RENDER NOT TO CAESAR THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S
by Alan Allison, Spokane WA
[We have a guest author on this occasion. His article, I believe, is very important as it illustrates how the government’s view of “the church” is shaped by how it sees “church” function. It raises questions that we would do well to reflect upon. No doubt, some tax laws have been changed since this article was written, but the basic points still stand. “Render Not” was originally published in Searching Together, 1998, Fall/Winter, Vol 26:3-4. I have known Alan for 30+ years. He has been an encouraging, faithful friend. JZ]
Sometime in early 1996 I listened to a Christian talk show on finances. The subject of the day was tax deductions and other benefits available to those whom the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) considers to be self-employed “ministers.” Since I, like most other Christians, had never applied for such deductions, I was interested to learn just what tax breaks were available. I turned up the volume a bit, and was amazed to hear that in order to qualify, the “minister” would have to do most of the preaching, administer the “sacraments,” and basically control the entire worship service. At the time, I was unable to confirm the source of this information.
In light of my own views of appropriate New Covenant assembly life, and high regard for the priesthood of all believers, I was quite troubled at this apparent governmental interference on the structure of the Church of Jesus Christ. As I later reflected on what I had heard on the radio broadcast, the implications prompted me to gather up relevant publications to find out what the existing tax laws actually required and how the courts have been interpreting those laws.
Here is a brief summary of the special tax provisions for “ministers”:
** Exclusion for income tax purposes of the housing allowance and fair rental value of a church-owned parsonage provided rent free to clergy.
** Exemption of clergy from self-employment tax under very limited circumstances.
** Treatment of clergy (who do not elect social security exemption) as self-employed for social security tax purposes for income from ministerial services.
** Exemption of clergy compensation from mandatory income tax withholding.
** Eligibility for a voluntary income tax withholding arrangement between the minister-employee and the church.
** Potential double deduction of mortgage interest and real estate taxes as itemized deductions and as housing expenses for housing allowance purposes.
Without going into all the details, there certainly are considerable tax advantages for ministers. I have also learned, however, that the IRS is really cracking down on those who, according to their rules, may not be entitled to claim deductions as “ministers.” In plain language, “If you are ordained, commissioned, or licensed and meet the following three tests, the IRS will generally consider you a minister. You: must administer the sacraments, conduct worship services, and perform services in the ‘control, conduct, or maintenance of a church.’”
David Epstein, a tax attorney and author on “clergy” tax, while appearing as a guest a on “Money Matters” radio broadcast  stated that one would only have to meet the ordination or licensing requirement and any two of four other requirements: “1. That you lead religious worship 2. That you administer the sacraments 3. You have administrative or management functions 4. You are considered a spiritual leader within your church.”
Other interpretations of the relative tax codes cause even greater concern: “To sustain self-employment status, a minister would need to convince the IRS that no one has right to control either the method or the means by which his ministry is conducted. This might also include the authority to unilaterally discontinue the regular service of a local church.” The words “unilateral” and “his ministry” certainly suggest that in order to qualify for this status, the “minister” must be in total control of everything that goes on in the church. Whether that is the intended interpretation is not the point. There are divergent opinions among tax experts about how many of these conditions must be complied with to qualify for special tax deductions and privileges. Given such ambiguity, those who dread the prospect of an IRS audit often seek the safety of total or even over-compliance.
The idea that any one person – ordained or otherwise – should have so much authority and control over a local assembly as to be able to “unilaterally discontinue the regular services of a local church” is in total conflict with clearly defined NT revelation. Necessary church discipline, for example – which even elders must submit to – is a function of the entire body, not just one person. When confronted with an unrepentant member, elder or otherwise, Christ’s teaching is clear: “If he/she refuses to listen to them, tell it to the ekklesia; and if he/she refuses to listen to even to the , treat him/her as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).
Jesus alone has unilateral authority over his body the church and he is always present in the person of the Holy Spirit. This does not diminish the true delegated biblical service of the elders. We are indeed commanded to “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). Those very same leaders (elders, overseers), however, are themselves subject to the church and to church discipline if necessary. Their leadership is not autonomous and without constraint. “They are “under-shepherds” of God’s flock, and dare not usurp the ultimate authority that belongs solely to Jesus Christ, the “Chief Shepherd” of the church.
To compare the IRS definition of a “minister” with the NT portrait is to uncover a definite conflict of interest between the church and the state. This should not be a surprise, since we really cannot expect secular governments to understand how the Body of Christ functions. But it is a problem for which we need a solution that neither unnecessarily offends the governing authorities, nor violates the mandates of Scripture.
