Pentecostal Pastors and Wealth: Arguing against Church Tax Exemption in Africa

Revisiting the old debate on whether or not churches should pay taxes is interesting in the face of a contemporary twist in how religious institutions and specialists operate. For instance, in Africa, the entrepreneurial spirit of Pentecostal pastors has turned them into astute business people. This article foregrounds the argument on African Pentecostal pastors, with a strong opinion that they need to pay taxes from the income they earn from the church business. There is nothing sinful about this demand. Their money is not sacred.

A historical Root of Exempting Churches from Paying Taxes

For more than one and a half millennia, states have exempted churches from paying taxes. This can be traced back to Constantine, the Roman Emperor, granting the churches all forms of tax exemption after he converted to Christianity [1]. Over the centuries, the rationale for exempting the church from paying taxes got different ideological bolsters. For example, in medieval Europe, they talked about the separation of the church from the state. They saw the church as an autonomous institution that did not require state intervention. At other moments, exempting the church from paying taxes was a way of compensating this institution for relieving the state of some functions [1]. Indeed, the church as an institution contributes hugely to health, education, charity, and other community services.

Despite separating the church from the state, a keener observation in Europe reveals an intimate relationship between the state and the church. The two are not separated, so to speak. For instance, people pay church taxes in Germany, depending on whether they are Catholics or Protestants. In Denmark, members of the Danish National Evangelical Lutheran Church (Folkekirken) pay approximately 0.8% tax to the church [2]. This point is also to indicate that the relationship between the church and the state can be changed.

Responding to the Realities of Our Time

Constantine’s motive for exempting the church from paying taxes might have been to garner Christian support (he attributed his victory at battles to his Christian faith [3]) or as a form of atonement for the state persecution of Christians. Then again, the truth is that times have changed. We do not live under the Roman Empire and are thus not compelled to uphold decisions taken by people whose realities were different from ours.

All countries face specific challenges and do not necessarily need to conform to the expectations of global forces of exploitation, represented in this case, by religious institutions. Exempting churches from paying taxes is a colonial legacy that African countries may need to do away with. African countries do not need Christian allies and amulets to fight wars as did Constantine. So, there is no need to placate Christians in whatever way.

Additionally, the changing times have compelled the church to embrace capitalistic tendencies. The mainstream churches are entering the educational and health care sectors through a capitalistic door, evidenced by their exploitative proclivities. They do not offer free or charitable services. For example, in Cameroon the mainstream churches (the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Baptist Churches) operate in the private sector where, unlike public institutions, they charge high prices for their services [4]. Is it not possible for them to subsidize their operations through using money collected by the church under various guises?

Similarly, the pastors function more like business people in the booming Pentecostal market. They sell products that supposedly have spiritual potency – motivational speech, holy water, stickers, amulets, and malevolent spirit repellants. Pastors have been accepted in this light as experts of finances, witchcraft, marriage, migration, politics, and individual miracles. For this, they are rewarded excessively. African pastors regularly feature in the Forbes magazine as some of the richest Africans [5].

For too long, the focus has been on exempting churches, as an organized institution, from paying taxes. In vibrant Pentecostal African countries such as Nigeria, there have been proposals to tax religious institutions in instances where they generate profit from their commercial ventures [6]. But it is time we look at something else, the main actors in Pentecostal churches. In contemporary Africa, Pentecostal churches are organized around a charismatic individual, the owner of the church. It is at such a point that we could reassess the relationship between the church at the state, scrutinizing the pastors and thus changing the conversation on tax exemption.

Why should the focus be on the pastors? Firstly, it is difficult to know how much money they collect for their services. Secondly, there are concerns about the potential misuse of funds. Thirdly, transparency is lacking in their churches as most of the money collected in the churches ends in the pocket of the church founder. One could add that they often do not invest in the communities where they operate. The Pentecostal pastors have been accused of fakery and for not reciprocating [7]. Such insensitivity violates one of the primary roles in business, which is that of investing in their communities.

Challenging the Church’s Narrative of Exceptional Powers

African countries must rethink the irrational acceptance of tax exemption for the church and pastors at this crucial time when the latter is using the church platform to amass sizeable wealth for themselves [8]. The religious establishment must be seen as ordinary, even as it supposedly has supernatural connections. Moreover, the frightening narrative of the exceptional power of the pastors must be debunked. It is narrative suggesting these religious actors should not be subjected to ordinary standards of judgment because they supposedly possess powerful invisible forces. Such a narrative emboldens the pastors, granting them unchecked powers in some African economies such as Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, and Kenya [8].

A couple of years ago, an argument simmered on social media after a pastor in South Africa faked the resurrection of a ‘dead’ man [9]. Some Pentecostals came to the defense of Alph Lukau, the pastor at the center of the scandal. Similarly, some people have described the BBC as an agent of the devil because of its upsetting documentary earlier this year about the late TB Joshua’s rape, abuse, and torture of his followers. They argue that a secular world does not have power to regulate things related to the sacred because of the latter’s superiority over secular forces, concluding that only God, not man, could judge TB Joshua [10].

By way of Conclusion

Irrespective of the reverence people have for pastors and their supernatural powers, the state remains the state; it has the power to inform churches and pastors to pay taxes. The state must deal with the reality of contemporary life. Africa is losing much tax revenue simply because, for some unclear reasons, a sector of the economy has been given the status of tax exemption. Pastors are part of the African society. They perform palliative roles for citizens within the context of the socioeconomic and political downturn, but this should not blind African governments that the pastors are economic actors who must pay taxes just like everyone else in the society. It is time African countries began to see pastors as business people using the Jesus brand to expand their businesses.

Dr. Primus Tazanu
Dr. Primus M. Tazanu
Research Fellow in Governance | + posts

Dr Primus M. Tazanu is a Research Fellow in Governance at the Nkafu Policy Institute .He is equally a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Buea, Cameroon. Primus holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Freiburg, Germany

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