played in how religious organizations, including Christ's church, so that they could operate as they wish. The caveat on political expression was to prevent people forming "churches" for the express purpose of shaping the political landscape. Organizing as a "for-profit" business would allow more political expression, but massively increase gov't intrusion into church operations via taxation. The discussion feels like a red-herring...because you can operate as you wish to a very large extent as a church with almost no gov't intrusion. Maybe the question should be how do our ingrained cultural expressions of church structure and governance shape how and what we do that doesn't correlate with the Biblical living body of Christ?

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Tim

June 19, 2013  4:15pm

Steve Thank you for expressing your frustration with what I said. There are many who would just roll their eyes and not risk the power of "one another" communication. "Paul never condemned a minister being paid" Neither did I. I merely pointed out how it functions as a hindrance to the gospel, just as Paul did. I used to be blind to these hindrances, but no longer. Paul indicated that it would be, and it is to this day across every brand name and every country. I was raised as an MK in the Philippines. The saints there follow the American model. In their less wealthy culture, they must consume 99% of their "giving to pay the preacher. They now have 1% available to send thousands of Filipinos who are trained and ready to be sent all over Asia with the gospel - Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, etc. Of course they are not being sent. A tragic hindrance to the gospel. There is no church where it indicates Paul did take money from them while he was there. There is a huge difference between accepting an occasional gift front saints out of town when it is needed and setting up a contract for believers to hire someone to teach in perpetual dependency year after decade. Do you see this distinction and false comparison? The reasons Paul gives are still true today and exponentially more now than back then. "…a spiritually dangerous line by declaring your judgment of right/wrong…" Right or wrong is not the only issues believers consider. Hindrance is a thing we are to consider and throw off just like sin. "…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…" So it's not my judgement at all. It's an apostolic example and teaching to be taken in full context. "…that is not what the Bible says." Do you see now this is what the Bible does say? It would be sooo good for the household of faith if the IRS would only give tax deductions on gifts that go beyond the giver in the local church. Maybe then, believers might see the traditions of men they have been sucked into rather than obeying the Word of God.

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Don

June 18, 2013  1:39pm

I've been advocating this, now, for 20 years. If a church is "given a license" by an agency of the government, namely, the IRS...it can certainly revoke or take-away that license it has granted. Which, in this case, puts the U.S. Government squarely BETWEEN most ALL churches and God. Since when did the founding fathers–or any Christian–elevate Caesar in to a position "above God" so that he may "grant us permission" to worship the one who created ALL of us? No tax-exempt status for me.

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Kim S. Mather

June 18, 2013  11:50am

I am a church insurance specialist My point of view on this subject is that the whole discussion is a diversion from the great commission. Some conclusions that I think are important is this. 1) No matter what we do, if we are an organization with any kind of structure the government will govern us. 2) Once we open a bank account and create a Tax ID number and are handling money that government will regulate us 3) As long as we live in America and are American Citizens and become a legal entity of any structure the government will pass laws concerning our conduct and legal rights and will enforce such laws in accordance with their agenda's. Some other conclusions that we get from scripture is this. 1) Yes the World is against us 2) The Ruler of this world (Satan) is not on our side nor are his governments. 3) God is the answer not Political, Social or Legislative reform 4) While accepting Jesus into our lives does bring about spiritual, social, political and legislative reform in each and every life that He enters, the opposite is not true. Political, Social and legislative reform do not bring about spiritual reform (Salvation). The harder we work to try to change this world through Political, legislative and social vehicles the more we center on systems that are controlled by the world and subject to the judgment of man. So then we find ourselves making appeal after appeal to the court of Man rather than the throne of God. The one true power we have to change this world and peoples lives is that of the Holy Spirit though the Power of Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross. Why do we keep on appealing to man for that which God has already given us. The truth is the world is against us and eventually we may be thrown in jail in this country for calling on the name of Christ. Weather the world condemns us or not this is not the good fight that God has Given us. The good fight is to live each day for our Lord and God and to proclaim his truth. In the end it does not matter weather we are Incorporated, Unincorporated, Tax exempt, for Profit or Not for Profit. If they want to drag us into court or throw us into jail they will. It is our own arrogance and pride that we think we can actually change anything in this world though worldly process or by the rules of man. The only true way that change can happen is by each one of us focusing on God and his Calling and doing things his way (My ways are not your ways). What we need to do as the church is to follow what laws are in place to properly handle money (decently and in order) follow the laws that are in place so that we can have our meetings and while its still legal outreaches. Organize while its still legal so that there are legal safe guards in place to protect the entity and people that attend and serve there. After that we need to be done with it so that we can get down to the real business of serving God. We are only fooling ourselves if we believe that there is a way to remove ourselves and be totally free and autonomous of the governing entity that governs this land. We are also not thinking clearly if we believe that there is a way to organize that gives us freedom from the laws of the land and the agendas of the surrounding governing entities. In the end we spin our wheels and are continually at law and in court over many issues fighting in the court of man for that which God already gave us. We are to proclaim the Gospel and Preach the Good News In season and out of season, but we need to give up on trying to control the season.

