What counts as a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, can be decided in many ways. Synagogue, the category closest to my heart, is simply a Greek word for a gathering, and the Hebrew term beit kenesset means the same thing.
But in a country which grants special privileges, including tax exemptions, to what the IRS broadly calls “churches,” it is not only history or the faithful who decide what counts as a church, but also the federal government. And the definition our government uses is both fascinating and provocative.
According to the IRS manual, Section 184.108.40.206.4(4), there is a 14 point test to determine if a religious organization can qualify as a “church”. These criteria are:
1. A distinct legal existence,
2. A recognized creed and form of worship,
3. A definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,
4. A formal code of doctrine and discipline,
5. A distinct religious history,
6. A membership not associated with any other church or denomination,
7. An organization of ordained ministers ministering to their congregations,
8. Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study,
9. A literature of its own,
10. Established places of worship,
11. Regular congregations,
12. Regular religious services,
13. Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young, and
14. Schools for the preparation of ministers.
According to blogger Chuck Rubin, an attorney and certified tax expert, while the government does not necessarily strictly require that all 14 of these criteria be met in order for a group to qualify as a church, they do represent the basic parameters which our government uses to make that determination. Do these criteria make sense?
First, we might ask if religious institutions should be granted any special exemptions or prerogatives to begin with. Perhaps not surprisingly, I would say yes. There is abundant evidence, based on the importance and positive impact of religious communal membership, which renders it a public good worthy of special consideration.
Second, religious institutions are not alone in being granted special privileges with regard to taxation. Many secular organizations benefit from similar exemptions, but qualify on other bases. So as long as it is not religious organizations alone which have access to these benefits, there is no issue with running afoul of the wall which separates church and state.
Whether or not the government should be using theological and liturgical measures to qualify these institutions as deserving of the already mentioned benefits is also an interesting question. Should the federal government really be defining what counts as a “recognized creed and form of worship”? Recognized by whom?
Should the IRS be deciding what counts as “a regular congregation” or “regular religious services?” What counts as regular?
But most interesting here is whether or not a religious community really needs to meet these 14 criteria to be a church in the 21st century. Are these the elements which define religious community for you or for those you know? Are they the markers of a religious community in which you might be interested?
As Americans, we persist in our religious attachments and spiritual striving. Some of us see that as encouraging and others view it as a sign of our ongoing foolishness. Either way, I suspect that the IRS’s understanding of what qualifies as a church doesn’t begin to capture for many of us, what we mean by church or why we stay connected to one if we choose to do so.
How would you define “church”? What points would you use to determine if something is a legitimate religious institution, especially in a nation where the definition cannot simply be “those who share my personal beliefs and/or practices”?
Section 220.127.116.11.4(4) of the IRS manual clearly respects both the importance of religious institutions to most Americans, and also respects the need for religious diversity, but I wonder if it could not benefit from an overhaul which reflects the ever-widening range of what counts as a church for so many of us.