Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reading the Tea Leaves

The Gangster and the Amish.

Ok, that’s a fairly weird combination, I grant you, and sounds like a really bad Lifetime Network movie. Hang with me for a minute or two because there really is a sort of odd connection with what I have in mind.

The Amish

The Amish are an intriguing group remarkable for their passivity and lack of involvement. At some point a long time ago they drew a hard line between modern society’s choices and their own. They effectively said “this far and no further”, and in large measure they have maintained that line. I don’t particularly want to join them nor do I think their example is a great one for Christians to emulate; we ought to be in the world to be effective for God but we shouldn’t be of the world. That line between “in” and “of” may be a hard distinction to retain some days, but retreating entirely from the world as the Amish have done strikes me as unfortunate and unfulfilling.

Still, you have to admire the Amish for their willpower and commitment if nothing else. Things got so very bad (in their view at least) that they couldn’t walk any further in lock-step with the rapidly changing priorities of western society. So they stepped outside modern life almost entirely and withdrew. Passive as they may be, their withdrawal was an assertive, necessary and firm decision to halt the slide into immorality — at least as they saw it.

The Gangster

If the Amish are renowned for their passivity, the stereotypical movie gangster is famed for his aggression. You’ve probably watched any number of cheesy old films, and if you have, you’ve heard the line more than once: “That’s a mighty nice building you’ve got here … it’d be a shame if something … you know … happened to it”. It’s usually uttered menacingly by the trenchcoated thug seeking to extract compliance from the terrified bar owner. As far as overused movie lines go, it ranks only a shade below “That’s crazy but it just might work …” and “Let’s get out of here!”

Church Finances. No, Really

So with those two images in mind — the Amish community’s considered retreat and the gangster’s implacable advance — let’s have a talk about church finances.

If you attend a regular meeting somewhere in anything other than a small home group, finances are an issue for where you’re gathering — be it a cathedral, chapel or mosque. How is your building financed? How do heat and hydro get paid?

Well, in short, you pay for these things. Depending on where you attend and how your leadership conducts themselves, you probably get a gentle or a not-so-gentle reminder about properly supporting things by dropping a cheque in the plate or bucket or perhaps buying some candles or any number of variations on the theme. Those funds you give may even bounce up to a head office somewhere, but eventually what is needed for your local meeting will trickle back down to your particular building where it’ll be used to pay any salaries, utilities, mortgages and so forth. Hopefully a chunk of that inbound cash goes back out to meet community needs, support missions overseas or other laudable causes that we all appreciate.

Non-Profit Status and Ideology

Now I can’t speak for countries other than my own — although I believe much of the western world works in the same way as Canada. Here at least, the government essentially takes a hands-off position in the affairs of our local meeting — it has granted us ‘non-profit’ status. Non-profit means that as long as certain standards of spending activity are met by leadership, a group like mine will not be required to pay taxes on whatever money is collected each week. If our local chapel takes in $1,000, it keeps all $1,000 for church activities. Those government limitations are currently mostly reasonable and historically this has been the case; non-profit status has generally had nothing to do with ideology.

I want to suggest to you that this is about to change and not for the better.

But here’s something to remember: granting non-profit status to a church doesn’t actually cost a government one thin dime of taxpayer money. No government department issues cheques to churches from the national coffers nor does government reach into any secular taxpayers’ pockets to pay for Sunday School supplies. That simply doesn’t happen. Actually the reverse happens — many churches, mine included, routinely use collected dollars to meet community needs that would otherwise drain taxpayer funds through government programs that would have to be established or expanded to fill the gap left behind by an absent church program.

Separation of Church and State

You probably know all this if you attend anywhere with regularity. But most of your unchurched peers don’t understand how churches raise capital or how church expenses are paid. It’s interesting how often that particular ignorance of church finances rears its head in forum posts, talk radio and — increasingly and troublingly — in government statements. I routinely come across comments like “we shouldn’t be funding religious groups” when referring to church activities that are not now, and never have been, funded by the government at all.

Along with the mistaken notion that the secular world is somehow involved in funding church activity, comes the unshakeable-though-wrong-headed conviction among the unchurched that they are entitled to a voice in church practice and doctrine. The American notion of the separation of church and state is increasingly being eroded, invariably in favour of increased state power to control church conduct. Canada is no exception to that erosion and legal precedent after legal precedent is narrowing church authority with astonishing speed.

So read the tea leaves with me for a moment. Where are we going from here? One thing seems abundantly clear: hard times are coming and society isn’t going to get any gentler. 2 Timothy 3 is clear about that, as are multiple other prophetic passages.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I recently ate dinner with an Anglican friend who is on the conservative end of his denomination. He has eighteen months left in his contract locally and fully expects to not be renewed for an additional term. His stance on gay marriage is the minority position and if he leaves his current post he sees only two other Anglican congregations in Canada where he can serve and still remain true to his biblical understanding of marriage. What will he do? I don’t know. Economics is going to factor into a doctrinal decision.

