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Freedom Or Tax Exemption?

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Former Arkansas Governor, Presidential candidate, and current Fox News host, Mike Huckabee has raised this question to Southern Baptists (HT: Billy Hallowell). It’s a fair question. I’m not sure I agree with him and I don’t claim to know the answer to the question whether we should seek tax exempt status but we should think about it. I’m not a lawyer and don’t play one on the web. The tax code is far more complex than it was at the American founding, far more complex than it was a century ago. Earlier generations didn’t have to worry about whether the government approved of their prayers and sermons but, increasingly, we do.


As we’ve seen in recent weeks (more on this below), in order to get tax-exempt status, congregations must be approved by the IRS as a non-profit organization. Most congregations also seek status as a non-profit corporation in their state. This gives state and federal governments a degree of control over what churches can say and do. We must prove to authorities that we’re a genuine church. Someone, who may or may not know anything about Christianity, has to decide whether a congregation qualifies as such.


When the apostolic church began meeting on the first day of the week, they did so without official sanction from the Roman state. They never filed papers asking for tax-exempt status. They didn’t submit copies of their liturgy. They didn’t have to detail the nature of their prayers. Early on they were regarded as a Jewish sect and thus a legal religion. Over the next several years, however, Jewish officials worked diligently to convince the Romans that the Christians were not a subset of Judaism, that it was a cult devoted to a criminal, a rebel whom the Roman judicial system had justly put to death. The only thing that the church asked from the civil authorities was freedom to worship according to the Word of God and to live quietly. They affirmed that they agreed with the Pharisees on the bodily resurrection and that Jesus, the Messiah, was resurrected but his kingdom is present in the earth but it is not a civil kingdom and not, in a direct way, a threat to the kingdoms of this earth. The apostles exhorted Christians to live peacefully, lawfully, and quietly in this life, to fulfill their vocations in this world to the glory of God and to the well being of their neighbors. They were taught to live as good citizens in this life and as those whose “citizenship is in heaven.”


When the post-apostolic church began to suffer persecution, as early as 112 AD, their repeated request was to be left alone to do their jobs (fulfill their vocations) and to worship in peace. In contrast to much modern practice, they tended to be somewhat secretive about their worship practices. When Pliny the Younger (c. 112) wanted to discover what Christians did he had to torture a deaconess or two. As it turns out it wasn’t very exciting. There were prayers, songs, sermons, and sacraments. That’s it. Nevertheless, it was not unusual for the early church to send non-communicants out of the service and to conduct the Lord’s Supper in private.


The early Christians insisted repeatedly that they were no threat to the existing order. They only asked not to be punished or put to the death for refusing to sacrifice to the Caesar or to conform to the Roman civil cult. The thing that irritated the pagan Romans about the Christians more than anything else was their refusal to go along. They regarded that refusal to go along with the status quo as a kind of inhumanity.


We may well be coming back to a time like that. The Enlightenment was not so much really an Enlightenment as it was a repudiation of Christian theism and an elevation of rebellion against God. It took time for the effect of that rebellion to work out its principle but it has happened. We’re there. We don’t live in Israel. We live in Babylon.


Presently it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to build places of worship or even to meet for Bible studies in their homes. If news reports are to be believed, there seems to be a sudden and unexpected turning against Christianity within segments of the US Military. Perhaps we have come to a time when we can no longer assume that most of our neighbors agree with us or even vaguely sympathize with the Christian faith. It may well be that the last people they knew who attended church regularly or regarded the Bible with any reverence were their grandparents. Christianity may seem to them like a strange obsession with a crucified man. Where some version of Christianity does flourish, increasingly it is not the message of the cross that draws thousands. It a message health, wealth, and self-esteem that draws thousands, even in the South, the last bastion of the Old World in the New.


The question is what we should ask from our neo-pagan neighbors? If we follow the apostolic and pre-Constantinian pattern, we should ask to be left alone. “But,” one objects, “We are American citizens and we have rights. The Apostle Paul asserted his right as a Roman citizen to appear before Caesar.” Fair enough. Do churches have a “right” to ask for a tax-exemption? Well, it’s in the tax code so it’s perfectly legal and proper but as we’ve seen in recent weeks, those requests come at a cost. The government increasingly seems to view all income as theirs and that they are doing us a favor when they do not take it. Listen to this dialogue between ostensibly between an IRS agent and someone applying for tax-exempt status.


Source: https://heidelblog.net/2013/06/freedom-or-tax-exemption/

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