“Our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they're sinners can bring democracy the tolerance
it requires to survive” Ronald Reagan
Recently, I received my expected letter from The Rev. Barry W. Lynn. Each election cycle, I receive a letter from Rev. Lynn advising me to be very, very careful on how I handle political issues or our church will lose our tax exemption. Since 1992, Rev. Lynn has been the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to that, he was the legislative counsel for the ACLU in D.C. About the only thing his letter is missing are a skull and crossbones. He writes with sober, dire and cautionary tones as only a lawyer can.
For an educated man, either Rev. Lynn does not know his American history or deliberately misconstrues it. Thomas Jefferson’s oft cited line of “building a wall of separation between Church & State” is not part of the Constitution. The letter in which President Jefferson wrote those famous words was to the Danbury Baptist Association in Durham, Connecticut. Jefferson’s purpose was to reassure them that the United States would never establish a State Church as was done in Europe, though leaders like John Adams and others wanted one. It was not to keep the Church from intruding on the State but rather the State from intruding on the Church.
For some 250 years we’ve enjoyed religious liberty in America and with that, churches have had tax exemption. It’s a wonderful right we have, but it’s not a biblical one. What Rev. Lynn and his ilk misunderstand is that they believe we’re motivated or controlled by money. We’re not! Tax exemption is blessing that we’re thankful for. Yet throughout Christian history and around most of the globe today, it’s not a right believers enjoy. Committed American Christians will sacrifice it in a heartbeat rather than disobey or fail our in responsibility to please King Jesus.
While at Grace Church, we seek to be a-political in that we will not endorse or become the mouthpiece for any political party. We, also without hesitation love and seek to minister to Democrats, Republicans, Independents and even Nones and faithfully share the only “agenda” which ultimately matters, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When you enter our doors, there are no Democrats, Republicans…or any other Party, only Christians.
But we must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We will never be intimidated into silence on spiritual, moral or eternal issues. The threat of taking away our tax-exempt status is meant to frighten us into silence or at least cripple us if we will not goosestep to the tune of political correctness. The Conventional Wisdom is that when tax exemptions are removed, donors will give far less than they now give. Churches will become liable for property taxes, potentially even business income tax. It could mean churches will have to forfeit their property to the government because they won’t be able to afford the taxes. Many wouldn’t be able to pay them now. Churches which reside on valuable properties in urban locations would be immediately vulnerable. Eventually, so would everyone else.
The silly notion behind this is that government would do a better job than churches at meeting the needs of their community. After all, it “takes a village” not a church. Pardon my cynicism but how many things does government do well? A trip to the DMV will eradicate that foolish thought.
Yet, the fact that most Americans and even many church goers can’t explain why churches are tax exempt indicates a forgotten history. It’s emblematic of a society systematically devaluing the Church as a beneficial societal institution. So why should churches be tax exempt?
There’s the “social benefit” theory of tax exemption. Churches provide great benefits to society by their good works. Churches minister to the poor and needy, provide numerous social services for the downtrodden, and reach out to the disenfranchised in thousands of different ways. The social benefit theory justifies tax exemption for churches as a kind of bargain. Churches provide needed services, so they’re entitled to tax exemption…services government couldn’t afford to replace.
There’s the “intangible benefit” theory of tax exemption. Churches provide intangible and often unseen benefits to the community – reduced crime rates resulting from transformed lives, suicides prevented when people surrender to Christ, marriages still intact because of encouragement to live out a biblical ethic, individuals with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working, contributing citizens for the well-being of the community. It’s impossible to put a price tag on these types of intangible benefits provided by churches, but there’s no question that they exist. Churches provide more social services and intangible benefits to the community than they’d ever pay in taxes. In a very real sense, taxing churches will harm society.
There is a constitutional reason why churches are tax exempt. Churches were exempt from the very first time the tax code was passed at the federal level. Thus far every State exempts churches from property taxes. When SCOTUS decided a case regarding the property tax exemption of churches, (Walz v. Tax Commission), it stated that providing a tax exemption for churches was a less intrusive option under the Constitution than requiring churches to pay taxes.
It makes sense if you think about it. As the Supreme Court said in a very early case, “The power to tax involves the power to control.” Taxation is, in essence, a very strong assertion of control by a sovereign over its subjects. Exempting churches is a way to ensure the State can’t control churches.
Be assured the camel of government will continue to attempt to poke his nose under the tent. It will probably come in seemingly innocuous ways like service fees, where churches are required to pay for street lights, police and fire protection. A service fee is merely a tax by another name.
Yet, we must be thankful for the privilege of tax exemption and the benefits from the tax code for charitable giving while we still have it! And we must determine that we will be faithful to the Gospel and Gospel-living, as well as biblical giving even if there are no longer government benefits.
Can we help you spiritually? Can we help you know Jesus better? Please check out more resources on our church's web page, Gracechurchwi.org. Or, call us at 262.763.3021. If you'd like to know more about how Jesus can change your life, I'd love to mail you a copy of how Jesus changed my life in "My Story." E-mail me at Carson@gracechurchwi.org to request a free copy. Please include your mailing address.