Thoughts of a Country Preacher

The Monday morning ruminations of a pastor.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Church and the Government – How Should they Interact?

I was once told that the only thing worse than a politician who thinks he’s a preacher is a preacher who thinks he’s a politician.

Apparently, that is no longer the case. In the past several years, politicians and preachers have interacted so much that it is really hard to tell the two apart.

Here are a few examples that come to mind from recent events.
Rick Warren invites Barak Obama to speak in his church.
Jim Talent makes a speech at the Missouri Baptist Convention meeting.
George Bush makes a short speech via satellite to the SBC meeting in ’05 & Condi Rice makes a visit in ’06.
Partisan politics is played out in many churches – including a case in North Carolina where one church expelled any church member who did not vote for George Bush.
When it was discovered that Wal Mart supported homosexual groups, a boycott was immediately brought up.
I could go on and on… but I would prefer to stop there.

I suppose that at this point I should stop and offer a disclaimer. I do believe that we should engage our culture in many ways, including politics. Christians should vote. Those called to do so should seek political office. Those Christians called to do so should serve in the military. Christians should feel free to engage the political sphere in what ever way they wish.
However, the church as an institution (or as a denomination) should not become entangled in the political realm for several reasons.

First, politics cannot correct the world’s problems.

There is only so much that the government and laws can do. They can restrict the outward actions of men, but they cannot affect their hearts.
For example:
The government could outlaw abortion. But the "culture of death" that makes such a practice possible and even acceptable in some circles will not go away.
The government could ban gay marriage, but that lifestyle will continue to expand.
Because ultimately these are heart issue (Luke 6:45), and laws cannot influence a person’s heart – only Christ can do that.

Second, in the context of the United States, it is better for the church to limit its involvement in politics so that we can better fulfill the Great Commission.

We have to admit it; the church in the United States has been given a very sweet deal. We don’t pay property taxes, or income taxes, all donations to the church are tax write offs, and outside of zoning laws, government really doesn’t care what we do – In fact, some states have now legally given the church some protections from eminent domain seizures. How did we get that sweet of a deal? Easy, we are considered 501c3 not for profit corporations, and all 501c3’s get that deal. However, as a 501c3, we must follow one rule – it is:
"Organizations with this classification are prohibited from conducting political campaign activities to influence elections to public office. Public charities (but not private foundations) are permitted to conduct a limited amount of lobbying to influence legislation… All 501(c)(3) organizations are also permitted to educate individuals about issues, or fund research that supports their political position without overtly advocating for a position on a specific bill."
That’s it, just don’t lobby or try to influence public elections – if we don’t do that we’re golden.
However, there are some that think this is too restrictive, and we should throw off our 501c3 status so that we can endorse candidates and directly influence policy.
This should lead us to the question, if we do drop our 501c3 status to start doing politics, then what would our new classification be?
I’m no tax lawyer, but there’s a good chance that we might get a 527 classification. Which means that the government will become a permanent member of our congregations.
All of the protections we enjoy as 501c3’s would be gone. We would have caps on the amount of money we could collect per year, and the government would have their hands in our pockets, keeping track of where we spend it.
Smaller churches wouldn’t be affected too much, but if your church has a budget of around $200,000 or more (I think that is the cap for the budget of a 527), the way you minister to your community would be forever changed.
It is in the church’s best interest to keep the government’s hands out of our business. We can only do that by keeping our hands out of their business.

Finally, when the church becomes political, it makes the lost world our enemies and not our harvest field.

Because he puts it so well, I will let John MacArthur speak to this point. He says:
"We must repudiate our confused loyalties and concerns for the passing world and put aside our misguided efforts to change culture externally. To allow our thoughts, plans, time, money, and energy to be spent trying to make a superficially Christian America, or to put a veneer of morality over the world, is to distort the gospel, misconstrue our divine calling, and squander our God given resources. We must not weaken our spiritual mission, obscure our priority of proclaiming the gospel of salvation, or become confused about our spiritual citizenship, loyalties, and obligations. We are to change society, but by faithfully proclaiming the gospel which changes lives on the inside."
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Titus. Chicago, Ill. Moody Press, 1996, pg. 138.


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