Law and Religion – Reclaimed!
by Gerald R. Thompson
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go, under the authority of a recognized ecclesiastical structure, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” [Matt. 28:19-20a.]
Every law which protects organized religion in America assumes that the above language in italics is part of the Great Commission. However, the italicized language is not part of the Great Commission. Therefore, every law which protects organized religion in America is wrong.
I. INSTITUTIONAL SELF-SOVEREIGNTY
Above The Law
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything. [1 Cor. 6:12.]
You will rarely hear anyone defend the idea, because everyone who works in full-time religious ministry simply assumes it to be true without question: religious organizations are special. Ministers are specially called into service by God. Churches are specially set apart from all other kinds of organizations. And both ministers and churches (as well as a host of other religious organizations) are entitled to special treatment compared to everyone else.
In the world of religious ministry, this special treatment is regarded not just a privilege, but as a God-given right. This perceived right is based on the idea that God governs his Church through ecclesiastical structures, that is, human institutions specially commissioned by God. This is the foundational principle upon which the concept of religious sovereignty is based.
One of the curious consequences of this belief is that much of modern religion, particularly modern Christianity (but not modern Islam), has an aversion towards God’s law. This aversion is rarely if ever openly admitted, but is indicated in the way the Bible is systematically interpreted without regard for legal analysis, and legal subjects are systematically avoided. This mentality spills over into the world of Christian lawyers, where even their self-identity is conceived in purely religious terms to the exclusion of law, because they don’t know how else to think.
However, when it comes to man’s law, the world of religion no longer hides its feelings – modern religion is openly hostile to civil laws of every kind. Laws which apply to everyone else, when applied to organized religion, are seen as an unwelcome intrusion and regarded as unlawful.
Thus, churches see themselves as necessarily exempt from property taxes, antidiscrimination statutes, employment regulations, tax audits, from pension and benefit plan regulation, zoning regulations, etc. Similarly, clergy fully expect to be exempt from military service, from social security taxes, and from income taxes on housing expenses, among others.
Further, religious activities of every kind are accorded special treatment. An after-school club is just an after-school club – unless it is a Bible study. A public monument is just a public monument – unless it is a religious monument. A horse and buggy is just a slow-moving vehicle – unless it is an Amish horse and buggy. Home schooling is just another form of regulated education – unless it is religion-based. The list goes on without end.
This belief and expectation pervades the world of religious ministry. People in ministry widely assume that anyone engaged in religious ministry is, or ought to be, unencumbered by civil regulation. Little effort is ever made to comply with civil laws, because they are assumed not to apply and no one ever bothers to check whether that assumption might be wrong. It is both naive and arrogant.
It is naivete in that ministers often do not know what regulations apply to them – they simply don’t know what they don’t know. What? Our church board is governed by fiduciary standards? What are those? We have conflicts of interest? What does that mean? It is arrogance in that the same people blindly assume there is no need for them to investigate such things, even when it is pointed out to them in plain terms. Well, we’ve never been concerned about that before, I don’t see why we should start now. It’s not how we do things. We’ll just pray about it instead and see how God leads.
You think I am making this up? This is the voice of experience talking. It is the same on the east coast, the west coast, and in between. It is pervasive.
The result is a palpable “ends justifies the means” mentality that is never questioned. Whatever we are doing for God is not subject to human interference. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. But everything we do is for God, so civil government has no claim on us. And it doesn’t matter how we go about our business, because if it is for the sake of the gospel, it is OK.
And of course, don’t forget the proof texts. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. This was no doubt a rationale for burning heretics at the stake in order to spread the gospel. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church. This is talking about the supremacy of God, not the supremacy of the Church. All things are lawful. So what you’re saying is, I can ordain myself because all things are lawful?
Ultimately, this “ends justifies the means” philosophy of ministry is based on a faulty understanding of the concept of jurisdiction generally, and the nature of civil jurisdiction and religious sovereignty in particular. But it is not simply a mistake, or an error. This philosophy is also the most direct means to achieving a desired end. The only way you can argue that some religious adherents (clergy) are entitled to special legal treatment compared to all other believers (laity) is to claim that religious authority passes only through certain people, and deny that it flows through all individuals.
This, then, is the crux of the matter. We can frame the issue in terms of the Great Commission, but it applies equally to all religious faiths, not just Christianity. Does the authority to do God’s bidding on earth come only to a few of the faithful, or to all of the faithful? Is religious authority quintessentially corporate, or individual? Does the Great Commission authorize me to act individually, or do I have to go through my pastor/minister/priest?
