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.