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 need. It 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?