The problem of religious tax exemption keeps cropping up on the edge of various complaints: ecclesiastical abuses, increased community taxes following extensive exemption of church properties, spiritual concern lest the Church depend more on special privilege than on religious sources, and anxiety that secular resentments may climax in the expropriation of church properties—these are very real factors in the discussion.

The question of religious exemptions needs careful study. To focus attention only on chronic abuses that fire anti-church resentments or to overlook the fact that most church institutions and churches do not accumulate excessive properties would be far from adequate. Nor ought the inquiry to proceed merely on the edge of anti-Catholic criticism, for even denominations not under fire also can profit from asking how fully the Church’s strength depends upon tax benefits or what relationship exists between the Church’s spiritual vitality and its tax privileges. We need to probe what exemption does to the local church and how it affects community attitudes among the unchurched. Does the local church’s relationship to community tax burdens adversely affect the congregation’s position among fellow citizens?

At the same time such a study must also consider the reasons given for religious exemptions. Sometimes these exemptions rest only on an appeal to tradition, like the Model T Ford which was observed to function without a motor, simply on its past reputation. The argument from tradition often exhibits little power when it meets the challenge of uphill cultural opposition.

On the American scene religious exemptions, like those for educational and welfare purposes, are more often justified on the basis of their public benefactions. Deductions are granted to encourage voluntary support of those activities which contribute the ingredients of a virile democracy to the social order. This approach cancels the argument of those who caricature exemption as an indirect form of state support of religion; while churches in Europe get their allotment after taxes are paid, in the United States they are subsidized in the form of advance deductions. But more than this, support of the churches in the United States is not a matter of political decision. When individuals give material support to the church voluntarily, they actually incorporate a great deal of freedom into church-state relationships. On the other hand, the principle of public service could ultimately extend also to religious schools and hospitals, not only in respect to tax exemption of properties but also the deductibility of contributions or payments for tuition or medical bills.

Article continues below

The argument from public service does not really exhaust the rationale for religious exemptions, however. In a real sense tax exemption may be considered the obverse side of church-state separation. If the Church has no access to government resources, then it also merits exemption from the state’s ultimate power—and indeed, the power to tax could well be the power to destroy the Church’s activity in worship, education, and evangelism. It may be, therefore, that as denominations enter into enlarging partnership with government to fulfill objectives of benevolence and education, they unwittingly weaken their future case for tax exemption.

Current discussions on religious exemption stress three aspects of the problem: (1) exemption of properties used for worship and education; (2) exemption of real estate and investments maintained for income purposes; and (3) the bearing of proposed tax revision or reform on church contributions. Of these, the first is most defensible, since the Church’s freedom requires that its members be able to worship and educate in property that provides no occasion for taxing her out of existence.

When a church agency acquires far more land for a college or university than it needs, holds this land for decades on a tax-exempt basis, and later trades a section to city officials for an expensive downtown church site or makes some other lucrative deal, one can understand why citizens consider this an abuse of privilege unless capital gains taxes are collected. Wholly apart from such abuses, some cities are in difficult tax straits simply because of extensive religious property exemptions. Some cities, moreover, become headquarters for national denominational centers, and are thereby called upon in this era of ecumenical giantism to provide municipal services (including police and fire protection) wholly out of proportion to local affiliation. Some churches, thinking that as a matter of justice they ought to share in such a community burden, have ventured token voluntary contributions to the municipal tax budget. But few churches can afford to divert support from their essential purpose to a tax participation over and above that of their members as citizens. Further, it becomes legally difficult for a city to accept such funds unless a similar policy is enforced across-the-board on all other exempt agencies. Moreover, if the community becomes dependent on these anticipated revenues, good will becomes transposed into a permanent obligation.

Article continues below

The most grievous facet of today’s exemption debate really centers in something else, namely, in the Church’s deriving income from unrelated business activities that are tax-exempt. The General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in May urged repeal of the Internal Revenue Service code allowing “churches and church organizations” exemption from the corporate income tax on profits from “businesses unrelated to the purpose or activity of the church or church organizations.” When a religious institution runs a winery, or hotel, or department store, or parking lot, without the burden of paying real estate and income taxes, it operates at an unfair advantage over competitive enterprises and engages in something unrelated to its real mission, which ought therefore to be subject to the same taxes as its business competitors. The argument that exemption should be applied not in view of the source of these funds but rather in view of the purpose to which they are put can justify the Church’s entrance into any kind of business from soap to spaghetti. The situation of annuity boards is also under study, since they make investments or engage in credit operations to secure future income not for the Church but for their participants.

