According to The Church Report, a new resource has been released which offers churches guidelines for keeping their activities and functions within the letter of the law. As non-profit organizations, churches are held to the same standard as registered charities and cannot engage in certain forms of public speech.

A report by The Rutherford Institute, “The Rights of Churches and Political Involvement” (PDF), examines in detail what the restrictions are for churches. There are two main areas: “first, no substantial part of the organization’s activities may consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation; and second, the organization may not participate in political campaigning in opposition to, or on behalf of, any candidate for public office.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the former case rather than the latter, since I take it for granted that churches shouldn’t be institutionally involved in campaigning for a specific candidate. For more on this second aspect of the law, see this post on the use of church directories by political parties, passed on by Joe Carter.

In its summary of the first type of restriction, the report states:

In short, only one reported court decision has found a religious organization in violation of section 501(c)(3) by engaging in “substantial” legislative activities. The IRS, however, refuses to abide by any precise standards, such as a percentage rule, to measure when “substantial” legislative activities have occurred. Hence, a church or religious organization seeking to acquire or maintain a tax-exempt status must be aware that there is always some risk that its attempt to influence legislation will prompt the IRS to pursue an audit and perhaps even revoke its tax-exempt status.

It goes on to say that “one risk adverse approach might be for a church to report pending legislation to church members, without proposing, supporting or opposing any legislation.”

The bottom line seems to be this: “Tax exemptions for churches and religious organizations are a privilege and not a constitutional right. In fact, to acquire and maintain this privilege, churches and religious organizations may have to forsake heretofore protected constitutional rights under the First Amendment.”

This means that if it is something that is germane to the proclamation of the gospel, a church must be willing to lose its tax-exempt status. The government could potentially use tax-free status as leverage to keep churches quiet about political activity. If the pastor and consistory feel that the issue is one of religious imperative, something like a status confessionis, the church must resist the temptation to impose restrictions on its own speech in the interest of maintaining a privileged position.

This clearly calls for prudence and wisdom on the part of the church leadership. I’m not suggesting that churches simply cast off their tax-exempt status on a whim. But when the issue comes down to one of keeping silent over clear moral evils or losing their special status, churches must choose the latter. Their ultimate allegiance must be to Christ and not Caesar.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the context of the enforcement of the Aryan clauses prohibiting pastors of Jewish heritage from ministry in the state churches, writes of the rare instance in which the church must “put a spoke in the wheel itself.” In his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he says, “Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order, i.e. when it sees the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order. In both these cases it must see the existence of the state, and with it its own existence, threatened.”

He continues to argue that “there would be too little law if any group of subjects were deprived of their rights, too much where the state intervened in the character of the church and its proclamation, e.g. in the forced exclusion of baptised Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews. Here the Christian church would find itself in statu confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating itself. A state which includes within itself a terrorised church has lost its most faithful servant.”

One such instance of the state making “too much law” and intervening “in the character of the church and its proclamation” would be the criminalization of certain types of speech as hateful or offensive.