The word, the IRS, and a preacherman

Adam Copeland’s a seminary student at Columbia, who’s doing an internship in Scotland. He blogs at A Wee Blether, and we’ve been discussing Jeremiah Wright. Recently, I asked him, “What are the theological implications of Wright’s words?” 

Here’s Adam’s response:

Wow. Well let’s see. I could talk about black liberation theology, or prophetic witness, or hermeneutics of humility, or diversity and worship, but I’m going to narrow the discussion to one on preaching, specifically, preaching on politics in America today.

In my Reformed Theology class a few years ago, the professor described a Reformed view of the Word of God. There’s plenty of ways to put this, but in class this day we were discussing three ways the word comes to us (Barth, if you care). First, the Word is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Second, God’s word is revealed to us in holy scripture. And third, God’s word is revealed in the proclamation of the word through preaching in public worship.

We noted the emphasis of the inspiration of Holy Spirit in the process of revelation of the word, and in the back of the room, a hand shot up excitedly. In an astonished almost unbelieving tone, a student explained how gob-smacked he was that a sermon given in public worship is understood as God’s word. He’d preached the previous year in his home church without any sort of thought to his human words as the word of God revealed. He was taken aback, to say the least.

It is an astonishing claim, that God’s word, through the power of Holy Spirit might be proclaimed from pulpits all over the country each Sunday. By measly people like you and me, God can somehow make our words affective, and by the power of Holy Spirit and the community’s discernment, reveal God’s truth and love.

Sure, there are lots of nuances here and plenty of places to be careful. It’s a concept that should bring the preacher to her knees in humility, not inflate her ego or decrease her effort in sermon preparation. But it’s a big claim: the preached word is God’s word revealed as it witnesses to Jesus Christ, God’s word incarnate.

Christians of at least the Reformed tradition place a large emphasis in the proclamation of the word in sermon. Jeremiah Wright surely does too, as his church seems to concur by selling Wright’s sermons on DVDs. So, theologically speaking, it makes sense that it’s so very difficult to discuss sermons on the evening news. Sermons, in their context of corporate worship, are not mere personal reflections or after dinner speeches, but means through which God reveals God’s word and witnesses to Jesus Christ.

In recent years, the IRS has investigated several churches to determine whether they should be able to keep their tax-exempt status. As I understand the 1954 Internal Revenue Code regarding nonprofits and political action, the code explicitly prohibits nonprofit organizations from directly endorsing or opposing a candidate. Sure, if you’re a nonprofit with explicit political purpose, you can do so but you’re then classified as a 501(c)4 nonprofit and donations are not tax deductible. Churches are assumed to have 501(c)3 nonprofit status and donations towards their work is tax deductible. So according to the IRS, churches must not endorse specific candidates.

According to some random article I found online by Mathew D. Staver, Esq., pastors can personally endorse or oppose candidates, personally contribute to them, personally work for them even, publicly advocate for them on basis of personal conviction, but not personally endorse a candidate while in the pulpit. [Pastor Dan notes a new tack here.]

I have never personally endorsed a candidate from the pulpit – heck, I’ve only preached 50 something sermons – but these restrictions certainly seem to me to censor the word of God proclaimed.

Several churches and the IRS are fighting in court at the moment over the gray areas. If I preach in favor of universal healthcare and an African American in the oval office, and against 100 more years of war in Iraq, is that endorsing or opposing candidates? Or further, what if I say Jesus would vote for the democratic party without saying the congregation should (remember, it’s only a hypothetical)?

The IRS restrictions amount to censorship, but that’s because churches have certain nonprofit status. I don’t think the IRS understands the theology of the proclamation of the word. I don’t think congregational accounts should be held hostage by what the pastor preaches. And I don’t think Wright should have to worry how his preaching will affect his parishioner’s political future.

To make a controversial claim: to fix congregations being bound to these IRS regulations, I’d advocate – though I doubt my congregation would agree – that churches should just drop their 501(c)3 status and not be beholden to governmental regulations. While there are benefits of churches enjoying nonprofit tax exempt status, it’s dangerous to censor God’s word proclaimed.

