This paper is intended to help churches and ministries as they consider whether to accept CARES funds. (NOTE: The information at that link changes nearly daily.)
These funds are available through the US Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which is part of the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which consists of $349 billion in government-backed loans to help small businesses maintain their payrolls through June 30, 2020.”
My purpose is not to discuss the legal or financial aspects of this possibility, but rather to explore related issues from theological and practical perspectives.
Is this a theological violation of church-state separation?
The doctrine of church-state separation is built on the conviction that we should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). We believe that a free church in a free state is God’s intention for both.
For churches (I will include other 501(c)3 entities in this description) to accept funds from the government to be used for payroll expenses is not a violation of this relationship if both the church and the state are just as free as they were before such funds were given and accepted.
Conditions that would violate such freedoms include:
- The funds enable the government to control the church in some way.
- The church must meet inappropriate standards to qualify (changing its position on biblical marriage, for instance).
My understanding is that neither is relevant to the present opportunity.
Is this an appropriate use of government funds?
Just as churches should be free of state interference, the state should be free of church entanglements. For the government to provide funds for church use is appropriate in this context, however, for the following reasons:
As the funds are to be used for personnel support, the state is deferring possible future unemployment costs by providing such funding through the church.
If the church were to cease operations due to financial constraints (especially those imposed by the state, as the following point notes), the state would be constrained to supply the public good that the church previously provided. This would likely be far more expensive to the state than for it to provide some funding that enables churches to continue their vital ministries.
Churches are being forced to close public services due to an (appropriate, in my view) decision by the state. It is therefore appropriate for the state to help with the financial shortfall their decision has created.
What practical challenges should churches consider that apply for CARE funds?
How to process and message the decision so that members or the community do not misunderstand or misinterpret it (i.e., the church is “selling out to the government” or “my taxes are now supporting the church”).
How to ensure that the funds are utilized as intended. It is important that church leaders work with their leaders and members to consider this opportunity in a holistic and healthy way.
The state provides many resources that enable churches to perform their vital functions for the common good. For instance, the state provides security for our community, roads and access to our campuses, and social infrastructure for our families.
For the state to provide some personnel funding in response to the state’s decision that impacts our personnel therefore seems both logical and appropriate.