America’s Heritage: Constitutional Liberty
by Herbert W. Titus and Gerald R. Thompson
A RIGHTEOUS EXAMPLE
- The Church and Righteous Government
The Church Is Not Immune from Civil Law
Churches and Tax Exemption
Restoring the Righteous Example of the Church
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20]
“Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” [Matthew 7:1-5]
The church, unlike the family, was not designed by God to fulfill the dominion mandate. Nor was the church instituted by God to rule over civil society. Yet, the church, through its example of righteousness, enables family members and civil rulers to know what God expects of them, and how best to fulfill their own obligations before Him. The role of the church is to bear witness of the truth of God to the other institutions of human government, as “salt” and “light.” Without the witness of the church, both in word and deed, individuals, families and societies would often fail to know the will of God, in order to obey it. In other words, the church is the vehicle for establishing righteous government among men.
The authority of the church universal, summarized in the “Great Commission,” conforms to the nature of other fundamental grants of authority from God to men. As the text of Matthew 28:18-20 indicates, the authority to preach the gospel is delegated by God, not created by man, recognizing the church as an independent institution of human government. The authority of the church is limited to the terms of the grant: the institution of the church has no authority to punish wrongdoing or to bear children, for example. The church has been granted authority for the specific purpose of advancing the kingdom of God on the earth, and for no other. And, of course, the church is accountable solely to God in the performance of its duties.
The primary authority of the church is two-fold. First, it is to bear witness of the truth of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the unbelieving world, that is, to “make disciples of all the nations.” Second, it is to train believers in the way of the Lord as a means of “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” Both of these functions are in the nature of an unalienable right. All men, either individually, or corporately in the exercise of ecclesiastical government, have the unalienable right to declare and maintain religious beliefs, as well as to freely express those beliefs to others. All men also have the unalienable right to consensually train and disciple others as to the duties they owe their Creator and Redeemer.
In essence, the witness of the church is the prophetic voice among the people regarding the proper role of civil government. But to make this witness effective, the church must live by example, practicing what it preaches. It is not enough to merely speak what is right; the church must do what is right, “not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer.” James 1:22-25. It should minister to the needs of the poor, the orphan and the widow, so the civil ruler isn’t “compelled” to give assistance. In other words, the best way to shed light on the proper role of civil government is for the church to perform its own role well, to discourage civil intervention in non-civil matters.
For example, the church must learn to respond correctly to lawlessness in the world. In Matthew 10:16 Jesus warned his disciples to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Though the church is not of the same spirit as the world, it is nonetheless in the world environment. If the church is taking the gospel to the nations as it should, it cannot help but encounter evil. In order to be able to rebut and rebuke the evils of modern culture, Christians must make themselves knowledgeable of the ways of the world. In this sense, Christians are to be “as shrewd as snakes.” At the same time, Christians must avoid being ensnared by evil as they are made aware of it.
The danger faced by people today is that once made aware of the many violations of law directly impacting their lives, they may be tempted to respond in kind. Christians need to be careful in their zeal to restore true liberty, that they do not themselves commit unrighteousness. It is never righteous to fight lawlessness with more lawlessness. The temptation will often be to respond in the most expedient fashion to obtain a “quick fix.” The right response may not give immediate results, but it assumes that God governs the affairs of men. The fact that personal justice is not obtained to man’s satisfaction does not mean God has failed to judge the wrongdoer. Christians must do only what God has authorized them to do, and be content that He will ultimately execute total justice as He sees fit.
For example, it is not proper to respond to the unlawful Roe v. Wade decision by bombing individual abortion clinics, or by attacking doctors who perform abortions. Arson and assault are acts of wrongdoing which civil rulers are duty-bound to punish. Neither the motivation of the wrongdoer, nor the sinfulness of the victim, confer any authority to act contrary to law. The use of force, in particular, to restore the rule of law is reserved to the jurisdiction of civil authorities. (See chapter 12 for a discussion of the doctrine of lower magistrates.) Further, Christians ought to exemplify the doing of good in order to win over those who are acting lawlessly.
Romans 12:19-21 says that a man should never take his own revenge, but rather leave room for the wrath of God. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The promise of God is that “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Accordingly, Christians have the assurance that if they do only what is good, not evil, the Lord will make sure that justice is done, even if what they do seems to be merely a partial restoration of justice. In any situation, a good or lawful response is possible, and it is the Christian’s job to find it. God never leaves man completely unable to respond to lawlessness lawfully.
One of the most difficult problems for Christians is how the church is to respond lawfully to civil authorities. The belief is often expressed that civil authorities owe submission to the Constitution because they are its creatures, whereas the church was created independently from any civil covenant and owes its allegiance solely to God. But, this misses the point. Individuals and families are not the creatures of civil rulers or civil compacts either, yet people are still subject to civil jurisdiction if they act in derogation of their individual and familial authority. The church is no different.
