---by Tristan Emmanuel
In the second epistle of Corinthians, chapter 6, the Apostle Paul lays down a very important rubric for all Christians: "Do not be unequally yoked."
Traditionally, the church has understood this command to refer to marriage.
Christians are prohibited from marrying non-Christians.
Fundamentally, Christians are not to subject themselves to a relationship in which they will be repeatedly called upon to compromise their faith commitment to Christ.
Christians need to be reminded that they were bought with a price – the blood of Christ – and that therefore they are simply not entitled to unite themselves to whomever they want, especially if such a union impedes their ability to remain true to the one who died for them.
All this to say that as I work through the necessary strategies to revive and reform the church so that we can see a revival and reformation of the broader culture, I must point out that one of the reasons the North American church has failed so miserably in its task to be "salt and light" is because it has unwittingly allowed itself to be compromised by being unequally yoked.
How has it done this?
By embracing 501(c)3 charitable tax status, that's how.
Now, invariably this issue raises the broader and more fundamental discussion on whether or not churches should be incorporated. Space does not permit me to deal with that debate, as important as it is. But regardless of where we come down on the "incorporation" issue, the question of whether churches should seek a charitable tax exemption can be discussed on its own merit. Actually, the way I see it, there's really only one issue of concern here.
I believe that churches must maintain absolute autonomy and enjoy maximum freedom from the State. And that means that the Christian church must resist State coercion at all cost, even if that coercion comes in the form of financial benefits. To fall prey to the influence of the State over matters that belong to the superintendence of the church is to become unequally yoked – it is to lose one's saltiness and to quench the light of the Gospel.
But I want to be clear here.
I am not saying that having 501(c)3 status is unethical in and of itself. I know that some theorists and theologians would say this. I am not. After all, I believe in limiting the influence of government. And I can't think of a better way to limit government than by starving the beast, by cutting its food supply – taxpayer dollars. Moreover, I can't think of any group of people with which I would rather leave more personal wealth than Christians; I know that generally, they'll spend it more wisely than many others. So I'm all in favor of every legitimate means of leaving more money in the pockets of Christians and giving less to the government. And if that means using 501(c)3 to do that, more power to the church.
But if it's a choice between fulfilling the mandate of the church, maintaining our autonomy and exercising maximum freedom from the State, or compromising these benefits so that we can pad our bottom line, I say to hell with the government dole.
The State simply does not have the authority to dictate to the church what it may teach or preach, and it has no business telling the church how it should disciple the people of any nation. But here's the problem. Governments by their very nature will always end up trying to exercise this kind of control; the State has a predilection for tyranny.
But for a Christian church to surrender its freedom for the sake of a bowl of government pottage makes us no better than Esau – and yet this is precisely what has happened to many churches.
The French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu understood way back in 1784 that the best way for the State to get a handle on the church was by showing it favor:
A more certain way to attack religion is by favor, by the comforts of life, by the hope of wealth; not by what reminds one of it, but by what makes one forget it; not by what makes one indignant, but by what makes men lukewarm, when other passions act on our souls, and those which religion inspires are silent. In the matter of changing religion, State favors are stronger than penalties.
If IRS operatives are going to use the notion of charitable status as a billy club to silence pastors and force congregations to concede the moral high ground, or to compromise the message and stop them from defending a public witness, then I say again: "To hell with the public dole."
No State favor should ever interfere with the church's divinely instituted mandate, and if we have difficulty with the choice of maintaining our liberty as opposed to maintaining our "budgets," then we've become a bunch of Esaus.
My organization – Equipping Christians for the Public Square – does not have charitable status in either the USA or Canada precisely because we did not want either government to have any leverage over us. We wanted to maintain absolute freedom – to be able to speak to the issues that affect us the most; to talk about those things the State finds politically incorrect, and we didn't want the constraints of a charitable noose around our neck. But that's just us.
If you and your church can remain true to the call of the Gospel and continue to be a public witness for Christ, to speak in defense of life and marriage and defend Christian values in the public square, then more power to you. As long as the State isn't threatening you, and that 501(c)3 status doesn't become a stumbling block, I say keep peeling off those tax receipts.
But if it's a choice between freedom or mammon, I say yet again: "To hell with the dole."