To qualify the organization is required to have a board of trustees, keep minutes and turn over financial information to the government. It allows the organization to open bank accounts, buy property and securities and function like a corporation. The government does not take an active hand in the running of the organization but they are able to monitor it and if deemed necessary to audit it.
Churches have responded to this in different ways. Churches with a plurality of elders, such as the Presbyterians give their elders a dual title. In terms of the church, they're elders. In terms of the 501c, they're trustees.
Other congregations will have their pastors, elders and deacons and then in addition have a board of trustees to oversee the financial records and requirements of the 501c. This arrangement is particularly egregious as it splits the authority of the Church and utilizes an office, that of Trustee which is nowhere found in Scripture. At that point the government is quite literally playing a part in Church polity or government by creating offices.
Of course there's another aspect to this. Non-profits are ostensibly engaged in some kind of social work, otherwise they would be seeking profits. But in the United States political activism and lobbying outside of certain limits is considered beyond the realm of tax exemption. These monies have to be reported and are subject to taxation. This is presently the subject of a great deal of debate, all the more as many American Churches are becoming more deliberate and determined in their political activism and efforts at mobilization.
Thus many Churches feel as if they have to toe the line and are cautious in what they say in an official capacity. They don't want to risk an audit or losing the status. Frankly, a lot of ministries and churches and playing fast and loose with the rules and would face sanction. Some believe the government needs to change the law and allow churches to raise money as tax exempt organizations and then do whatever they want even if it's political. If this happened Churches would be placed at the centre of money laundering as they would be able to take in massive funds and yet not account for how they are spent.
As this controversy has expanded, a very small number have chosen to forego their tax exempt status in order to be able to preach politically from the pulpit without any restrictions.
We are categorically opposed to 501c incorporation. This is not because we wish to preach politics. Far from it. And yet if we did believe that was the case then we fail to understand the pandering and compromise on the part of so many churches. It's a stunning and sad admission that they would put money above preaching the message they believe to be necessary and true.
Again, it is not our desire to promote political parties. We are critical of all of them and every aspect of the world political and economic system. We are strangers and pilgrims. We are not silent regarding these matters and some solutions are better than others but we would never as the church endorse political solutions to the problems of fallen world or put our home in a candidate or party. The world needs Christ and no government can legislate the Gospel.
We object to the idea of registering our congregation with any government and allowing that government to dictate to us how we should order our congregation or giving us guidelines for what kind of records or minutes we would need to keep. We object to them imposing offices upon us... that of trustee for example and we are uncomfortable with the idea that we play a 'name-game' with the office elder and trustee in order to accommodate this arrangement... all just to save money?
Churches are trapped in a vortex of money-centered thinking, a business mindset, and we are convinced that the costs of actually operating a congregation are quite small.
On a practical level there are difficulties with opening bank accounts and paying out money for bills or to support missionaries. But these barriers are actually surmountable. There are solutions and they're really not that complicated. The Church functioned without these financial mechanisms for most of its history. We are not convinced by the stewardship arguments that we need to worry about investing money and earning interest. We believe the parables appealed to in this case have been ripped from their context and misunderstood. Churches do not need large savings accounts and investment portfolios.
As far as the legality of collecting money without reporting it to the government...
If we as a congregation don't exist as a formal entity, then there's nothing to report. Legally speaking there's no collection occurring. If Christians are spending their money on non-political activities and we're not banking, investing, earning dividends and interest then there's nothing to be said, nothing to report. There's no law being broken because legally the congregation has no status. Legally, it doesn't exist. The government of the United States has nothing to do with our congregation. What congregation? Legally speaking we're just a group of individuals gathering together. If we pass money around, that's no business of the government any more than it is when a group of people contribute to paying a bill at a restaurant. It's only an issue if we're raising money for activities and then trying to avoid paying tax. That's something we're not involved in doing.
Functionally speaking we are an underground church. Like the underground churches in China, we have no legal status. Thankfully in our system we don't have to worry about being imprisoned for it.
It's interesting how many Christians in America are supportive of the Chinese Underground Church and critical of the officially recognized Three-Self Patriotic Churches... those that have registered with the Beijing government. Beijing doesn't directly control their messages, but it monitors their activities. Beijing is especially concerned about the influences of international money being laundered through churches and used to foment subversion. The Three-Self Churches are scrutinized and monitored and just like 501c's in America are subject to restrictions of political speech.
The Underground Church rightly views this as a mortal compromise and as something approaching apostasy. They believe these churches have placed their security, respectability and financial footing above the Gospel. The Three-Self Churches have nice buildings and many resources. The Underground Church is just that... underground and meets in houses or other venues.
Essentially we believe that we have a similar situation here in the United States but that most congregations for the sake of money have sold out and registered with the state.
We admire the handful of congregations that have refused to do this but lamentably it has most often been motivated by a desire to be more politically active. We simply want to go about our Kingdom work, minding our own business, working with our hands, leading quiet lives and serving God. The world will not understand what we're doing or what we're about. Unlike many ministries and denominations, we're not running a financial scam. Giving money to God's work is an act of Christian devotion. The government has nothing to do with it.
Finally there are those believe that Christians can get more 'bang for their buck' by claiming these donated monies on their tax form. Most Churches issue a tax receipt so that the tax-filer can produce an official record of how much they have given. At that point the government grants them tax credits or a deduction. This is money that anyone else would have to pay but they are exempted from because of the deduction. Sure, everyone does it right?
But theologically what are the implications of this? You're getting money in your pocket in the form of a credit, money you would otherwise have to pay, because you gave money to your Church? We also find it troubling that Churches keep records of how much people give. That's no one's business. That's between the individual and God.
Many justify these practices because they're bitter about paying taxes in the first place. Many Americans have not accepted the New Testament's teaching regarding how we are to view the state and taxes. Simply put, we are to pay them and not complain. Yes, they're wasted. Yes, the money is used for evil things... wars and waste. It was no different under Tiberius or Nero. The money was used for wars and pagan temples. That's not the point. Government is ordained by Providence and as bad as it is still serves a purpose. Tax refusal is simply worldly-wisdom, often theological confusion and ultimately a refusal to obey New Testament teaching.
But if someone says "I gave $10,000 to the Church last year," and then received $2000 in tax deductions as a result of that.... then they didn't really give $10,000 did they? They got a kick-back. They gave $8000.
And where does that money come from? Well, the items in the state and federal budgets have to be paid for (regardless of the foolishness and waste) and so if you didn't pay them, then someone else did. The money effectively has come out of someone else's pocket.
Should the Church of Jesus Christ be aided financially by civil government? Most would say no, but that's the present reality.
This is troubling on many fronts and theologically it is reminiscent of the slight-of-hand intellectual dishonesty at play in the Ananias and Sapphira episode.
If we give, then we give and we don't expect financial perks and exemptions. The financial issues of the Church need to be separated from the government.
It's only because the Church has sought to become a large institution with real estate, property, assets and investments that has raised these questions and led to these difficulties. The issue needs to be reconsidered.
And step one is for Bible-based congregations to dispense with registering for 501c tax status.