The Inspiring Body of Christ Church in Dallas, TX, operates the world’s largest privately-owned aquarium. The tank, which cost $4.7 million to build, is stocked with over $100,000 worth of exotic fish. Also in Dallas (perhaps everything just really is bigger in Texas), First Baptist Church announced a $130 million renovation plan in 2009 for their downtown campus. Of course, they’re not alone. American churches generally spend a huge percentage of their budgets on buildings.
I’m not against church buildings. Churches can often minister more effectively with a nice campus. However, lavish building programs can also be counterproductive sometimes. I’ve been told by several pastors that their churches were cutting back on missions because they bit off more than they could chew in a building program.
Whenever a church spends a lot of money on its building, inevitably somebody starts complaining about churches not paying taxes. The argument goes, “Since churches have enough money to build something like that, they ought to have enough money to pay taxes.” One group of researchers recently estimated that the U.S. could raise $71 billion a year by taxing churches.
This argument is generally a thin cover for an anti-Christian rant. Those arguing that churches should pay taxes aren’t willing to see all non-profit organizations pay taxes. You want to build a $4.7 million aquarium for the community? Great, here’s your 501c3. You want to spend a $130 million on an educational center? Wonderful, don’t worry about taxes. You want to put them in a church? Better pay Uncle Sam your fair share.
If we are going to have freedom of religion in this country, we have to be willing to let churches spend money on whatever they want–even if we think their choices to be wasteful. Should we start making churches pay taxes? I’m actually fine with that…just as long as every other nonprofit organization is taxed on an equal basis.