The key to the lawful submission of the church to civil authorities is to remember that all authority is from God. From God’s perspective, the church and civil government have each been constituted to implement the will of God among men. Also, both governments are themselves governed by the same laws of nature and of nature’s God. America has a unique heritage which presupposes a biblical law framework, and which has established civil government on this very foundation. Recognizing this heritage, therefore, will enable the church to regard civil rulers not as antagonists per se, but as men possessing a limited jurisdiction to accomplish specific purposes ordained by God.
For example, individuals are subject to punishment if they commit one of a host of crimes against persons or property. Parents are lawfully subject to punishment if they commit acts of child abuse or neglect (as defined pursuant to biblical guidelines). Even non-criminal actions, such as divorce, child custody, adoption and the administration of estates, are subject to some extent to civil jurisdiction. It should be no surprise that churches may be subject to lawful health and safety regulations. Remember from chapter 9, that the purposes of civil and ecclesiastical government never overlap, but the subjects of civil and ecclesiastical government do.
This is not to say that the church is to submit to every exertion of purported civil authority. In contemporary culture, there are likely to be onslaughts waged against the lawful exercise of church authority by civil rulers. There is no duty to submit to unlawful power, indeed, there is an affirmative duty not to submit to the rule of a tyrant. And, the church would do well to prepare itself defensively from such onslaughts. Yet, the response of the church must in every instance be lawful. It requires a thorough knowledge of biblical principles to know how to respond lawfully in a time of trial.
One of those principles is that there is no church immunity from civil authority based on self-interest. There are many scriptures dealing with the subject of self-interest. Philippians 2:4 exhorts the church to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The Bible also tells us not to judge our own cause. Deuteronomy 17:8-13 teaches that the order of a civil judge is to be obeyed in all cases, else the person under order acts presumptively, and is found in contempt of court. Similarly, we must not presume to judge matters outside of the authority God has given us.
Neither is there any special church exemption or immunity from civil authority based on religious belief or status. Christians have no different civil rights or unalienable rights than non-Christians. And, Christians do not gain any rights by forming voluntary church associations that they do not have as individuals. This is mandated by the law of equality, part of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Since God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), neither is man to be a respecter of persons in civil affairs (Deuteronomy. 1:17).
A local church body is nothing more than a voluntary association of individual Christians organized for a specific purpose. This purpose is primarily redemptive in nature, that is, administering the law of redemption, bringing reconciliation between God and man. A church body may engage in dominion activities, but this is not its primary purpose. Other voluntary associations of Christians for primarily dominion purposes, such as business enterprises, charities and educational institutions, are not usually regarded as church bodies. Yet, both kinds of association of Christians stand equal before the law: to the extent one is subject to civil regulation, the other is as well, and if one is exempt, both are.
This result is mandated not only by the law of equality, but also by the law of concurrent jurisdiction. Jurisdictionally, a local church body is concurrently a citizen of both God’s kingdom and civil society. As in other contexts, an application of the law of concurrent jurisdiction results in a multiple citizenship. Consequently, the nature of the jurisdiction of each government over the church is defined by the purposes reserved or entrusted to each.
It is helpful in considering this matter to distinguish the church universal (the Body of Christ), from the local church (a voluntary association). Although the latter is often regarded as the visible representation of the former, the nature of the covenants binding each together is fundamentally different.
Covenant association for a local group is based upon the exercise of self-government authority. It presumes that men bear the image of God, and may freely enter into covenants with others for their mutual benefit in order to fulfill an agreed upon purpose. Association is voluntary, based upon mutual consent, pursuant to terms decided by the parties. The rules of association and form of government vary with each group. Membership is temporary, subject to termination at will.
Covenant association in the Body of Christ is between man and God, not between men. There is only one group or body, so the rules of association, form of government, members and purposes do not vary. Although association is consensual, it is not temporary. Membership in the church universal is permanent, exceeding even the natural lifetime of its members, and is in the nature of an adoption into a family, regarded as a spiritual birth. No one is born or adopted into a local church association.
There are also a number of factual reasons for making a distinction between the church universal and any local church body. First, no church association can perfectly judge the hearts of men: most every local church body will have some members who are not true Christians. There are also Christians who are not members of any local church association. For these reasons, in principle and in fact, there is no basis upon which a local church body may claim any special immunity or exemption compared to other forms of voluntary association by reason of religious belief or status.
