Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Follow Up about CARES Funding

My post yesterday ("Why I Will Not Lead FBC Farmersville to Apply for CARES Funding") generated a lot more attention than I had anticipated. In my experience, heightened attention almost always creates heightened misunderstanding. This seemed to be true yesterday with regard to the original post. Today I'm providing this post to follow up the other one and offer some points of clarification.

The clarification I will provide will run along two lines. First, I will clarify the objective of the post. Second, I will clarify some specific arguments made within the post by myself and made against the post by others.

My Objective

It was not my intention in authoring yesterday's post to deny your church permission to seek CARES funding.

YOUR church doesn't need MY permission to do anything.

Rather (and I think I expressed this for those who were willing and capable of hearing it), I sought to offer my rationale for the way that I planned to lead FBC Farmersville. Even at that, I'm not giving your FBC Farmersville's decision, for that will come as the fruit of prayerful consideration by the congregation in search of the will of God. I'm very simply describing to you the pastoral leadership I plan to give to our congregation about this matter, and I'm offering you the reasons behind my decision to offer that leadership to our congregation.

This seemed to me a worthwhile thing to post because, although the pro-apply-for-CARES case has been made and made again online, it seemed to me that my line of thinking had been underrepresented online. Is your church planning to apply for CARES funding? You'll have no trouble finding articles explaining the line of thinking that can take you there. Some of us were thankful to have at least one careful explanation of the alternative point of view.

So, brothers and sisters, I beseech you not to get your knickers in a knot over yesterday's post. No knicker-knotting. Unless, that is, it offends you that anyone would DECLINE to apply for CARES funding—unless you think that all churches everywhere MUST apply for CARES funding. Otherwise, why should it trouble you that I have come to these particular conclusions about whether it is wise to accept this particular government handout?

Specific Questions

Are You Saying There Are No Occasions in the Bible When People Accepted Governmental Assistance?

I am NOT saying that. I DID not say that. There are occasions of nearly ANYTHING in the Bible. Many people have pointed out that Nehemiah accepted funding for the restoration of Jerusalem from Persia. Yes. I've read that part of the Bible, too.

First, please go back and read again the section about my objective. I was not trying to make a case describing why your church doesn't have my permission to apply for funding. If it seems to you that the case in my post for your not applying for CARES funding wasn't airtight, that's because I wasn't trying to make that case at all.

Second, I tried very clearly to say that I didn't think Abram's refusal to accept money from the King of Sodom represented any sort of binding or normative example for us whatsoever. It's not my hermeneutical practice at all to take something one of the patriarchs did in some Old Testament narrative and make it normative for New Testament Christians. Abram lied about who his wife was. Twice. Don't do that, no matter what Abram did.

I used Abram solely to this extent: Abram did something and gave his rationale for doing it. Was his choice a wise one, or not? If you believe that his choice was wise and good, then perhaps you ought to ask yourself whether the situation you now face is similar to that situation at all. If it is, perhaps there is something in Abram's story that is worthy of your consideration.

For my part, I believe that Abram's choice was wise, and I believe that our present situation is parallel in some significant ways to his own. This is why find this particular episode in his life to be instructive for me at present. But if you think there are no significant parallels—if you find it unimaginable that a post-Christian culture would resentfully conclude that our churches only survived this because the government bailed us out—then feel free to ignore what happened to Abram after the war. Certainly there are plenty of stories to choose from.

When I look at Nehemiah's situation, I see one government giving aid to another government for the rebuilding of their capital city. When I look at Abram's situation, I see one individual refusing money from a foreign king. Neither of these situations is precisely the one that a church faces when considering whether to apply for CARES funding. We'll have to decide which, if either, of these situations most closely applies. Obviously, I've made my choice.

I leave you in freedom to make your own. Only, when you read a description of my rationale, don't assume that I'm unaware of other stories in the Bible. Had I been trying to demonstrate that your church must never apply for CARES funding, I would've needed to show why no other story in the Bible could be used to justify such a thing. I didn't bother to do that because I wasn't trying to make that case.

Didn't Paul make use of his Roman citizenship?

Yes. And I've not tried to talk you out of taking your government handout that is coming to you as an individual by virtue of your being a taxpaying citizen. Were I trying to suggest that you never ought to exercise any of your rights as a citizen, then you'd have me.

Isn't this just a loan from a bank?

People only say it's just a loan from a bank when they're trying to rationalize taking the money. Generally speaking, if it takes an act of Congress to make it happen, there's more going on than just a loan from a bank.

