Should Churches Give Up Their Tax Exemption?

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Childhood food security. Education and literacy. Basic health care.
These are issues where there are no two sides. Everyone agrees
that these issues are among the highest priorities in our society today.
What we disagree on is simple: Who is going to pay to cure one or more
of these significant twenty-first-century societal wounds?
As a Christian, I have a humble suggestion. Let us, the American
Church, step up and foot the bill, through giving back our tax-exempt
status and earmarking those funds for issues like childhood hunger and
health care.
Imagine the societal transformation we would witness if the Church
offered the equivalent of our tax exception to cure one or more of
society’s core issues. These plights (almost exclusively against the poor)
have always been the work of Jesus’ people (as well as other peoples of
faith): healing, feeding and teaching.
The Church (and religion more broadly) is too often known for
judgment, division, and being self-serving. Imagine the potential change
of perception and the subsequent social capital that would follow one of
the largest voluntary acts of generosity in human history.
Sociologists tell us that Portland is among the first Post-Christian cities
in North America. How does a minority community get noticed? A
peasant rabbi from little-regarded Nazareth did it by eradicating whole
regions of disease (Luke 4:38-40) and satisfying all who were hungry
(Luke 9:12-17). Do you think that same rabbi would ask any less of us
You may be asking: Why would the church return their annual tax-gift
instead of keeping that money in-house? First of all, these issues are so
insidious and so widespread that it is hard to imagine the church (with
all of its denominations and sects) creating the sort of coordinated
and far reaching system necessary to heal across urban and rural
communities, across regions and across race, class and culture.
Even Jesus was not opposed to trusting the deeply-flawed government
of his day with money: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God
what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
But more importantly, I am concerned for the twenty-first-century
Church’s credibility and autonomy.
Before I explain what I mean, allow me a brief illustration. If you are
watching the political debates, regardless of your party loyalty, there is
a fair argument being made about the relationship of large campaign
contributions and a candidate’s credibility on certain issues (banking
regulation and environmental issues to name two). It begs the question;
can a candidate be trusted to stand up to special interests from which
they have received millions of dollars?
Well, the American Church receives what adds up to billions of dollars
in tax exemptions every year.
In the current handshake relationship between Church and government,
can the church really be trusted to stand up when the moment calls,
both today and in the unpredictable future?
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.
Some will say I am betraying my spiritual family by suggesting that
the Church voluntarily offer the equivalent of her annual tax-gift to
eradicate one or more of these issues from our country. But consider the
potential result:
• millions of people cared for
• a radical sacrifice that transforms society
• an unparalleled act in harmony with the example of Jesus
• an increase in the Church’s credibility and freedom to be a
revolutionary voice in culture
• a diversified use of church properties
• a less sequestered clergy
• and an activated volunteer-core of church parishioners
That doesn’t sound all bad.
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