Recently I posted an article called Pay to Pray? in which I commented on the growing exodus of people from the institutional church in Germany as characterized by the refusal of church members to pay the government's imposed church tax. These events in turn led to the implementation by the Roman Catholic Church of Germany to excommunicate huge masses of her people. This led me to wonder, could something similar happen here?
No, we do not have a government imposed church tax system here, at least not yet. But we do have a government that does already have a significant involvement in how the church operates its faith. I know some will balk at that suggestion, but please bear with me as I reflect on a few recent events, as well as some other events that I see as yet to come into our land.
Donation Receipts for Income Tax
While I cannot speak for other western countries, here in Canada the government gives charitable donation receipts for donations to recognized non-profit organizations, including religious institutions. So the more that one gives to the religious institution, the lower one can make the taxable income line on one's annual income tax return.
This begs a giant question for me. Would the faithful still give as much if they did not receive that income tax receipt? Suppose the government, in setting a new budget, suddenly announced that it was cancelling this taxable benefit. Would people still give, and if so, would they do so to the same level?
No doubt some still would continue to support their local religious institution, but people get funny when it comes to their wallets. Though Jesus said not to worry about all such things (Matthew 6: 24-34), worry we do often do anyways. If we're honest with ourselves, we'd have to admit that many of us do in fact live as if we serve two masters; God and money.
The fact is, the government is already meddling with church taxes here too. It would be naive of us to think otherwise. It would equally be naive of us to assume that the current system will not change, for better or worse, simply based upon the whims of those who happen to be in power over us.
Implications for the Institutional System
It is no secret that institutional church systems need money, and lots of it. They require money to pay huge mortgages, utility bills, equipment and office supplies, pastor(s) salaries and benefits, and then presumably to give the left overs (if there are any) to missions and other programs that it deems worthy.
Where does all this money come from? It comes from the tithes and offerings of the faithful. In return for giving, the faithful receive back from the institution an income tax receipt whereby they can receive back in tax credits approximately $4.00 on every $10.00 donation [Note: this is an assumption on my part; I don't know exactly what the current percentage actually is].
If giving to the institution suddenly dropped, or ceased to exist all together, due to new government regulations, what would happen to that religious institution? That's rather obvious, isn't it? It's doors would close and its pastor(s) would find themselves unemployed. I have already seen this first hand.
What would become of all those institutional church buildings? Well, like one former institutional church building near where I live, I guess they could be turned into museums (yes, I'm being facetious). That leaves the question of what would become of the people. I remember a dear elderly saint who once asked me when her church building was about to close, "Where shall we go?" I didn't have the heart to tell her that "Church" is about what you are, not about where you go. What becomes of the people? Some, like this lady, end up in other institutional systems. For others it's a return to the house church or other forms of organic fellowship.
Illegal Home Fellowships
So if we all just go back to fellowshipping in private homes, does that mean that all our institutional and religious woes would just go away? Not necessarily. Governments like institutions because of the control it gives them. Some municipalities have already toyed with making non-institutional home-based Bible study fellowships illegal without a permit, such as in this case.
Before we think that the previous California case was just a fluke, maybe we would do well to think of the Arizona pastor who was jailed and fined for also hosting a home-based Bible study fellowship in his home. How many more communities are currently doing likewise, or at least, considering it?
Let's not be naive about this. Governments are already beginning to stir the pot to making the non-institutional home-based church fellowships illegal. Mark my words, it will only get worse. We will be seeing more and more of this religious oppression here in North America too.
Please let me digress for a moment. It is interesting that Jesus, in speaking about the end of the age, said, "many will turn away from the faith" (Matthew 24:10). I wonder if this apostasy has anything to do with government oppression and persecution? Hmm.
Do Not Be Surprised
Is there change in the wind? I think so. What will it look like? I do not know. I am not a fear monger, but this is just my humble little opinion. Peter once said, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ" (1 Peter 4: 12-13). Though written to a people of a different time and place, perhaps one day very soon this passage of scripture will become the mantra of the North American church as well.
"Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you" (1 John 3:13). Are you surprised? Dear friend, don't be. Jesus said, "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:20). The North American church has yet to experience real persecution, but I believe it's coming. Let's not bury our heads in the sand on this one; it's time to wake up and read the signs. The signs are already there. What will you do on that day?
"When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). Will He find faith in the North American church? I think so. Historically the church has always thrived in times of persecution. Maybe this is just the wake up call that it needs. Maybe this is just what the Doctor ordered to wake us up from our lethargy.
Is the North American church about to enter her own period of Christian persecution, such as the church in places like China and Iran have already come to know? I wonder. Peace.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons