Editor's Note: Be sure to study this article carefully. THINK!

Religious Empires


Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be to you a Father, and ye shall be to me sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

That great promise, spoken first by Isaiah, assures believers of a hope of eternal life. That hope is based on, depends on, our will to rid ourselves of that carnal, temporal nature that is so much a part of all of us. When believers put on Christ, old things are passed away, they are become new; he is a new creature. Believers adopt a new system of values that is totally incompatible with the value system of the "man of the world."

When the prophet wrote, "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he," the source of what a man is was revealed. We are what we think, what we believe, what we value at that foundation level of our being. When Jesus said, "Where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also," He showed us how we may know what we are. What we are determines what we value, what we work for and toward, what we treasure. If we value that which is temporal, our ambitions lead us to work for high esteem among our peers, positions of power, influence, and wealth. It is not that esteem, influence, or wealth are evil; it is when these values form the basis of our ambitions, when people spend life pursuing these goals, when the carnal value is served at the expense of the spiritual value, man cannot have come out from among them and separated himself from them, as the Lord requires.

Riches are full of deceit, Jesus said. Whatever the form of riches, men do not forego or reject positions of honor, power or wealth because these things may obstruct his spiritual welfare. No, we most often believe that these things will prove to be useful in advancing our spiritual welfare, and that of others. But it doesn't often turn out that way. Power and wealth are probably the two most basic values held by people. And institutional churches have proven to be fertile sources for both.

What this says is that people who are involved in institutional churches, particularly those who are devoted to the "church", those who are faithful to the "church", those who find value fulfillment in exercising authority through "church offices" and those who work toward acquiring and securing church wealth, these motives and activities cannot result from coming out of the world and separating ourselves from the world. These are carnal, not spiritual motives and activities We, the Church of Christ church, and all other institutional churches, have not come out of the world. We have enthusiastically embraced the organizational characteristics of the world and fierce battle is waged in defense of this worldly institution. We preach Christ crucified for the world, we convert sinners to Christ, we teach them that obedience to His commands will add them to those whose names are in the book of life, then we lead them straight back into this institutional religious organization that we call "church of Christ."

Even a brief and superficial review of the development and behavior of institutional churches would reveal all of them to have the same basic characteristics. Every one of them is a corporate entity, a legal entity that is separate from the people who are members of it. That corporation can function in legal areas just as individual citizens can. It can own money, property of any kind, contracts, and liabilities. It can sue and be sued in the courts of the land. And as holders and owners of assets and in their position of advantage over other corporations and individuals, institutional churches are among the most wealthy, if not the most wealthy, corporations in the world. No one will ever know how much institutional churches are worth because they are never required to account for their wealth to anyone, in most cases not even to their own members.

It is this privileged status forbidding government, federal, state, or local, to examine their financial dealings that has permitted them to operate in almost total secrecy. But there are a few instances in their operations which require public records. Real-estate owned by churches must be recorded for public record.

But before discussing church owned property and institutional churches' advantages over other types of institutions and individuals in financial operations, it might be instructive to review the rationale for religious preferences, immunities, and tax exemptions.

Property tax is usually limited to local governments in our country. Such local governments provide and maintain, with tax monies, our public school systems, police and fire protection, streets and roads, and sewer systems. The list of services is long. The general rule is that all property of any kind and by whomsoever owned, is subject to taxation. Some property and corporations obviously should be exempt from taxation, including such things as publicly owned buildings, public parks, public libraries, publicly owned utilities, etc. But, when any property is exempt from taxation, it is an exception to the rule. The rule says that justice and equity require that every kind of property within the state bear its equal proportion of the financial burden of government. But the use of some properties and corporations provide valuable benefits to the public, values often far in excess of the value of any taxes that may be levied. This is the basis for exempting property and other assets from taxation; the assets are used in such a way as to provide a public service of such value that the public is justified in foregoing any revenue it might receive from taxing the assets. Some charitable organizations, such as Mitch Snyder's work in Washington, D.C., provide care for indigent and destitute citizens, thus relieving the state of the burden of caring for those citizens. Tax exemption encourages such activities among our citizens. The test should be: "Does the property owner or organization provide a public service of such value as to equal or exceed the value of taxes that would otherwise be levied?" On what basis are church-owned assets and church-related corporations in general granted exemptions and immunities?

