Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Of Charitable Donations and Tax Returns

But when you give to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your deeds of charity may be in secret (Matthew 6: 3-4)

Once again the tax season is upon us and once again I’m wrestling with the practice of income tax receipts for charitable donations. While I do not believe that God calls Christians to necessarily give money into institutional church coffers, I do believe that He does call us to give alms as the Holy Spirit leads us and as we see the needs around us.

Let me begin with a couple of illustrations. Some years ago when I was still involved in institutional Christianity, there were two key events that I will always remember concerning the issue of giving. In one case, I had just recently begun serving a local church as their new pastor, when a man who had been the treasurer for many years, asked to meet with me for the purpose of discussing who in the congregation gave what. He seemed a little surprised (or miffed) when I responded that I really didn’t care who gave how much because, as far as I was concerned, individual giving was a private issue between the individual and God. As such, it really wasn’t any of my business, even if I was that person’s pastor. In retrospect, I suspect that what the treasurer wanted me to really see was how much he himself was giving in comparison to other people.

In another instance, we had decided that there was a need for a new computer. As often happened, in order to encourage giving, the people were reminded that their giving would be eligible for an income tax receipt where basically they would get back $4.00 for every $10.00 gift. Despite that common argument in soliciting giving, what impressed me the most was an anonymous envelope in the offering plate one Sunday with $1000.00 cash in it and with a note that simply said, “for the computer.” There was no way anyone could tell where it came from or who the giver was. Certainly, the giver wasn’t interested in an income tax receipt. Isn’t that precisely what Jesus meant in the aforementioned verse from Matthew 6? I believe it is.

The point I’m trying to make is that all charitable giving ought to be a secret and private thing. The practice of registered church offering envelopes so that giving can be tracked is, in my opinion, contrary to the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 6: 3-4. “But when you give to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your deeds of charity may be in secret.” Not only is my giving none of anyone else’s business, but also in reality, even any charitable donation record keeping on my part is equally as wrong. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” speaks to me of even keeping the transaction from myself. I know that such a practice flies against accounting and bookkeeping principles, but the point is that, the only record keeper of my giving is God Himself. Obviously we do know how much we give and to whom we give it, but no other discussion or record keeping of the donation needs to be made by us, and certainly not by anyone else.

Another issue that comes up with charitable donation receipts for income tax purposes is that the government now also knows about our giving practices. It is really quite sickening to think how many of my affairs the government already knows about. It seems to me that they know that charitable giving is personal and private, but in order to gain access to that information, they bribe us with tax breaks. Maybe that is not an issue for most people. Maybe most people reason that they know everything else about me anyways, so what’s one more infringement on my privacy? Most likely, however, is that the almighty dollar speaks louder to most people than anything else.

We reason that we would rather give to charity than give to the tax man, so any vehicle we can use to reduce taxes must be right. In and of itself, that is not wrong seeing as how the government allows for that. The problem is that it goes contrary to Scripture in that our left hand does know what our right hand is doing, and our deeds of charity are not done in secret; everyone knows all about it, including the government. We think we’re serving God, and maybe we are, but perhaps what we are really serving is money. How does all this fit with what Jesus said about us not being able to serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24)? I wonder.

So long as our traditional institutional churches continue operating the way they do, they will continue to support income tax receipts for charitable donations made to them. After all, they have to encourage giving, because without it, they would cease to exist. As much as they claim to worship God, and I have no reason to believe that most do, the current system at least begs the question if in fact many are not also worshiping the dollar. With all due respect to my friends within the institutional system, I wonder sometimes if people aren't being duped into thinking they’re giving to God by giving to the institutional church, but what they’re really giving to is pastor and staff salaries, mortgage payments, utility bills, etc. Do you want to really “give” to God? If so, then don’t give to an institutional church organization, but rather give to people, because in giving to people, we truly give to God. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Do we want to “give” to God? Maybe we should focus instead on the food bank hampers instead of the offering plate. Maybe we should focus instead on paying the unemployed single mother’s heating bill instead of the offering plate. Maybe we should focus instead on secretly supporting those who, through their love, adopt third world orphans rather than focussing on the offering plate. But unfortunately, then who will see our giving and who will tally it up and give us our pat on the back (and our tax receipt)? If all we want is to be seen and recognized, honoured, and praised by men, then we have already received our reward and no further reward from the Lord will be coming (Matthew 6:2).

I wonder how many people would continue giving to the church, or anywhere else, if the government suddenly took away that charitable donation receipt for income tax purposes? If they ever did, and I long for that day, then maybe we will really see giving that is done simply for the joy of giving, and not with the ulterior motive of getting 40% (or whatever the figure actually is) back on taxes. Unfortunately, in the words of Jeremiah 5:31, “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” I know that sounds harsh, but I believe the warning still holds true today. Who cares about that income tax receipt? Ultimately it is those who care about money. Sure, we all need money, but it ought not to be as high a priority as we seem to have made it. Jesus said, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

I think it is time that we, as believers, really started focussing on the kingdom of God first and his righteousness. What does that mean? I know what it doesn’t mean, and that is placing as high a value on money as we seem to have done. I know I’m not there yet, but I want to be.

Jesus said, “But when you give to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your deeds of charity may be in secret” (Matthew 6: 3-4).

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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