The question of the day is whether or not churches and Christian non-profits should accept the emergency payroll assistance from the Federal Government as a result of the challenges faced by the coronavirus. Many organizations have seen significant reductions in giving and income, and are contemplating reducing the payroll and/or laying off employees. The CARES Act passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President was intended to be a temporary measure to help small businesses, including churches, to keep their people employed.
But should churches accept financial assistance from the Federal Government? Until the guidelines for receiving the loan/grant money were clarified on April 1, I was opposed to accepting these funds because there was not clear language guaranteeing religious liberty for Christian non-profits. Senator Tim Scott was one of the champions to oversee this guarantee being written into the regulations.
Under normal conditions, Baptist organizations would not seek federal funding. However, under emergency conditions, churches routinely accept assistance, often without question. Every church-owned checking account is insured by the Federal Government. If their banks were to go out of business, churches would gratefully accept the emergency federal assistance to replace the money. Many churches insure their buildings for flood damage, insurance that is heavily subsidized by the Federal Government. Purchasing this insurance means churches are automatically accepting government assistance.
I have never heard of a church asking their insurance agent to send the bill for the real cost of the flood insurance without the federal subsidy. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 left many church buildings in South Carolina damaged by flood, and federal emergency assistance was accepted with gratitude. Receiving these emergency funds does not violate our cherished principles of church autonomy and religious liberty.
While I respect those who see it differently, I see the CARES Act as an emergency relief fund provided by the Federal Government. If a church suffers financial damage because of the mandated closures by the government, then it is permissible to accept the relief (when the religious liberty of the church is guaranteed).
Some may object to the church applying for a loan on scriptural grounds, and I appreciate that concern. While this is in the form of a loan, if the church keeps faith with the requirements of the Act, the loan becomes a grant. If a church cannot honestly prove harm, or if a church does not intend to faithfully use the money as required, then the church should never consider this program.
How does the Bible, our absolute standard of truth, speak to this issue? Since there is no specific biblical text on accepting emergency help from the government, one must look for generally applicable biblical principles. The text of I Corinthians has these principles in the form of four questions. In 6:12, two questions are asked: “Is it beneficial?” and “Will it control me?” In chapter 8:9, the relevant question is “Will this cause someone else to sin?” Finally, in 10:31, “Will this glorify God?”
So let’s apply these questions to this issue. People of good will can differ, but it would appear that the loan/grant program would be beneficial, would not control us (with the religious liberty guarantee), would not cause someone else to sin, and would help us serve God’s kingdom, which brings him glory.
I would hate for pastors or staff of churches to miss paychecks when this assistance is available and it is designed to help churches in this emergency. The only caution here is that churches need to develop consensus among their leadership and membership to apply for this program so as not to create discord and division (refer to principle #3). I recommend praying about it, going through the biblical principles, reading it carefully, then do as the Lord leads your church without judgment toward anyone else.
— Marshall Blalock is pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston and former president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.