In the 1970 Walz Case, the Supreme Court said in effect that tax preferences for churches are based on long tradition and, therefore, should not be disturbed by federal interference. The decision also said that real estate tax is not a federal issue; it is an issue to be decided by state and local governments and that since they have the power to exempt they also have the power to tax. As a power reserved to the states, the expected result is wide variation in property taxation. In some places retirement homes and publishing houses owned by religious corporations are exempt, while in other places they are taxed. But in no case are church buildings or the income or assets owned by the corporate church body taxed. Furthermore, there is no legal requirement for church operations to be audited.

The origin of religious exemptions and preferences stretch far back into the dim mists of antiquity. Evidence indicates that in the earliest known societies men who claimed to represent the supernatural powers alone were empowered to make laws, formulate ethical codes, and in effect, rule the society. Sachems, priests, Brahmans, or medicine men learned early that spiritual or religious power is much more effective in controlling masses of people than force or fear, when the masses are believers.

In ancient Egypt the priests of Osiris were paid tribute by the Pharaohs themselves, and they owned vast treasure and 15% of all the land which was tended by more than 100,000 slaves. We remember that "Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that the Pharaoh should have the fifth part...except the land of the priests only..." The Pharaoh got a fifth of the national production, but the priests' land, treasure, and revenue were all exempt from taxation or any other form of tribute. Under the Law of Moses the Levites as consecrated priests, were given 48 cities and they received a triple tithe to do their appointed work.

All the ancient societies had men in religious positions, whatever they were called, who were a part of, or closely associated with those who ruled the society; it was an effective union of civil-religious power. This "church-state" union continued throughout the known world until the Greek city-state experiment in democracy developed. Among the Greek city-states, particularly Athens, the authoritarian and privileged priesthoods were replaced by popular savior-cults which proliferated. The cults wished to be free from governmental interference and they did not want to be involved as a part of the civil powers. Theirs was the first real and effective separation of "church-state," although unofficial.

During the first two centuries following the establishment of Christianity, Jesus' admonition, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's," was understood by his disciples. There is no evidence suggesting that Christians at that time developed any arrangement of themselves that made possible holding group title to anything. They did not maintain a separation of church-state. There was no "church" to separate from the state. Individual Christians were instructed to "obey the powers that be;' whatever "power" they lived under. Christians had an urgent message for the world. They were not collecting money, building church houses, aspiring to political or social positions; they were about their Father's business.

But, people being what we are, in due time some "church leaders" knew a good thing when they saw it. Somewhere around the middle of the second century a few "church leaders" located at influential centers began to call themselves presbyters, bishops, elders, and pappas, claiming authority over all "local churches" and demanding special preferences from the state. As they consolidated their positions over their local congregations they became more bold in asserting the power that comes from speaking for a large number of people. Representatives from a number of large and influential churches began meeting together to promote their common interests; they wanted political recognition, tax exemption, and unity in their attacks upon pagan cults and upon other groups of Christians who were opposing what they were doing. But they found no sympathetic ear in Rome. The Roman government was still supporting some of the cults and besides, these Christians had never been known for their support of the Emperor and his policies. But the churchmen kept pushing, their power base grew and their influence continued to expand. Things continued tense and volatile between church and state until the Emperor Diocletian decided that this Christian church movement was subversive and attempted to destroy it. According to Gibbon's account (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XVI), Diocletian issued edicts against all Christians and ordered all their churches burned. The persecution continued for about ten years and resulted in the executing about 2,000 church leaders.

