A Post of Personal Paranoia

During the Eighteenth Century, in the opening years of the French Revolution, an action was taken that has since faded in history compared to the rest of the chaos that followed after it. Looking to eliminate the abuses in the system of religion at the time, the new governing forces confiscated the lands of the state church of France. Why? To give them to the people and to stop the government-empowerment of a religion that many of the new leaders felt was out-dated, backwards, and destructive for society.

If you do not know how the French Revolution turned out, you might want to take anti-nausea pill and read the whole history. While Les Miserables will focus your heart on the plight of the poor of Paris, take a look at the post-Napoleonic Wars life in Europe and the famine that struck everywhere due to his armies. Louis XVI needed to go, but there was a lot that went on there that should turn even the most anti-royalist’s stomach.

Why bring that up here? Am I about to claim that our President is Louis XVI? No. He’s not. Neither is he Napoleon Bonaparte. He’s the President of the United States, and admittedly I hope someone with different policies replaces him on January 20, 2017 so that he can go write books and deliver lectures and tell us how much better we would be if we still listened to him.

Instead, though, I want to point you to a few things that I think are informative for us, in general, as church folks in the 21st Century.

1. There is no denying that the American Church has a great deal of material wealth. That only expands the wider you want to define church. Southern Baptists alone own lots of land and take in a great deal of money. Expand church to include anyone that uses the name, and you’ve got a lot more. Shift to “House of Worship” and there is a large amount of wealth that sits around, tax-free in this country.

2. There is also no denying that our national economy is going to require a major adjustment in years to come. We are going to need more income in the Federal Checkbook and less spending. One is easier than the other.

3. The French Revolution, if you take a look back across the centuries, is not the only time that governments in distress have seen religious wealth as a boon for their needs. Look at the Vikings plundering monasteries of England in the seventh through eleventh centuries. There is plenty of evidence that, when in need, governments will find as much as they can, wherever they can. Look even at 2 Kings 18, where Hezekiah takes gold from the Temple of God to pay off the Assyrians.

When you look at these, while it is slightly paranoid to say so, I think we need to expect the following in the coming decades in America:

1. The end of tax-exempt status for most non-profit organizations. Including churches. Why? Because fiscal conservatives will see this as a tax loophole to shut and big government liberals think that anything non-profits do, the government can do better. Plus, it looks like a subsidy of religion anyway. The atheists do not get a tax break, why should the theists? (It goes without saying that the housing allowance is toast. The best hope is a non-retroactive ruling that does not require us to pay back taxes on years prior to the lawsuit’s filing.)

2. That end means a couple of things. First of all, people will no longer get a tax break for donating to churches. That has already been suggested in some tax legislation: no more charitable deductions.

3. That also means this: income to a church would be taxed like income for a business. Property taxed like property for a business. And so on….the business aspect of church life will become, well, business.

Now, what are the implications?

Take a close look at your church budget and ask yourself:

1. How many people give what they give for a tax break? Will they still give if they cannot deduct it? Especially if some non-profits retain a tax-advantaged status? Will they give to “kingdom work” but not to the local church? What financial change will that bring?

2. Consider what will be left after that. How much income will you see? How much will go to the government in business income taxes? I am neither a tax attorney nor do I do taxidermy, but I hear those rates get steep. Figure that your congregation is righteous and you only lose 1o% in giving. Now you pay out what, 30% in income tax? Unless you’re in California, that is. (This does not even consider some of the regulatory issues that we get away with because churches fly low–but how many florescent light bulbs have you just trashed instead of disposing of properly? Those rules apply to all small businesses.)

3. Now, take a gander at your property worth. That nice parsonage you live in (eek!). That lovely facility you own. That giant edifice you are planning on construction with all of its architectural marvels. What is the property tax bill going to run you on that?

Take a look at how much you think is left at this point, and add 50% to it, because you’ve underestimated.

Ask yourself this question: if this happens, can this church keep doing everything that we have been doing? (Or, can this Board/Agency/Entity/Convention/etc…)

If the answer is yes, have a great day. Blessings upon you.

If the answer is no, then you have some choices to make:

1. Find new income. Maybe you have oil under your parking lot. More than just what has leaked out over the years. Which is an environmental hazard your church is now responsible for cleaning.

2. Do less stuff. We’ll come back to this.

3. Refuse to pay the taxes. Let’s hit this one first: Romans 13:7 cuts this one off. You might think it’s a horrible tax burden, but the Romans had this tax structure that involved execution for non-payment in some instances. You can protest through legal means, but in the end, that bill is coming due.

