Karen Spears Zacharias wrote a piece at Patheos called Time to Tax America’s Churches. She looks at Ed Young, Jr. as the archetype of a new breed of CEOs, people who are leading vast and wealthy churches that function as corporations. She has some harsh words for these “celebrity” and “rock star” megachurch pastors, and she concludes her post with these statements:

We are facing hard economic times. A lot of much-needed revenue could be generated by taxing the Church.
If we are really interested in living out a life of faith, instead of just preaching about it, isn’t it about time the Church picked up its cross and carried it instead of pushing the tax burden off on everyone else?

I encourage you to read the article, but I have several responses.

1) Church employees are taxed like everyone else, with the exception of two benefits for ministers–a tax free housing allowance and the option to withdraw from social security. But if you claim the housing allowance, you better opt out of social security, otherwise that portion of your income will be considered self-employment, and you’ll have to pay both sides of the social security and medicare taxes. Other than these benefits, church employees pay the same tax as everyone else.

2) There is no distinction, in the state of Ohio at least, between a church and any other nonprofit organization. If the government were to implement income taxation on churches, it must also tax every nonprofit organization, otherwise it would likely face a lawsuit of religious discrimination.

3) It may be flat out illegal to tax churches and nonprofits because the income they generate is not recompense for goods or services, but is rather given of the free will of the givers. In other words, despite Zacharias’s depiction of megachurches as corporations, there is no commercial transaction taking place.

4) We live in a society where we constantly let one person ruin it for everyone. One person bends the rules and suddenly the masses have to bear the consequences. Freedom is impinged every time some idiot decides to do something stupid because we immediately run to the government to fix our problems and keep us safe. Let’s not do that with churches and nonprofits. Their work, which cannot be duplicated by any government, would be crippled by taxation. Sure, Ed Young would get his comeuppance, but thousands of churches and nonprofits would be forced to close their doors.

5) Charitable giving pales in comparison to consumer spending. The benefit from taxing churches and nonprofits would likely not even cover the cost of government services required to fill in the gaps of those now defunct organizations. It would be the law of diminishing returns proven true on a grand scale of social deconstruction.

6) Finally, a commenter on Zachrias’s post says it best when talking about the purpose of the church and the love of Christ:

Government can never embrace such love, will never live out such reality, can never love the enemy without regard to self, will never embrace the street person rather than the CEO, won’t ever hold up to be emulated the one who is most despised by society, and is not ever going to reject power for meekness, vengeance for grace, and violent action for forgiveness. Government, and indeed our American society itself, will always look at such claims as either nonsense, sheer naivety or both. And yet, Jesus does exactly these things, over and over, and calls us to do the same.

So, where I constantly struggle with my own collusion with and participation in denominational systems that too often look contrary to gospel relationship and being, I do believe that ultimately only the church has any possibility of congruence with life in Christ and, at its best, must be a counter to the state’s systems of power, privilege, and possession.

The Church and the Government–whether it’s Rome, Nazi Germany, or the USA–are not after the same thing. The Church, at its best, is a woman with warm embrace, comforting those who mourn, feeding those who hunger, and seeking first the kingdom of God. The Government, at its best, is a bureaucratic system of cold and distant departments, assigning numbers instead of names, rubber-stamping applications, and seeking first the security of the State.

So, I say, don’t tax the churches and nonprofits. Don’t let a few abusers ruin a system that works. The Government has more than enough money. Maybe we should begin our audits with them, and then we can move out to the churches and nonprofits.

I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir, “The Pastor” these days. It’s an excellent book, and quite timely for my own soul. There is so much that I would like to share, but what I just read struck me as especially poignant.

In a letter to a pastor friend who was pursuing a career in the megachurch world, Eugene wrote,

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence [God meaning]…apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. …But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex.

What do you think of his diagnosis? Are crowds really as bad for the soul as drunkenness and fornication? He continued in the same letter,

I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.