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Steve

June 18, 2013  10:35am

Tim, your arrogance is appalling, an offense to God. Paul never condemned a minister being paid. Paul accepted aid many times himself. In specific churches, he refused and explained why. For you to label right or wrong things God himself did not... Well, those aren't shoes you want to be in! If you want to discuss better/best, knock yourself out! But you crossed a spiritually dangerous line by declaring your judgment of right/wrong when that is not what the Bible says.

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Rusty

June 18, 2013  10:13am

You are wrong about the IRS. I was targeted. And now we are finding out many others were targeted. Mostly conservatives.

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elegance

June 17, 2013  10:29am

Sheer, I think we have already become the modern version of Jonah, but we're still in the belly of the whale because we ain't about to go to Nineveh and "... cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord..." (great example, by the way)

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sheerahkahn

June 15, 2013  10:22am

"I don't know if you are familiar with the writings of Frank Viola." I am, and to be frank Pastor V, I'm a little hesitant to accept anything of Mr. Viola's credentials of scholarship in the bible. Granted, I do not listen to his podcasts, so my prejudice is based on his books...of which Pagan Christianity stands out as the most glaring of examples of poor scholarship in regards to Christian history, historical context, exegetical critique...hmm... Ugh...where was I...ah right! But I do agree with you that personality (citing myself as a classic example) can get in the way of anything I, or we do for the kingdom. Paul, if you casually read his letters and his recounts of events often comes off as a jerk...which, I can resonate with Paul and his frustrations with fellow believers...because it's all there...right there in the bible, and it boggles the mind how people just...well...are either incapable of seeing the scriptures in full light, or baseline refuse to see them at all. I sometimes feel like Jim Carrey's character in "Bruce Almighty" when he goes to meet "God" for the first time and steps in the puddle...I often find myself doing the very same dance he did...except pointing at the bible and yelling, "HOW? HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT? IT'S RIGHT THERE! BLACK AND WHITE PEOPLE, RIGHT THERE! JUST READ IT! ARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!" followed by much growling, and carrying on. And often times, I get this sense that G-d does the same with me...not with writing, scriptures, or books, but with people, life, and my observations of events as I process them in reflection. How can I not see the obvious, how can I not know when it is right there in front of me? So I think, often times, that I missed the forest for the trees, and it trips me up....to bring this full circle, I really don't have a problem with people wanting to bring a simple, down to earth message of Y'shua that is easily understandable, extremely attractive by way of clearing out the debris that clutters the attic of our lives. I just think...feel...and believe that if I'm going to write a book, a paper, a thesis, an essay that I should at least be diligent in my scholarship. The last thing I want is my adviser seeing what I wrote and pulling me into his office, with his first words being, "Yeeeeaaaahhh, I'm going to need you to explain to me how you came to the conclusions you drew with the samples you cited, and the bibliography you employed." Tim, what Pastor V is saying is that it isn't the message so much as the messenger. There is a difference between a dove delivering an olive branch, and an Eagle dropping off a corpse...there's a time for each, but when the message only requires an olive branch...having the Eagle drop off the corpse is overkill. Kind of like Jonah's half-hearted approach to Nineveh. We have to be careful that we don't become a modern version of Jonah.

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