Back to #2: Do less stuff.

This is where most of us are going to be. Here is the question: Which stuff will you drop?

Will you drop your outreach efforts? Maybe stop having Bibles on hand to give out to anyone who does not have one?

Will you drop your training efforts? Maybe no more providing growth training for believers?

Will you buy single editions of digital Lifeway products and make a lot of copies? You know, violate copyright law and steal for the Kingdom?

Will you stop going places to share the Gospel?

Will you meet in the dark? The heat? The cold? Eliminate that expensive screen and sing from reusable, durable hardcover books?

Will you still expect to be a full-time, fully compensated pastor when this hits?

I think if we take a look at the New Testament, we might find that there are many things we have added to have church that, if times truly got tough, we might not needIt is one thing to use those as added tools. Another matter entirely to make our church-life seem dependent on anything that has not been around the life of the church. Surely we are not the first generation that cannot have church if we do not have coffee? If we do not have a building or a projector or a stack of hymnals?

In all seriousness, there are challenging times ahead for the Church in America. The world is soaking the ground around us, and the walls of culture that have long protected us are going to tumble. Are we building in such a way that we can survive that? Or will we be washed away?

While the Pope and Napoleon eventually reached an agreement regarding church lands, the damage was done. The church in France never regained its influence in the culture, and is barely noticeable today. We know of a famous church building in France, but that is almost it. I would suggest it was because the church had so married their cultural influence that they could not survive the divorce that came upon them.

What of the American Church? Where are we?

 

Comments

  1. Greg Harvey says

    Hmm…or…we could explain to our members that Jesus Christ has bequeathed to us a precious responsibility: to reach the lost. Then we can tell the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. And talk about the great treasure parables.

    We then can move on to the passage of storing up treasure in heaven where moths don’t dine, rust doesn’t take hold, and thieves can’t enter. And, finally, we can speak to the end of time when Jesus is visibly victorious and ruling and we join him with those who we have participated in evangelizing, baptizing, and discipling.

    In all honesty: if our faith depends on a tax deduction…

    • Adam G. in NC says

      No, not the housing allowance and tax-exempt status!! We will become economic martyrs! Our red-ink will cry out for vengeance!

  2. says

    I have thought for some time that there is a strong likelihood that at some point in the not-too-distant future, those of us who hold to certain biblical convictions (ie homosexuality) will lose our church tax-exempt status based on the perceived discriminatory nature of those beliefs.

    • Ty Huitt says

      Dave, since it appears to me that certain biblical convictions are headed towards the hate crime category, I think there will be far greater penalties levied upon churches/pastors who speak out/stand on said certain biblical convictions than just losing tax-exempt status, in part because it may go by the wayside anyway and in part because those who see such activity as a hate crime want serious sharp teeth to such penalties.

      • Bennett Willis says

        A question that just came up in my mind: How much real value is gained from preaching against homosexuality? In politics, this would be called “stirring up the base.” So, I guess it does have value. It seems to in politics.

        But what would be the result if you decided to be a “red letter preacher” for a year? Would your church be stronger or weaker? Would your congregation be better or worse Christians?

        Now that I think about it, I don’t think I have heard a “red letter” sermon in quite a while. Our pastor seems to like the people (and their problems) from the OT and Paul’s NT teachings about how to do church–and to deal with the problems.

          • Dave Miller says

            Yep. The proper view of inspiration sees all scripture as God-breathed, inspired, and equally God’s word to us. To elevate the words of Jesus above the words of others is to fail to understand inspiration.

          • Bennett Willis says

            And you get points for a great statement. However, it seems “inappropriate” to elevate commentary to the level of statements by the founder–even inspired commentary. Doesn’t Paul say that he sometimes speaks for himself?

            You all avoided the question. What would be the effect of a series of sermons (or even a year) emphasizing the words of Jesus? And I know that sometimes pastors preach a series on one of the gospels–but this seems fairly rare these days. In my limited experience anyhow. The OT gets a lot of sermons–possibly because the people mentioned are so easy to draw lessons from.

            I’m sure that some of you keep up with the fraction of your sermons from OT vs. NT. How is the ratio running? What should the ratio be–as a target/goal?

            I guess we are off the subject–but Dave Miller went with us, so it must be all right. I would put an emoticon here, but have refrained. And maybe another here.

