Tax exemption, churches, and the communities they serve

April 13, 2016

Part of the Christian calling is to meet human needs. This goes all the way back to Jesus himself. A crowd once spent three days with Jesus. They didn’t even take the time to find something to eat. The Apostle Matthew noted that Jesus was aware of this. He tells us that Jesus said he felt compassion for the people and didn’t want to send them away hungry. Instead, he performed a miracle and fed them all from seven loaves and a few small fish (Matt. 15:32-39). On another occasion, Matthew says that a great crowd had gathered around Jesus. Feeling compassion, he healed the sick among them (Matt. 14:13-14). It also appears to have been common practice for Jesus to give money to the poor. When Jesus gave permission to Judas to betray him, some of his disciples simply concluded that Jesus was telling him to give some money to the poor, as though this was something he had told Judas to do before (See John 13:21-30).

Alleviating human suffering wasn’t only a work for Jesus to perform. He expected his church to engage in this work as well. In the Gospel of Luke, we are told that Jesus sent out 70 disciples and commanded them to heal the sick and preach that the Kingdom of God had arrived (Luke 10:9). The Apostle Peter healed a man outside one of the temple gates (Acts 3:1-8).

Without doubt, Jesus often had more than one motive for his miracles. For example, when John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was God’s promised Messiah, Jesus pointed to his work of healing as evidence that he was indeed (See Matt. 11:1-5). Elsewhere, Jesus healed a paralyzed man to prove he had the power to forgive sin (Matt. 9:1-8). Christians today also often connect their humanitarian work with the preaching of the gospel.

It would be incorrect, however, to assume that Jesus only engaged in these activities to make a spiritual point. After all, he could have chosen many different ways to make his point. Most often, however, his medium was the relief of human suffering. Jesus had the compassion and the means to meet human needs, and he did. He called and empowered his church to do the same.

The church today continues this important part of Jesus’ calling. It responds to human suffering out of compassion, as well. It may share the gospel as part of its work with those in need. After all, this is also an act of compassion. The church knows the consequences of meeting God without the covering of Jesus’ blood. But it would be wrong to conclude that the church only meets human needs as a means to share the gospel. Churches, moved with compassion because of human suffering and need, are heavily engaged in helping hurting and vulnerable people in their communities and around the world.

recent post on erlc.com provides a snapshot of the sizable commitment of Southern Baptist churches to meeting human needs. Consider just a few examples:

Southern Baptist churches, as well as other churches, in this country are donating billions of dollars worth of free services and materials to their communities. Millions of people are being helped in their greatest time of need. This is work that should be applauded and encouraged.

Yet, despite the clear benefit churches are to their communities, some people in this country are pressing for them to lose their tax exempt status because they hold views about human sexuality that run contrary to a segment of the population. This is a very important matter for churches. Tax exemption is one reason they can provide all these services to their communities. Because they don’t have to pay taxes on their offerings and properties, churches can use their available funds to manage the infrastructure needed to direct and equip their volunteers for their efforts. They also have more money to buy the food, supplies, tools, and equipment their volunteers need for their humanitarian work. Because offerings are tax-deductible, church members have more money to give to their churches for this work, as well.

It would be tragic for communities to lose the many humanitarian services churches provide for them free of charge. But this is what will happen in many cases if churches lose their tax exemption. Less money for staff and infrastructure will impact the ability of churches to mobilize and equip their members. Many will lose their buildings because they cannot afford to maintain them. Others will lose staff who direct volunteer work because the money for their salaries is no longer there. Others will lose the resources volunteers provide to their communities, like food, clothing, transportation, and help with bills. The tax revenue governments would gain would never enable government to do what churches are doing. Government would not be as efficient or as effective compared to what churches moved by compassion are doing.

Those who seek to punish churches because they cannot in good conscience accommodate unbiblical views about human sexuality need to be aware of what they are doing. In their zeal to force acceptance of their new sexual moral order they are putting millions of poor and vulnerable people at risk. We don’t all have to agree on everything in order to live together in our communities. Our founders certainly never believed that. Neither should we.

Ultimately, churches should be tax exempt because they are divine institutions that answer to a heavenly Master. Secondarily, they should be tax exempt because they meet the legal requirements for tax exemption. They serve the public good, and seek no profit in return. We should remind our local and national officials of the tremendously important role churches play in their communities. Rather than depleting them, government should leave them alone so they can continue to serve their neighbors near and far so generously, sacrificially, and effectively.

Barrett Duke

Barrett Duke is now the executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He is the former vice president for Public Policy and Research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Read More by this Author