The issues of tax exemption for religious organizations and for the individual tax benefits that come with donations to religious organizations have a complex history. Most European nations have some sort of state supported church, so when the U.S. traces our tradition of treating religious organizations differently, we trace it back to complex circumstances that are often tied to free church vs. state church arguments. We don’t face that problem here in precisely the same way given that the United States does not have a state church, but there is no doubt that we inherited it when we inherited much in our legal and social systems. In order to be valid, every law that is enacted in this country must be enacted by a body with the authority to enact it. Additionally, no matter how attenuated the connection, there must be a “public policy” justification for the law. The just and justifiable law must encourage behavior that is beneficial for society, discourage behavior that is bad for society, or both. A law does not accomplish anything if it does neither.
The public policy reason that our religious institutions have enjoyed the status that they have enjoyed is because it has always been assumed that churches and religious organizations do good things. The church has been charged by the Lord Himself to care for the sick, the widow, the orphaned, and the prisoner. In theory, if the Church is exempted from paying taxes on its property and individuals are rewarded (thereby encouraged) to give to the work of the Church, the Church will have more money to do those things and doing those things is good for society. When the Church fulfills her social obligations, it is good for society. What is BEST for society is when the church fulfills her social obligations in concert with her spiritual obligations.
When President Johnson, however, proposed the Great Society legislation in the 1960s, he proposed programs that provided for the sick and the poor. Clearly, these are good laudable goals, so there were many churches, denominations, and church leaders that lent their support to these programs. Many cited (and continue to cite) the biblical mandate to care for the poor, but they failed to recognize that the mandate in Scripture is addressed to God’s people, not to the government. No matter how altruistic and uncorrupt a government may be, government programs designed to accomplish these things are at best only the second best option and by no means accomplish the tasks that the Lord gave to us, even assuming that those government programs are efficient and effective.
We are told that we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them,” (Ephesians 2:10) so we know that a necessary component (not the means) of our life as Christians is do “good works.” The motivation that we are to have in doing these works is made clear in James 2:14-18. God prepared good works beforehand and then created us anew in Christ and then expects us to do those works as a sign to the world that we have become new creations. We provide for the sick, we care for the widow, and we feed the hungry so that we might point to Him who motivates us to give of ourselves and our treasure to care for the needs of strangers. My denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has proven that we can do more together than we can individually through the Cooperative Program, but giving to a missions organization, an evangelist, or a charity does not fulfill our personal obligation to walk in good works. We simply cannot relegate our divinely appointed work to hirelings. We must give not only our money, but ourselves to the living out of the Christian life.
When God’s people are walking in the good works prepared beforehand by God as individuals and as a group, there is no one who can argue that it is not a benefit to society. Even atheist journalist Matthew Parris, who is no friend of evangelicalism, has observed that the presence of Christian missionaries and the good works in which they walk has improved the circumstances of the lives they have touched on the continent of Africa. When that is happening, the church is a blessing and the government is more than justified to do whatever it can to encourage the church and to step out of the way of its ministries.
The church is not entitled to receive the type of tax considerations that it is afforded in this country, but in order to keep them, the church needs to prove that there is actually a public policy justification for them. The church needs to be the church and walk in good works—and walking in good works does not mean that members pay the taxes that support government programs. If these tax benefits are lost, it will not be because the state has grown more hostile (even if that is the case). If these tax benefits are lost, I believe it will because there is no longer any public policy justification. The church cannot control whether the state looks on it with favor, and whether it does or not is not even important—church history has illustrated that with exceeding clarity. The church can and should, however, walk in the works that God has established beforehand and be a blessing to the cultures in which Christ Himself has established us.
If the state is going to be hostile toward us, I pray that it will be because of our unwillingness to waiver in our service to the Lord and the resolve with which we walk in good works. Otherwise, the state will become hostile because we have become irrelevant.