When Constantine became emperor in 306 the persecution ended. Seven years later he issued his edict of Toleration at Milan. Organized Christianity was made equal before the law with the few remaining pagan religions still recognized by the Roman government. Church historians accord this event as one of the most decisive in world history. Whether Constantine was himself "converted" in the sense of New Testament usage of the word matters little. What does matter, and very much, is that the institution of the church was legalized, for the first time. The full majesty and power of the emperial Roman government conferred its recognition and blessing upon the institutional church. Then in 325, at the Council of Nicaea, the Emperor rescinded the Edict of Toleration and made Catholicism the exclusive and imperial religion of the realm.

Following in rapid succession, urged on by the clergy, the Emperor issued decrees conferring unprecedented advantages upon the church. Tax exemption was granted, members of the clergy were excused from military service, the estates of those dying without direct heirs was given to the church, and the church was empowered to receive gifts and legacies of any kind. Public tax revenues were used to repair and construct church buildings, and the clergy received generous support from tax revenues. Every pagan cult and communion of any kind, except Catholic, was outlawed and their assets confiscated and given to the Catholic Church. And the measures taken against dissident Christians were even worse. Christians who opposed what was happening were forbidden to assemble on pain of death or exile, and all their assets were confiscated and given to the Catholic Church. Of course, the clergy said that these measures were necessary for the defense of the gospel and silencing heresy. And this was the beginning of institutional Christianity.

The foundation of Roman Catholic theology was laid by St. Augustine (354-428). It begins with total church-state union, God's purpose being served by a two-edged sword, one civil and the other spiritual. The chief purpose of civil governments was to maintain domestic order and promote the interests of the spiritual government by dealing with dissidents and heretics, as identified by church officials. The union was established and the civil powers of Europe were largely subject to the Roman Church for the following thousand years.

The world has not seen another civil government as effective and enduring as that of the Roman Empire; in extending its borders, controlling its subjects, maintaining peace within its borders, taxing its subjects, and in general administering a gigantic government bureaucracy, Rome was a master. It is interesting to note the similarities between the Roman civil government and the Roman Catholic Church government. The organization of the Catholic Church is striking in its similarity to the administrative organization of the Roman Empire. The Empire was superb at what it did. The Catholic Church is superb at what it does and has done. Considering only what it does, and noting that we are sympathetic with practically none of what it does, its effectiveness in governing its subjects and operating in a generally hostile world, no examples come to mind of anything approaching its success.

Men, Not God, Institutionalized the Church

But we need to remember frequently that MEN institutionalized the church, not God. We need to remember frequently that the Kingdom of Heaven dwells within the hearts of men. It is not an institution based on men's idea of administrative effectiveness, no matter what its apparent success may be. We need to remember that the church is people. People who have come out of the world and who are separated from it. The church is not something other than redeemed people, it is not an institution standing between God and His people.

For about a thousand years the Catholic Church continued practically unchallenged. Its accumulation of wealth during this period can hardly be estimated. In terms of land, conservative estimates place more than half of Europe's land fit for cultivation was in possession or control of the church, by the beginning of the fifteenth century. And vast revenues poured into church treasuries from the nobility and from the poverty stricken peasants. Practically everything the priests did had a fee for its performance. And all of this, the land, its produce, estates, and revenues of all kinds were tax free.

This "game" is sort of like house poker, where the players pay for the privilege of being in the game. If the game goes on long enough, the house ends up with the most money and the game ends. The church took so much from the people, and kept pressing for more, that revolt was inevitable.

By the time Martin Luther came on the scene in the fourteenth century, greed, corruption, venality, and a morally bankrupt priesthood had repeatedly exposed the institutional Roman Catholic Church to ridicule and revolt. Just a small sampling will demonstrate what men do when invested with institutional power over an extended period of time, particularly when the state is united with or subject to the institutional church.

The institutional church became an independent nation, The Papal States, with the Pope at its head. Its armies fought wars, conquered lands and was conquered. And as we all know, the Vatican is still an independent nation. The United States has appointed ambassadors to the Vatican; and remember the Concordant signed by the Pope and Hitler?

