Well it is finally happening. For quite some time I have been saying that the time is fast approaching for churches to renounce their 501(c) 3 status and stop making themselves “wards of the state.” The First Amendment is becoming a laughable matter as it is being diffused more and more by the arbitrary application of “hate speech” bookends. It is clear that in its rabid pursuit of the separation between church and state, the state is bound and determined to silence the church.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the freedoms the United States of America affords its citizens. I love its rich tapestry of history and its fame as the “melting pot” of races and civilizations. At least in the realm of the theoretical, it is a magnificent nation. However, in the practical reality of today things have gone off the rails. The most recent abuse is the passage of HERO in Houston earlier this year and its most recent subpoena of sermons from pastors concerning the subjects outlined in the HERO laws. Regardless that they “backed off” from this in light of public protest, it is a clear violation of the First Amendment and we will see this happen with increasing frequency over time. Let me be clear, my argument is about one group of people trying to intimidate another into silence and, more importantly, the fact that the other group has opened the doors to permit this intimidation to occur.
Freedom of speech extends from the right of freedom of thought. If they are curtailed in any way, both speech and ideas become captive to some other person’s ideology. The expression of the “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is in the individual’s freedom to think and express thoughts in words. When expression goes beyond the realm of words and into activities then the First Amendment is no longer in play. While foolish people might permit their thoughts and speech to create barriers between them and others, that is their right. It is that right that countless have fought for and they paid the price in the shedding of their blood. Which makes for a good segue back to the plight of the churches.
When Christ established His church, He never indicated that it was to become beholden to the governments of this world. The church is built upon the Great Confession, that Jesus is “the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.” (Matt 16:16) It is upon Him that the Church is constructed and upon the solid rock of His Godhood that even Hell cannot prevail. (Of course, Catholic theology will take umbrage to this point…sorry about that). In Paul’s speech to members of the Ephesian church, he stated: “…take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28) I think we can all agree, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant that it is clear that the church is God’s through Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross.
Until Constantine sucked the church into the realm of the state in 4th century, she grew and functioned within society. She dealt with times of plenty and times of persecution and depended upon her Head for sustenance. Things changed when the church became an arm of the state. For one, she learned the subtle art of diplomacy instead of resounding with the words of God’s truth. She allowed herself to become a kept object and wove intricate webs of self-preserving deceit. In many ways, she lost sight of God’s mighty call upon her – the call of the Great Commission. She sought to use the force of the state to “convert” instead of using a compelling and vibrant witness of Christ’s transforming grace. The might of the state made the church into a bully and made it take the word “make” of the Great Commission into a word of force rather than a word of convincing.
Jesus’ mandate to the church is: “All authority has been given Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18b-20 NKJV) The church is His and thus inherits His authority. Nowhere there did He call the church to bind itself together and become a New Israel with an established statehood! The church is not a place. It is not an institution. The church is each person who, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, goes forth with the gospel of peace marking every one of his or her steps (Ephesians 6:15).
The Protestant revolutions (Lutheran, Calvinist, etc.) broke the church away from the state. In fact, in many cases the state-sponsored church persecuted these believers for they demonstrated the lie that a state-sponsored church actually is! In order to be the mouthpiece of her Lord, the church must have an unbridled ability to speak the “word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) In spite of the persecution, the new Protestant movements grew in numbers and made a tremendous difference to the world around them. The Great Commission broke forth again and those who were caught up in their sin and flesh heard the clear, fresh sound of the gospel message. Lives were profoundly affected and positively changed. This continued until, once again, the Protestant churches began to be sucked into their respective states and grew diplomatic, silent, and cold.
One of the few bastions of Christian freedom is found here in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Yet, even here the tentacles of state-sponsored complacency have begun to wrap themselves around the hearts and mouths of the churches. While there is no state-sponsored church in the US and there is much ado about the “separation of church and state,” there is still a way that the state can gain a stranglehold on the church’s neck. Ever since 1894, when the first federal income tax exemptions were granted to churches, the tentacles have been closing in. First the churches were exempted from federal taxes, then the preaching staff could claim housing subsidies, parishioners can claim tax-deduction on their tithes, and more and more aspects of the church’s functioning are becoming beholden to its governmental taskmaster through 501(c)3 exemptions. When you consider this in the stark light of truth, you can come to realize that these exemptions are really a way that Caesar pays the church. As long as this state of affairs exists, Caesar can argue a right to demand the church to be silent. And Caesar is waking up to this idea!
Jesus laid out the principle of taxes when he was asked by a shrewd scribe, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” His response was to request a Roman coin which He held up and asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?” The response was that it was Caesar’s and Jesus then announced the principle by which His people should live: “Render (give) to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22) In other words, those of us called by His name are to yield every aspect of our lives to Him for our very life belongs to God. Likewise, we are to be good citizens and to pay our just taxes to the state. Then, and only then, are we free of all encumbrances to speak His Word.
The day is fast approaching when our churches and each believer will have to reconsider what they will do. We will all need to cut loose the chains of the government dole by refusing to accept any tax-deductable “freebies.” We will need to decide to trust God to make up the difference in finances because He is able and willing to do so. We will need to decide if we will speak God’s clear and true Word (in love, of course) or allow ourselves to be bullied into silence by bullies in elected offices. And we will need to understand that, if we are truly God’s possessions and we are rendering ourselves to Him, we may even have to face imprisonment and even death for His cause. We won’t be the first and certainly will not be the last to do so.
In the meanwhile, in Houston and elsewhere, may the church stand strong and keep the faith.