Render to Caesar and to God
He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [Luke 20:25.]
One of the classic blunders – or perhaps I should say a classic deception – of organized religion is to portray the words of Jesus as distinguishing between church and state. We even have classic treatises on the matter referring to the “two kingdoms.” What is often overlooked is that there are four kingdoms, or institutions, given among men, not two.
The individual and family institutions are neither derivative from, nor subservient to, either church or state. In fact, both the individual and family institutions predate nations and states, as well as the formation of the Church. It is hardly correct to speak of church and state as the primary institutions in society, when the individual and family institutions are both more fundamental to our existence.
Consequently, it is much more reasonable to understand Luke 20:25 as a distinction between God and man. Some authority is retained by God and not given to any man. Of the authority given to men, some is exercisable by nations and some is not. Of the authority given to men, some is exercisable by the Church, and some is not. Some human authority is not exercisable by either nations or the Church.
Understanding the world in terms of church vs. state not only is an oversimplification of things – it is a gross misrepresentation of the nature of the world.
Let’s go back to Jurisdiction 101. We start with the principle that all human authority is delegated, not inherent. In other words, authority has to be given to you – you aren’t born with it. All authority ultimately belongs to God. Some authority has been delegated to men. God reserves for Himself all authority which has not been delegated.
Second, all human authority is limited, not absolute. That is, no one’s authority is unlimited, except for God. Human authority extends only to that which God gives him. Human authority is limited by the terms of the delegation. No one defines his own authority, or the extent of his own jurisdiction. In a sense, it is a conflict of interest for any man to define the scope of his own power.
Third, human authority is diffuse, not concentrated. Thus, no one has total authority, or all kinds of authority. God delegates authority via his covenants with people, in which he gives various rights to various people at various times. God hasn’t given any person total authority at any time. And this diffusion of powers is the rule, even when it comes to human institutions internally. The concentration of authority leads to tyranny. The separation of powers concept applies as well in the family and the Church as it does in civil government.
God has created four institutions among men: the individual, the family, nations, and the universal Church. Each of these institutions has separate, non-overlapping purposes. The purpose of the individual is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself The purpose of the family is to be fruitful and multiply, and to subdue and rule over the earth. The purpose of nations is to punish wrongdoers and to secure our rights. The purpose of the Church is to evangelize and to disciple.
A person may be, and usually is, governed by multiple legal institutions at the same time. Thus, a person may be an individual, a family member, a member of the Church, a citizen and a member of any number of voluntary associations, all at the same time. Conversely, a person cannot generally be a member of any one legal institution to the complete exclusion of all the others.
Accordingly, people who rule over others for one purpose may be ruled by others for another purpose. An individual’s authority depends not on who he or she is, but the purpose for which their authority is given. No one can claim that his status exempts him from being ruled over by others according to the jurisdictional authority they have.
And here we come to the gist. No man may, in the name of God or the Church, claim to be subject to that jurisdiction to the exclusion of all others. Every human being is subject both to God for some things and to men for other things. And those things which are owed to men are spread out among many men, such as parents, employers, civil rulers, etc. All men are subject to multiple jurisdictions simultaneously. There are no exceptions or special cases.
No man’s authority depends on his qualifications. A man does not acquire more or less authority as a father because he is also a civil judge. A man does not acquire more or less authority as a civil judge because he is also a Christian. A man does not acquire more or less authority as a Christian because he also holds a diploma or degree.
There is no such thing as a holy man, a holy order, or a holy church, which is wholly exempt from the jurisdiction of others.
This state of affairs cannot be changed by forming a voluntary association which only recognizes some people as having authority but not others, or which confers extra authority on some people but not others. By definition, no mere voluntary association can usurp the institutions and authorities of human society which God has created and conferred. You can call a religious man father if you want, but it doesn’t mean a hill of beans to God. [Cf. Matt. 23:9.]
Citizens of Heaven
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. [Php. 3:20.]
For nearly 200 years, churches in the state (er, commonwealth) of Virginia were prohibited by law from incorporating, most likely because of colonial notions of what it meant to be a citizen of heaven. Heavenly citizenship is also the concept behind the corporation sole and the Vatican. There is a longstanding tradition and understanding in Christendom that the visible church, as an institution, has a heavenly citizenship which excludes any earthly citizenship.
However, 2,000 years of wrong thinking doesn’t justify anything. The laws of jurisdiction and citizenship require that any church organization (i.e., the visible church) be considered a citizen both of heaven and the earth.