Revenue agents are disposed to take a long critical look also at independent non-church-related enterprises that are organized as non-profit—from Bible camps to religious presses—particularly where they show surplus funds and pay their founders substantial salaries. There are cases not only of religious racketeering, but also of lucrative private profits in everything from religious artifacts to beads and books. The growing tendency to review the tax-exempt status of independent efforts has produced a number of noteworthy complaints. For one thing, because larger denominations are better equipped to protect their enterprises against unjustifiable pressures, some independent church efforts may feel that ecumenically identified projects will receive favored consideration. Besides, there is harassment at the state level by overzealous or religiously bigoted collectors who lack adequate knowledge of federal laws. Roman Catholics are reported to have infiltrated some agencies and are thereby able to protect special ecclesiastical interests. Moreover, some revenue service personnel share the strange prejudice that unless a non-profit agency operates in the red, or shows but the barest profit, it is subject to suspicion. When this prejudice is pressed, it is well to look at other churches engaged in similar ventures and to ask whether they too are required or expected to show a loss. In any event, revenue officials will increasingly ponder the meaning of “church-related” during these next years; religious institutions that enter into general business operations for investment purposes while they enjoy tax advantages over secular competitors are due for closer scrutiny.

Article continues below

Another aspect of the exemption debate is the 5 per cent floor on religious contributions proposed by the Kennedy administration. While this proposal drew much criticism, won little enthusiasm, and is probably doomed, yet the need for remedial action to correct abuses ought not to be minimized. In some respects the standard unitemized deduction has encouraged abuses. In one town, for example, revenue investigators found that reported contributions to local churches ran five times the actual amount of church receipts. And the available public list of those who give more than $100 has its dangers, too, since it subjects contributors to potential pressures of many kinds.

The matter of religious exemptions has many facets. In fact, its problems are so numerous that the Internal Revenue Service has even considered disallowing all exemptions. Such a step, however, is politically unfeasible. Worse than this, to cancel all exemptions would be to encroach upon the Church’s freedom. The Church does not draw its life from the state, nor does it need or want state subsidy in order to exist. If church-state separation is to mean anything, then government must decide that just administration of its taxing powers requires both the recognition of legitimate exemptions and the correction of ecclesiastical abuses.


Hast Thou not said

Thy stones in fairest colors

Shall he laid?

And am I not a pebble

Small and grey

Stone among stones

Upon a busy road?

Till one day, broken,

Thou did’st take me up

To smite the broken parts,

And lo, both fire and heat

Came forth in fair-hued flames,

In warmth none could have known

Was there.


The Right To Do Wrong

Does one American have the right to refuse to do business with another on the basis of color? Although such refusal is legal in some states, before the bar of the nation’s conscience it is judged immoral. Respect for human dignity and belief in the equality of human rights run so deep in the American tradition that most Americans intuitively judge the refusal of a white to do business with a Negro as not merely un-American, but immoral.

Article continues below

The Kennedy administration will be leaning hard on the national conscience as it propels its public-accommodations legislation through Congress this summer. Without strong confidence in the moral conscience of the nation, the Attorney General could hardly hope for adoption of the administration’s civil rights program by an appeal to the Constitution’s declaration that “Congress shall have power to regulate commerce … among the several states.” Since the clause protects the commercial rights of one state against another, and neither was intended, nor has ever before been used, as a basis for protecting the civil rights of a person against another person, he seemingly expects moral even more than legal considerations to put the public-accommodations proposal through Congress.

While this national moral sensitivity is gratifying, and appeal to it politically effective, there is a fundamental question that ought not to be obscured. In the attempt to attain the morally ideal, it ought not to be overlooked that such attainment by legal prescription can itself be immoral. The core of this complex question is whether that form of morality which would legally secure equal public accommodations for both whites and Negroes should be achieved through legislation.

