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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24