Opinion: Why Churches Should Pay Taxes

A Kenyan church. Photograph by Ben Kiruthi. Image from http://benkiruthi.com/blog3/two-souls-beat-as-one-carol-rutos-story/

You’ve heard it said, two things are certain, death and taxes… verily I say unto you, only one of this is true if you are a church. Church status gets you a get out of jail free card when it comes to taxes. Taxes, nobody likes to pay them. There in fact appears to be a direct relationship between the fatness of your bank balance and your unwillingness to contribute to the common good.

Contrary to our lived experiences, the purpose of taxes is not to fill us with fear and trepidation once a year. It is to provide a minimum standard of living for citizens, maintain shared resources like national parks, and strengthen critical shared services including education, healthcare, infrastructure, and more.

The idea at least in theory is to fund the government so that they then provide all these circumstances that make all of our lives better. So, why is the church, an organization founded on concern for people not chomping at the bit to be a part of this tax deal? Why are they so committed to being excluded from this? Here’s why the church and all other religious communities including mosques and synagogues must begin to pay taxes, even if it means being compelled to do so.

Reasons why churches have historically been granted tax-exempt status

Separation of church and state

This is the American reason for tax exemption that has since been embraced by the world, thanks to Hollywood and cultural imperialism. The US supreme court in upholding this view said, “the power to tax is the power to control” and the government should not control the church.

It’s a little ridiculous to suggest that the way to create a separation between you and an organization is for you to give them special favours, exemptions that no one else gets. This is granting churches a privileged status that is not in keeping with separation. If anything, it’s tantamount to supporting them which makes it an unconstitutional act.

Plus, the argument that to tax is to control makes no sense either. The church is made up of people and if the government has no problem controlling individuals, it cannot then make the argument that it has an issue controlling them when they hang out in groups. The church is not a separate independent sentient entity, it’s just people.

Classification as non-profit and charity organizations

Historically the church has been classified as a non-profit working towards the common good not the generation of money. This may have been the case in the past but in present-day where religious leaders sit side by side with billionaire moguls in the pages of Forbes magazine’s wealthiest, it’s safe to say that is no longer the case. In the era of megachurches and pastors with sprawling mansions and private jets, it is clear some profit is being made.

On charitable contributions and doing good in the community, one American study revealed interesting findings about church budgeting and financing. 58% of the money was spent on personnel, essentially paying people who work in the church. 18% to the building, 6% spent on office supplies and 14% on programs. A whopping 3% was spent on the community, 2% of which was international and only 1% local. So churches run by millionaires and billionaires are considered non-profit charities for spending 1% of their income on their local community. Yeah, that makes sense.

The church also does not exist for the sole reason of providing services to the citizens. That is the work of the government. In fact, churches primarily serve a religious purpose that does not in any way aid the government. Non-profits exist at least in theory purely to serve and help people. If non-profits did not exist, the government would be forced to pick up the slack but if churches did not exist, it would make no difference one way or another to the government because the primary purpose of the church is religious, any charity work is incidental.

Like everyone else, the church should play their part in funding and supporting the government in doing that and if they want to keep doing charitable work afterwards, they can continue to do so. Ordinary people do it every day. They support the government and each other with their taxes and they still give to charity and mutual aid schemes. Paying taxes and helping people are not mutually exclusive.

Why churches must pay taxes

1. Taxes are how we contribute to the common good and build together. Why would an organization claiming to be for the people refuse to be a part of this cause?

2. Exempting them costs the government revenue and forces everyone else to bear more of the burden. Again, the church should be all about lifting burdens not pilling on.

3. Exempting them forces everyone to support religious groups by the very fact that their government offers special favours to them. So you have marginalized groups like the LGBTQ who are largely ostracized by religious organizations subsidizing the same people who hate them. As Mark Twain argued, “no church property is taxed and so the infidel and the atheist and the man without religion are taxed to make up the deficit in the public income thus caused.”

4. Exempting churches from taxation it can be argued supports the extravagant lifestyles of mega pastors.

5. When Jesus was around, he paid taxes yet still managed to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and mourn with those who were mourning. It’s my understanding that this is the guy they’re trying to emulate.

Either religious organizations want to work together to build a society that works for the many or they don’t. If they do, that means paying taxes and joining the fight to hold the elite political class accountable for their actions. If not, they should also clearly say and own that and stop hiding behind being charitable non-profit organizations that are tax-exempt to maintain the sanctity of the church apart from the state.

Matthew 17: 26
26Jesus replied, (to Peter) …
So go cast a line into the lake
and pull out the first fish you hook.
Open its mouth, and you will find a coin.
Use it to pay your taxes and mine.”

Luke 20: 22, 25
22Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” …
25And He said to them,
“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.”


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