The Price of Privilege (Rethinking Church #15)

In the previous essay I listed four types of relationship between the church and the state—persecuted, free and tolerated, free and privileged, and established. In 1833, Massachusetts became the last of the original American Colonies to end its system of state support for churches. Since that time, churches in the United States have been officially “free and privileged” but not established. In the previous essay, “The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room,” I focused on religious freedom and its dangers. In this essay, I want to examine the idea of privilege and its temptations.

What is Privilege?

The word privilege has a long history and many meanings. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, it derives ultimately from Latin in the days of Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Privilegium combines two other Latin words, one meaning “private” and the other “law.” The word was at first used in a negative sense, as a law disadvantaging an individual or group. Later it acquired the positive sense in which we use the English word today. In this core sense, a privilege is an legal exception given to some people or groups but not others or a positive benefit bestowed by law on some but not everyone. Even though today we use it of special advantages some people have over others no matter how they were acquired—by birth or good fortune or successful labor or in execution of an official duty—it still possesses an aura of unfairness that provokes resentment and envy from those not so privileged.

The Church and Privilege

Many privileges enjoyed by the church today are also enjoyed by other nonprofit corporations, specifically those under the IRS classification “Charitable and Religious Organizations” [(IRS code 501(c) (3)]. Under these regulations, churches are exempt from paying certain taxes, and a portion of contributions by individuals to those organizations also receive favorable tax status. But in the United States, Christian churches and charitable organizations—along with other religious groups—are given special exceptions in deference to the First Amendment to the Constitution. For example, churches and some religious nonprofits claim exemptions from certain parts of anti-discrimination laws applicable to other groups. Below is a typical statement of anti-discrimination written for nonprofit organizations:

“[My Organization] does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, hiring and firing of staff, selection of volunteers and vendors, and provision of services. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our staff, clients, volunteers, subcontractors, vendors, and clients.”

Often, churches and other religious nonprofit organizations place exception clauses within in these declarations claiming exemptions based on freedom of religion. Some simply say “[Organization X] does not unlawfully discriminate….” Others add explanations such as the following, “[Organization Y] is exempt from certain state and federal anti-discrimination laws based on its status as a religious non-profit corporation and its religious beliefs.”

The Cost of Privilege

The advantages of privilege are obvious and difficult to turn down when offered. As you can see from the discussion above, privileges granted to churches fall into two categories, financial exclusions and exemption from anti-discrimination laws. These privileges greatly advance the work of churches in so far as they are organized as legal, corporate entities that engage in commercial activity. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that revoking these privileges would destroy most churches as they are currently organized. For churches could not continue to do business as usual if they were subjected to taxation on income and property and individual contributions to churches were to cease being tax deductible. And were churches to become subject to the full range of anti-discrimination laws, they would be forced to hire atheists, heretics, and immoral people as ministers.

In recent years, churches and other Christian nonprofit organizations in the United States—and other Western countries—have come under growing pressure to conform to the dominant culture of anti-discrimination. Calls to revoke the church’s privileges and exemptions have grown louder and louder. And voices defending the church’s freedom and privileges are equally loud. As tempting as it is to enter this culture war as a combatant, I want to look at this issue from another angle. My concern in this series is preserving the church’s essential nature as the body of Christ and its essential mission of witness to Jesus.

The privileges granted by the state apply only to that dimension of the church that is visible to the state as a corporate entity engage in commerce. Clearly, only churches that exist as legal entities could be “destroyed” by losing their privileges. Only they can be blackmailed by threats of such revocation. Churches that refrain from organizing in this way do not receive privileges from the state. But they also do not need them or fear losing them. Nor are they in danger of mistaking them for the essence of the church.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not believe that churches that organize themselves so as to take advantage of state granted privileges are necessarily doing wrong. Having served in church leadership in such churches for most of my adult life my concerns do not arise from secular resentment and envy. I am not hoping that the state will take away the church’s privileges. Nor do I long for persecution. I am simply urging the church to count the cost of accepting state granted privileges and to cease thinking of them as an unalloyed blessings. For if we believe that losing our privileges would destroy the church, we will be greatly tempted to do whatever it takes to preserve them. I want the church to be free of this fear. The existence of the church and the vitality of its mission do not depend on favors from the state. Even if the church gave up all its current privileges and ceased to exist as a legal entity, it would not thereby ceased to exist in its fullness as the body of Christ. Nor would its witness to Jesus be rendered ineffective. Even if we do not choose this path—and most churches will not and, perhaps, should not do so—it is liberating to know that it is available.

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