In the first place, we need to acknowledge that it is simply impossible to fully conform to the IRS definition of a “minister” without coming in direct conflict with Scripture. The concept of unilateral authority over all functions of the church and the exclusive right to “administer the sacraments” may satisfy IRS rules and regulations, but it is a direct violation of NT paradigms. In the NT, an elder is not one who controls, but one who serves everyone else. Jesus himself admonished, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matt. 20:25-27). If we are going to be faithful to God’s Word, therefore, we cannot impose the “one-man” control over the church that the IRS stipulates without sinfully squelching the true “one-another” patterns of the NT.
A second problem arises when a “minister” elects to take advantage of available tax breaks with the full knowledge that he is not in total compliance with the IRS rules. This too, is wrong. The NT is quite clear about our responsibilities toward governments. We are to do our best to comply with “every human ordinance” (1 Pet. 2:13) and to willingly pay whatever taxes (fair or not) such governments may impose upon us (Rom. 13:6-7). If we claim special “ministerial” tax breaks, fully aware that we do not meet the qualifying criteria, we are in effect cheating the IRS. Worse yet, we are deliberately disobeying clear biblical teaching.
In either case, the solution is simple. If you don’t take the deductions, you have no need to conform to the qualifying criteria. Would it not be better to pay a few more taxes rather than to sinfully suppress the exercise of true one-another ministry in the assembly? Dare we presume to take authority upon ourselves that clearly belongs to the whole church just to avoid paying higher taxes? Or, on the other hand, can we justify claiming “ministerial” tax breaks with the full knowledge that our situation does not actually satisfy IRS rules and regulations? No one enjoys forking over hard-earned income to the IRS – especially many whose labors in the Kingdom of our Lord eke out a meager living at best. But to improve one’s financial status by compromising spiritual integrity is a loss, not a gain.
There are those, of course, who are quick to defend “bending the rules” because “everyone does it.” Perhaps they feel justified in fudging a bit in light of the well-known governmental waste and IRS abuses, or because they believe taxation is just another excuse for the government to intrude into the affairs of the church. While such arguments may satisfy human logic, they cannot stand a biblical test. We need to be reminded that the murderous tyrant Caligula was in power when Jesus said to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” and it was an insane Nero who ruled over a decadent and corrupt Roman government when Paul instructed believers to pay whatever taxes were imposed upon them.
At this point, it is important to make a few observations. First of all, the NT nowhere teaches that the church or its leaders have any God-given right to exemption from taxes imposed by secular governments. Jesus himself – the great “High Priest” of the entire church that bears his name, claimed no such exemption. Instead, he taught his disciples to follow his own example by willingly paying whatever taxes the prevailing government might impose (Matt. 17:25-27; 22:17-21). That the church or anyone who “ministers” on her behalf should be given any special consideration when it comes to taxes, therefore, is a privileged “break.” It is not something any government must do. If our lawmakers decide to tax churches exactly the same way as the rest of society, they would be within their prerogative to do so, and no scripture could be cited to protest.
Secondly, the church has little room for complaint regarding the IRS rules we outlined at the beginning of this article. The IRS did not think these things up out of thin air as a way to poke their nose into church business. The “ministerial” definitions used as the criteria for determining exemptions were actually based on what the IRS saw going on in “the church” — distorted structures and practices that focus on one leader. It is the church that turned the Lord’s Supper – that wonderful memorial that demonstrates every believer’s oneness in Christ – into a ritualistic “sacrament” to be pompously administered only by those specially “ordained” to do so. And it is the church that also introduced all of the other hierarchical structures now reflected in our tax laws. The IRS’s method for determining who qualifies as a “minister,” therefore, is rooted less in legislative caprice than in the twisted church patterns from which the government has derived its rules and regulations.
We may not be able to reel in a fish with money in its mouth to pay our taxes like Jesus did, but hasn’t God promised to “meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19)? Wouldn’t it be better to willingly pay a few more taxes, if necessary, than to compromise even the least of the NT “one-another” patterns for a healthy, properly functioning local assembly? And if you are serving as an elder, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve” (1 Pet. 5:2).
We still have incredible freedoms in this country. Let’s complain less about our government and its tax policies, and instead humbly pray for “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2). There are millions of God’s people around the world for whom oppression and abuse at the hands of their leaders is a daily reality. Would they not rejoice ecstatically to be able to worship, fellowship and witness to others with the freedom and protections we enjoy?
(Further discussion of the “clergy” and priesthood of all believers is contained in the Summer 1981 edition and Winter 1995 of Searching Together.)
1. Busby, CPA, Preparing Your Minister’s Tax Return, p.4.
2. Busby, CPA, The Zondervan Minister’s Tax & Financial Guide, p.20.
3. An outreach of Christian Financial Concepts, Inc.
4. “Money Matters,” CFC, Inc., Tape 31561.
5. The Zondervan Minister’s Tax & Financial Guide, p.27.