We’re far enough into society’s “mad Gadarene slide” (as Muggeridge so deftly puts it) to see the end of the road is in view. We all know how this story ends. My Anglican friend can mark his calendar — his crisis point is in eighteen months. Your congregation’s crisis point is coming soon enough. One day very soon you’ll be presented with the gangster dilemma: “Say, that’s a mighty nice non-profit status you’ve got there … be a shame if something … happened to it”. You know the issues that will be at contention: your church’s teaching on women’s roles or gay marriage or “hate” speech (code word for large swaths of both the Old and New Testaments).

What will your congregation do? What will you do?

I’ll point you back to the Amish in closing. I don’t want an Amish solution that means disconnecting. But I do admire their ability to foresee trouble and assertively act before an undesired end was finally reached. The time to think about where you personally and congregationally draw doctrinal lines on hot button issues is now.


  1. This is a great post. We need to "engage" our society on the level of having a testimony and in the matter of discerning where they are. We also need to be ready to adjust in the ways we can, to enhance the message. But we need to keep well clear of entanglements that make us dependent on the government or on public opinion for our well-being, and we need to decide right now what we will and will not compromise, because as you say, we will be pushed.


  2. Bernie, you've raised a scary point here, and I don't believe we're paranoid to be seriously concerned about modern social norms being forced on the church through some mechanism or other. I think you're right that the "soft" intrusions will come first: the threats to non-profit status, perhaps fines, monitoring and various other sorts of compliance requirements. But given the huge emphasis on tolerance, diversity and the desire to avoid "hurt feelings" in the community empowered by the Human Rights Tribunal system, I think we have a mechanism already in place through which not just government but any citizen with an ax to grind can potentially put any particular local church through a massively expensive, prolonged legal process that is in itself a form of punishment.

    It's worth thinking about. In our current set of circumstances, everything physical into which we corporately invest the Lord's money is potentially a liability -- or something we may have to abandon in order to remain faithful to the things we find taught in scripture.

    I often think this blog and many others like it have only a short window of opportunity to exist in their current form. There are already various groups pushing for more control of "hate speech" on the internet. And of course the same thing applies to parachurch organizations of every kind: if you have principles, they will be challenged, and wherever you draw the line in the sand, someone at some point is going to try to make you re-draw it.

  3. Would you prefer this system? 32% of Germans are not church affiliated often to avoid the church tax, which is 9% of your income tax.

    About 70% of church revenues come from church tax. This is about €9.2 billion (in 2010).
    Article 137 of the Weimar Constitution of 1919 and article 140 of the German Basic Law of 1949 are the legal basis for this practice.
    In Germany, on the basis of tax regulations passed by the communities and within the limits set by state laws, communities may either
    • require the taxation authorities of the state to collect the fees from the members on the basis of income tax assessment (then, the authorities withhold a collection fee), or
    • choose to collect the church tax themselves.
    In the first case, membership in the community is entered onto a tax document (Lohnsteuerkarte) which employees must surrender to their employers for the purpose of withholding tax on paid income. If membership in a tax-collecting religious community is entered on the document, the employer must withhold church tax prepayments from the income of the employee in addition to other tax prepayments. In connection with the final annual income tax assessment, the state revenue authorities also finally assess the church tax owed. In the case of self-employed persons or of unemployed taxpayers, state revenue authorities collect prepayments on the church tax together with prepayments on the income tax.
    If, however, religious communities choose to collect church tax themselves, they may demand that the tax authorities reveal taxation data of their members to calculate the contributions and prepayments owed. In particular, some smaller communities (e.g. the Jewish Community of Berlin) choose to collect taxes themselves to save collection fees the government would charge otherwise.
    Collection of church tax may be used to cover any church-related expenses such as founding institutions and foundations or paying ministers.
    The church tax is only paid by members of the respective church. People who are not members of a church tax-collecting denomination do not have to pay it. Members of a religious community under public law may formally declare their wish to leave the community to state (not religious) authorities. With such a declaration, the obligation to pay church taxes ends. Some communities refuse to administer marriages and burials of (former) members who had declared to leave it.
    The money flow of state and churches is distinct at all levels of the procedures. The church tax is not meant to be a way for the state to directly support churches, but since expenses for church tax are fully deductible (as are voluntary expenses for the Church, for charity or a bundle of other privileged aims) in fact such support occurs on a somewhat large scale. The effort of collecting itself, done by the State, is entirely paid for by the Churches with a part of the tax income.


    1. Interesting, Q. Now, if 9% would guarantee my religious freedom, I'd be delighted to pay it. I'd pay 30% to be guaranteed religious freedom. Maybe more. But that ain't happening anytime soon, in Germany or here.

