25 May 2009 Churches, Politics, and Charitable Status
What Kind of Political Action Should Churches Be Involved With?
By ARPA Canada (www.ARPACanada.ca) There is fear and hesitation among many churches to get involved in anything political. There are a few reasons for this. First, most churches are registered as charitable organizations which allows them to provide tax receipts for the donations they receive. As registered charities, Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) enforces strict regulations about what they may do, including when it comes to politics. Since churches want to be able to continue giving tax receipts to members, they are very careful to not do anything that may jeopardize their charitable status. A second reason for the fear of politics has to do with the sensitive nature of the subject. Christians have very different perspectives on how to vote and many are tired of the debate over which party to support. Added to this, there is also a longstanding sentiment that politics is about the ways of the world and Christians should spend their time on our own church and family activities such as mission, evangelism, and world relief.
All combined, we are left with the reality that many churches would simply prefer to avoid political matters altogether. This is a shame. Reformed Christians rightly believe that God’s sovereignty necessarily extends into all areas of life. We can’t simply hold to that in theory but ignore it in practise. If God’s Word is true, and if He demands that we live according to it, how can we not be a voice for truth in the public and political domains of life? One has only to glance at ARPA Canada’s website to see that politics impacts the things that we hold most dear including our faith, lives, families, and freedoms.
But do churches have to risk losing their charitable status if they apply their faith to politics? Not at all. CRA’s regulations clearly state that churches may engage in political activities, as long as they abide by a number of rules. First, they must in no way be partisan (showing support or opposition toward any political party or candidate). For example, a church may not encourage members to vote for a particular party or candidate. They should also refrain from anything that even suggests partisanship, such as allowing a candidate to promote him or herself by distributing flyers in the church mailboxes. Second, even when it comes to non-partisan political activity, a charity may not devote more than 10-20% of its total resources to politics. That won’t be an issue for any Reformed church that I have ever heard of. Church finances are rightly devoted to the preaching of the Word, the ministry of mercy, and the communion of the saints.
This means that churches may be involved in political activities that aren’t partisan in nature, as long as their involvement doesn’t become a big part of all church activities combined. Activities that are allowed and should even be encouraged include keeping members informed on important political issues and bills before Parliament, encouraging action in response to these political issues, informing the church community on where the local candidates stand on issues that matter, hosting an all-candidates forum, and praying for our leaders, to name some examples. If you have questions about a particular activity just contact ARPA Canada. Generally, churches are far to cautious and consequently fail to engage in important issues that they need to be a voice on.
There is increasing pressure from both CRA and activist groups that are hostile to our faith to make it more difficult to get charitable status and, once it is obtained, to put increased pressure on charities so that they stay away from activities that they don’t like. Back when Canada changed the definition of marriage in law to include same-sex couples, activist groups ramped up pressure on CRA to examine charities that they despised because of their opposition to changing the definition. Churches have to be careful. We should not prize our tax receipts above doing what is right. If it comes to the point that churches may not engage in any political activity if we want to remain charitable, we should be willing to forgo our charitable status. Otherwise, our charitable status becomes a collar around our necks, giving government agencies the freedom to pull churches in the direction they want (especially away from political action). Members of Reformed churches must be strong voices for truth and justice in the public square. Right now churches still have the freedom to be political and remain a charity. Let’s use our freedom to apply our faith to politics so that we can be salt and light in a society that desperately needs both.
More Information: Check out this Centre of Cultural Renewal article with a listing of specific activities that are allowed or forbidden.