Good laws compel men to deal morally with each other. But there are obviously limits beyond which law cannot properly compel a man to moral behavior. A good case can be made that any business, large or small, licensed by the federal government or by a state, ought to be compelled by law to make its services equally available to all people. But it is a real question whether a private businessman ought to be compelled by law to do business with any citizen. The moral requirement is plain; legal requirement is another matter. The latter is surely sufficiently problematic as to allow for difference of opinion. Should not the law in this area allow a man the right to do what is morally wrong? Does the government have the moral right to legally enforce that moral behavior which will do business with anyone? Or, is this not an area in which practice should await a heightened national moral consciousness?

Article continues below

While no man has the right to be wrong before God, it is of the essence of a free democracy to acknowledge an area of personal relationships where a man has—so far as other men are concerned—the right to do wrong.

This is sometimes ignored by both Protestants and Roman Catholics, by both political liberals and extreme rightists. The attempt of Robert Kennedy to secure equal public accommodations on the ground of the clause governing interstate commerce rather than the Fourteenth Amendment, which deals with specifically human rights, tends to obscure the central moral issue, lending credence to the error that those who oppose the proposed legislation are prompted by malice. After all, human rights are other than state’s rights, and the matter of whites doing business with Negroes is more than a commercial transaction. We should sketch the shape of the basic moral issue, and keep it in full view.

Wcc Calls For Equal Footing

Can genuine ecumenical dialogue emerge between Protestants and Roman Catholics without the acknowledgment by each that the other’s church is an authentic expression of the one, universal church of Christ? It cannot, says Dr. Roger Mehl, of the University of Strasbourg, France. In a keynote address to the World Council of Churches’ Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, held in Montreal, Mehl declared, “With regard to the ecumenical dialogue, the essential concept is that the churches should regard one another as belonging to the reality of the universal church.” And he added that if dialogue is to occur, “they must be on equal footing.” Such forthright declaration of position inspires confidence that the WCC is not willing to achieve unity with Rome too cheaply. This confidence is immediately undercut, however, by Mehl’s too great eagerness to see evidence that such recognition is already in the making.

As evidence that an “evolution” is occurring in Roman thought about the authenticity of Protestant churches, Mehl cites, first, that most Protestant observers at the Second Vatican Council were invited not as individuals but as representatives of their churches, and second, that Cardinal Bea designated them as “my brothers in Christ” and their baptism as something “stronger” than Protestant-Roman Catholic differences. While these facts represent a change of language and spirit—a change to be acknowledged gratefully—yet none suggests that Rome is even toying with the possibility of recognizing Protestant churches as equally “belonging to the reality of the universal church.” The equal footing said to be requisite for a true dialogue will require not more of such facts, but facts of another kind, particularly since the Vatican has made plain that none of the doctrinal substance of the Council of Trent will be surrendered.

Article continues below

What Mehl hopes to receive from Rome, he generously gave. He assured the five official Roman Catholic observers and the fifteen Roman Catholic guests that the churches of the WCC do regard the Roman church as an authentic church. The Vatican Council, he said, is regarded by “the churches belonging to the World Council … as an event which affects them all, because it really concerns the history of the true universal church.” This remark drew applause, indicating that many in his audience took an equally generous view of the Roman church.

How indeed can Rome provide the equal footing requisite for authentic dialogue—the acknowledgment of Protestant churches as a part of the universal reality of the one Church—without ceasing to be what she claims to be? Mehl saw possibilities of a solution coming from Eastern Orthodoxy. Since Orthodoxy entered the World Council in 1961, “it will no longer be possible to criticize the World Council for being essentially Protestant in its aspirations.” Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church does regard the Orthodox churches as churches in the real sense of the word. In addition, Orthodoxy’s rejection of a papal hierarchy is related to its doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and its conception of tradition also differs from the Roman conception because of its different understanding of the Holy Spirit. Mehl reminded his audience, too, that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was not the strongest part of Reformation theology, and has indeed since been the occasion for a considerable amount of sectarianism in Protestantism. Given this situation, Mehl saw great potential in a three-way dialogue between Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics: since none has the whole truth about the Spirit, perhaps each, and especially the Orthodox, could light the way for the others, and thus all together find the truth about the Holy Spirit, and about themselves as churches.

If equal footing is the precondition for dialogue, the ecumenical movement seems pretty well without traction. Success seems to presuppose itself. For while there has happily been a change in the climate, the ground under foot seems as rough as ever. Perhaps at this point we could best say: Let us pray. For God has made “rough places plain” before.

Article continues below

The Feathers Have Long Been Showing

As this issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY goes to press, the United States once again is facing the possibility of a crippling railroad strike. How ironical that this major home-grown crisis should arise at a time when our national prosperity is high and when our free-enterprise system is under constant critical and ofttimes unfriendly observation by other nations of the world!

This time the problem revolves around something popularly called “featherbedding.” The dictionary defines featherbedding as “… the requiring of an employer … to pay more employees than are needed for a particular operation.…” In whatever way the problem may be characterized, it is a matter of vast social and economic importance, bearing distinct moral overtones.

We have no wish to point a finger at one party to this controversy and say, “You are right,” or at the other and say, “You are wrong.” But the thing we do wish to highlight is that the root of this matter has been with us for a long time, and nothing has been done about it. If the point at issue is wrong now, it was equally wrong twenty, thirty, or more years ago.

If our people are to be forced once more to reap the bitter fruits of a railroad strike, there ought to be some compensation. Such compensation could be in the form of a voluntary review by both management and labor of the moral soundness of their rules of operation.

It is altogether possible that other pockets of inequity and public concern may presently exist in segments of our industrial complex. If so, why not begin to correct them now rather than wait until stark necessity forces one side or the other to take a hard position?

Perhaps featherbedding should have gone out of style with feather beds.

Demands Of Agape And Faltering Response

“If I were denied what our Negro citizens are denied, I would demonstrate.” So said Georgia-born Secretary of State Dean Rusk in a Senate committee hearing on proposed civil rights legislation. Implications of his statement reach to the heart of the race problem: the Adamic malady, which has echoed down the long corridors of time in its enduring resistance to the loving fellowship for which men were created.

Article continues below

True love is empathic. It is bound with those who are bound (Heb. 13:3). Standing in naked defiance of this is the doctrine of racial supremacy, all the more horrendous because biblical sanction is often sought for it. When the doctrine gains national eminence it compounds individual sin into a mass vacuum of empathic love. Involved are a stunning parochialism, an unbelievable provincialism, and an unutterable egotism, all the more terrifying because tolerated within the hearts of Christian people as a dark, blighting grief to the Spirit.

But in a society leavened to a degree by the biblical ethic, the claims of justice do not forever stand by while the claims of love are thus ravaged. The grim irony in it all is that many who are most vocal for individual liberty are, as indicated by proposed civil rights legislation, by their lovelessness pressing hard toward forfeiture of some of their own freedoms. And the freedoms of others.

Reformed Church Losses In Holland

Since pre-Reformation times the Netherlands has had an interesting ecclesiastical and theological history. The home of diverse emphases such as the Brethren of the Common Life and the Mennonites on the one hand, and Erasmus, Coornheert, and Arminius on the other, not to mention the Calvinistic majority in the center, old Holland manifested profound spiritual depth and an amazing theological productivity.

An interesting assessment of current trends in the theological life and outlook of the Netherlands has come to us in correspondence from Professor M. Eugene Osterhaven of Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, who spent part of the summer in Utrecht. We are glad to relay his observations below.

New Holland, in its complex life, still evidences spiritual depth and theological vigor, but the rapid growth of Roman Catholicism and the “acids of modernity” has in part altered the spirit and the appearance of the country. Eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century liberalism weakened the once powerful Reformed Church, although the nineteenth-and early twentieth-century revival associated with the names of van Prinsterer, Bavinck, and Kuyper gave it new life as well as a divided existence. Whereas in post-Reformation Holland a bishop was not allowed until 1853, in 1960, the last year for which statistics are available, 40.4 per cent of the Netherlands was Roman Catholic. The percentage was 38.5 in 1947. In the same period the percentage of those with no church connection has risen from 17.1 to 18.4. Over against this there was a drop in those claiming Netherlands Reformed Church connections from 31 per cent in 1947 to 28.3 in 1960. The other Reformed churches together dropped from 14.2 per cent to 9.7 of the population and the rest of the minority churches from 3.7 to 3.6.

