Article Aug 25, 2015

Pastors, be aware of subtle threats to religious liberty

The summer of 2015 will go down in American history marking the radical cultural transformation our nation is enduring. Just days after the landmark SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, the dominions began to teeter. Two days after the highest court’s ruling, Mark Oppenheimer, the religion columnist for the New York Times, commenced a call to end tax exemptions for churches and non-profits, both secular and religious. Oppenheimer's call was not a shock to religious leaders; from the moment Solicitor General Verrili uttered the words, "It is going to be an issue," it was easy to see where things are heading.

While the various SCOTUS decisions of 2015 will have a dramatic effect on religious institutions, other more subtle changes are threatening religious liberties. Take, for instance, the Nonprofit Revitalization Act signed into law by New York's Governor Cuomo in December 2013. This piece of legislation intends to correct antiquated nonprofit laws in New York while enhancing governance and oversight of nonprofit corporations. Given the abuses of the past decade in corporate America, this bill passed overwhelmingly in both the New York State House and Senate. Although there is much to be praised in this bill, one major consideration did not seem to come up: How will this legislation affect the local church?

In attempts to guard against corruption, lawmakers included a provision requiring all non-profit boards to be led by a board of trustees chaired by an "Independent Director." What is an "Independent Director?” One who receives no compensation from the non-profit. The amendment seeks to protect nonprofits from having the board leader serving where there might be a conflict of interest. On the surface, this seems to be a wise and laudable provision; until one considers how this might affect ecclesiological concerns.

With one stroke of the pen, New York State stripped many church pastors of their position as "first among equals" on their elder boards. Because New York State views the "elder board" as synonymous with a "corporate trustee board," there was no consideration as to how this provision might violate a church’s ecclesiological order. On July 1, 2014, countless churches found themselves in violation of the law of New York State, putting their not-for-profit status in jeopardy.  

I’m a church planter in upstate New York. My church, like other church starts, incorporated with the board of elders acting as the governing body. In accordance with 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, our board consists of qualified elders, called by Jesus, to serve as under-shepherds in the leadership of his church. The elder board serves as an interdependent group, but allows the lead pastor to direct the vision of the board as a first among equals.

The new law of New York State makes it illegal for the lead pastor to serve as the first among equals on the elder boards if that man receives compensation from the church. Subsequently, the new law strips a lead church planter or pastor from exercising their leadership gifts in a formal way. Inadvertently, New York State amended the Scriptures as well as the state's nonprofit laws. Under the state's new interpretation, 1 Timothy 3:3 would read something more like this: "An elder must not be a drunkard, not be violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and also must not receive compensation from the church for his labor."

It would seem lawmakers never considered the far-reaching implications this legislation would have on a church's right to govern itself based on the Scriptures. Of course, churches are not forced to comply with this legislation, but failure to comply would result in the loss of tax-exempt status. To comply with the law churches can choose to not register as a religious not-for-profit. Was this a goal of the legislation?

While the threat of same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act present a frontal attack on the financial viability of religious non-profits, other more subtle threats are coming from our local municipalities and state legislatures. The laws and ordinances from local and state authorities tend to be passed with religious leaders having little to no awareness of their impact. These lesser-known statutes open the door for violations much less spectacular than whom we do or do not marry—and the outcome will be equally as damaging.

As we prepare to live as an increasingly marginalized class, it will be vital for leaders to stay abreast of lesser-known laws coming from state legislatures across the country. At the pace we are moving, it is likely that the church will be faced with regulations and laws that will radically change the way we structure ourselves sooner rather than later. The landscape is rapidly shifting in North America; no longer can the church live as though it is a privileged class.

Wise leadership must get ahead of the curve and begin preparing for strategies that will allow the church to operate in a hostile post-Christian nation. History has not given the church examples of exile from a nation founded on Christian ethics. Therefore, the days we are entering will truly be uncharted waters. One thing's for sure: The threats coming to the church will come from multiple theaters and will both subtle and far-reaching.

ERLC2018