Conflict between Church and State started early and almost always involved economics. Taxes, land and property ownership, financing the Pope's "programs," were always in conflict. Also in conflict was the issue of supremacy in temporal matters of the nations of Europe. Who was supreme, King or Pope? In the eleventh century, the German Emperor, Henry IV, required homage from all land holders within his realm, including bishops holding large estates. Henry considered all land holders under his protection to be his vassals. Then Henry supported a different candidate than Gregory VII, the Pope, for the archbishopric of Milan. Gregory wrote to Henry reminding him that he owed obedience to the Pope. Henry fired a letter right back charging Gregory with a long list of crimes, and ordering him to relinquish the papacy. Gregory replied by excommunicating and deposing Henry. Well, a Pope had never before deposed a sitting monarch, but the Saxon nobles under Henry seized the opportunity of the Emperor's difficulties and rebelled against him. Formally excommunicated, Henry could do nothing. He did appeal to Gregory to lift the excommunication. Gregory ordered Henry to come to Canossa, where he was residing, to be "examined.'' On the 25th day of January, 1077, Henry appeared before the gates of the castle as ordered. He was without insignia or ornaments of any kind; he was barefoot and fasted from morning to evening. Snow was high on the slopes of the Appenines where the castle was located, but Henry waited throughout the first day, the second day, the third day, and the fourth day the Pope invited the Emperor into the castle. The excommunication order was rescinded. And people have been going to Canossa since then.

Philip IV, King of France (1285-1314) levied taxes on the French clergy without consulting Boniface VIII. The Pope issued a Bull in 1302, the most absolute statement of papal supremacy ever made: "It is necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff" he said. Philip called for a council to judge the Pope on charges of heresy, blasphemy, murder, sodomy, simony and sorcery (including consorting with a familiar spirit or pet demon). Boniface drew up a Bull to excommunicate Philip. Philip resorted to force. Philip's agents seized the 86-year-old pontiff and brought him before a council at Anagni in an attempt to halt the excommunication. After three days of turmoil, local citizens forced the council to release Boniface, but he never recovered from the experience. The Pope died within a month.

Under Philip's considerable influence the next elected Pope, Clement V, was French. Clement moved the Holy Sea from Rome to Avignon because he feared Italian reprisals for the French treatment of Boniface, he said. The Italians said it was because he kept a French mistress. About seventy years, and six popes later, Gregory XI moved the papaw back to Rome and died shortly after the move. The next pope, Urban VI, quickly offended and alienated so many powerful people that the College of Cardinals was pressured into declaring Urban's election null. The Cardinals then elected Robert of Geneva (called Antipope Clement VII) who set up court back in Avignon. Urban refused to recognize the Cardinals' action and continued to sit on Peter's throne in Rome. Each Pope went about the business of running the "universal'' church, appointing cardinals and bishops, selling church offices, indulgences, relics, and generally trying to ignore each other. As either of the "popes" died, another was elected in his place. In 1409 the Council of Pisa deposed Gregory XII of the Rome papacy and Benedict XIII of the Avignon papaw and elected Alexander V. Both Gregory and Benedict said, "No deal." Now, there were three "popes" sitting at the head of the "universal" church. Alexander was replaced by John XXIII, then the Council of Constance (1414-18) ended the triple papacy by accepting Gregory's resignation, deposing Benedict and John, and electing Martin V. This period is called "The Great Schism of the West." Good name.

Some church historians try to classify the popes as "good" or "bad.' Alexander VI (1492-1503) is said to have been one of the best administrators, an expert in business matters, handsome, genial, good speaker, forceful personality, compellingly attractive to women. When charged with buying the election by wholesale bribery of the cardinals, he said it was beneath a pope to defend anything he does. Rodrigo Borgia was a Cardinal when elected Pope, and he had a mistress, Vanozza, at the time. She had four of his acknowledged children, Cesare and Lucrezia the most memorable, in the worst sense. Lucrezia was married, at 11, to a Spaniard; the marriage annulled by her father, the Pope. At 13, she married Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro; the marriage annulled by her father, the Pope. She married Alfonso of Aragon, duke of Bisceglie in 1498; Alfonso was murdered in 1500 on Cesare's order. The following year she married Alfonso of Este, duke of Ferrar. Each of her marriages provided some political or financial benefit to her father, the Pope, or her brother, Cesare.

