What if every member of your church tithed? How much more ministry could your church accomplish? For most churches, the circumstance of universal tithing is a pastor’s dream, but it is beyond the power of a pastor to accomplish it by any means other than running off most of the non-tithers in the congregation.
I know someone who could accomplish that impressive feat for your church without running off any of your church’s members. Who, you ask, is this stewardship wizard? Dave Ramsey? No. I’m talking about your state legislators. What if your state government were to pass a law taxing every citizen without exception and forwarding that money to the church of each taxpayer’s choice?
This is not a hypothetical situation. In Virginia in 1779 Patrick Henry (yes, THE Patrick Henry) proposed exactly such a law. Baptists did not gleefully rub their hands together while they imagined the largesse soon coming to their church coffers; they opposed the bill and defeated it. They realized that state involvement in the funding of churches was a violation of their principles of religious liberty and would eventually result in the state’s taking more than it would ever give them.
Temptation of that nature did not go away in 1779, and that kind of wisdom has never been needed more than today. The worst church-state court decisions of my lifetime have all given me something that I wanted. I’m opposed to the abuse of illegal drugs. In Employment Division v Smith the United States Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s laws criminalizing the use of illegal drugs—laws that I want to see upheld—by setting aside an important legal doctrine, the “Sherbert test,” upon which American citizens had depended for ongoing religious liberty.
I’m also opposed to racism. In Bob Jones University v United States the Supreme Court penalized a private religious school for its policy of denying enrollment to students who supported or practiced interracial marriage—behavior that I think deserved to be penalized—by empowering the Internal Revenue Service to judge whether tax exempt organizations are “at odds with the common community conscience.” Bob Jones University was standing at odds with the community’s conscience in a reprehensible way. But sometimes the very reason why our nation needs churches is so that they can stand at odds with the community’s conscience. For example, the very ruling that enables the IRS to revoke the tax exemption of those who forbid interracial marriage today would have enabled governments a century ago, had it been in place, to revoke the tax exemption of those prophetic few who endorsed it.
After it survived the Limmat River, Newgate Prison, Bedford Jail, and the Boston Commons, the movement to secure universal religious liberty had eliminated all doubt about its pluck. Persecution can never be so fierce as to quell the yearning for liberty. But sometimes, whether Greeks or governments are bearing the gifts, the friendlier foes are the more formidable ones.