First, there is no inherent incompatibility between earthly citizenship and heavenly citizenship. Citizenship is like family relationships. When a man marries, he does not stop being a son of his parents – he just adds to his family relationships and nothing is taken away. When a man becomes a citizen of heaven, he does not stop being a citizen of his nation – it just adds to the pile. Everyone is subject to multiple jurisdictions. Being a citizen of heaven was not incompatible with Paul’s Roman citizenship. How is the heavenly citizenship of anyone today different from Paul’s?
Second, even Christ was subject to civil authority while on earth. One clear example of this is his acknowledgment of lawful liability for Caesar’s poll-tax. He also submitted himself to the judicial process and judgment of the Roman and Jewish civil authorities at the time of his trial and crucifixion. If Christ, the head of the Church, was subject to civil regulation, how can the Church, which is beneath Christ in authority, be exempt from all civil regulation? Is the body greater than the head?
Third, a church cannot transcend the earthly citizenship of its members because every church is composed exclusively of individuals who are earthly citizens. Every member of every church – even clergy and Vatican officials – is a citizen of the earth. How can the voluntary association of earthly citizens transcend that earthly citizenship when the manner of association is by definition an aspect of earthly human government? Are not all voluntary associations of people on this earth by definition earthly? How can anyone say, “we are individually earthly, but together we can transcend our earthly natures”? Do you really think your church association exists up in heaven somewhere?
Fourth, only the invisible Church is heavenly. This is the Church composed of all true believers throughout all of time, both dead and living. But no church, denomination or association of churches on earth is that invisible Church. More on that later.
Fifth, if a church is a citizen solely of heaven, then so is a Christian family, and even an association of Christians for business purposes. Is not a family as much a part of the will of God as a church? Is not lawful dominion (a business)? Don’t churches own property, pay laborers, and buy and sell things in the normal course just like a family or business? Don’t Christian families evangelize and disciple children and neighbors as much as any church? Don’t businesses contribute to charity (“love thy neighbor”) as much as any church? What makes a church different from these?
Sixth, the concept of a single exclusive citizenship is the underlying basis for rebellion and anarchy. It is the foundation of the “common law free man” movement, which holds that an individual is bound by no civil constraints (i.e., an anarchist). At its root, single citizenship directly contravenes Romans 13:1, which refers to governing authorities in the plural. How can anyone render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, and at the same time claim to be a citizen solely of heaven? The sole purpose for anyone to assert exclusive heavenly citizenship is to avoid rendering anything to Caesar at all.
Consequently, organized religion has no superior claim to sovereignty than I do. Every claim of superior sovereignty is false.
II. WHO IS THE CHURCH?
All Authority Has Been Given To Me
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” [Matt. 28:19-20a.]
We now come to the central issue: to whom is the Great Commission given? I start with the assumption that when Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go . . .” that these are words of delegation. Jesus has all authority, and by these words he conveyed a portion of that authority to the Church. The scope of this authority has already been discussed. But who got that authority?
Recall that a basic tenet of the law of jurisdiction is all human authority is diffuse, not concentrated. God hasn’t given any person total authority at any time. And this diffusion of powers is the rule, even when it comes to human institutions internally. The concentration of authority leads to tyranny. The separation of powers concept applies as well in the family and the Church as it does in civil government.
Further, all divine delegations of authority are given to men in a representative capacity. Thus, when God spoke to Adam and Eve, they were representatives for all their descendants. Every descendant of Adam and Eve has as much individual authority to take dominion, to become married and have children, as our most ancient ancestors. Adam and Eve retained no special right, as it were, merely because they were the ones who actually received the delegation, to direct how their descendants should go about taking dominion and governing their families.
This pattern is repeated throughout the divine covenants. When Noah and his family received the promises and delegations of authority from God, they retained no special right to direct how their descendants should eat meat, or execute murderers. Their descendants were accountable to God alone – not to Noah or his sons – for how that authority should be carried out. Similarly for the covenants with Abraham, Israel (Mosaic) and David. In no case did the original recipients of God’s authority retain any right to direct how their descendants would carry out that authority. In no case were the descendants accountable to anyone but God for their exercise of that authority.
Yet, fantastically, when we come to the new covenant with Christ and the Great Commission, all of a sudden people see something different. For some reason, when the authority of the Church is delegated to all individual Christians through the apostles, the apostles magically retain a right to govern and control the Church though all subsequent generations.