          • Dave Miller says

            Bennett, Paul never said his words were not inspired.

            What he said, in 1 Corinthians 7, is that some things Jesus addressed in his teachings on marriage. Some things, he was adding to that revelation. But he also claimed the inspiration of the Spirit in that passage.

            I think some people who do not like some of the OT’s and Paul’s clear teachings revert to the “red letter” argument. But if we believe that all scripture is inspired then we believe that all scripture is God’s word and reject your attempt to differentiate them.

          • Greg Harvey says

            Powerful stuff, David. I especially liked the way you highlighted the red-letter nature of the entire Bible because of Jesus’s continued (and continuing) endorsements by reference to other sections.

    • says

      Homosexuality is where this will come to head. I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I’m convinced the removal of tax exempt status will initially be tied to a church’s position on homosexuality in particular and gender issues in general. Want to preach homosexuality is a sin? Fine, no problem – but we’ll take your tax exemptions. Can’t have government rewarding and supporting bigotry!

      I thought we had several more years to go before this, but given Obama’s recent moves and how much things have changed just over the last few weeks, I think we are much, much closer to this scenario.

  3. John K says

    You bring up an interesting scenario and a plausible one. Although in this article the focus is on the Church. If indeed this is Christ Church it will survive no matter the burden the Government places upon it. It is the sheep that will need the shepherd and strong shepherd helpers. If American Churches concentrated now in raising strong shepherd helpers, then we would not in the end be like France.

  4. says

    In the scenario you paint the giving doesn’t drop much, about 10%. I agree. I have looked at the math many times and I still can’t make money by giving money to charity. At my income bracket the best it does for me is make the cost of my $1.00 contribution feel like ~ 70 cents. In other words I don’t believe that the tax deduction is the real incentive for the majority of chruch givers.

    But I agree that taxation on property and income will have a huge impact. As I recall the UK considers something a charity when the giver does not directly benefit from the organizations activities…. something to that effect. I would be hard pressed to show that I do not benefit from the vast majority of what my church’s budget pay’s for. If our government follows the lead of our cultural cousins across the pond it will be very easy to categorize all but a small percentage of our tithes and offerings to churches as something other than true charitable giving. And our buildings and physical property could easily be categorized alongside country clubs, lodges, and resorts.

    I don’t know when it will happen, but judging from the cultural trajectory of the US, it will happen. And when it does happen, after the “American Church” takes a breath from yelling at politicians and the government, we should probably look hard at ourselves and consider if we were really good stewards of the rich material blessings that God gave the “American Church” for the first 200+ years of our existence. Maybe holding durable, hard-cover hymn books was not such a burden after all.

  5. dean says

    Doug, thank you for the thought provoking post. You can certainly see how this scenario would effect urban churches more than rural churches. In many rural places the county or parish rates property value extremely low and haven’t changed the value of a place in years. Church on the plains of West Texas would not pay nearly as a church in Plano even if they owned the same amount of property and comparable buildings.

    One thought, the church in America being completely free from the Constantinian era may be a more powerful church. Can u imagine a church that is unencumbered at all by the thumbprint of the government? What you describe could be liberating and not disastrous. However, I’m not praying or hoping for it to happen just yet.

    • Steve says

      The church would not be free from government or cultural interference. It would be highly regulated (look at businesses). Losing tax exempt status would not free the church in many ways. Sure, the church could be more involved in partisan politics, but would that be a good idea? And consider the impact on Christian colleges and other ministries. The impact will be devastating. Not that a genuine revival could not come out of this–the persecuted church can be very powerful. But let’s not be deluded that this won’t be truly disasterous.

  6. Tommy Rucker says

    Sobering thoughts here. I happen to agree that it’s inevitable, which begs the question, “What changes should we be making now to prepare for it?”

    • Bennett Willis says

      I would suggest that churches invest less in property and buildings and more in activities that your members are personally involved in and are passionate about. You reduce your “taxable footprint” and increase the things that people feel strongly about and will continue to support regardless.

      The impact that even a small church can have, if it has no building note payment, is profound.

      The nice thing about this is that it is a good idea even if the tax situation does not change.

    • Jess Alford says

      Tommy Rucker,

      What do we do to prepare for it?
      ANS. Become as indepentant as possible, don’t base your income on what you get from the church. Be able to live without the churches income. Sounds horrible, but I believe it’s comming.

