Governments in the U.S. and Canada are offering grants and financial support for businesses and charities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For individuals and businesses, this is doubtlessly welcomed. However, this is perhaps not as clear for charities such as churches.
At the heart of this doubt are three sub-questions that need answering: (1) Shouldn’t churches always and only rely on non-government sources to function? (2) Does accepting money from the government present a blurring of the lines between church and state, which could subsequently lead to the church compromising some of its vision and mission? (3) Isn’t the need of a church always or usually less than that of other charities, such as food banks?
A recent post on the NETWORK—by Peter Elgersma and Darren Roorda—attempts to answer our larger question, and to some extent, the three smaller ones, with both authors strongly, it seems to me, arguing in favor of accepting government support. For my part, I find the issue a bit more nuanced.
Let’s start with the first sub-question: Shouldn’t churches always and only rely on non-government sources to function? From a historical perspective, it’s certainly true that the early church was entirely supported by non-government means and it’s also true that it not only survived but thrived. Without glamorizing early believers, it does seem to me that their general willingness to give and support the church is much greater, on the whole, than believers in North America are today. Perhaps we are more “reasonable” than those believers, arguing that we should give just 10% or when it’s comfortable to do so.
Seeing my own weakness here, I nevertheless think C. S. Lewis gives us a more satisfying model when he says, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” Lewis qualifies this with a practical formula: our giving probably ought to be no less than our entertainment expenses. In any event, it seems clear that the church and its broad operations can survive and flourish without government support if believers are really believers and the church is really the church. Nevertheless, just because the church can survive and flourish without government support, it hardly follows that accepting this support is always unethical.
This, then, leads to the second sub-question. Does accepting money from the government present a blurring of the lines between church and state, which could subsequently lead to the church compromising some of its vision and mission? The church-state debate—particularly the debate on whether one should control the other—is a long debate in the history of the Christendom. At various times in their history, all the major groups of Christians have argued for varying models of dominance of the church over state or state over church, or a weak or strong separation between them. History gives us no clear answers to what this relationship should look like.
However, what seems clear, certainly from the example of Paul, is that while on the one hand we ought to obey the government, on the other hand, this obedience is limited and qualified by our larger allegiance to God-revealed truth and morality. If government handouts come with no doctrinal or missional cost to the church, then it is not at all clear to me why any believer or church would morally object to accepting government support unless the objection were that relying on the government would weaken some believers’ interest in giving, and so believers wouldn’t develop the virtues that come through the habit of giving.
While not arguing that accepting money from the government is always ethically bad, one might still ask, as stated in the third sub-question, isn’t the need of a church always or usually less than that of other charities, such as food banks?
Thomas Aquinas, I believe, once argued that a fair price isn’t what you can get for the thing you are selling, but rather its true value (whatever that means exactly). For example, if you can sell a horse for $500 but it’s only worth $200, then you should only accept $200 if you want to be just. If we ignore a myriad of economic considerations that might come from this, the takeaway is that just because we can get handouts, it hardly follows that we are just in doing so.
One can argue that the handouts from the government are really just the government giving the church back its own money that it had previously paid in taxes. Here the church is like the peasants who had their money taken by the sheriff of Nottingham only to have it returned by Robin Hood (who on this model isn’t stealing anything, but simply returning the money to its rightful owners). This isn’t wrong if the amount paid by the church is the same as the amount it receives back from the government; however, if the church gets more than it paid, then we are back to square one.
For my part, I think that just as most soldiers aren’t necessarily in a position to decide the morality or immorality of a given battle or war, so too a church isn’t necessarily in a position to decide if its need is greater than or less than some other charity’s needs. Consequently, in this regard at least, I think the church accepting the money and then, if need be, passing it on to an organization it knows to have a greater need than its own is a better solution.
So what, if anything, can specifically be concluded here? For my part, I am sensitive to the objections, both historical and ethical. Where, for example, is our attention to the virtue of individual believers that is promoted in giving until it hurts? What about the increased possibility of the church compromising itself in the future? These are real considerations as far as I’m concerned. Yet on the whole, and at this moment in time at least, I do affirm that churches are ethically permitted to accept government support.