“Churches that preach politics should be taxed”

“Churches that preach politics should be taxed.”

This is a common refrain that grows louder every election year. I have heard it from both liberals and conservatives. In conversations about abortion, about Israel-Palestine, about gay marriage, and about tax reform, someone who disagrees with an official policy of one church or another will claim that church leaders should not try to convince their members to vote or advocate one way or another.

I do understand the sentiment behind it. As a pastor, I watch my words very carefully. People who have chosen to come into my congregation do so for a variety of reasons. They have loaned me their time and attention for somewhere between fifteen minutes and an hour, trusting that I will not waste their time or abuse that trust. There are some churches whose theological or political or aesthetic opinions I find objectionable, and I do wish they would shut up. Penalizing them financially might be one way to lower their volume in the public square.

But would you penalize a humane society for advocating for laws against dog or rooster fighting or animal cruelty? Would you say that an organization whose mission is to promote music and the arts should not take a public stand when politicians try to gut funding for art education or public museums? Would we say that an organization whose mission is to fight homelessness should only pass out blankets and soup bowls, and should not advocate for housing policies that would actually reduce homelessness?

If you agree that the above non-profit organizations should be able to advocate for policies that support their mission and values, then the only reason to tax churches is because they are religious—which violates the first amendment.

Supporters of the tax-the-churches idea claim that most of the charitable contributions to churches do not go directly to “causes” that benefit the community. They point to mega-churches with gym memberships and country-club atmospheres that cater to members only. They fume over pastors who live in mansions.

Strong opinions and anecdotes, though, are not data. Mega-church country clubs are big and visible, but they represent less than 10% of all churches. The median church has just 75 members. Within that 10%, churches range between 400 and tens of thousands of members. While half of all church-goers in the U.S. go to this 10% of all churches, most of these are not very politically active. You don’t usually get to be that size by being on the radical fringe.

Economists have also pointed out that the economic benefit of churches to the surrounding community is typically somewhere between two and six times their budget. This is because churches leverage ministry dollars and volunteer time to multiply their ministry. The person who is tithing is likely also singing in the choir, volunteering in the nursery, and working in a food pantry. By building community they are reducing crime, boosting literacy and education, promoting the arts, and providing free services of all kinds. A church with a $200,000 budget may have a positive economic impact in the community of up to a million dollars. This is called the <a href=”http://articles.philly.com/2011-02-01/news/27092987_1_partners-for-sacred-places-congregations-churches&#8221; title=”“halo effect.””>“halo effect.”</a>

A government who taxed such an organization punitively would be shooting itself in the foot.

Finally, it only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how uneven calls for revoking tax-exempt status are. What kind of political behavior should churches be allowed to do? Should they have been allowed to advocate for Civil Rights? Women’s suffrage? The abolition of slavery? Support of child labor laws? This kind of rhetoric was used by people who wanted to silence religious leaders of those movements, too. Which churches shall we penalize? Glide Memorial in San Francisco, for their outspoken support of minority people?

What about churches whose individualistic prosperity gospel and support of the status quo certainly does fit the definition of “political?” Churches are inherently politically active, even when they claim not to be. One very wise author told me recently that he advised one church planter, “Decide, right now, whether you will be a Republican church or a Democrat church. If you choose neither or say you’re going to ‘transcend’ politics, you will be a Republican church. That’s the default Christian mode in our culture.”

I wish the church were the leading edge of social change and the transformation of culture, but in the last fifty years, we’ve been playing catch-up. God is still at work, and remains faithful, even when we are not.

Three Practical Steps for Christians Who Want to Change the World


The following is taken from the conclusion of my book, God Shows No Partiality.

What I have found in teaching the Bible in both the academy and the church is that the people who believe in the Bible most literally are often the least literate about it. They may have memorized favorite scriptures that support their ideas of what their faith means, but they do not often take trips through the minor prophets, and they have no idea what the Babylonian Exile was. They are essentially writing their own Bibles, and the versions they come up with have little to do with the actual history and social movements that created the religion of ancient Israel or that gave birth to the church. When I press literalists about their interpretation of scripture, asking them to explain contradictions or inconsistencies in their favorite texts, they invariably will complain that I’m reading too literally, that I’m nitpicking or reading too closely.

My gripe with progressive Christians, on the other hand, is that they have often ceded the Bible and Christian history to Christian fundamentalists and literalists. They have been on the defensive, relying on generalizations and failing to engage believers with powerful Biblical rhetoric. Having been wounded one too many times by scripture-wielding exclusivists, perhaps they are reluctant to engage scripture on social issues at all.

But the history of the early church and God’s activity among us is a powerful witness. In writing this book, I have hoped to challenge progressive Christians to actively engage the Bible—not with proof-texts and scriptures cherry-picked to support a given position, but with thoughtful exploration using the best scholarship available.