Alexander made Cesare an archbishop and then a cardinal, but "church work" was not to his taste. When his father, the Pope, released him from his clerical obligations, he married and set about carving out a state in Italy for himself, with his father's support. Cesare is variously described as outstanding in courage, daring, calculating self-interest, utter perfidy, and cold-blooded cruelty to any who stood in his way. And his father, the Pope, adored him.

Niccolo Machiavelli was one of Alexander's advisors. Machiavelli probably learned a thing or two from the Borgia family about how to run a government.

Operating the Roman Catholic Church, or any other institutional religious organization for that matter, has always been very expensive. And endless ways of raising money have been developed. We believe that institutional churches are probably the wealthiest corporations around, but owning huge quantities of land, buildings, gold, art, jewels, is never enough; there is always the problem of "cash flow." A pound of gold will not buy a loaf of bread; it has to be converted to cash before it can be spent. And cash is what must flow to run a business on a day to day basis. What did the apostle Peter mean when he wrote about those who with feigned words make merchandise of us?

A "benefice" is a church office endowed with fixed capital assets that provide a living or revenue from the assets. The sale of benefices was the most lucrative source of papal income for centuries In the fourteenth century there were 700 bishops' sees and hundreds of thousands of lower offices. The offices were literally sold for anywhere from a third to the whole of the first year's revenue from the office. And the appointee knew that upon his death his personal property would go to the Pope and his debts would have to be paid by his successor. Qualifications of office buyers were not an issue.

Excommunication and anathema were the most extreme measures the Church could command, and were supposed to be reserved for heresy and horrible crimes, "for by these penalties a man is separated from the faithful and turned over to Satan." These measures were used by the Church to extract money from recalcitrant payers. Money could buy any kind of dispensation. Children could be legitimized; of 614 grants of legitimacy in the year 1342-43, 484 were to members of the clergy. Money would allow a corpse to be divided for burial in two or more places, a favorite custom of the time. Money would: allow a converted Jew to visit his unconverted parents; marry within the prohibited degree of consanguinity; receive stolen goods up to a specific value; permit appointment to a church office of a candidate below the required age of 25. In Bohemia a boy of seven was appointed to a parish worth an annual income of 25 gulden. Younger sons of noble families were repeatedly appointed to archbishoprics at 18, 20, sometimes younger.

People generally are fascinated with places and things, any place, any thing, associated with venerated holy people or incidents. Holy relics have always held a powerful attraction, and owning any of these things has provided many with a lucrative income. Archbishop Albert of Mainz had a permanent exhibition of relics, some 9,000 items. An endless stream of paying customers were allowed to view such things as: a bone of Isaac, manna from the wilderness, a bit of Moses' burning bush, ajar from Cana (with wine in it), a piece of the crown of thorns, and one of the stones that killed Stephen. And the Church conferred its blessing on such as this.

We have said nothing at all about the Inquisition, holy wars, education, and a host of other areas of interest. Our intent was not in any sense to review church history. It is to show what happened, and what happens, when Christians are taught, and believe, that God is served through a corporate religious institution, whether it is the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Baptist Church, the Church of Christ Church, the Mormon Church, or any other. But you may have already said, "All of this was long ago. It doesn't happen that way now. We would not "permit it." No, people in our country can't be put to death for what they believe, or do not believe. But members of churches in our country are abused in other ways, by their church officials.

Sometime between December 6 and December 9, 1987, at the Church of Christ church where my sister and brother-in-law worship, the elders fired the preacher, in secret. The preacher and his family left town without seeing any of the members. So far, three weeks later, the elders have offered no explanation for their action. But, they have said that they would...later.

It is my intention to follow this article with a review of the Reformation Movement in Europe with particular attention to "church government" developed by the newly established Protestant Denominations, church-state relations, and the churches' gradual growth in wealth and power. Following that I hope to review the development of institutional religion in America then try to apply what we have seen to our current situation.