In the United States registered churches enjoy tax-exempt status. Their land and facilities and income are exempt from state and federal taxes. Parsonage expenses for ministers can be deducted from ministers’ taxable income, thus reducing their income taxes. Under certain circumstances ministers can even elect to be exempted from Social Security taxes. A certain percentage of the donations from church members can be deducted from the members’ taxable income, thus encouraging more generous giving. Some churches therefore might not be able to survive or operate at their current level if not for such benefits. Outwardly at least, we can say that the Church benefits significantly from the government’s largesse.
But what is the hidden cost of such government benefits?
In order to receive the benefits, churches need to be approved as 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. They need to be incorporated with articles of incorporation along with a constitution, and must appoint a Board to run the organization. They therefore become formal organizations or institutions. This facilitates the institutionalization of the Church—an environment where the teaching and practices of the Nicolaitans can flourish.
The practices of the Nicolaitans which Jesus hates
In the Nicolaitan system the paid professional clergy—recognized by the government with special tax privileges as outlined above—is set apart from the laity. Often, although not always, the professional clergy have a good degree of authority to determine the direction of the church in some way. The sheep are expected to submit to them since they have been professionally groomed to lead by virtue of their requisite seminary training and ordination as recognized by Church and government authorities.
The sheep for the most part are expected to remain sheep forever. Only a few will rise and be set apart to join the elite. Most of the sheep never mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ and do the works that Christ did as intended by Him (Ephesians 4:13; John 14:12). Some clergy have taken advantage of this system and turned their ministries into their own private kingdoms with them ruling as the “anointed king.” In such cases the love of power and money have run amok.
It is possible that only the Roman Catholic Church was guilty of such a sin? Is it impossible that the Protestant Church could have committed the same sin? Are those who call themselves Catholics somehow fundamentally more sinful than Protestants? The answer should be obvious.
These are some of the hidden costs of government benefits for the Church of Jesus Christ.
Tax-exempt status is sacred
Churches become very alarmed when their tax-exempt status is threatened. It is not certain that some churches could survive without such government largesse. And loss of tax-exempt status would have severe consequences on giving by church members. Without the incentive of tax-deductions, some (but certainly not all) church members would cut back on their giving.
Therefore another hidden cost of government largesse is loss of trust in God to provide for our needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus—apart from government help. Did the powerful and fruitful Church in Acts need such benefits from Caesar?
Perhaps a few might even take advantage of the system by donating dubious items to the church or timing their donations just before Tax Day on April 15 to maximize their tax deductions for a given year. This is another hidden cost of government “largesse.” It tempts some believers to compromise. It clouds the primary motivation for giving, which is sacrificing with a pure heart in obedience to God. This has already been compromised from within the Church by the prosperity gospel and the emphasis on “seed” theology.
So the Church needs to address some questions: how much do we want to depend on government largesse, and not God? Can we really expect and trust Caesar to do God’s work—for example, in helping to support the Church? No, the Church and Caesar are existentially at odds with one another. Yet we have the temerity to criticize entitlement programs by the government for the disadvantaged while we are more than happy to receive special government benefits not available to ordinary citizens and entities.
Moreover, where money is involved, so is power and control. Churches which are recognized by the IRS as 501(c)(3) organizations and enjoy tax benefits are for the most part protected from government intrusion and control—“separation of church and state”. But churches are not allowed to engage in political activity by openly supporting any specific political candidate for elective office. To the extent that such freedom has been taken away, the Church is being controlled by Caesar. But for the sake of receiving our “entitlement” from the government, we shut up in matters which can be very important to the survival of our nation.
The Church’s hypocrisy
Is the Church to some extent not guilty of the same “entitlement mentality” of which she is now so critical with regard to welfare in America?
The First Amendment protects the Church from government interference in her teachings and practices. We believers in the United States of course all enjoy this “freedom of religion.” But, as it is said, “freedom is not free.” What is the real price of this freedom?
The Church today, especially in the west, is a far cry from the persecuted, illegal, powerful sect of the New Testament which turned the known world upside down. The Church at that time consisted primarily of informal house churches. This is why Jesus hates the teaching of the Nicolaitans which has embedded itself within the Church to institutionalize it and sap its life.
The only “megachurch” in Acts about which we read in Chapter 8 was allowed by God to be shut down with the believers scattered by the persecution.
Matthew 13:31-33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Could the “birds” and the “yeast” here refer in part to the Nicolaitan teaching which has worked all through the Church?
Humanly speaking, no one (including the author) wants to see tax benefits for churches and clergy done away with. But this is food for thought for the Church during these last days.