Shortly after my recent exchange with someone here on the blog about his confusion over 501(c)3 status, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece that, to me, demonstrates how misplaced 501(c)3 concerns really are.
Before I get into that, though, let me summarize very briefly some of the questions asked about 501(c)3 status and clear answers to those questions. [FWIW, my response in the comments to the individual was a bit snarky–a reaction on my part to the original rant he tried to post which I did not allow. (I do not normally allow such posts, per my comment policy.) Hopefully this will be more straightforward and snark free. If the individual found anything helpful–or for that matter–inaccurate, perhaps he will let me know; so far I have not heard from him.] The questions below are either questions I have heard or seen before (asked of me or others) and some I created because I thought they were good ones. And, since I am neither an accountant or a lawyer, my answers are based on my own understanding and the sort of research any non-specialized schmuck like me can do.
- Q: Is the Living Church of God a 501(c)3 organization?
A: Yes—by the way, just like the Worldwide Church of God was under Herbert W Armstrong.
- Q: Doesn’t that mean that the government controls you?
A: No, just like it didn’t control the Worldwide Church of God under Mr. Armstrong, or, for that matter, the other multiple thousands of 501(c)3 organizations (Jewish, Muslim, non-church, etc.).
- Q: How do you know that Mr. Armstrong made the Worldwide Church of God a 501(c)3 organization?
A: The Articles of Incorporation signed by Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Portune in 1968 that changed the Radio Church of God into the Worldwide Church of God say that it is a 501(c)3 organization. And, to be frank, Mr. Armstrong was savvy and smart enough to know that the WCG easily and naturally qualified to be a 501(c)3 organization and that so filing only made sense: Knowing the non-political nature of Mr. Armstrong’s message (being, like us, “equal opportunity offenders” with the truth of the gospel), being a 501(c)3 not only fit with his purpose and message, but it maximized the effective use of tithes and offerings for the Work. [EDIT: Yes, even after the receivership crisis with the State of California, he still made the Church 501(c)3 compliant. Here is the evidnce, complete with his signature, from 1981, in force until his death.]
- Q: If the WCG under Mr. Armstrong was a 501(c)3 organization and thus owned by the government, then how did it survive the attack by the State of California?
A: I’m glad you asked! The answer can only be one of two choices: (1) Either everything you think you know about 501(c)3 organizations is terribly off base, or (2) the WCG was not a 501(c)3. Since the WCG was a 501(c)3 corporation, then you can know that the conspiracy stuff is off base. Like a good, simple science experiment, the fact that being a 501(c)3 didn’t produce the results you predict show those ideas to be wrong.
- Q: Doesn’t being a 501(c)3 mean that you have to observe Sunday worship?
A: No. This is easily proven wrong on three different counts: (1) The 501(c)3 WCG under Mr. Armstrong was strictly Sabbathkeeping. (2) We are strictly Sabbathkeeping. (3) There are vast numbers of other 501(c)3 organizations that do not keep Sunday (e.g., Jewish groups)–or the Sabbath, or Wednesday, or whatever. The day on which you worship–if any day at all–has no bearing on 501(c)3 status. Again, the facts are there for everyone to see. If these (frankly, thousands of) examples aren’t enough, then please produce the text of the legislation or regulation that convinces you to think otherwise.
- Q: Doesn’t being a 501(c)3 mean that you can’t teach the same doctrines the Worldwide Church of God taught under Mr. Armstrong? I heard somewhere that your beliefs have to be distinct.
A: No. This is also provably false on multiple accounts. For example: (1) There are tons of different 501(c)3 organizations that believe and preach absolutely identical sets of doctrines. (2) At the time the Global Church of God formed, the beliefs officially supported by the Worldwide Church of God were already different than Mr. Armstrong’s, so even if there were such a requirement (and there isn’t), it wound not force such a difference. (3) There simply is no such requirement. Again, if the real life examples that surround us are not enough to convince you, please produce the actual text of the legislation or regulation that convinces to you believe this against all the evidence.
- Q: But, doesn’t being a 501(c)3 corporation mean that the government controls what you preach?
A: No, not in any way that we would care about at all. For instance, read the actual regulation for yourself here and the IRS’s comments here. Just as Mr. Armstrong held back no aspect of the gospel message under 501(c)3, we don’t either. The 501(c)3 regulation is actually (IMHO) a very sensible and helpful regulation that prevents organizations from doing political work (e.g., pushing a presidential candidate, etc.) while pretending to be, say, a religious organization. If anyone believes that being a 501(c)3 organization restricts our message, I’d like them to produce any aspect of the truth of the Bible and the amazing Gospel of the Kingdom of God that we are unable to preach under 501(c)3 (and please show the text of the regulation prevents preaching that, not just some YouTuber’s opinion, blog page, etc.–the actual regulation). Actually, just check this blog as evidence: read my posting titled “Embryonic stem cell research decision: Absolutely vomitous” and then tell me that I am inappropriately restricted in my speech as a minster. I don’t think you can.
