The NFL gave up its tax exemption. Should your church?

Yesterday, the National Football League announced that it would give up its tax exemption.

NFL football is a profitable enterprise. Individual teams paid taxes, but the league office did not. It was a shared cost (or profit center) of the teams, not separate income to tax. The consensus is that such changes will cost the NFL $10 million each year.

Other news buried the NFL’s announcement. This included news about the Supreme Court’s consideration of same-sex marriage. But tax exemption was an issue there, as well.

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A key moment occurred when Justice Alito caught the Solicitor General, the DOJ’s Supreme Court lawyer, off guard:

Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax ­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?

General Verrilli: You know, ­­I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is­­…it is going to be an issue.

“It is going to be an issue.”

“Going to be an issue” means Christian institutions must think like the NFL, starting today.

I don’t mean that churches should give up tax exemptions today. That day may come for some ministries.

I do mean today’s the day institutions know it’s a real issue. Government is not above using tax exemption to try to get ministries to change their message. This is the Solicitor General of the United States, not a late-night AM radio evangelist announcing the end times. Every Christian ministry needs to start thinking about the purposes of the gospel, and the legal structure of gospel ministry.

The NFL’s purpose is to conduct football profitably. At the point its structure distracts from its purpose, it changed its structure — not its purpose. It is a decision years in the making. That decision has costs, but there are also benefits.

The NFL thought the nonprofit status was a distraction. It was better to pay $10 million a year than follow the special accounting and disclosure requirements of tax exemption. The disclosures just seemed to make people angry, which diverted even more attention. It is hard for people to understand how a “charity” pays a CEO $35 million per year. Yet that is what reports say the NFL pays its commissioner, Roger Goodell.

I don’t know of any churches that pay $40 million a year to an employee. In fact, most churches I deal with would be unable to pay all their full-time ministers if donors pay taxes on tithes.

But the gospel is at least as important to Christians as saving Roger Goodell’s salary is to the NFL.

You must consider how ministries will be in friction with government. If your church says love lays down its life for others, and love must lay down its sexual desires, too, what will happen?

Church plants must talk with lawyers about avoiding unintended consequences in their governing documents. Christian colleges may want to restructure their housing options or get out of that business. It might mean church cafes, bookstores, conference centers, pension funds, and more, make plans. The first plan is to defend our beliefs to Caesar — but also have a structure in place if Caesar’s thumb goes down.

Avoid a panic later by talking with attorneys, financial advisers, and wise Christians today.

Christians must carry out the gospel. But today is the day to start counting certain costs.

It is going to be an issue.

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