A Baptist minister is making news. At issue is the “parsonage allowance” for clergy, which is sheltered from federal income tax. Pastor Rick Warren of the 18,000 member Saddleback Community Church in California is depicted as a hero by most religious newspapers for “fighting for an important constitutional principle that keeps the state from harassing churches,” according to Christianity Today.
In no way do I diminish the importance of the housing allowance for ministers and the larger constitutional question of whether this involves Congress in “an establishment of religion.” But totally overlooked by every article I have read is an equally important question—what this case may say about the lifestyle of ministers.
As a Baptist pastor for 30 years, a teacher of Christian ethics since 1985, and co-author of Ministerial Ethics, the question of the minister and money has been a pertinent topic. A basic ethical dilemma is the genuine desire of ministers to live a Christian lifestyle in an affluent society that idolizes material success.
One of my hottest class discussions arose when a student asked, “A minister in my city drives a Porsche—anything wrong with that?” We had just noted the simple lifestyle of Jesus, who “had nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20) and possessed only five articles of clothing when he died (Jn 19:23). To the question “What Would Jesus Do?” was the reply, “What Should I Do?” A few Tony Campolo quotes added fuel to the fiery interchange.
Most students defended the minister who owned a $75,000 car, stating members of his congregation were quite wealthy and he was only living at their level. Another student noted the pastor didn’t buy the car, but it was a gift from the church. As it turned out, two Baptist ministers in this large Southern city owned Porches!
About this same time, the well-known pastor (former SBC President) of a mega-church in Texas was investigated for failing to pay property taxes on his expensive home. The discovery came when the Sunday supplement featured his home in an article, “Homes of the Rich and Famous.” When tax authorities read the story, they realized property taxes had never been paid on this property.
Investigation revealed the church bought the home for the pastor, giving a percentage of the value to the pastor each year. Taxes should have been paid for several years since the minister presently owned 95 percent of the manse. To add to the irony of a minister owning one of the more affluent homes in this city, church attorneys sought to evade some of the taxes because of the statute of limitations!
Which brings me back to the present story of the California pastor, whom I admire as a preacher and a church leader. The details of the case reveal in 1995 Pastor Warren deducted $79,999 for actual housing costs—the IRS challenged the deduction, claiming the “fair market value” (rental per year) would allow only $59,479. The concerns I raise, which most publications seem to have overlooked, are these:
1. The tax break for ministers (also for military officers) is a privilege, not a right. Ministers should be grateful for this deduction and also understand that the government that provided it has the right to interpret and even remove it.
2. The housing allowance originated when most churches owned parsonages. Ministers then would have difficulty, especially with their meager salaries, paying additional taxes on this church-owned property.
3. This tax law allows ministers to exclude what for most is about 25 percent of their taxable income; thus most ministers pay income taxes on the remaining 75 percent. The law was not intended to allow or encourage ministers to claim most of their income as non-taxable (Warren claimed 80 percent in 1995—100 percent earlier).
4. Most significantly for Christian ministers, how can our lifestyle in affluent America reflect the example of Jesus? If I live in a luxurious home that only the upper 5 percent in America can afford, and I work to avoid paying taxes on my six-figure salary, what does that say about my values? What does this also say to the majority of ministers who make less than adequate salaries and do pay their fair share of taxes?
“You cannot serve God and wealth,” warned Jesus (Mt 6:24). Paul added, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due” (Rom 13:7). Paul’s words included both sales tax and the hated tribute tax. The Christian citizen had a responsibility even to a pagan government.
I believe deeply that the clergy too often is corrupted by our culture, rather than challenging its secular values. In all the talk about “culture wars,” I seldom hear modern prophets identify as the enemy our American quest for material success and its corollaries—greed, consumerism and power.
Tony Campolo put it this way recently: “I don’t know how your theology works, but if Jesus has a choice between stained glass windows and feeding starving kids in Haiti, I have a feeling he’d choose the starving kids.”
Maybe W.W.J.D. isn’t just for teenagers.
Joe E. Trull is editor of Christian Ethics Today (www.ChristianEthicsToday.com) and pastor of the baptist church of Driftwood near Austin, Texas.