Article continues below

The number of Roman Catholics listed is 4,600,000. Slightly more than 3,000,000 are Netherlands Reformed, and there are more than 1,000,000 other Reformed people, mainly the Kuyper-Bavinck Gereformeerde Kerken. Nearly 2,000,000 people claim no church relationship at all. Within the period considered the population of the Netherlands increased by almost 2,000,000, or 20 per cent. Percentages of increase within the churches were 25 per cent for the Roman Catholic, 8 per cent for the Netherlands Reformed Church, 14 per cent for the Gereformeerde, and 17 per cent for splinter groups; for the non-churched the increase was 28 per cent. Along with the above one must reckon with the fact that church attendance in the Netherlands Reformed Church averages only 10 per cent of the communicant membership. The Gereformeerde churches have better attendance, although the percentage here is not as it once was, either. In one of these latter congregations there are two similar church buildings separated by some distance. On a recent Sunday morning, out of a baptized membership of 4,147 and a communicant membership of 2,535 there were about 400 in the one church, over three times as many as in the other. There is also a smaller evening service. Church attendance in the villages is better than it is in the cities. There seems to be very little congregational life in the city churches; nor are the churches which we have attended friendly. One comes and one goes with no word of greeting from anyone. Seldom does a minister greet anyone before or after a service. The preaching runs from good to excellent. One interesting service included a sermon given by two Reformed ministers in dialogue.

There is a venerable theological tradition in the Netherlands which is maintained today in the several theological faculties. Centuries ago, when much theology was “made in Holland” and Latin was the medium of instruction, the famous older faculties attracted students from all over Europe and beyond. Today the level of work continues to be high, and its tone is quite orthodox. Although statistics do not reveal it, there has been marked renewal within the Reformed Church, in which theologians have been active. The work of Hoedemaker, Noordmans, Haitjema, and others of a generation or more ago has borne fruit, and the church in the future will continue to benefit from it. To speak only of those living whose work I know best, Professors A. A. van Ruler and S. vander Linde at Utrecht, H. Berkhof at Leiden, and G. C. Berkouwer at Amsterdam are highly competent theologians representative of the best in the Reformed tradition. Van Ruler’s most notable work has been on the Holy Spirit and on the problems of law, theocracy, and culture; Vander Linde’s has been on the Holy Spirit and on the later Reformation. The interests of Berkouwer and Berkhof have been many, and the writings of the former are well-known in America. Unfortunately the major works of the others are untranslated.

Article continues below

Among the theological discussions there have been conversations between representatives of the various Reformed bodies and between the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. The move toward union of the two largest Reformed bodies appears stalled, nothing significant having happened within the last year.

Theological education here, as in most of Europe, keeps inviolate the sanctity of the freedom of the student: he attends lectures when he feels like it. Those who would like to change the system have been unsuccessful so far. Its contrast with the American system, in which considerable attention is given students and required attendance, reading, papers, and examinations are the order of the day, is great. Professors lecture for two to four hours per week and are spared much of the committee work and detail that plague their American counterparts. No wonder that many of the professors there prefer the European method!

Christian Vocational Calling

For a long time boards and institutions of various denominations have used psychological tests to screen candidates for appointment or instruction. Some have even gone so far as to require psychiatric examinations for those coming under their supervision.

That these tests and examinations have not always eliminated undesirable candidates is well known. In fact, some of the rejects have applied to other groups, been accepted, and subsequently shown themselves fully capable of carrying on satisfactory work.

Because this method of screening has not been overly successful, some who have used it wonder if perhaps they have sought help in the wrong place. For one thing, many who conduct these tests are outside the Christian community and may be inclined to regard as “peculiar” any person who offers himself for Christian service. Ironic statements have been issued, such as, “I have been unable to find any emotional or psychotic deviations in this person, but I am sure they are there.”

Article continues below

Christian vocation is primarily the direct result of a call from God. No one without spiritual appreciation of the call and a sympathetic understanding of its implications ought to come between the called and the One calling. Granted there may be personality defects—many of which can be eliminated by careful counseling and training—still no one has the right to cancel or disparage a call initiated by the Holy Spirit.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.