- Q: Doesn’t being a 501(c)3 organization mean that you have some government employee controlling your company and the decisions you make?
A: No. I’m blessed with the chance to go to headquarters frequently due to my work on the telecast, and I know of exactly zero such individuals. Mr. Roderick C. Meredith has the highest decision-making authority in the Church as the Presiding Evangelist, assisted by his Council of Elders. He is not under government employ or influence, nor is any single Council of Elders member I know, and I am blessed to know many. The buck stops with him—and while he is a law-abiding man as all Christians should be when those laws do not conflict with God’s, anyone thinking that Mr. Meredith takes “marching orders” from the government clearly doesn’t know Mr. Meredith!
- Q: Well, aren’t you afraid that the government will use 501(c)3 status to restrict your message in the future, even if they can’t now?
A: No more than how they may use any other regulation—which, actually, is the issue I wanted to discuss when I began typing this post and will discuss below after this (much longer than anticipated) Q & A thingy. But it does lead to one more question:
- Q: OK, a 501(c)3 filing isn’t what its numerous critics crack it up to be. But what if the government does try to use it–or some other regulation–to attempt to restrict the Church’s message?
A: Then we would do exactly as the Church did in the First Century: we would obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). [I guess you could say that we’re a 501(c)3 and an A529 organization. Yes, I actually do think that’s a funny comment.] If anyone could show us–with real regulations, not “commentary” or YouTube videos–how being a 501(c)3 organization prevents us from obeying God’s commands and going to all the world with His gospel (which means they would need to show how it prevented Mr. Armstrong from doing the same), we would do what God required of us, despite such regulations. Simple as that.
Wow–that’s a longer list than I had thought it would be! Though not the intended topic of this post (I’ll have to revise the title appropriately), I’m glad I wrote as much as I did, since maybe I can use a link to this post in the long-ago-announced-and-finally-coming-after-the-Feast FAQ page I’ve been meaning to add to the blog.
Just one more comment, though: Frankly, so much of the 501(c)3 stuff that is out there is so utterly without basis that it can be a great way to get a grasp of just how willing someone is to listen to and respond to sound discussion. For instance, if–after seeing so much clear evidence and/or solid arguments against it–someone is unwilling to give up their position that every 501(c)3 organization is under government control, etc., then I know there is no point in answering any further questions from them because they’ve demonstrated they don’t want answers. If the most obvious of evidence will not convince someone of the clearest of truths, then why spend any time trying to convince such a person of anything? And why listen to them on any topic at all, given what such irrational opposition illustrates about their ability to think soundly? (2 Timothy 1:7 should come to mind here.)
It is one thing to have sincere questions about such things, 501(c)3 status included, before one has seen real facts. Questions are a good sign we’re thinking! I encourage questions–both in my kids and in my congregations–and if I didn’t like answering them I’m in the wrong line of work. But it is another thing for a person to stubbornly hold on to his position when it’s obvious that he’s in willful, irrational conflict with clear evidence. Such individuals demonstrate a lack of willingness to be corrected or taught, regardless of how much they protest otherwise: their actions speak loudly than their words.
However, this isn’t exactly what I was planning to write about. 🙂
Rather, right before we left to come here where we’re staying for the Feast in New Braunfels, an interesting Wall Street Journal opinion piece caught my attention: “Washington Wants a Say Over Your Minister” by Michael W. McConnell (no paywall, so check it out!).
It seems that the Justice Department is backing a lawsuit by a female church employee (“church” being the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church outside Detroit, apparently) who taught elementary school for the church and led devotions but was removed from her position after some disagreements, which I won’t even pretend to believe that the newspaper article covers thoroughly. At some point in their dispute, according to the WSJ article,
“…the church congregation voted to withdraw her ‘call’ to the ministry, and she ceased to be eligible for her prior job. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, with the support of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”
As the article highlights, even though the federal statutes that are being brought to bear here–focusing on preventing discrimination against employees based on race, sex, age and disability–contain no explicitly stated exception for church employers. But apparently for the last 40 years our court system have apparently acted with what the paper calls a “ministerial exception,” based on the idea that the federal government has no business telling a church who should or should not be a minister.
(BTW: This is yet more evidence that 501(c)3 filings do not imply government ownership of a church: (1) if 501(c)3 critics were correct then this lawsuit and the Justice Department’s efforts are unnecessary, and (2) the fact is that for 40 years the courts have said that the government has no right to tell churches who can or can’t be one of their ministers, 501(c)3 or not. Again, just look at the facts and consider them. “Anti-501(c)3 evangelists” have no solid basis for their fear-mongering at all.)
