Is your church too dependent on charitable status?

(Photo: Unsplash/Akira Hojo)

I've seen quite a few of our American brothers and sisters beginning to get tetchy following a CNN broadcast of questions put to presidential candidates dedicated to LGBTQ issues. Joe Carter, at The Gospel Coalition, states the following:

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke was asked, "Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities—should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?"

"Yes," O'Rourke said without hesitation, drawing applause from the Los Angeles audience.

"There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone—or any institution, any organization in America—that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us," he added. "So as president we're going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing on the rights of our fellow Americans."

This was the same meeting in which Elizabeth Warren said the following:

I can't help but wonder whether she'd have made quite the same dismissive comment if – contrary to her assumption – it happened to be a woman who said it (given that Evangelicalism, for example, has a higher female-to-male ratio)? I also wonder whether she would have dared to dismiss this in the same way had the person been saying their faith teaches them marriage ought not to be between people of the same sex had been a Muslim?

I think Joe Carter is correct in his article when he states:

What is significant about O'Rourke's statement is not the novelty of the idea, but that the Democratic Party no longer believes it will be punished for being open about how LGBT issues trump religious liberty.

Whilst I entirely understand the grounds of alarm from those who oppose this statement, we do need to put some perspective on this. What is being threatened is the removal of charitable status, not the ability to operate altogether.

In the UK, most churches operate as charitable organisations. Whilst historically the UK Charity Commission have typically accepted religious institutions – by virtue of being churches – these days, churches tend to have to prove that they actually perform some real charitable function to keep their charitable status. And, to be honest, I just don't think that is at all unreasonable.

I don't see any particular reason that churches should receive tax benefits as a charity if they don't perform any genuine public good. Even by my (probably) biased reckoning, what is charitable about merely existing as a church? It seems entirely reasonable to me that we should have to show some public good (whatever that may be and however we define that).

But let's say – just as the Labour Party are currently proposing in respect to Public Schools – that the government revoke charitable status for religious institutions by virtue of being what they are i.e. churches are no longer permitted to be charitable. What are we to say then?

First, let's recognise that charitable status is a privilege, not a right. Most organisations are not charitable and there is no inherent reason that churches must be charities. Whilst it might be unfortunate for us if the government removed this privilege, and the reasons underlying it might be even more sinister, at the end of the day we would be losing a privilege, not anything that is ours by rights. There is no denying that being a charity is a benefit and a help to our mission, but it is not essential to it and it is not a matter of rights but one of losing something that is otherwise helpful. It's important to keep that in perspective.

Second, let's be clear that having such status removed does not amount to persecution. It might not be helpful, and it might be pointedly targetted, but it does not amount to an attack on freedom. Having charitable status removed is not having the right to operate revoked. Churches can still continue as churches and Christians may continue to be Christian. As unhelpful a move as it might be for us, it is not a removal of the freedom to operate and we must view it as such.

Third, let's recognise that the mission of the church does not revolve around charitable status. The Early Church had no charitable status and managed to do what the Lord commanded just fine. Churches in genuinely persecuted parts of the world have no charitable status either – along with a host of other far more serious impediments to their free operation – and yet the Lord manages to work.

We are not really talking about being put in either situation. We are talking about having some tax breaks taken away. We may not like it, it may not be helpful, the reasons might be less than excellent, but let's be honest – it doesn't make or break our mission. The call to make disciples doesn't change and, to be frank, it doesn't rest on government tax allowances.

Fourth, it bears saying that if your church model does depend (and I use that word advisedly) on charitable status, I'm going to suggest your church model is probably flawed. I appreciate that churches need funds to operate, but let's just take a step back. If you can't afford to have a building, what do you do? You find some other means of meeting that doesn't involve a church building (breaking into smaller house churches, for example). If you can't afford a pastor, what do you do? You either operate with a team of exclusively lay-elders or you appoint a bi-vocational pastor.

Whether these things are ideal or not isn't really the point, the point is that we remain faithful to the Lord under the circumstances in which he places us. If we genuinely believe that we cannot remain faithful as a church because our charitable status is revoked, there is something seriously off about our understanding of church.

Fifth, notwithstanding those questions of not being able to afford certain things, the assumption is that the only means of affording such things is through government tax relief. It is (in the view of this raving leftist) ironic, not to mention mildly amusing, to watch American Christians who hate government intervention and subsidy suddenly up in arms about not getting any! It does seem a little hypocritical to call out any and all government support but to rage against the removal of such benefits when it relates to your church.

In reality, whilst support is no doubt helpful, much of the work in our church is permitted to take place not principally because of our charitable status but because of the generosity of the Lord's people. Our work is sustained primarily through the giving of our members, the support of the Lord's people from elsewhere who see the needs and from wealthier churches who are able to support gospel work in other areas where there is no gospel witness. Whilst charitable status is certainly helpful and beneficial, it is not the principle means of supporting the ministry (and, for the record, nor should it be!)

Sixth, and here is the main point, where do we think our help actually comes from? Do we look to the Lord in these things or are we looking to the world? Is the Lord sovereign over our tax status? Of course he is! If he wants us to retain it, he will make it so. If it goes, that is ultimately of the Lord too. But if we throw up our hands and insist that the mission isn't possible if it's revoked, what are we saying in effect? I look to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the tax relief of government. Isn't the Lord much bigger than all that?

The same Lord who used Nebuchadnezzar to judge his people and Cyrus the Great to serve his people is the same Lord who may use our governments to ostensibly help or hinder us too. But the help the Lord feels we need may not be tax breaks and privilege, it may well be social exile and persecution. What we must pray is not that our status will be maintained but that the Lord's will is done, his kingdom expanded and his name glorified whether in the privileged position of an end-of-Genesis Joseph or the less privileged position of a Paul in prison.

Let us not concern ourselves with charitable status and position of privilege. Let's concern ourselves with the task that Jesus has given to us. And if in some brave new world our existing models don't work, then we change them. Our task is not to preserve our positions of privilege or receive tax allowances, it is to personally glorify and enjoy him forever and to be about his business of making disciples. If that is our focus, let the tax breaks fall wherever they may.

Stephen Kneale is pastor at Oldham Bethel Church, an FIEC church in the Greater Manchester area of the UK which is also affiliated to the North West Partnership.  He holds qualifications in History & Politics (BA, University of Liverpool), Religious Studies & Philosophy (PGCE, Edge Hill University) and Theology (MA, Kings Evangelical Divinity School).  This article was first published online on his blog Building Jerusalem and is printed here with permission.