Copyright © March, 2010
Revised on April 10, 2013
Does the Word of God teach that churches in America should get Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) (“501c3”) status? What about civil law? Does American law purportedly require that churches get 501c3 status? This article will answer those questions.
Since you will probably want to know something about Jerald Finney before you give any consideration to his positions, this article will begin by providing you with a brief profile of Finney. At the end of the article are links to important Internal Revenue Code laws concerning churches as well as an important note.
The author is a Christian first and a lawyer second. He has no motive to mislead you. In fact, his motivation is to tell you the truth about this matter, and he guards himself against temptation on this and other issues by doing all he does at no charge. He does not seek riches. His motivation is his love for God first and for others second. His goal is the Glory of God. Jerald Finney has been saved since 1982. God called him to go to law school for His Glory. In obedience, Finney entered the University of Texas School of Law in 1990, was licensed and began to practice law, for the Glory of God, in November of 1993. To learn more about the author click the following link: About Jerald Finney.
The Bible makes clear that God desires that Christians love Him and He tells them what it means to love God. The relationship between God and his children is very important to Him. Likewise, the love relationship between God and His churches is preeminent to Him. After all, “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it” (Ep. 5:25). Do you understand God’s definition of love? Jerald Finney has covered this subject in the booklet, The Most Important Thing: Loving God and/or Winning Souls? which is available on the Order Information on Books by Jerald Finney page of this website, and also free on this website at The Most Important Thing: Loving God and/or Winning Souls in online form as well as in PDF form. Of course, if one loves God, he will win souls.
The author realizes that there are different interpretations of Scripture on any given subject—there are false interpretations and one true interpretation. Christians, including the author, should do everything possible to make sure they correctly divide Scripture since the Bible commands them to do so. In fact, the biblical way for a Christian to make sure that he is right about an issue was given to Timothy and to all Christians by Paul: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Ti. 2.15). Most Christians rely totally or heavily upon their pastors for leadership in instruction in spiritual matters. Sometimes, as is the case with the author, they rely upon their pastors and others, and are also called themselves to deal specifically with an issue.
To totally understand all the issues and sub-issues involved with the 501c3, one must not only have extensive knowledge of biblical principles, but he must also have an understanding of history and law. You see, the issue of the relationship between church and state is very important to God and His Word completely explains His desired relationship. Historically, true Christians understood the importance of this relationship, and they stood up for their relationship even though they suffered greatly for their stand on this issue—they were imprisoned, drowned, beheaded, burned at the stake, hung, tortured, etc. because they loved their Savior and were willing to do all that He asked them to do.
With that said, let us now go to the issues—first the issue of the truth about civil government requirement that churches get 501c3 status. The unabashed truth is that civil government does not require churches in America to get 501c3 status. They do so completely voluntarily, just as they incorporate on a voluntary basis. Since there is absolutely no law that requires a church to get 501c3 status, no attorney, pastor, or anyone else can show you such a law.
In fact, there is a law that clearly states that you do not have to get 501c3 status: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.“
The religion clause of the First Amendment, in conjunction with the other clauses of the First Amendment, is a statement of the biblical principle of separation of church and state. To understand this, read An Abridged History of the First Amendment or the more complete version (Section IV of God Betrayed, or Part II of The Trail of Blood of the Martyrs of Jesus which are available free or can be purchased in softback. (See Order information, free PDF, and free online version page for books by Jerald Finney) or. The First Amendment commands that the federal government make no law respecting an establishment of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof.
When I first wrote this article, I stated that Internal Revenue Code § 508 (“508”) is a law that protects churches and states that churches are an exception to getting 501c3 status. That law explicitly states that churches are an exception to the requirement that certain organizations get 501c3 status. However, after years of study, I am convinced that a church should never claim 508 status. A church should rely on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, not on 508.
508 is a law made by the federal government that regards and establishment of religion and prevents the free exercise thereof. Therefore, a church that agrees to 508 status has agreed to place herself under a law which is unconstitutional as applied to churches (a law which violates the First Amendment when applied to churches) thereby waiving First Amendment status and also weakening the First Amendment. The federal government can also argue that churches who claim 508 status have agreed to the rules of 501c3, since the state may argue that the federal government is granting the exemption under 508 and the church chose to depend upon 508 instead of the First Amendment. The Internal Revenue Service completely understands the First Amendment implications as to churches. The Internal Revenue Service states in Internal Revenue Code Publication 1828: “Unlike churches, religious organizations that wish to be tax exempt generally must apply to the IRS for tax-exempt status unless their gross receipts do not normally exceed $5,000 annually.” One may argue that this interpretation of 508 is too explicit, but the devil is in the details, and the legal system is expert in arguing the details. See, for more thorough explanation, Church Internal Revenue Code § 508 Tax Exempt Status.
501c3 comes with rules that churches agree to honor. Thus, when a church gets 501c3, she places herself under a sovereign other than God to some degree. The author goes into the rules that come along with 501c3 in the following articles: The Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) Exemption-Definition-Control Scheme, Laws Protecting New Testament Churches in the United States: Read Them for Yourself.
