For years, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association operated as a tax-exempt religious organization, with no obligation to pay taxes on its corporate income. Based in Charlotte, NC, its mission is to celebrate the ministry of Billy Graham and share the gospel. But in 2016, the organization asked the IRS to recognize it as a church, even though it does not have a congregation. Which raises the question: What is a church? 

According to The Conversation, similar requests are being made by Focus on the Family, a radio and publishing ministry; the Navigators, a college ministry group; and Gideons International, an association that leaves Bibles in hotel rooms. Although the Gideons claim on their website that they are neither a denomination nor a church, they claim to be a church for tax purposes.

Why do this? The rules governing churches are less strict.

For example, having church status allows organizations to keep their donor lists private. They can also shield the salaries of their employees, including those that are the highest paid. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are free from the obligation to file forms that the IRS makes all other tax-exempt organizations submit.

Leaders of these tax-exempt religious groups tell The Washington Post that they are changing their status to avoid administrative costs and governmental requirements. A spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association pointed to a statement which said that the ministry operates with churches and that it feels better protected from government interference when it is characterized as a church.

This new status with the IRS could also allow them extra religious-freedom protections in potential lawsuits over LGBT rights. Gary Cantwell, a spokesman for the Navigators, said that the ministry made the decision about 15 years ago to file as a church. “We are a part of the broader church, theologically,” he said.

“Church” status provides the Navigators with protections regarding the beliefs of its employees and the use of its facilities, according to Cantwell.

For example, the ministry owns a property in Colorado that people have used for weddings, and the Navigators would not be willing to host a ceremony for a same-sex couple. Financially, the Navigators group is a top-20 evangelical organization, with an income of nearly $138 million, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Critics of the switch from tax-exempt religious group to church say that the move deprives the public of important information about how these religious organizations are operating. “Transparency and accountability send an important message to the world,” said Warren Cole Smith of MinistryWatch, a group that monitors evangelical institutions, “which is why this trend is so potentially destructive.”

Paul Batura, vice president of communications for Focus on the Family, told The Christian Post that the main reason for the reclassification was to protect the identities of donors and “to protect our constituents’ privacy” so that they do not become the object of retribution by those of different opinions.

According to the IRS, a church is a public charity, not a private foundation. It has certain characteristics generally attributed to churches such as: recognized creed and form of worship, a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government, established places of worship, regular congregations, regular religious services, and Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young.

Are these large tax-exempt religious organizations really operating as churches? Not by a long shot.

In my novel City of Peace, a pastor named Harley Camden serves a small congregation called Riverside Methodist Church, in the Town of Occoquan, Virginia. In the worship service on one August Sunday, he read a Scripture verse from First Corinthians.

“I have chosen First Corinthians,” he said, “because we are a congregation with ‘varieties of gifts.’ Some of you are teachers, some are doctors, some are builders, some are analysts, some are caregivers, some are civil servants. There is virtually no challenge in our community that we cannot tackle and overcome, as a group.

“But I am afraid that we sometimes forget this, or at least I do. We try to face problems as individuals, forgetting that our skills and our strengths are seen most clearly in a united community. That is why the apostle Paul says that there are ‘varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.’ Our many different gifts are connected to one united Spirit.

“I am convinced that we have not yet tapped into the power of this Spirit,” he said.

Harley sensed that he had their attention, with many starting to wonder where he was going. Talk of the power of the Spirit was not always welcome in Methodist churches, where people were not comfortable with worship that felt out of control.

“Here is the thing about the gifts of the Spirit,” Harley continued. “Although we often think of speaking in tongues or faith-healing, the gifts of the Spirit are much broader. They include any skill or talent that advances Christ’s work in the world, and they are given to everyone. Paul says, ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’” Harley saw a few nods in the congregation. “Each and every one of these gifts support the common good. If they do not serve all of God’s people, they are not true gifts of the Spirit.”

Harley went on to say that charismatic leaders had gifts—in fact, the Greek word charisma was used in First Corinthians and it meant “gift.” But there was a dark side to charismatic leaders, and it usually involved tunnel vision, isolation and arrogance. Such leaders felt that they were above the community and its standards, with freedom to pursue their own agendas, and they rarely pursued the common good.

So, what is a church? According to Scripture, it is a community in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are used for the common good.

“I have found that when we work together as one community,” said Harley, “using the full variety of our gifts, we act in ways that show the reality of God’s love to the world, a love that drives out darkness, a love that undermines hatred, a love that actually conquers evil.”

Where have you seen the church at work, promoting the common good? Join the conversation through a comment below.