Church, Give Back Tax Exemption: Missing the Point

Over the weekend the Oregonian published an article in which I suggest that the American Christian Church should consider giving back her tax exemption to heal one of society’s great wounds, like child hunger or health care.photo-26

As of this morning, oregonlive.com has received over 500 comments on the article and over 1800 shares on social media.  Apparently, I touched a nerve… and it was a particularly raw nerve at that.

Reading through those comments has been a most enjoyable process.  I love people being people.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the comments missed the point of the article.  Shocker!

Here is a short excerpt:

For over 2,000 years the Church has been a revolutionary and activist movement. How can she be trusted to be the revolutionary voice she must be when she is funded by the government through tax exemptions? How can she speak freely when her economic viability is ever at risk of being taken away? How can she speak out against racism, prejudice and hatred, against unimaginable economic inequity against hunger, sickness and the violent death to our youngest citizens when she is sucking on the teat of the Fatherland?

This act of extreme voluntary generosity would force churches to radically reassess their finances.The impact would be significant. The Church’s innumerable and often strategically placed properties would need to diversify their uses and revenue streams. Pastors may need to become bi-vocational and therefore work alongside their unchurched neighbors. Parishioners may need to vastly increase their investment and participation in their spiritual communities and neighborhoods.

Comments fixated on my apparently profane suggestion that the church give up a portion of her precious (Oh, My Precious) financial security and the dubious nature of the American taxation system.

I actually believe that a careful reassessment of the church’s relationship to the State is a debate the church should take very seriously.  Also, the people of God should be ever aware of the complicated relationship of the gospel to money (if I remember correctly, there are 38 passages in the Gospels where Jesus addresses money/taxes, which is more than “sin”, “forgiveness” or even his pending crucification.)

“You cannot serve both God and Money”
-Jesus

However, I wrote the article for different reasons.  The tax question was almost a Trojan Horse to encourage a conversation about the Church’s IDENTITY, not her ECONOMY.

The three main points of the article, seemed to completely allude many readers:

  1. A call for the Church to return to her calling to be a healing force in the world.  To deemphasize the focus on salaries, facilities and programs and heed the deafening cry of the hungry, the sick and the poor.  To enter into the radical lifestyle of our Peasant Messiah, who did not have a home and yet eradicated whole regions of disease (Luke 4:38-40) and stopped to satisfy all who were hungry (Luke 9:12-17.)
  2. An appeal to the Church to seriously consider her relevancy in the conversation of society today.  We are not even in the conversation anymore and most Christians don’t even realize it.  And by the way, the Church of Rome is kicking our ass down the street and back again (God bless Pope Francis). The American Church has been reduced (or has reduced herself) to a marginalized sub-culture.  There are only two ways for a marginalized group to get noticed:  Violence or Radical Love/Generosity/Humility.  I vote for LOVE.
  3. Finally, to soberly weigh the social, emotional, psychological, imaginative and activistic impact of the Church taking such a sizable financial contribution from the government year after year after year.  Conservatives deride the impact of becoming a welfare society, but isn’t the church on a sort of welfare system?  And whether or not you think America is a unjust society today in need of the Church’s uncompromised prophetic voice, the day will come (if it hasn’t already) when she will need to take up the mantle of John the Baptist, Bonhoeffer and Tutu.  Are we willing to speak when we must… come what may?

I look forward to your comments.

9 Responses to “Church, Give Back Tax Exemption: Missing the Point”

  1. Tony,

    Long time no see. We grew up together going to high school and the First Baptist Church in Eugene. My issue with the church giving up it’s tax exemption is that I don’t trust the government to put it to good use. We see over an over again the government abusing of our tax dollars in ways I find offensive. For example, using my tax dollars to fund abortions, diverting money from social security for other uses, and funding organizations that ultimately ends up back in the hands of campaigning politicians. It happens at all levels of government. Quite frankly, I trust my church more at the local level and at the universal level to make better decisions in how to apply my tithing in ways that help the needy the most. I can also be more involved in deciding how my donations are spent and where they go by getting involved at various levels of decision making within my church. However, make no mistake, the greatest gift to give to your church is your time and the government can’t tax that. Christians need to put more energy in giving of themselves in order to correct the ills of society. There is no amount of money that can correct the path that America is marching towards. Healing starts with each one of us at the local level, within our communities, and within our churches. The Christian and Catholic churches give billions of dollars every year to fund programs that help the needy at all levels. In my opinion, the government should stay out of the way and keep its hands out of the offering.

    • Mark, great to hear from you. What a thrill! So many years… so many years.

      There is nothing you said that I would disagree with. If you read the post on my blog, the tax exempt issue was an excuse to get a conversation going about the nature of the church, something that you are clearly concerned about as well.

      I don’t share the “church is all good, government is all bad” party. When it comes to implementing far reaching programs, in the US, I don’t know of any private sector or religious sector that has achieved programs as broad as social security, welfare and food stamps. I have also been a consultant to churches for years and I know how efficiently and effectively churches often use money. There is good and bad in both.

      Anyway, thank you for spending a little time with me. Where are you living these days? It would be wild to cross paths.

      Blessings, tony

      Tony Kriz
      • My question to that is, can the Church REALLY be trusted with the funds that God has entrusted to it. I have encountered more than one church in my walk with Christ that has raised millions of dollars that could be spent on the poor, etc., that was used to provide all star pastors for their churches and provide creature comforts for their members, even to the point of proposing to evict neighbors to enlarge their parking lot, so that more people can take advantage of their creature comforts. (It ended up that the Pastor of that particular church embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the church treasury, and the High School Pastor tried to plant a church in another city in order to cover up and continue an affair that he had with his secretary).

  2. What you thought you wrote:

    “Hey Christians, let’s live in our community as radically as Christ lived in his.”

    What you actually wrote:

    “You know who sucks more than politicians? PASTORS!”

  3. Hi Tony,

    I appreciate your approach here. The lethargy, if not complacency, of the modern church (maybe too harsh?) is definitely sapping it of its “Pentecost power.” While I don’t want to unduly romanticize the Acts church, I do think the church has significant power when it is operating from a position of social weekness. And while the idea of a poor, socially marooned church scares me as a pastor, it essentially necessitates and demands a reliance on God’s Spirit that currently seems AWOL (even in my own church!)
    The church’s tax status is but one block of a shaky foundation that seems to require more maintenance than it returns in true life change.
    Mine is not a wholesale rejection of the church structure, but I believe that some of our “blessings” have become self-imposed crutches (curses?) that have created a victim mentality and eroded our witness of love, justice, and compassion in this world.
    Thanks for your article.

    Tim

  4. Tony:

    Some clarifying questions: I think the headline of the Oregonian article seemed to indicate that you’re in favor of Churches losing their tax exempt status entirely. And even after I read the article, I still had that impression. But then in the comments, the Oregonian religion editor said something about you not suggesting that Churches lose their tax exempt status. And there were lots of comments on both sides of that impression: folks who are hostile towards Christianity were like “Yeah, churches should pay taxes!” and a lot of folks in the Christian camp were like “No Way, how could you suggest such a thing!”

    Now I’m reading this article (which quotes the other) and I’m kind of getting the “aha” moment. It seems like you’re suggesting that Churches should figure out what they might owe IF they had to pay taxes and then send that in _voluntarily_ to the government – is that correct?

    And this quote about the Church: ” How can she speak freely when her economic viability is ever at risk of being taken away? ” I take that to mean that when Churches are afraid of losing their 501c3 charitable organization status, they’re afraid to speak up and tell the truth. I’ve heard of Churches that just refuse to apply for 501c3 status because of this, but the few cases I’ve heard about were extremely right-wing organizations.

    Also, I’m not sure I agree that “the Church taking such a sizable financial contribution from the government” – can you explain that a bit more?

    There’s much I agree with you on in these articles, such as: “Pastors may need to become bi-vocational and therefore work alongside their unchurched neighbors. ” This. Paul was a tentmaker. But I’m not sure that it’s the tax exempt status that’s leading to this – I’d argue that it has more to do with the Seminary-Church-Industrial complex (yeah, I just made that up, but hear me out…). Seminaries charge a lot of money. Pastors in training pay those seminaries to get trained to become pastors. Seminaries need to keep getting a steady supply of trainees willing to pay. But how can they convince the new recruits to take out the big loans that if those trainees are worried about getting a salary after they graduate? So the seminaries tend to push the business end of running a Church. Whenever I visit a church these days it’s a little uncomfortable. I get the distinct impression that they’re glad to see me because they need more people paying tithes. It’s an awkward thing. Maybe the tentmaker model needs to make more of a comeback. And maybe instead of large church buildings we need to meet in smaller groups in homes or pubs or parks.

    Anyway, I don’t think that churches giving some portion of their money the government is going to change much… might even cause them to just ask for more money.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Option Two: Keep Tax Exemption & Draw Parish Boundaries | Tony Kriz - June 14, 2016

    […] Over the weekend the Oregonian published an article in which I suggest that the American Christian Church should consider giving back her tax exemption to heal one of society’s great wounds, like child hunger or health care.  I wrote a follow up to that article here. […]

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