The Church as a Non-Profit

September 24, 2006

Recently, an Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA, was in the news for refusing to answer a summons for documents from the Internal Revenue Service. It seems the former rector of the congregation had made an anti-war sermon some time in 2004. Now the IRS wants to see copies of all sermons, newsletters, etc. from the period to see if the church violated the part of the tax law that says churches and other non-profits may not speak for or against a specific candidate in an election.

The church has rightly responded that this is intrusive and intimidating. It is an attack against free speech. I buy that. And as the press has reported, this kind of thing is a two-way street. It affects (or ought to) those of us on the left as much as the mega-churches that preach the antigospel of capitalism and militarism. I’ve certainly not shied away from politics in the pulpit, and my congregation knows where I stand on particular candidates. This, of course, does not constitute an endorsement by the whole church.

But what I’ve been wondering in the wake of this story is: Should we have this kind of issue with the IRS at all? Why do we accept tax breaks that partially silence our witness? I’ve long enjoyed several pretty nice tax breaks as a clergy person, but I’ve also thought that the laws that approved these tax breaks for both me and for my congregation were passed in a different time, in a time when the separation of church and state was interpreted far differently from how it is today, in a time when our nation was more homogeneous than it is now. I’m definitely unsure that we should still have these kinds of tax perks.

I’m not saying that we should pay taxes like a for-profit corporation or business. We are not that. We don’t make a profit and shouldn’t be taxed like we do. But, if not paying certain taxes means silence from the pulpit, then maybe we need to pay. I am content to say that the Bush presidency has been a worldwide disaster founded not only in bad policy decisions but also in sin. It’s the sin of hubris, of fallenness, of brokenness, of faithlessness, of supremacy, of exploitation, of willful ignorance. The church should denounce this kind of abuse of our collective humanity because that humanity is the body of Christ. And we have a message of hope and good news as well. We should share that, too.

There was a section from the gospel lection this morning that makes the point clear: “Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (Mark 9:33-37)

We should speak to our public policy and demand our leaders to show this kind of hospitality to the weak, to the powerless, to the poor. We must quit arguing with our guns and our blockades that we are the greatest. If saying this outloud means that the rich churches of America have to lose their tax status, then that’s fine.

3 Responses to “The Church as a Non-Profit”

  1. Dave Says:

    I argued this point with my brother last week. He felt that making churches pay taxes would bankrupt most smaller congregations.

  2. “We don’t make a profit and shouldn’t be taxed like we do. But, if not paying certain taxes means silence from the pulpit, then maybe we need to pay.”

    I don’t know . . . this seems to come disturbingly close to paying for the right of free speach. And the thought of that makes me very uncomfortable.

    I don’t know that’s a good solution here, though. I agree that I hate the idea of you having to censor what you say because of tax reasons. But, the system is there to prevent some over-zealous church leaders (who are, thankfully, the minority, although they do tend to get the majority of the air-time) from abusing their power and getting rid of the system might lead to greater problems. Like I said, I don’t have an answer here, just concerns.

  3. Brett Says:

    Thanks for these comments.
    I think the heart of this is fear. No church, no matter it’s size or financial wherewithal, should be afraid to speak prophetically when so moved. Even if the IRS is causing the fear, the church must speak and face consequences, unjust though they may be. Likewise, if fear of bankruptcy is causing the fear, that, too must be overcome. Not many things sadder than a church afraid to die.

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