The idea is that the First Amendment protects churches from government interference in such matters–that every religion has a fundamental right to choose its own ministry (which, when you think about it, is intimately intertwined with establishing its own doctrines and beliefs). The courts have always acted in concert with this principle, but no case has ever risen to the attention of the Supreme Court, itself. This case, however, will be the exception, since SCOTUS will, indeed, be reviewing the decision.
This, in and of itself, is no big deal. That’s the Supreme Court’s job: review lower court decisions in light of the Constitution. (Note: I’m not saying this is always what they actually do in practice, but I am saying that’s their job.) That the Supreme Court should review this case is no shocker, and they could normally be expected to affirm the precedent of the last four decades: the government has no business telling churches how to choose their ministers.
What is exceptional, according to the WSJ piece, is that President Obama’s administration, through the Justice Department, “asked the court to disavow the ministerial exception altogether. This would mean that, in every future case, a court–and not the church–would decide whether the church’s reasons for firing or not hiring a minister were good enough.”
There are subtleties (aren’t there always), but rather than listen to me rehash it all you can check the article out for yourself.
A number of things are noteworthy and could be discussed about the situation: modern attitudes toward Constitutional protections, the inevitable conflicts that come with the ultimately-quixotic pursuit of full separation of church and state, et al.
But what I want to mention is that while we are incredibly free in the United States to be exactly the Church we seek to be (which is, of course, what God would have us to be) and have been for ages, nothing truly guarantees that freedom other than God’s protection and mercy. Those who think that they can build some sort of “lawyer proof” wall around themselves that would prevent government interference in every circumstance are fooling themselves. It isn’t 501(c)3 filings, or submitting forms to the IRS, or incorporating, et al., ad infinitum, ad nauseum, that makes you vulnerable: Rather, it’s trying to be God’s Church in a world that is not God’s that makes you vulnerable. Period.
This is why the inordinate fear of some of these things–501(c)3s being just one example–is often so misplaced: not because it is a concern over inappropriate governmental influence, but because it seems to focus on one particular regulation over the many, many, many other regulations that exist–or could easily be made to exist–which could have a much larger impact. It isn’t the individual regulations that are a particular concern (in general); rather, it’s the fact that separation of church and state is, ultimately, a fool’s quest because no strict separation is really possible. So you’re not a 501(c)3 and choose to pay taxes, instead, so as to avoid what you to believe to be unhealthy complications–congratulations! What about EEOC compliance? What about European “anti-EU blasphemy” rulings? What about [fill in the blank]? What will insulate you from trouble from any of the legion of other regulations–or, for that matter, from future acts of Congress or future decisions of the court–some of which would never even appear on your radar screen as being remotely related to any religious enterprise at all?
My point is that rather than freezing at the thought of what could happen so that we’re too afraid to do anything, we should just accept the fact that conflict is possible, do our best to obey the laws we have while obeying God first in all things, seek to wisely navigate through the current regulations of the land, and trust Him to guide us where we need to be.
If a freedom is given by a nation’s government to churches that it seems prudent to accept, let’s accept it. (Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Meredith have both concluded, for example, that 501(c)3 status is such a regulation). Yet, if one is granted to churches that would seem prudent at the time to avoid (say, one that risks too many strings attached), then let’s avoid it. And let’s pray that the conditions remain as favorable as possible to do God’s work as long and as passionately as possible within the laws of man before it becomes the time comes when it is necessary to do it outside those laws. If we act prudently and faithfully within the circumstances we are in, we give God maximum room to do what only He can.
Moral of the story: If the government, any government, wants to make a stink about some aspect of our faith, or anyone’s faith, they have plenty of means available to do so. To overly fret about something that is completely unchangeable is unwise, unhealthy, unscriptural (Matt. 6:27ff), and a distraction from the Work we’ve been given to do.
Let us, rather, focus on the commission we’ve been given–preaching the gospel and feeding the flock–to the very limits of our abilities, obeying every law of man that does not conflict with the law of God, yet being ready to obey God and disobey man whenever a conflict does arise. Then let Christ worry about the rest: It’s His Church and He’s big enough to handle whatever may come our way.
(All of this said, now that we’re finally in Texas, I hope to “blog the Feast” a bit while we’re here if I can find the time! Mr. Sena always does such a remarkable job coordinating the Feast of Tabernacles, and we’re really looking forward to being a part. For those reading this who are keeping God’s Festival starting this Wednesday evening, have a wonderful Feast of Tabernacles and Last Great Day!)