November 3, 2009
This past Sunday I had an interesting experience I thought I should share. After attending an average church meeting in the morning and spending an uncomfortable afternoon reading the news, I eventually ended my day and got to sleep. I was awakened at 4am with some of the news articles in my mind and a phrase predominant in my thoughts.
The phrase was: Asleep at the switch. Although I thought I was aware of the meaning of the phrase I got up and looked it up.
The Online Dictionary defines ‘asleep at the switch’ as follows: “This term came from 19th-century American railroading, when it was the trainman’s duty to switch cars from one track to another by means of manually operated levers. Should he fail to do so, trains could collide. It was later transferred to any lack of alertness … disastrous results are implied.” (http://www.yourdictionary.com/idioms/asleep-at-the-switch)
This started me thinking. We have arrived at a period in American and world history when being awake is of utmost importance. Being in a position of leadership and yet asleep to critical issues at such a time will certainly lead to the ‘disastrous results’ referred to in the closing phrase in the above definition.
Here in The United States of late we are daily confronted with news of proposed legislation that would radically change the very underpinnings of our nation. Recently a final copy of the proposed health care ‘reform’ was released. Despite lawmaker promises to the contrary, the bill still contains items like government funded abortion (Page 110) and end of life counseling (Pages 649-661).
I began to review the happenings of the previous day. Oddly enough, I heard no out cry in church about any of the provisions in the legislation. Although I expected to hear readings from the scripture on subjects like, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), no such sermon was given. Rather, the current ongoing sermon series was apparently to be continued without interruption.
Perhaps, I thought, the pastor might fit in a section about “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), relating it to the ‘cap and trade’ bill, which will effectively, and under false pretenses, redistribute (read: steal) the incomes of Americans, convert them to ‘carbon credits’, and give them into the hands of some of the same organizations that caused the current economic crisis. This subject was not presented either.
Or, perhaps, a message about the ‘stealing’ from the American people that occurred when congress and the federal reserve, against the wishes of 80% of Americans, gave trillions of taxpayer dollars to bankers last year about this time, and wants to do more of the same. No, to my surprise, nothing such as this was included in the message.
Or, perhaps, a word or two about proposed gun control legislation and the Biblical right of self defense, with a reference to Exodus 22:2 which states, “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account.” Sadly, that was not mentioned either.
Or, perhaps, a section of the sermon would be about the new Youth Corps, or government figures and schools encouraging children to report on their parents for ‘suspicious behavior’ with a reference to Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.“ Maybe, I thought, that section would reference Jesus’ words in Mark 13:12, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.“ Unfortunately, that sermon section was absent as well.
While I was not really surprised, the lack of reference to any current topic did disturb me. My concern is not ‘political’ per se, but it is a concern for the people these bills are planning to harm, kill, rob, etc. In pondering the lack of any ‘political’ or current events content in sermons I heard that day, or have heard in recent years, I began researching the actual text of the government’s tax exempt status for churches. Although this tax status offers a benefit to the churches in that the member’s donations are exempt from taxes, it has a darker side to it as well.
When the government offers churches 501(c)(3) tax exempt status it comes with some ‘Restrictions on Activities’ that must be observed by the organization in order to comply. The restriction states that “Intervention in political campaigns or the endorsement/anti-endorsement of candidates for public office is strictly prohibited” and “lobbying, propaganda or other legislative activity must be kept relatively insubstantial”. Churches are allowed to keep their congregation’s donations sheltered from federal taxes only if, in turn, the pastors agree to keep silent on political issues.
It seems that the government has effectively suppressed the content of American pastors sermons by offering 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, which states that “Intervention in political campaigns or the endorsement/anti-endorsement of candidates for public office is strictly prohibited” and “lobbying, propaganda or other legislative activity must be kept relatively insubstantial”. Churches are allowed to keep their congregation’s donations sheltered from federal taxes only if, in turn, the pastors agree to keep silent on political issues.