    2. Tom, I think you are too pessimistic here. Hate speech, etc. is generally recognized also as problematic when directed by the secular left at religious institutions and/or persons. So it is legally addressed when coming from either side. Also, public sentiment is still vastly in favor of traditional values but, unfortunately, is not as well organized politically and otherwise as the other side. So, yes, being more proactive personally and publicly would help. This can mean to simply make a serious and deliberate attempt to turn the channel and not throw your attention and money in the wrong direction and inadvertently support the wrong people and causes. I think the truism always applies that you have to sleep in the bed that you make for yourself. So don't complain if you made a bed of nails.

  4. There's certainly truth in that. To the extent that Christendom has gotten into bed with governments, there will definitely be a price to be paid.

  5. I don't think I'm cynical or pessimistic Q - and I have to wonder where you see the legal might of democratic governments being used to further Christian goals in the secular world? The closest I can come is some US student groups using legal means to prevent abuses against them .I honestly can't think of one assertive case that has been made or has become a victory for Christians asserting their rights in the secular realm in many years.

    By contrast I'll give you some very high profile public cases - Hobby Lobby in the US comes to mind as do Catholic Charities Adoption in Boston; both very high profile aggressive assertions of new privileges by the left using the court system and any number of newly-discovered "constitutional" rights the left reads into things. Beneath those two mammoth cases are hundreds of smaller stories in every community involving new restrictions on Christian conduct both in the "outside" world and within the church itself.

    But beyond those and many, many other lower profile instances, I've had multiple personal experiences in the last few years including a transgender group in my community who are government funded and *very* keen to "educate" my local church in particular about the trans community's needs. I've sat with their leadership on a number of occasions and their desire to push their agenda into our group using any and every means possible is not only obvious but proudly proclaimed. We think the trans community's greatest need is Christ, not surgery - and that is going to create major issues for us in the short term.

    My intent is to write shortly about some actual concrete steps I consider personally and which I think congregations should at least discuss. Perhaps I'm preparing for a storm that will never come (although I see it as unavoidable), but I think it prudent to at least have an umbrella handy just in case...

    1. Perhaps I don't know enough about Canada, but in spite of the items you mention I think that the constitutional protections in the USA are still working. E.g, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Hobby Lobby,

      Not that there are no flaws in the system, especially since the court itself can be stacked, but that is because of the (always changing) political environment which will go back and forth with different administrations. Obama turned out to be a complete deceiver and the public in any country can always be deceived, see Russia and Putin today and Hitler in the past. There will be ups and downs, e.g., see the latest trend where abortion agreement is in decline with the younger generation. The climate is always clearly correlated to the quality and moral fiber of elected officials and therefore directly to the public letting this happen. A dictator and dictatorial government cannot really ever get into power without basically and initially having public support. All we can hope for is that such support can not easily materialize in our democracies in today's times with the means of communication we have available. Once you have given in to dictatorship all is lost though.

      With regard to the LGBT issue I mentioned previously that ancient Greece illustrated that genetics is not involved but only socializing pressures that lead to entire nations going wrong. The LGBT fully understands that and are using genetics as a convenient cover rather than admitting to raw lust and love of the perverse. Unfortunately for individual lifes and society as a whole the academic intelligentsia is blinded as Christ said and therefore in full support. Of course, what you are concerned about is that my little blurb here will simply be characterized in the future as hate speech by people who should know better even though there is no malice on my part and just my intent to give an objective analysis.

    2. Oh, no worries about your blurb, Qman. With the rest of the blog as evidence of our burgeoning propensity for hate speech, we'll all be going down with you. Carry on!.

  6. Agreed, Tom.

    We've opened ourselves up by owning large buildings, especially ones with mortgages. We've taken the tax breaks, and come to depend on them for sustaining our programs. We've compiled "membership" lists, that can be used to identify who is available to harass, arrest or subject to a corporate lawsuit. We've submitted tax returns and annual statements that not only manifest our compliance with present regulations but can be turned around to identify our activities. We're square in the crosshairs of the first less-than-principled government organization that wants to take a shot, or the first private person who wishes to launch a punitive action. And Christ Himself promised we'd have trouble in this world, and that there would be sights to read just before it started.

    Meanwhile, "hate speech" has come to mean anything the politically-correct liberals do not like. "Truth" has become what our press and our public educators say it is, and "tolerance" has come to mean turning a blind eye to sin and murder, such as the massacre of the unborn, the viciousness of Islam, and the annual parades of shame. And every year, the sanctimonious wickedness of our society grows more public and political.

    But for some reason, we are not "reading the tea leaves" here. We keep acting like it's never going to happen. Well, one day it will. Will we be in a better position then than we are now? I hope so. But if we will be, it will start by us making better decisions right now.

    I say Bernie's right: it's time.