    • says

      For one, prepare pastors for the idea that sole income may not come from the church. Even if government does not tighten the screws, this is increasingly the case with more and more churches shrinking.

      • says

        Chris, I agree. I am in Haiti with our partner (Baptist) church many times each year. One thing fairly normative there is that pastors are entrepreneurs. Many of them have all sorts of things going on to try and help meet the needs of the congregation (orphans and widows in particular). as well as for themselves. Truly bi-vocational. The church members are mostly just so poor. They give each week out of their poverty to be sure. But it’s not enough.

        Les

  7. Bennett Willis says

    I found it interesting that Doug thinks that the threat comes from the “right.” I suppose that the “liberals” attachment to contributing to their causes would encourage them to continue to allow the tax deduction.

    I find it amazing that commenters on this blog will passionately deny most things having to do with science (with no data) and yet feel that this will come to pass. It has been suggested, but I have seen no one who has taken the suggestions “to heart.” The only way that I see this could happen would be as part of a complete revision of our tax code. And I think that this is a low probability event. I think that home interest has a higher probability of being eliminated than charitable deductions.

    And while we are on the topic (sort of) of tax deductions, I recommend (for those who do not have a house payment with the resulting, also “endangered”, deductable interest) that you concentrate your deductions in one year and in alternative years take the standard deduction. You can find a community foundation of some sort to help you if you want to smooth your contributions to your church (across the standard deduction year) to avoid a “bump” in the income. It helps with budgeting (personal budget) and reduces your taxes a little. It also gives you one “easy” year on the tax filing. If anyone is interested in details, you can contact me at bennett(dot)willis(at)brazosport(dot)edu. I’ve been doing this for several years and can point out issues that come up for me.

    • says

      “The only way that I see this could happen would be as part of a complete revision of our tax code.”

      Depends on the approach. I don’t think they will end charitable donations, but will place stipulations on who can qualify as non-profit to receive donations and tax exemptions. Something like that would be rather simple.

      • Bennett Willis says

        But do you think that most churches would not qualify easily as “non-profit” organizations?

        I agree (with someone) that there might be a lower cap than is presently used on charitable deductions. And this would be relatively easy to set up. However, it will affect relatively few contributors.

        • Greg Harvey says

          I think there are two issues here:

          1. The deduction for the individual. If your tax rates are lower why would you care about the deduction? How much of the tax code should be about picking winners and losers v. fair uptake of revenue from all citizens and residents?

          2. Government subsidization of behavior. Subsidies provably influence behavior. What is the implicit subsidy of non-profit status intended to influence? And are we comfortable with that influence in a nation that expounds Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion?

          I think the simplest answer is this: non-tax status isn’t directly tied to a visible social good, but instead is simply an acknowledgement of the general good that comes from freedom of religion. We choose not to tax these organizations because we believe that the State and the Church are independent, separate entities and to the greatest extent possible entanglements between the two ought to be minimized as a matter of respect to the First Amendment.

          But we need to recognize those are two SEPARATE subsidies. One subsidizes the individual to make charitable contributions. The other excludes religion-related income from consideration as taxable. They are related. But they’re separate.

          If the subsidy were solely based on a social good, then the government could (and would) ask for proof of how at least the subsidized value–the untaxed proceeds–are being expended. And probably insist that it would be for some tangible, charitable purpose such as hospitals, food kitchens, education, or some such. If the general tax exemption for churches were to be removed, I’m sure there would be an opportunity to divide the church into separate entities that are taxable and non-taxable.

          But I think our argument should be that the tax exemption is as natural side effect of the First Amendment. It’s the best and strongest case for continuing it that we can make.

          • Greg Harvey says

            I would add that Baptists as a matter of history are especially well-placed to address this. And the ERLC is best-positioned entity for addressing it. But I suspect that if an honest effort to reform the tax code is taken up, it will not reform this. Politicians are fraidy cats.

  8. Jess Alford says

    We could get Joel Osteen to come and address the SBC, and reassure
    us that everything is going to be great.

    I will repeat this one again, the true church started in the homes and I believe it will be in the homes once again.

    The preachers will be preaching for a chicken dinner not a salary. I believe we had better be making preparations for this day.

    I believe we still have a little time left, but not much.

    Great Post.

  9. Bennett Willis says

    For most contributors, the standard deduction is so high that, unless they have other deductions to add to the charitable deductions, the contributor does not reach the level where deductions actually come into play. [lots of comma splices] If the charitable deduction were removed, I would probably spend some printing budget pointing this out to the congregation.