The church is not what might be called a foreign embassy from an extra-territorial kingdom. The church is composed of people, all of whom were, after the manner of Adam, formed from the dust of the ground. See Genesis 2:7. Ecclesiastes 12:7 states that the body of man “returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” But, man’s spirit does not return to God extra-territorially. Not only will the saints reign with Christ on the earth (Revelation 20:4), but when God recreates the heavens and the earth, He will make His dwelling among men on the earth. Revelation 21:1-4. We will not go to heaven, rather, heaven will come to us, here on the earth. Therefore, the church enjoys no earthly immunity by reason of its heavenly citizenship.
Rather than denying it, the church should embrace and utilize its earthly citizenship for the reason that it can be an effective tool to spreading the gospel. The apostle Paul, for example, was not ashamed to claim Roman citizenship as a means of appealing to Caesar (Acts 22:22-29 and Acts 25:10-12), thereby bringing the gospel to Caesar’s household. See Philippians 4:22. Even Christ, Head of the church universal, was subject to civil authority while on earth. He never declared himself exempt from the admonition in Luke 20:25 to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Similarly, were it not for the earthly citizenship of our forefathers, they would not have been able to exercise dominion by colonizing America as a means of spreading the gospel. Clearly, none of these men regarded earthly citizenship as antithetical to the gospel.
The application of these principles can easily be made in the area of tax-exempt status. The biblical law of tax exemption is revealed in the account of the two-drachma temple tax, from Matthew 17:24-26.
And when they had come to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” And upon his saying, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Consequently the sons are exempt.”
According to this passage, civil rulers collect taxes only from those not of their own “household”, that is, the organs of government and their political subdivisions. The “civil household” is exempt from civil taxation because it is the one whose service is compensated through the payment of taxes. In other words, the civil ruler never taxes itself. Accordingly, no one is immune from civil taxation other than the civil government itself.
By analogy, Jesus considered Himself exempt from the two drachma tax. This tax was commanded in Exodus 30:12-16, and was regarded as atonement money contributed to the Lord, not a civil ruler. Since Jesus was of the household of the King in whose name the tax was levied, He was exempt. Although Jesus paid the temple tax, He did so not out of obligation, but merely to avoid giving offense. See Matthew 17:27.
Jesus recognized that everyone is subject to both civil and non-civil governments. No person, or association of persons, is governed by God to the exclusion of all human government. Rather, each person, his family, his church and his civil rulers are all governed by God, and each government rules him for different purposes at the same time. The lawfulness of taxation does not depend on the persons it taxes, so much as the legal incidence and the purposes for the tax. The family and the church are both equally governed by God, not the civil ruler. Yet, the family is not immune from all civil taxation – neither can the church be immune.
The old English legal heritage of civil immunity for religious bodies is no different in principle from English titles of nobility. Both nobility and immunity are special privileges conferred upon a select segment of society in disregard of the commonality of the people and God’s law of equality. There is no legal right of private persons to be tax exempt. Thus, all exemptions from taxation granted by the civil ruler are a matter of grace, not legal obligation. No local church association can declare itself tax immune as a matter of law, because it is not of the same household as any civil government.
This does not mean that local church associations are necessarily subject to any kind of taxation the civil ruler may wish to impose. The taxation of churches depends upon the operation of other principles of law. But, if a tax levied on a church is unlawful, it must be unlawful with respect to other persons or associations as well. Remember, immunity from civil regulation is a function of the purpose of an activity, not the status of the actor. Thus, if the purpose of an activity is religious, it is beyond the civil jurisdiction no matter who is doing it. Except for the civil ruler’s own household, there is no such thing as an immune person.
For example, church associations are properly exempt from income taxation on their contribution receipts not because they have been granted any special immunity by God or man, but because of the legal character of gift transactions. A fundamental duty owed to God is the duty of every man to love his neighbor as himself. This is the “law of love.” See Leviticus 19:18 and Luke 10:27. Because man’s duty to love his neighbor is owed directly to God, and only indirectly to his neighbor, love is undeserved. Though morally binding, love cannot be compelled, nor can the failure to love be punished by men. An act of love must be voluntary and undeserved, or it is not love at all.
The duties to help a person in distress, to care for widows and orphans, and to otherwise be charitable, are governed exclusively by the law of love, as indicated by Matthew 25:34-46. Accordingly, every gift is governed exclusively by the law of love. “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7.
Because every gift is voluntary and undeserved, it can never involve a mutual exchange for value, or a quid pro quo. Thus, a gift is the legal opposite of any commercial transaction. Every gift is beyond the jurisdiction of the civil ruler to compel, regulate or tax, and every commercial transaction is beyond the jurisdiction of the law of love. This does not mean that every commercial transaction can lawfully be taxed, but every taxable transaction must at least be of a commercial nature.
