Today there is news of a new decision in a federal district court which takes away some exemptions that have in the past helped pastors. This could have some very hard consequences for men serving in already difficult situations. There is a chance that this ruling could be overturned (by another court) or that Congress could change the law again (it did that when this came up a while ago to meet IRS language requirements).
Here is my summary of the stuff going on: the new ruling removes the ability for pastors in this federal district to deduct from their taxes housing allowances and similar things. These things were given to pastors because of their very strange tax status (half employee, half self-employed). Being not fully employee, they cannot do some of the things that normal employees can (they have to pay the “employer” match for Social Security). Being not fully self-employed, they cannot deduct as much as self-employed folks can. The housing allowance exemptions were meant to offset this. The same exemptions are granted to military personnel.
I think the hidden scandal here is that our pastors have been having to rely upon government benevolence in order to live out their daily lives. I know of pastors who have had to take food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, and various other benefits (including Federal Student Loans and their repayment plans). The scandal here is not that pastors are using these things to support themselves and their families, but the scandal is that the Church as a whole has not seen this as a problem and addressed it. I know putting food on pastors tables and helping them to pay the light bill does not make for great color glossy ads promoting the church, but we can do better.
As we see the role of government changing in our times, it is very likely that many of the previous favors given to the Church by the State are going away. This should not be a surprise to any student of Lutheran history as Lutherans in particular understand the fickle nature of government, divinely ordained and yet filled with sinners. We should understand that at times the government can be a great blessing to the Church (Frederick the Wise, John the Steadfast….) but also that it can be very much an opponent to the Church (Frederick William III and the Prussian Union as only one example). The last example, that of government opposition to the Church was very formative in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, as seeking religious freedom from their fatherland they set up a Church that did not rely upon the government at all. CFW Walther even rejoiced in the freedom of the Church in this land. The early years of the LCMS in this nation could be considered almost “sectarian” as we kept to ourselves and did things ourselves (for instance our insistence on parochial schools for every congregation at the beginning). As times changed however, even the LCMS warmed to the favors granted to it and its members by the government.
The decisions in regards to the contraceptive mandate, student loans, health insurance, and now these exemptions remind us that governments can change in their relation to the Church. What can an honest Lutheran do?
First, pray. Pray for those in authority over you. Pray that they would be God’s agents to punish evil and reward good. Pray for those effected by all of these decisions. Pray for the pastors. Pray for the teachers. Pray for the congregations.
Second, be a citizen. God has made you a ruler in this land by right of your citizenship. Our republican form of government allows for you to vote on candidates to represent you and also to call upon those elected representatives with your concerns. For more on this, consult the Augsburg Confession, Article XVI. Perhaps God will through government show that kind of favor to His Church again.
Third, be honest with ourselves. We have sometimes become too reliant on government for its favor. Instead, we should return to what we believe, teach, and confess as a Church about how we take care of those who minister among us. We should once again look to the Augsburg Confession (articles V, VII, VIII, XIV for starters) to see what it is the Church is to be about (Word and Sacrament) and how God brings that about (through the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments). A good reread of the Table of Duties of the Small Catechism would be a great idea as well. Not only a return to the simplicity of being the Church of Word and Sacrament, but also some new ideas need to be brought to the table on how to help each other in this “Life Together” to support congregations and pastors. We need to begin, as a Church body to think of and prepare for the worst case scenario, a government that is not only not showing favor, but one which is hostile to the Church. This means teaching the faith to all ages. This means setting up support mechanisms outside of any form of reliance on government.
How does this look in the LCMS? I don’t know. We have a lot of resources that we could bring to bear on the situation if we could focus on it. We have some excellent leaders who are well versed in theology, church history, and have good gifts for the time at hand. Pray for them as they seek to lead the Synod through this messy world and its fickle changes.
From the Table of Duties, What the Hearers Owe Their Pastors:
The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. 1 Cor. 9:14
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Gal. 6:6–7
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” 1 Tim. 5:17–18
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 1 Thess. 5:12–13
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Heb. 13:17