Doing so will inevitably lead to resistance. There are plenty of people who believe they own the Bible, and that it is their right to clobber people with it. Sometimes these are unwinnable battles, and engaging them is a waste of time. In one well-known parable, Jesus describes hearers of the gospel as different kinds of soil (Mark 4:1-9) and the seed planted in them faces different obstacles to its growth. There are many reasons people may resist this message: demonic resistance, selfishness and materialism, or social pressure. Yet the slogan I have been promoting in this book is one the world needs to hear. By making it better known, we will transform the Bible from a sword into a plow. Perhaps instead of waging a war against sword-wielding Christians who will not be convinced, we can plant new seeds among those who are receptive to the Good News. At the end of the parable, after all, there is a harvest—thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

If you, dear reader, are someone who does believe that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), if you look forward to the day that the powers and principalities are unmasked, there are some practical things you can do to turn the rhetorical sword the Bible has become into a plowshare that helps bring new life. Here are some practical steps.

First, Christians who believe in the salvation of the world should delve deeply into scripture. It is essential to study the Bible closely, to listen thoughtfully to what the authors say and do not say. Do not accept the pious reflections of preachers or the footnotes of popular study Bibles as the word of God. Read multiple translations, and be open to diverse interpretations. Ask how a given scripture might sound different to a white man, a black woman, or a religious or political prisoner. Ask what situations the authors faced and what voices they were arguing against. Study the Bible with people who have diverse theological opinions so you can hear with new ears. Be willing to read against the grain.

Second, if you want to resist those who use the Bible as a weapon, you must exceed them in good works. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is essentially a long discourse on how the new community should not only reject the principles of the Christian Pharisee faction, but distinguish themselves in practice. Their righteousness “must exceed that of the Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). If progressive Christians want to be taken seriously by the world, they must out-pray, out-give, out-do, and out-sacrifice their fundamentalist siblings. They may not remain, as one pastor friend describes them, “tippers instead of tithers.” They must live lives of exceptional moral conduct and generosity. If they do not, they will face two consequences: they will lose their social persuasiveness and they will become hypocrites themselves. This exceptional moral conduct is not just a matter of surface religiosity. It is about a transformation that happens to the soul (Matthew 5:44).

Third, you must spread the good news. The word “evangel” literally means “good message.” Fundamentalists tend to be evangelical because they believe they are saving people from hell in the afterlife. Progressive Christians are trying to save people from hell in this life, but they often fail to be evangelical even though I believe their good news is often more compelling and more exciting. I believe the news is just as good now as it was in the first century. If we do as Jesus instructed and spread this good news to all the earth, then burgeoning Christian movements in developing countries will not criminalize homosexuality or silence the voices of women. People in America will not be able to reject Christianity out-of-hand as intolerant and irrational—but only if this message spreads.

God Shows No Partiality


…for you do not regard people with partiality… – Mark 12:14
For there is no partiality with God – Romans 2:11
…both of you have the same master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. – Ephesians 6:9
…there is no partiality. – Colossians 3:25
“I now truly understand that God shows no partiality…” – Acts 10:34-35
…what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality. – Galatians 2:6

“God shows no partiality” was a commonplace slogan in the early church, and if Christians had driven cars in the first century, it would have been plastered on their bumper stickers. It was a phrase well known in first-century Judaism, but it came to have new significance for the early church which admitted women, children, foreigners, Gentiles, and eunuchs into their community. In Jesus, God had been revealed as a God who shows no partiality, who was interested in breaking down barriers between male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile.

I’ve just finished writing a book titled “God shows no partiality.” My hope is that we would reclaim this slogan from our past and then proclaim it as a way of thinking about the politics of identity in our world today (especially race, sexuality, and religious pluralism). I trace the way the early church thought about religious food regulations, circumcision, and the role of women, children, and foreigners, and how those earliest Jewish Christians began to think about their relationship to their culture.

My hope is that this slogan would become well-known again, and that no argument about “how Christians should think about X” would take place without reference to this part of church history. I wish devout believers would plaster this slogan on billboards, instead of theologically questionable ones signed by God, and would wear this on T-shirts, instead of Christian imitations of corporate logos.

Here is the link to buy the book. 
Here is the link to buy the bumper sticker (or other gear).

I do not own any rights to this slogan, by the way. These are the words of Paul, and Luke, and other early Christian writers, not mine. “God shows no partiality” is the NRSV translation, but there are other ways of translating the Greek. I do hope that people feel free to take it, remix it, and post it all over the place. I look forward to seeing what kind of art others may make of it. This is a meme we need to revive, and celebrate, and push far and wide.