A 501c3 church also has many regulations which it is required to honor. See Publication 4221: Compliance Guide for Tax Exempt Organizations (“Federal tax law provides tax benefits to nonprofit organizations recognized as exempt from federal income tax under section 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code). The Code requires that tax-exempt organizations comply with federal tax law to maintain tax-exempt status and avoid penalties….”).
In spite of the irrefutable fact that churches are not required to get 501c3, many Christians will tell you that Romans 13 requires that churches get 501c3 status. Of course, that is a ridiculous statement, since American law clearly gives each church a choice in the matter. No “ordinance of man” requires churches to get 501c3; therefore, churches cannot violate an ordinance which does not exist. To repeat, does God require that a church get 501c3? Of course not, and no “ordinance of man” purportedly requires man to get 501c3.
Another important question, although not at all relevant (as we have seen) to the issue of whether churches in America are required to get 501c3, is this: “If God is against a church obeying a certain civil law, even if the civil law purportedly requires churches to obey that law, is man to obey the civil law?” When one does an honest and systematic biblical study of the issues involved, the answer becomes very clear. The author has done such a study and has written and taught on this very issue. He has written four books that cover the biblical principles as well as history and law. Again, those books are available free on this website in online form as well as in PDF form or may be ordered in paperback. See Order information, free PDF, and free online version page for books by Jerald Finney.
This article will just mention a few Biblical principles and teachings. Clearly, when a man-made law conflicts with God’s law, Christians are instructed by God to obey God’s law. All the apostles, except John, were martyred for adhering to this principle. Likewise, as mentioned above, Christians down through the ages in and since the primitive church have stood on this principle.
The Bible teaches that God is sovereign over all, and that He ordained all powers that be. Thus, God established or ordained civil government. He gave civil government the responsibility for ruling over men, under Him. He also gave man free will. Since civil government is run by a man, or by men, civil government, like man, is free, under God to honor or dishonor Him and His principles. Of course, God desires that civil government honor Him, but sadly, civil governments rarely do so, and they never permanently do so in this age. This is the clear teaching of history.
To interpret Romans 13 and other verses to mean that Christians are to obey all civil laws which contradict God’s law would mean that Romans 13 is inconsistent in both the immediate and overall context of Scripture. Many Old Testament characters, the apostles, God, God’s own angels, and Christians throughout the last 2000 years who have refused to honor laws of men which require God’s children to submit to man rather than to proceed under God only in certain matters, violated the modern American interpretation of Romans 13. The author goes into all the details on this matter in Render unto God the Things that Are His: A Systematic Study of Romans 13 and Related Verses and in God Betrayed/Separation of Church and State: The Biblical Principles and the American Application (The book is in online form at Render unto God the Things that Are His: A Systematic Study of Romans 13 and Related Verses. Also, click the following links for other articles which teach on this matter: Separation of Church and God, American Abuse of Romans 13:1-2, An Abridged History of the First Amendment.
In conclusion, churches who get 501c3 dishonor the Lord and His principles concerning His desired relationship between church and state. Christians are responsible to God to study His Word and make the practical application of His Word to real life. The relationship between Christ and His churches is very important to Him: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ep. 5.25-27).
That relationship has been so important to Christians since the beginning of the Church that they have been willing to die rather than to dishonor it. How important is that relationship to you and your church?
You can read the following Internal Revenue Code laws online by clicking the following links:
1. § 501(c)(3). Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc.
2. § 508. Special rules with respect to section 501(c)(3) organizations
3. § 7611. Restrictions on church tax inquiries and examinations
4.§ 1402. [Dealing with taxes on income of pastors]
5. § 107. Rental value of parsonages
6. § 102. Gifts and inheritances (According to Internal Revenue Code § 102 tithes and offerings are gifts and, therefore, , not income)
7. § 2503. Taxable gifts
8. § 170. Charitable, etc., contributions and gifts
Note. Should you desire to know how your church can organize according to both biblical principles and also within the parameters of American law contact Jerald Finney, a licensed lawyer. Click here for contact information for Jerald Finney.
All conclusions in this article are opinions of the author. Please do not attempt to act in the legal system if you are not a lawyer, even if you are a born-again Christian. Many questions and finer points of the law and the interpretation of the law cannot be properly understood by a simple facial reading of a civil law. For a born-again Christian to understand American law, litigation, and the legal system as well as spiritual matters within the legal system requires years of study and practice of law as well as years of study of Biblical principles, including study of the Biblical doctrines of government, church, and separation of church and state. You can always find a lawyer or Christian who will agree with the position that an American church should become incorporated and get 501(c)(3) status. Jerald Finney will discuss the matter, as time avails, with any such person, with confidence that his position is supported by God’s Word, history, and law. He is always willing, free of charge and with love, to support his belief that for a church to submit herself to civil government in any manner grieves our Lord and ultimately results in undesirable consequences. He does not have unlimited time to talk to individuals. However, he will teach or debate groups, and will point individuals to resources which fully explain his positions.