Consider this text from an email I received just yesterday from my local Baptist association. It's a very honest email about what's going on:

The big picture is your church can qualify for a loan equal to 2.5 times your average monthly payroll costs. Because the loan is forgivable, it really is a grant!

Yes. It really is a grant. From Congress.


So, whatever decision you make, I'm just offering you more thoughts to consider as you make it. Weigh them however you will. Act as the Lord leads your autonomous church to act. Blessings.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Why I Will Not Lead FBC Farmersville to Apply for CARES Funding

One of the major reasons people sometimes give for churches to eschew governmental largesse when offered is the concern about "strings attached." With governmental funding comes governmental control. As the COVID-19 disease and associated restrictions impose a financial stress test upon the nation's churches, Congress has included churches as potential beneficiaries of the "Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act" (CARES Act). Our friends at the ERLC have promoted specific wording in the act to safeguard religious liberties for those who participate. This language in the act goes far to assuage the concerns that accepting the funding will bring about governmental control down the road.

The worry about "strings attached," however, is not the only reason why churches should think carefully before applying for CARES funding. For some, there are theological reasons, not just "slippery slope" concerns, for declining this sort of governmental assistance.

John Smythe, Baptist pioneer of 1609, argued that churches should not receive financial support from anyone other than the church's membership. No biblical commandment exists in this regard, but there is a rationale for this that is worthy of consideration.

Giving is an act of Christian worship. It is common, for those who incorporate giving as an act of corporate worship, to ask God's blessing upon those who have given as well as upon the impact of the gift and the ministries of those who will receive it. Some of us regard this not merely as one of the ways that the church should be funded but further as God's sole plan for the funding of the churches. To divorce the funding of the churches' ministries from these acts of worship and these blessings sought by prayer may not be explicitly forbidden in scripture, but that does not mean that it is a theologically insignificant act.

It is for this reason that I have never sought out bake sales and popcorn sales and other gimmicks for the funding of church ministries: I believe that it is God's design for the churches that the faithful worship of believers through their gifts be the mechanism by which God will bless the various ministries to which He leads His people. I would support nothing that would supplant this holy means of funding God's work; indeed, I wish to support nothing that would even de-emphasize it.

Second, when money from outside the family of faith comes to the rescue of God's people, the result can be the diminution of God's glory among men. Abram's rationale in Genesis 14 is instructive at this point. When he refused to receive spoils of war from the King of Sodom, "Abram said to the king of Sodom, 'I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, "I have made Abram rich."'" (Genesis 14:22-23, ESV). When our church emerges from this coronavirus crisis, I want us to know, as Abram did, that it is by God's goodness that we have made it through.

Not everyone will see it this way, and someone will say that God brought them through BY WAY OF government assistance like CARES. People of faith will know that God works in many ways, and that God-ordained government is an agent by which He often works to accomplish that partial, imperfect, temporary justice that we can experience here below. But please note that Abram's worry was not that Abram would think his riches had not come from God, but rather than the King of Sodom would entertain that thought. Abram wanted his material successes to be attributed even by the heathen to the hand of God.

It is not my hermeneutical conviction that we as New Testament churches are bound by the example of Abram in the narratives of Genesis, but that truth ought not to make us reluctant to learn from the patriarchs. I think unbelievers in our society will very likely remember any sort of "church bail-out," just as they remember the bail-outs of the automakers after the 2008 recession. The impression formed upon their minds will be that churches are weak and vulnerable entities who walk around with their hands out looking for assistance from the public dole.

Abram would try to avoid that outcome, and I think he has a point.

Third, I think we would do well to remember that "strings attached" aren't always external in their nature. Whether the government places external demands or not, the church that comes to rely upon governmental funding is a church that will be conspicuously solicitous toward the perceived likes and dislikes of the government. Those who emerged from the state-church regime of Europe were often very sensitive toward this reality. Part of the reason why Smythe rejected external funding of the churches was that he had seen the way that churches would tiptoe around the sins of their benefactors, and that without the benefactors' having to say a word. At the inquiry of his unhappily-wed benefactor Philip of Hesse, Martin Luther, contrary to his previously expressed theological views, endorsed polygamy. A whole bevy of English clerics found license for the divorce of Henry VIII. The radical reformers of the 1600s knew well the subtle and informal ways that outside money could influence the internal decisions of churches.

In conclusion, I am seeking to place no yoke upon any church nor any believer. I simply commend to your consideration these reasons to refuse financial assistance from the government. They will guide my actions in the coming days; perhaps they will give you as well some points to consider as your church prayerfully chooses your way forward.