What is the difference between a community and a crowd? Can a person become mature in Christ in a crowd?

I’ve been working my way through a Bible reading plan this year, and for the first time in my life I’ve actually stuck with it for longer than 3 days! The plan has you read four chapters from four different books–two in the NT and two in the OT–as you work your way through each book. There have been several days where the themes of the various chapters have been remarkably consistent, and today was one of those days.

This morning, two of the chapters that I read were Exodus 33 and John 12. I’ll quote a selection from each:

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Ex. 33:19)

“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47)

Isn’t it amazing what God says in that Exodus quote? “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…”; and then we probably expect him to say something like, “…and I will condemn whom I will condemn.” But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, “…and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God speaks of himself in terms of mercy and compassion, and the verbiage of condemnation is absent.

Then you have the verse in John where Jesus says, “For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” Jesus didn’t picture his mission as one of judgment or condemnation, but rather as one of salvation. (See also, John 3:17) Truly remarkable, isn’t it?

Now, we know that judgment is coming for all of us, but it’s important to see that the Bible testifies that the first word is mercy, compassion, and salvation. That is the first word. That is the loudest word. That is the strongest word. Judgment is coming, of course, but not until God’s mercy, compassion, and salvation have run their course. Jesus goes on to say in John 12 that all who reject his words (i.e., the gospel message) will be judged by those words, and ultimately condemned by them. Sadly, there can be no salvation for those who reject Jesus’ word of salvation. If you reject the word of salvation, then all that is left is the word of condemnation.

But Jesus is committed to saving you; he is not committed to condemning you. Maybe you need to hear that today because it sure doesn’t seem true. All you’ve ever heard is that Jesus is coming and he’s going to throw all the unbelievers into hell. Jesus’ mission is not condemnation. It’s salvation. It’s grace. We Christians don’t often live that truth out. Maybe we need to hear that today, too. Jesus doesn’t want to crush you, destroy you, or throw you into the pit of eternal hellfire. What he wants–what he really, really wants–is to save you. He wants that so bad that he was willing to lay down his divine rights, become a homeless peasant, and suffer death on a cruel Roman cross so that he could live life as you live it, and speak to you that word of mercy, compassion, and salvation. Salvation is the free gift of God; condemnation is the end result of your rejection of God, who has exhausted every avenue in his relentless love for you.

Salvation is the word for today. I hope you hear him speaking to you. I hope you can come to terms with your sin and rebellion, set that aside, and trust in Jesus rather than in your own goodness, success, or intelligence. Jesus desperately wants to save you from sin, evil, and death. I hope that you can receive today’s word.

For anyone who has been a Christian for a decent amount of time, that person is familiar with the old debate between predestination and free will. Does God decide who gets saved, or do we embrace God and receive salvation because of that choice? To put it simply, do we choose God or does God choose us? This may seem like an arcane point of theology that has no bearing in real life, but, as a friend of mine said last night, it profoundly shapes your view of God. Let me briefly lay out the two sides of the argument.

Predestination

This is often called the “Reformed” view, or “Calvinist” perspective. Basically, people who hold this view believe that God has predetermined those people who will be saved. In other words, he has elected some to spend eternity with him in heaven. This election has no basis on the individual’s behavior or morality, but is wholly based on the grace of God. Because God is completely holy, and because we are utterly sinful (totally depraved), we cannot choose to follow God or believe in him of our own will. That is to say, we are too sinful to humble ourselves, repent of our sins, and place our faith in Christ. This faith must be a gift from God, flowing out of his grace. The elect are those to whom this faith has been given.

Free Will

This is often called the “Arminian” perspective. People who believe in free will understand humans to have a choice in whether they repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus Christ. God’s will is for all people to be saved, but, out of his gracious humility, he has left the choice of faith to us. He calls us to follow him, and we can freely embrace him or reject him. God compels no one to choose him against their will; rather, he honors human beings as free moral agents created in his image. God’s grace comes as both a gift and an offer, the intended response to which is faith. Everyone who accepts this offer will be saved.

