GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was recently criticized by political commentator Bill Maher for counting the 16.5 percent of the income he and his wife earned in recent years as charitable giving, because the bulk of the estimated $7 million either went to the Mormon Church in the form of tithes or to charities affiliated with the Church. This has begged the questions: is it "charitable giving" when the faithful donate or tithe to their churches; and should a church even be considered a "charity" if it is not directly aiding the poor or doing similar work?
"That's the strict interpretation of the law, so from a legal standpoint, there's nothing wrong with what he said – that 16 percent of his income went to charity, under the legal definition," said Ole Anthony, president of watchdog ministry the Trinity Foundation, known for its investigations of popular evangelists like Benny Hinn and Eddie Long.
"I would think, however, that integrity would want you to say just as it was because the public's view of charity is helping feed the poor. So I would hope that there would be a distinction made, at least if you're a presidential candidate, that you would make a distinction between the tithes to your church and giving to charity," he told The Christian Post.
In recent broadcasts of "Real Time with Bill Maher" the commentator and comedian, focusing on Romney and the Mormon Church, insisted that "real charities only care about the charity" and that some churches and other seemingly well-to-do 501(c)(3) organizations, such as symphony orchestras and colleges and universities cushioned with large endowments, should not count as "charities."
"I think first of all that comment (from Maher), what they're trying to do is define what a charity is. They're saying the only legitimate beneficiary of any charitable activity is the poor. Well that eliminates libraries, that eliminates hospitals, that eliminates symphonies and museums. It eliminates churches, it eliminates animal shelters, it eliminates the overwhelming majority of nonprofit organizations in the country if you say the only legitimate charitable giving is if you're giving to somebody that's poor," said Edward G. Link, a family wealth counselor who heads Stewardship Ministries and Kardia Family Wealth Counseling.
According to the IRS, charities fall under 501(c)(3) tax exemption status, which means such nonprofit organizations, including churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, etc., are not required to pay federal taxes and can receive tax deductible contributions. For churches, much of their contributions come in the form of offerings and tithes. A tithe is generally considered 10 percent of one's income. Churches, classified as public charities by the IRS, need not explicitly apply for 501(c)(3) status to reap its benefits.
Link, who is also an ordained minister, works with churches, pastors, ministries, and Christian families to help them "maximize their kingdom impact." God owns everything and "we are simply caretakers of the resources that He has entrusted to us. Our responsibility is to manage those carefully and according to His wishes," he told CP.
God's wish, according to Link's interpretation of Scripture, is for Christians to give. And, while he says there is nothing particularly wrong with Christians benefiting from their own donations, the family wealth counselor finds that some churches spend more on upkeep than they do on outreach.
"I do think, and I use this terminology, that there is an element of consumptive philanthropy in that, in the fact that we're giving and we're going to receive some of the benefits of the result of our giving. I would suggest – and I don't think there's anything wrong with that – that we should be able to receive some benefit (from our giving)," he said.
"Just like I pay taxes and my taxes go to help support the public library and I go into the public library and I take advantage of that, it's the same kind of thing. Money that I'm contributing, in this case to my church, is producing a benefit to me."
He added, "I don't think there's anything wrong with that, although I do think churches really need to think a little bit more carefully about the fact that if you're consuming 97 percent of everything that comes in just on your own organization, and your own structure and your own people, I have a little heartburn over that. I'd like to see them using a lot more of those revenues to actually reach out to people in our country or in the world who have really serious and desperate needs."
A study on church budgets conducted in 2000 by Christianity Today found that the average budget for churches was around $292,790. According to the report, 43 percent of funds went for staff compensation; 20 percent for facilities (rent, mortgage, utilities, upkeep); 16 percent for missions; nine percent for church programs; six percent for administration and supplies; three percent for denominational fees; and three percent for other expenses. The publication culled data from 1,184 churches of varying sizes for the study.
Steve Hutmacher, Executive Pastor at Cedar Creek Church in Northern Ohio, agrees that churches need to be more outreach-oriented.
One point of CedarCreek's mission belief – "We agree to be an example of Jesus' love and generosity both behind and beyond the walls of the church" – is based on Galatians 6:10 and Matthew 5:16, both of which speak of doing good works, the latter saying specifically works done to the glory of God.
"Although churches are nonprofit organizations, they should not be considered charities in themselves," Pastor Hutmacher suggested in a statement emailed to CP. "Instead, churches should be charitable in their service within and outside the walls of the church. The church is made up of Christ's followers and are to emulate Jesus Christ who said the he 'did not come to be served but to serve….' (Matthew 20:28). The church should be a channel of blessing and service to others. Charities are usually on the receiving end. The church should be the ones that give to those in need."
Indeed, listed first among the selection of considered IRS requirements for churches or any organization seeking 501(c)(3) charity status is that they exist for the "relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged;" another potentially applicable requirement is that the organization exists for the "advancement of religion."
TITHING AS 'CHARITABLE GIVING' AND FOR A RETURN
Despite the economic turmoil that emerged in 2008, Americans are still giving in the form of tithes, although somewhat less than in previous years. Research company the Barna Group reported last year in a study on giving that the number of American tithers had dropped from its 10-year range of between five and seven percent, to about four percent of the adult population.
The faithful who pay tithes and give offerings can, come tax time, claim these donations as "charitable contributions." The IRS says such write-offs qualify as donations or gifts if they are given voluntarily and without "getting, or expecting to get, anything of equal value" in return.
Preachers of the so called prosperity gospel are known for claiming that those who "sow" bountifully can expect to "reap" just as bountifully or even greater than they "sowed" -- but doesn't that override the whole purpose of tithing, or making a charitable contribution if one expects to get something in return?
Link of Stewardship Ministries pointed to James 1:27, which says an aspect of religion or worship that God finds "pure and faultless" is "the caring of orphans and widows in their distress."
"The whole point of what I think James is trying to say there is that your ultimate gift is when there's no possibility that there'll be any payback," Link suggested.
"The prosperity gospel says it this way: 'That if you don't have anything and you start trusting in God and giving, He'll give you back more and so you'll have more, so you can buy a bigger house and have a nicer car, and take more expensive vacations and maybe get a private plane, like I'm doing, like I'm rich.'"
Pastor Hutmacher suggested that expecting a return on one's giving is not unbiblical, but that one should not expect it to always be in the form of money or material goods.
"There has been confusion, especially in modern church history where there is an expectation that when someone gives to God or the church that there will be a financial blessing, possibly even a huge return on their gift," explained Pastor Hutmacher.
"Much of that thinking comes from Malachi 3:10 where the Bible says we can actually test God's faithfulness that when we honor Him, He will pour out a blessing until there is no more need. We just don't know what that 'blessing' is, but we can take God at His word that He will bless us."