    If you are depending on a smaller number of large contributors, then you may have more problems than a church who does not. So I suppose that I should add to my suggestions above that you should get your contribution base spread as widely as you can across your congregation. This is another good idea regardless.

    I think that as part of any tax code revision that the standard deduction would probably be raised. This would make the alternative year system more attractive.

    • Bennett Willis says

      Another way to look at it–with the present standard deduction, you have to have contributions that bring you above the standard deduction before the contributions have any effect on your taxes. For most of us, this means that much of our charitable deductions are “wasted” in getting our deductions higher than the standard deductions. So a smaller fraction of our deductions are actually deductable than we may think.

      Of course if you have a lot of income, what I say is not correct. Your home interest may get you over the standard deduction. But I think that the standard deduction is higher than most of us think.

  10. Jess Alford says

    One more thought, the State church may thrive, I believe there will be many State churches where the gays can attend. God’s word will not be preached in them. It will be a substitute for God’s word.

    The true church will be in the homes.

  11. William Thornton says

    New reality show: Ecclesiastical Preppers?

    I do not share your pessimism here, although there will be (and in some cases should be) some issues raised that affect us. To wit:

    1. Housing allowance; there is already a legal challenge here that has a small chance of success. A more likely eventuality is a cap on the amount as a part of some tax reform.

    2. Local assessments of fees in lieu of taxes, already happening. Not a huge hit.

    3. Cap on tax deductions, meaning that after a certain level is reached no deductibility for charitable giving or interest, med expenses, etc.

    4. More aggressive efforts to tax that part of church activities that generate revenue, e.g. Bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. Already happening on some localities.

    5. Pressure on churches, perhaps statutes, forcing them be be nondiscriminatory in non clergy employment (church secretary, et al).

    I hate to see us adopt a doomsday posture but I hear and read more of this amongst the brethren/sistren.

  12. Adam G. in NC says

    So what’s the significance of this article in light of these verses?
    2 Timothy 3:12
    1 Peter 4:12-19
    Are we to rip our clothes and make lamentations…or rejoice.
    Is this not an opportunity for a greater assurance?

    Just askin’

    • says

      Christiane,
      I think what you say here is at the heart of the matter, not just for our churchly organizations, but for how we feel about the things we’ve been given to steward in other areas of our lives. Part of the problem is that we shouldn’t even draw such sharp distinctions between family and church, family budget and tithe, etc. But when we center our focus on the Church, we stop being the Church. We can only be the Church when we center our focus on Christ. I think God gives us the gift of hard times so that we can remember that buildings and budgets come and go, but Jesus is ours forever.

      • cb scott says

        “I think God gives us the gift of hard times so that we can remember that buildings and budgets come and go, but Jesus is ours forever.”

        “Buildings and budgets” and a lot of other things, I reckon.

        I think you are right, Jim Pemberton. The realization that you are right about the “gifts of hard times” does not always bring me immediate comfort. However, looking back, it has been during the hardest of times that God has directed my journey in the straightest path.

  13. Keith Price says

    Doug:
    Couple of thoughts…

    I think you are right about the 10% drop in giving. Even though, if most folks really looked at the numbers they are not getting as much tax benefit in giving as they think as explained by Bennet above. We all know that giving to God’s causes shouldn’t be predicated on tax law, but it is what it is.

    I don’t think the income tax would amount to all that much depending on how the law is written. Remember, you are taxed on net profit/income, not gross income. Most churches would show little if any net income. Churches, like most business could hire a good tax accountant to help them avoid that issue; as well they should as the business tax percentages increase rather steeply.

    The real kicker would be the property tax. This would hit hard the churches in upscale areas as already mentioned. I could see this tax as especially important to local and state governments as they seek additional revenues for their empty coffers. I regard buildings and properties as tools, but as I look about I can’t help but see a lot of church building expenditures as waste and man’s monument to man. I would hate to see churches have to pay property tax, but it might bring a dose of reality to those that see the great commission as making concrete instead of making disciples. (Sorry, the building thing is a sore subject for me).

    I do not think we necessarily have to do less stuff. We might have to rethink the what, why and how we do things. I think we might learn a lot from the less fortunate parts of the world. Necessity is the mother of invention. For example, perhaps instead of a single pastor, how about several bi-vocational pastors where each are serving in their area of giftedness?