Oh, you are still individually accountable to God for your salvation. But don’t you go off and start your own church without getting clearance from your ecclesiastical leaders. Don’t think you can administer the holy sacraments yourself – you need the participation of your ecclesiastical leaders. Don’t think you can figure out what the Bible means by yourself – you need to submit to the guidance and teaching of your ecclesiastical leaders. And for heaven’s sake, you can’t become a pastor, minister or priest without – you guessed it – the approval of your ecclesiastical leaders.
Where did all this hogwash come from?
The Head of the Church
When the scripture says in many places that Christ is the sole and exclusive head of the Church, by definition it means that there is no human head of the Church. When the scripture says that Jesus is the sole and exclusive mediator between God and men, it means that there is no human mediator between God and men. I don’t have to go through anybody to get to God. I don’t need anyone’s permission to become a Christian. And I don’t need anyone’s approval to set up my own church.
Jesus gave the authority of the Church to every individual Christian. Every Christian is accountable solely to God for the exercise of that authority. I am the Church. You are the Church. Not my pastor for me, and not your elders for you. Just you and me, in our individual capacities. And if we want to get together for mutual purposes, that’s fine too. But it is up to us, and no one else. All Church authority is vested completely in every individual Christian.
A necessary corollary is that no religious organization has exclusive religious authority compared to any other group or organization. All churches are equal before God. No church is superior to any other church, as a matter of law. No church has the right to claim to be the only true church. By definition, all such claims are false.
It cannot be any other way. All religious authority is inherently de-centralized. The duty to worship God is an individual duty, not a corporate one. The duty to worship God is part of the jurisdiction of the individual, not the Church. If religious authority in general is an individual matter (by definition applying to everyone), it would be fundamentally inconsistent for God to place the religious authority of his Church with some Christians but not others. And the God I know isn’t inconsistent.
Let’s look at the terms of the Great Commission again. I can’t count how many times I have heard a preacher say that evangelism is the duty of every Christian. Yet I have never once in my entire life heard a preacher say that baptism is the duty of every Christian. But why not? There it is, right in the middle of the sentence, “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.” What you have here is ostensibly two commands, or two parts of one command, to evangelize and to baptize.
They are given by the same person in the same sentence, as part of a single delegation of authority, to the same recipients in the same relational context and in the same outward circumstances. There is every reason to interpret these two things (evangelize and baptize) as being delegated to the same people in the same way for the same purpose, and no reason not to understand them this way.
Yet virtually every organized church in the world will consider baptism as something that can only be done by pre-approved church leaders, not ordinary church members. Baptism is also commonly regarded as a means of inducting people into a local church, which further supports this belief. After all, ordinary members cannot decide who may join the church on their own authority – this decision must be approved by the church leaders (so we are told).
Yet, if the authority to baptize belongs to every Christian, then that authority exists and can be exercised independently of any human church authority. Which is to say, if baptism is something every Christian is authorized to do, then it can be done anywhere, anytime, and by any Christian. It can be done in your swimming pool, or in your spa. It can be done by parents for their children or by friends and neighbors for each other. You don’t need a clergyman present. You don’t need a clergyman’s permission or approval. And you don’t need to couple church membership with baptism. You actually have – dare I say it – complete freedom to baptize.
What applies to baptism also applies to all lesser “sacraments.” By that I mean all other religious rituals performed according to the tenets of one’s faith. For the express delegation of authority to the Church expressly includes making disciples and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Therefore, to the extent anything else has been commanded by Jesus to his followers, each of his followers is authorized to perform.
Of necessity, this includes all so-called sacramental authority, including without limitation holy communion/ the Lord’s Supper/ the Eucharist.
The issue is very simple, really. When the scripture says, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,” does it refer to all Christians, or only to some? Is there a universal priesthood of all believers, or not? Is the scripture true, or not?
If every Christian has equal authority to carry out the Great Commission (i.e., to do the work of the Church), then shouldn’t the protections of the law be directed equally to every Christian as well?
III. EQUALITY, EXEMPTION AND PRIVILEGE
A Win-Win Situation
But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves . . .. [Luke 7:30.]
The sad result of firmly entrenched wrong thinking about what is lawful, what belongs to God, what belongs to heaven, and who the church is, has led to a myriad of laws protecting something, but whatever it is, it isn’t religious liberty. No, our modern laws do not protect religious freedom, or even religion in a general sense, but rather religious organizations of a pre-approved type and those who principally work in them. And therein lies a very great difference.