Not surprisingly, gift receipts have historically been immune to income taxation because the receipt of a gift is not income. Yet, some people today question whether churches should be exempt from the federal income tax, since there is no “economic” difference between contribution receipts and sales receipts. But, this ignores the legal differences involved. Church associations are exempt from income taxation on their contribution receipts not because they have been granted any special immunity by God or man, but because contribution receipts are gifts, and therefore not income. To tax the gift receipts of a church exceeds the jurisdiction of any civil ruler.
But present federal law does more than simply exempt contribution receipts from income tax. “Qualified” organizations are also exempted from income taxes on the commercial profit from a related business activity. An example is sales receipts generated by a church bazaar, or bingo revenues. Accordingly, present law confers church associations with a privilege not granted to individuals and many other kinds of associations. This leaves “qualified” church organizations open to the charge that their gross receipts are exempt from income taxation as a matter of grace, not as a matter of right. This charge is only partly true, but it poses the danger of convincing some people it is all true.
In addition, granting exempt status has the effect of treating church associations as though they were part of the civil household. Thus, the civil ruler can tell an exempt organization how to conduct its affairs and structure its government because that is the way all political subdivisions are governed. In other words, the acceptance of federal tax-exempt status implicitly affirms civil jurisdiction over a local church association, rather than immunity. However, because of the distinction between a local church and the church universal, federal tax exempt status in no way implies that the civil ruler has jurisdiction over the body of Christ as such.
Clearly, if the church is effectively to be salt and light in civil society, and a righteous example, it must refrain from espousing a doctrine of self-interest, and instead preach the gospel of true liberty to all the people. The modern church might do well to consider the heritage of church involvement in American life during the years leading up to the War of Independence and the formulating of the Constitution. The local church building of 18th century America was the chief public meeting hall in nearly every town. The church, as a place, was a focal point for most matters of general or public interest. Many of the important civil actions taken by the good people of the colonies were debated and decided under the steeple.
The reason the church building was the place of public meeting in 18th century America was that the civil and societal issues of the day were regularly addressed from the pulpit. It was customary during that time for clergymen to publish their sermons, and many such sermons have survived to this day. It was common to hear an “election sermon,” one related to the election of public officials and a biblical system of government, or an “artillery sermon,” one related to the basis for a defense of liberty. Many sermons served as political pamphlets, motivating the people to think about the true nature of liberty. Indeed, the concept of a federal system grew out of a legacy of sermons on “federal theology.”
And, of course, some of the prominent political leaders of the day were clergymen. Notable among them was Dr. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian pastor who was president of Princeton, served as a delegate to the Continental Congress from New Jersey, and signed the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Witherspoon did not view his work in civil government as a departure from his role as a minister, or being at variance with spreading the gospel, but regarded it as an opportunity to act in that sphere as an ambassador of the church.
To a large extent, the church today needs to set its own house in order to be able to live as a righteous example before an unbelieving world. The church has long called the world into account for its actions, claiming to be separate from the world. However, the church has attempted to remove the speck from the world’s eye, before it has removed the log from its own eye. That is, the church has become conformed to the world’s image in many ways. Jude 4 warns that “certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The church must do two things to set its house in order. First, it should fulfill the command to teach all that Christ commanded, not just the truth of personal salvation, but the truth of all subjects of knowledge. The church cannot afford to cloak itself in false piety. It must reclaim the biblical foundation of all subjects of knowledge, for in Christ alone “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” See Colossians 2:3. It must reclaim the legacy of our forefathers who viewed the Great Commission as the authority to colonize America, not simply to evangelize the people, but also to exercise dominion over the land and to establish a godly civil society.
Second, the church must rid itself of unrighteous influences. Such influences may be either ungodly persons posing as true Christians, or the deceptive reasoning of Christians whose minds have not been renewed. Paul admonishes the church in 1 Corinthians 5 to exercise righteous judgment and to take disciplinary action when necessary:
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. . . . I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with immoral people of this world . . . but actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person. . . . Do you not judge those who are within the church? . . . Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.
According to 1 Pet 4:15-19, the church brings no glory to God when it suffers for doing wrong. Pain endured as a consequence of sin is not the same as enduring persecution for Christ. Unfortunately, the church today is suffering on account of its own misdeeds, many of which are related to the failure to maintain church leaders who are faithful to the true gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel. Should the church fail to do what is necessary to rid itself of corrupt leadership, it has been adequately warned in 1 Peter 4:17 that “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God.”
The question for the church today is whether it will take steps to regain the prominence it once had in directing the course of American society. The church in America 200 years ago did not adopt a “retreatist” approach, seeking immunity from civil affairs. Rather, it got involved at every level of government, by exhorting and teaching its members about the principles of government, by providing a forum for the debate of public issues, and by sending representatives into the civil sphere. Absent the righteous example of the church to the people, families and civil governments of the world, how will the world know how to live?
* Copyright © 1987, 2006 Herbert W. Titus and Gerald R. Thompson. Used with permission.