So, regarding Wright’s sermons, one of the theological implications is a certain censorship of the word proclaimed.

My question, then, to Carol is: How do you approach a sermon with which you deeply disagree? If you don’t agree with it, does that mean it’s not God’s word, or not God’s word for you?

So, what do you think about the tax-exempt status? Do you agree with Adam?



6 thoughts on “The word, the IRS, and a preacherman

  1. Although I do think that the IRS has caused an undue burden upon churches by restricting the liturgical right of speaking out for a particular political figure I am not sure that ceasing the tax-exempt status would help. Shouldn’t we want freedom of expression without undue restrictions from the state? This doesn’t mean accepting taxation (an additional burden to the state), but a widening of the freedoms that we should possess. Many countries that tax churches have state sanctioned churches. I do not even want to think about that.

    Plus, the property taxes in D.C. alone would sink most churches that are under a certain income/size. I know that is a pragmatic issue, but I think of the African-American churches that I work with who have aging populations in gentrifying neighborhoods. They would surely close. Plus, it is the same side of the coin issue. I am not sure that my church’s money should go to supporting the war in Iraq. Doesn’t opting out of taxation allow us a separation from the state’s sponsorship of things that we morally could not support as institutions? I certainly wouldn’t be for raising taxes on churches until Exxon, Wal-Mart and GE pay their fair share of taxes.

    Good post.

  2. I’d disagree with the abandonment of tax exemption, because taxation serves a range of purposes beyond revenue generation. It is also an implement by which government can encourage or discourage certain behaviors, and I’d be loathe to see that element of the the coercive power of the state applied to religious institutions.

    Beyond that, property taxes alone would mean the death…as a physical plant, at least…of my church, which sits on over an acre of land in suburban Bethesda.

  3. I recently attended a seminar taught by Staver, lawyer who specializes in church/tax issues. He said that the IRC may not in any way restrict what is taught in the pulpit. Yes, there is no question that it can take away a 501(c)3. However, a church does not need to have a 501(c)3 to be tax exempt. A church by it very nature is tax exempt.

    According to Staver, only one church has lost it’s 5(c)3 tax status. That was Randal Terry’s church (the anti-abortion activist) and they pushed going to the limits trying to see how far a church could go. This was purely for the purpose to testing the law in the courts.

    Again, according to Staver and it would seem logical, there are no limits on how far a church or pastor can go in a sermon. There are only restrictions, if you want to maintain your 501(c)3. However, losing your 501(c)3, still doesn’t mean that you lose your tax-exempt status because a church does not have to have a 501(c)3 in order to get tax-exampt status.

    All of the scenarios that Adam questioned should be acceptable without endangering your 501(C)3 status. The thing that cannot be done is to name a candidate personally–either in a negative or positive way. I’ve heard nothing that Wright said that would call his 501(c)3 status into question.

    My understanding of the seminar is that none of this has been pushed through the courts. Therefore, the IRS could be bullying churches where it actually has not legal standing.

  4. I think the tax regs play an important role in setting some boundaries on religion-state issues. If a religious group doesn’t want to live within those boundaries (in other words, if they want to actively campaign for particular candidates), they can give up the tax benefits. They are free to do so.
    I don’t think we want a religious community that is actively seeking to elect particular candidates. Isn’t this exactly what the religious right has done with such a negative impact on both religion and the body politic? Isn’t this what the religious left would want to do if it could get some political traction? Isn’t a large part of Europe’s problem with religion rooted in the tangled relationship between church and state over there?
    Our job is to define faith related issues/choices. In doing so, we will be accused of supporting a particular candidate (this happens to me a lot). But we aren’t. We are lifting up biblical issues.
    I constantly ask myself whether I am being prophetic or partisan. When it comes up the latter, I hit the delete button for that part of the sermon.

  5. Bob Jones University chose to give up its tax-exempt status rather than change a rule when they decided that the government shouldn’t be able to tell them what rules they should have. The rule in this case really was indefensible in my opinion, especially since it was enforced against me when I went there. 8)

    But they are a precedent for giving it up in order to have more freedom. Their donations did suffer, but they have much more than recovered since then.

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