For you see, it isn’t religious people or religious activities which are exempt from property taxes, it is only churches and houses of worship which are exempt. You may dedicate your own house to the worship of God all you like, but if your house isn’t owned by a nonprofit and tax exempt religious organization, your bid for tax exemption doesn’t have a prayer.
You may despise self-employment taxes, but that burden will not be lifted from you unless you are a duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed minister of a church or a member of a religious order or a Christian Science practitioner. That short list hardly comprehends all religious people, all religious employments, or even all religious groups. It is a privilege reserved for some, but not others, based on what? – what they do, what they believe, or how religious they are? No, it is a privilege based on what institutional form is utilized, and whether it is pre-approved by a government agency.
You might be inclined to belittle the way we have gone about protecting religion in America, but you have to admire the way it is such an obvious win-win situation.
Government wins, because it gets to impose all kinds of taxes on the entire population that violate the most fundamental principles of lonang, while making only very negligible concessions to a select few. Government wins by looking like it is protecting religious freedom, without actually having to make concessions to everyone who is religious. Government wins because it ultimately retains control over who can be pre-approved to receive the exemptions and privileges it doles out, while letting the beneficiaries think they are in control. Government wins because it knows none of these exemptions or privileges are actually a matter of right, so they can be terminated whenever it becomes politically expedient.
Organized religion wins, because it can assure the religious masses that their freedoms are secure, without actually having to share the benefits of that freedom with the vast majority of them. Organized religion wins because it ultimately retains control over who can be duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed as a minister, so it doesn’t have to admit anyone into the club it doesn’t want to. Organized religion wins by never having to deal with the question of whether laws or taxes violate the laws of God, because as long as those laws or taxes don’t apply to the clergy, they can just ignore them. Organized religion wins because experience shows that if they never talk about something, people won’t ask uncomfortable questions about it, and the gravy train can last forever.
The end result is that organized religion doesn’t know when the limits of civil jurisdiction have been exceeded by government regulation or taxation, because churches and the clergy do not feel the pain or burden of being regulated or taxed. In a sense, the clergy have been bought as to their silence, because there is no need to preach against those burdens they and their institutions are exempt from. It is a cozy little arrangement.
The one downside to this win-win situation is that the average citizen and taxpayer loses. Liberty for all has been exchanged for privileges for the few. But don’t expect anyone in government or organized religion to tell you that. It would be contrary to their own self-interest.
One of the staple beliefs of organized religion, and institutional Christianity in particular, is that churches owe their allegiance solely to God (not to man), therefore their activities, religious leaders, and principal institutions are necessarily exempt from civil governmental interference.
It is one of the great ironies of lonang that not only is this belief flawed and unsupportable as a matter of law, but it actually produces an effect which is the opposite of the one intended. That is, the logical and practical effect of special religious exemptions and privileges is to subject churches to more governmental regulation, not less. Further, legal exemptions of the type advocated by organized religion actually are more consistent with an establishment of religion (in the legal sense) than with religious liberty, thereby undercutting the freedom that organized religion claims to seek for itself.
No Respecter of Persons
But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. [James 2:9.]
God is no respecter of persons, and He judges each man without partiality. As the bearer of God’s image, man is to judge his fellow man according to the same standard. Righteous judgment plays no favorites. We are required to judge according to what a person does (a purpose approach), not who they are (a person approach). The standard used in legal proceedings applies to the internal affairs of churches as well.
All things and all men were made by God – equal, fallen or cursed, and mortal or perishable. With God, there is only one standard: all people are equal before him. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. None are righteous, no not one. There are no sacred people. There are no holy men. There is no job or task a man can do which makes him holy. When unholy men organize and form a group – even a church group – it does not become more holy than the men who form it. There are no holy groups of men.
When civil laws recognize some persons or groups as sacred or holy and others as not sacred or holy, we have a name for that: an establishment of religion.
Consider religious worship. If religious worship is truly sacred, then it must be equally sacred whenever it is done, by whomever it is done, and wherever it is done. But society does not treat religious worship this way. Religious worship engaged in by recognized groups, on dedicated property, led by recognized ministers, and at appointed times, is accorded special favor. Religious worship engaged in by individuals or families, in homes or businesses, led by laity, is not recognized or protected by law in the same way. This is legal inequality. It is religious establishment.
