In a previous post, I wrote about the practices of people who embrace the claims of the prosperity gospel. Those who proclaim the merits of this brand of Christianity believe that money in the bank is a sign of God’s blessings. Those who lead the movement live a life of opulence and enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
I am not against pastors and others in the ministry who receive a good salary. After all, those who work for the Lord deserve to be paid well (1 Timothy 5:18).
What I think is out of place in the ministry is the reality of ministers and evangelists who own private jets paid for with the money of the faithful. I also think it is sad when people sacrificially give their money to carry out the Lord’s work and yet their money goes to pay pastors whose salaries are in the million of dollars and who live in multi-million dollar mansions.
Now, the financial practices of some religious organizations have come to the attention of the government. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has spoken against the practices of some televangelists who fly their private jets and who drive their Rolls Royces. To Senator Grassley, these practices may be a violation of tax policies and regulations.
As a result of these questionable practices by people involved in media evangelism, Grassley asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) to study the problem and submit a report about the financial practices of faith-based communities. This cry for help led to the formation of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organization. According to an article published in In Trust Magazine, the Commission was charged to study the following issues:
- Whether religious organizations should be required to file Form 990, the annual tax return required of other nonprofits.
- Limits on clergy housing allowances.
- Clarification of tax rules about “love offerings.”
- Repeal or modification of the current prohibition against political campaign intervention by churches.
- Penalties for “excess benefit transactions” such as salaries.
- Repeal of restrictions on IRS audits of church leaders.
- Disallowing current legal protections for asserting the “reasonableness” of a nonprofit leader’s compensation.
In Trust, a magazine for members of governing boards of institutions involved in theological education, has published an article by Dorothy Ridings, “New commission examines finances of religious groups,” which provides more details on the work of the Commission.
The article also provides information about the criticism of the work of the Commission by the Secular Coalition for America and the American Atheists.
The practices of a few people in the Christian movement in America who abuse the tax code for personal gain have cast a shadow on the work of all religious organizations, including churches, seminaries, colleges and universities, and charitable organizations.
The Commission must develop recommendations that will lead religious organizations to be more transparent in their practices and more accountable to the people who support them. At the same time, they must avoid recommending legislation that will force the government to be involved in the affairs of the church.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary