I had a conversation with a friend whom I respect but with whom there is disagreement on this matter. He challenged me to answer certain objections to this position. Those points have been placed in an addendum. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
This may seem an odd question, but the question is floating around many nonprofits including churches, the problem is that donations are dropping because of the corona virus situation and many budgets are stressed. With respect to churches, the budget stress tends to revolve around facilities expenses. Facilities are not cheap to either build or maintain, and current philosophy that “churches in debt grow the most” does nothing but to contribute to the problem.
We know historically that two major factors contributed to this facility expense situation. A few decades ago it was the church growth movement that motivated churches to go in debt in order to fill pews. Today many pastors, while rejecting the church growth movement officially, practices its principles. They may not be confessionally church growth but they are functionally church growth.
Our current progressive social models also demand certain things of our facilities, especially in urban and suburban areas. This largely cannot be helped because we can only minister where we are at. Still, I wonder how many churches go just a little too far. That sounds accusatory and perhaps uninformed, but how many of our churches really need gymnasiums? My suspicion is that the truth is somewhere in between the reality and the pessimism.
That said, there are, as I see it, two questions we need to ask. The first of these questions is, as it should be, the theological question. As is part of the Evangelical Free (and historic evangelical/fundamental heritage: What does the Bible say?) The second is, not simply a practical question, but the ethical cap growth of the theological. It that it is a very practical theological question. (If our issues are merely pragmatic then we would do well to question why we call ourselves church.) That is, What does the God intend in what He commanded?
The Theological Question:
The first question is this: What is our role in society? How does the believer interact with the government?
When it comes to civil (not criminal) matters, we are enjoined in I Corinthians 6 from employing public civil litigation for internal matters. There are several reasons give by Paul for this. One is that this is God’s church (the theme of this letter) so that the world has no business in church matters. Another is that believers exist as part of a greater kingdom, one which transcends the immorality of this present world. Much more could be said. But in brief one can say that the separation to be enforced is on the part of the church. Civil courts, then as today, would find a certain level of satisfaction in judging church life.
We participate in a society through the paying of taxes (Mt. 22:21, Mk 12:17) and are obliged to participate in the general operations of government (Romans 13:1). These matters are not our prerogative but normal societal obligations which the NT clearly endorses. In any case we are never called to willingly sacrifice either a specific or a general conviction regarding the expression of the Christian faith.
To apply for a SBA loan is one where we take prerogative. It differs from those normal obligations clarified in the NT. How this works out is noted in the second section.
Also, to obfuscate between what is commanded and what is allowed would not make for a strong argument for taking government loan. The difference between what we are commanded to do and what we are free to do is fairly clear in the NT.
Let us not violate I Corinthians 6 on this matter.
The Ethical Question:
This page from the SBA website addresses the more practical second question: Are there strings attached? Is there a cost in taking such action?
The SBA is a diversity program. It is not simply a loan program. One portion of its purpose is social engineering. (It’s in the text.) This document is not only about their internal operations but also about their requirement for recipients.
Toward the bottom of the page it reads:
“Any other Federal statutory law that provides that no person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, national origin, disability, be denied participation in, the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
We may at first find this language innocuous. But I will suggest that it is far from trivial else it would not be present. If it be a mere formality then why is it even there?
One thing I have learned over the past two decades is, when reading material published with a confessional frame of reference, is that the author means everything thing he says. When Hegel said that the state is the arbiter of morality and every disciple of Hegel follows suit with that practice, one sees evidence that the author’s intentions were understood and followed. When a governing agency says “if you take this money then we have the authority to influence your socio-political questions at our discretion” they mean just that.
To answer point of the first question, to take a government loan is to go further than the issue of I Cor. 6. In that passage the church members went to the court. In this matter a church is effectively inviting the state in to litigate matters in church life even when no disputes have arisen.
One may also note that there is nothing in this language which says that the obligation ends when the loan is paid in full. It’s just not there. The obligation comes on the part of the recipient. It exists for the life of the organization. I do not relish ever going to court to say “this contract is ended” when it is not that type of contract.
It matters not whether the state ever lays (functional) claim to its authority. The fact that we give the state such authority and opportunity is the issue. The ethic follows the theology: To take a government loan is to disobey the Lord.
Once we take their money we are finished (ethically and theologically) as a church. We will be no longer God’s church (I Cor 1:1-2). We then become the state’s church. We become the “diversity” version of the state church in communist China. Though we may not be obliged to confess a Marxist ideology we are obligated to a neo-Marxist ethic. Same song, second verse. Please, do not make that compromise.
Objection 1: We already take advantage of government benefits such as 501(c)(3) non-profit status and the commensurate tax deductions. If we feel free to take advantage of one government benefit, is this really any different?
The difference here is significant. Two points are important here: First, this is voluntary, as was previously stated. Nobody is forcing a church or other organization to take these funds. There is no statute or regulation which would require a church to submit its ethical concerns to government oversight.
Thus we may also participate in the tax system as it is without making the ethical sacrifice of idol worship. Were the tax system to force certain ethical concerns on the church then I would react in the same manner to those conditions. But it does not. At this point the tax system is a burden but a bearable one. (We cannot today have a checking account without being incorporated. This was not always the case.)
Second, our existence as a church that operates in an urban center comes with requirements. Things like building and safety codes have zero effect on ethical questions. We simply minister where we are at and live in the society we share in.
Objection 2: Is it not hypocritical to take advantage of one set of benefits while dismissing another set? Why accept your tax status and deductions and refund but not apply for other available benefits?
Yes, churches and Christian organizations often make lesser deities out of their tax-exempt status. They engage in large-scale fund-raising efforts and building programs in order to grow. Such idolatry plagues the church. But it is not necessary that one make such an idol while participating in civil society and obeying its laws. One may enjoy sports, movies, and music without creating idols of the actors even though some have turned these celebrities into idols.
This is what we know as an ad hominem argument. It is not an ad hominem statement; it is not an insult. Rather it is an argument that calls one to hold consistently to a position lest one be a hypocrite. Jesus used it with the Pharisees and it has its place. It is also a type of imperfection argument. Think of it as an ad homen argument accompanied by the claim that the principle must be rejected either because it maintains explicit imperfections or that it cannot be held consistently. Both of these points are answerable.
To the ad hominem argument: If participation in civil society did not come with obligations and if this situation with the SBA were not voluntary the argument would be a strong one. It would be time to retreat from all the requirements of the IRS and return to a simpler life. But there is a reason that there are no Amish in urban areas. It is possible to separate the two, the obligation and the choice, and treat them as the separate entities, which they are.
To the imperfection argument: What is the alternative? If the only alternative is to take advantage of all government benefits, to reject none, then it would appear to be even more consistent that we would apply for as many government benefits as we can, trusting that the First Amendment and the honesty of the legislators who present these things to us are unassailable. It seems that the alternative of accepting all that comes from the government is even more problematic. It also appears that the alternative is not a sustainable position. It is not possible to operate a church under those conditions.
But we know that this trustworthiness does not reflect reality. We know that legislators do not control court behavior and also do not control how rules committees go about enforcing legislation. What we do know is that there is zero cause to trust government as the provider for the church.
Objection 3: When has the government ever enforced its expanded civil rights diversity views as previously stated?
I can think of two situations. The first, in the 1970s at my alma mater, there was federal pressure to make certain that minorities were represented with identifiable recognition. In this case it was the “preaching contest” where the prize was awarded for something other than the content and structure of the message. While the gentleman presenting the message did a fine job it was certainly not the best of the four participants.
This situation went to more than just the right of the individual to participate in such events. It was about the power of the government to demand the result. It was about measurables and not about opportunity. In political language this is called “positive liberty” where the potential benefits of freedom become government guarantees.
The second also involves my alma mater. The school expelled a lesbian student. Then, after the student apparently repented, the school capitulated and allowed her to re-enroll. Later it was discovered that she had lied to the institution and was again expelled permanently. But the Justice Department found here cause to investigate. Why? Because federal monies were connected to the school.
In this case the expanded civil rights requirements which are attached to the receipt of federal funds became clear. One does not accept federal funds without the expectation of federal interference.
Objection 4: Why should we be concerned about this when the federal publications say we should not?
If anyone has watched what the historic 9th Circuit Court and others have done this past two decades there would seems to be no need to answer this question. All that is required to reinforce the problem is for one judge along with an agreeable justice department and we will be waiting fifty years or more for the situation to be rectified. It matters not what reasoning a court employs but that such a ruling will take an extended amount of time and resources to undo.