Consequently, it is not truly religious worship which is treated as sacred by society (and by law), but it is certain organizations (incorporated as ecclesiastical corporations, qualified for 501(c)(3) status, with formal statements of faith, etc.) which are treated as sacred, certain individuals (licensed, ordained or commissioned by a church) who are treated as sacred, and certain property (dedicated as a house of worship and the administration of sacerdotal functions) which is treated as sacred.
What we have is not religious recognition for all (i.e., no respecter of persons), but only religious recognition of those who meet government criteria, apply for government recognition, and receive government permission. So, how is that not the opposite of equality? How is it not an establishment of religion?
The Law of Exemption
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.” [Matthew 17:24-26.]
This text illustrates a basic principle of civil government, namely, government collects taxes only from those potential payers who are not themselves a part of the civil government. The members of the civil “household” are exempt because they are fellow recipients of the tax revenues. Thus, a civil government never taxes its own receipts. Similarly, a national government rarely desires to tax one of its political subdivisions. A tax levied on a political subdivision is equivalent to the civil government taxing itself.
While the preceding may seem obvious, I suggest there is a corollary principle which is just as obvious: this is the exclusive rule by which anyone can be considered immune from tax, merely because of who they are. In other words, there are no tax immune persons other than agencies of the civil government. It is axiomatic in tax law that all exemptions from taxation granted by public officials or the legislature are a matter of grace, not legal obligation. Tax exemption is a privilege, not a right.
Yet, churches continually argue that they are exempt from taxes as a matter of right. This is in spite of the fact that churches across the United States are routinely required to pay or charge state sales taxes, all church property is not automatically exempt from state property taxes (it depends on what the property is used for), and every church is potentially liable for federal income taxes on any unrelated business income. So why do churches keep making these arguments?
The concept of church immunity is usually based on the principle that the church owes its duty solely to God, not civil government, because Jesus is the King of the church. But the same is true for the family, which owes all of its duties to God, not government. Yet, the family is not immune from any civil taxation. In fact, every individual owes certain duties to God under the laws of self-government. If the church immunity argument is correct, no individual can be taxed at all, since every person is a coequal self-government with the civil government before God. This can only result in anarchy.
Under lonang, if the purpose of an activity is religious, it is beyond the civil jurisdiction, no matter who is doing it. Organized church worship is no more or less religious than the individual or family worship of God. But, if the purpose of an activity is commercial, it is subject to the same civil regulation no matter who is doing it. A church-owned business is no less commercial than an individually or family owned business.
Under lonang, churches are exempt from income taxation on their contribution receipts not because they have been granted any special immunity by God or exemption by public officials, but because of the legal character of gift transactions. Gifts are not income, so gifts are not subject to an income tax. However, modern federal tax exemption laws have significantly departed from this principle. Exempt status permits churches to treat some business income the same as contribution receipts for income tax purposes. That is, business income which is related to an church’s exempt purposes is not taxed, even though income from the same kind of activity would be taxable to non-exempt organizations.
Contrary to the claims of religious expositors, who extol this situation as securing the freedom of churches from civil government, there is in fact a heavy price paid for these special exemptions and privileges. A real cost of obtaining exempt status is that public officials can tell an exempt organization how to conduct its affairs and structure its government (that is, what provisions must be inserted into the governing documents). Churches are prohibited from engaging in political campaign activities (a law which is very selectively enforced), and lobbying is severely limited.
This is to be expected, since that is the way all political subdivisions are governed. What can be concluded, except that federal tax-exempt status is an acceptance by churches of federal jurisdiction over some aspects of their own self-government? In fact, it is more than that. It is a willingness to submit churches to civil authorities as long as a personal advantage can be gained. It is a willingness to sell the gospel short for filthy lucre – mere money.
Did it never occur to anyone, that when Jesus authorized his Church to teach people to obey everything he commanded, this would necessarily include aspects of law and government? Didn’t Jesus teach about the laws of marriage and divorce? [Mt. 19:3-12.] Didn’t Jesus teach about the lawfulness of taxes? [Mt. 17:24-27; Lk. 20:21-25.] Didn’t Jesus teach about the applicability of the Mosaic law? [Mt. 5:17-20] Sunday blue laws (the Sabbath)? Legal oaths? Due process? [Jn 7:51; 8:3-11.]
Whoever said that the gospel is politically neutral? Or that it is legally irrelevant, or governmentally obscure? You mean to tell me that the Son of the God of law and government – the God who is law, and the Son who kept the law perfectly – had nothing to say about law and government? That Christ, who will come to establish a government the increase of which will know no end, on whose shoulders the government rests, and who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, kept totally silent about such things?