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These are two very brief sketches, and I hope that I’ve done justice to each perspective. I fall into the free will camp, but have often felt the weakness of the Arminian position in its poor explanation (or total lack thereof) of election. In what follows I’d like to begin an attempt at explaining what election means.

In order to understand biblical election, we have to set aside the medieval notion of the subject, namely that God has elected certain individuals for salvation and others for damnation. This is unhelpful and anachronistic. Understanding election means going back to the source, and discovering in the Scriptures what is meant by this controversial term.

What did election mean for Jesus? In fact, election was a core tenant of Jesus’ faith. As N.T. Wright has shown, Jesus fully believed in election, though not in the same way in which we define it today. Jesus believed that the creator God has intended, from the very beginning, to address and deal with the problems of creation through Israel. When everything went wrong in Adam–when sin and death entered the world through him–God intended to set everything aright through Abraham and his descendants.

Israel was chosen by God to be the instrument by which sin and death would be undone, and everything in creation would be set to rights. Israel was The Elect. Unfortunately, Israel failed to live up to their high calling. They failed to be The Elect. In steps Jesus, to be the Israel that Israel could never be, and to do what Israel was always meant to do–set the world to rights by atoning for sin and conquering death. In other words, Jesus is The Elect. He has done what The Elect were elected to do.

Any understanding of election must begin with Israel and move then to Jesus. This, rather than individualistic predestination, is the biblical view of election.

Because Jesus is The Elect, all who have faith in him are The Elect in him. Election is not an arbitrary divine choice, but rather a new reality and identity bestowed on all who obey Jesus’ command to believe in him. Salvation is the gift of God, and election is the new reality brought about by the reception of that gift.

God has not, as some would contend, elected some for salvation and, therefore, others for damnation. Instead, God has elected his Son to right the wrongs of the world by atoning for sin and conquering death through his own crucifixion and resurrection. All who confess Jesus as King are saved and become a part of The Elect in Christ because they have become a part of Christ through faith. Their task becomes the task of The Elect: Announcing to the world that Jesus Christ has atoned for sin through his death and conquered death through his resurrection.

Biblical election, therefore, is a new reality that comes with a very old mission. Live, then, as The Elect, announcing and enacting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you’ve ever been a leader, then you’ve probably had somebody question your leadership. “Why do you get to choose? What makes you better than us? You can’t tell me what to do! You’re a hypocrite!” More often than not, this goes on behind your back, and you may never even hear about it. Truth is, if you’ve ever been led, you’ve done this to your leaders.

I asked my wife a few years ago what kind of emotions the word authority stirred up in her, and she said, “Only bad”. Authority is a bad word. We don’t want other people to have authority over us. We relentlessly look for hypocrisy in our leaders and immediately call them on the carpet for it. We instinctively distrust anyone in a position of authority.

What do you do when someone questions your leadership? Your character? Your motives? It’s the easiest thing in the world to abuse the power you’ve been given as a leader. One way we do this is to silence opposition, to crush those who question you and tear them to pieces.

When you feel tempted to use your authority in destructive ways, remember that any authority or leadership you have over others has been given to you by God. When speaking of his authority in the church at Corinth, Paul described it this way: The authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. Paul understood that God granted him authority in the churches so that he would build them up, not tear them down. God intends for power to be used constructively. He has authorized you to build others, not to destroy them.

Leaders (and that includes pastors, business leaders, parents, teachers, etc.), you may want to unleash the full power of your fury on someone under your leadership, but you must not. You may be tempted to defend yourself at the expense of someone else’s reputation, but you must resist. It’s up to you to show those under your leadership what it means to lay down your life, to refuse your rights, and to build up others at the expense of your own reputation and vindication. God has only authorized you to build.