While these restrictions are clearly stated by the government, they are not clearly understood by many church congregations, and their ramifications, which restrict what a pastor can speak freely about, are even less understood. These issues warrant serious consideration by any church seeking tax exempt status, as well as reconsideration by any church already organized as a 501(c)(3).
Being an ordained pastor as well as a business owner I understand the difficult issues involved in leader/congregation relations and can empathize with pastors who are uneasy about approaching their congregations with the idea of giving up their tax deduction. Fortunately most congregations recognize that pastors in America have a unique privilege and responsibility to help guide the church of America into the truth, and are likely to consider seriously what their pastors share with them.
During the American Revolution pastors had more influence with the common people than the signers of the Declaration of Independence had. The pastors reach the people where they live. Congregations trust their pastors to give them ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. Pastors, on the other hand, have access to and an impact on a large audience, and have a strong persuasive platform based on the underpinnings of people’s desire to be right with God. If pastors speak with conviction their congregations will generally listen.
I realize that there are already pastors in America who do speak out on the issues facing us, with or without tax exemption. To those pastors I say, “Thank you for your service.” I applaud you for speaking out about the issues our country faces as they relate to the teachings of the Bible. We live in the freest nation on earth, and you have squarely taken on the responsibility that comes with that freedom. If we must lose tax exempt status by speaking out it is a small price to pay. If we face imprisonment for it we will join the honorable ranks of pastors from China, Iran, and many other nations who have faced persecution for decades simply for doing and speaking what is contained in the Bible.
In many cases it is the congregation who will be the ones who need to make the decision on this issue once they are fully informed. I have found that most believers who are clearly addressed on this issue, being told the consequences to sermon content and all that the scriptures say that is applicable, will opt for change.
If the congregation wants the content of their pastor’s messages to remain limited by the government for the sake of the tax deduction, they can continue as they are. If not, they can make the necessary changes.
If the majority opts for freedom of speech in their sermons some members may leave in search of another church that will still offer them a tax deduction. This is unfortunate, but will likely occur. Meeting attendance and offerings will likely be affected. Personally, I have counted the cost, and believe it to be worth it in order to allow the unfettered truth to be spoken. God will honor the ‘love of the truth.’
Jesus taught us that we ‘cannot serve both God and money’, so if such a choice exists it is clear how we must choose. As ministers of the good news about Jesus we must be able to say with Paul, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” (Acts 20:26-27). If a pastor who has studied the details of the tax exempt status finds themselves in a congregation that chooses to retain tax exemption after knowing the full ramifications, the pastor is free, if they desire, to step down and move to (or start) a church that desires to hear all that the scripture has to say on the current state of our country and the world without the 501(c)(3) filter.
I have heard it said that, since the government ‘requires churches not to speak on political issues’, and Romans 13 requires us to obey the government, the topic of whether or not to use 501(c)(3) is not an issue. It is true, however, that the same apostle Paul who dictated those words in Romans 13 did not obey the Roman or Jewish government edicts requiring citizens to give up the locations of believers in hiding, although he once had crafted such edicts himself. Jesus’ disciples and Jesus himself apparently did not obey the edict that said, “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where He was, he was to report it, so that they might seize Him.” (John 11:57). Along these lines it may be helpful to read the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer.
It is also important to remember that our governmental situation is much different than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day. We live in a constitutional republic. The persons mentioned in the opening sections above who are violating the laws of the land are not us, but rather the elected officials attempting to force through legislation against the will of the constituents who elected them.
I fully understand the quandary American pastors find themselves in. A few years back when I began researching what appears to be the ‘course planned for our nation’ I eventually became rather depressed and felt hopeless. I felt like David facing an entire army of Goliaths. With God’s help I eventually had to shake off this overwhelming intimidation, trust God, and take action. I now have hope for America and all her pastors and congregations. We need not be found asleep at the switch. If we all set our sails God will supply the wind!
Daniel Barrett, Maryland, USA
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
“But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet and the people are not warned, and a sword comes and takes a person from them, he is taken away 1in his iniquity; but his blood I will require from the watchman’s hand.” Ezekiel 33:6
“The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.