Churches and Government: How It’s Supposed to Work
Soon-to-be-planted churches in France must go through an incredible amount of paperwork and red tape before they are official. This is because money is always involved: churches are non-profit organizations which survive solely on their member’s generosity. Any time money is involved the government takes definite steps to make sure no one is being abused or swindled. So at the root of this paperwork and red tape is a good thing: the desire to protect people who give to a non-profit.
Laïcité, the separation of church and state, is also a standard that the French government proudly upholds. This is not inherently a bad thing: Jesus was not a political revolutionary and made it clear that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). The French have seen the damage done in the past when religious leaders took the reins of a country’s government (e.g. the Crusades), and have taken steps to make sure that history does not repeat itself.
Churches and Government: How It Works In Practice
These two aspects of French life, which in themselves are admirable, can have very unfortunate consequences when taken to extremes. Laïcité is undergirded by a secular mindset held by much of the French population—a mindset which believes religion is at best an unnecessary tradition, and at worst, dangerous. As a result, extreme measures are often taken which ensure that even if churches have the right to exist, they shouldn’t exist too easily.
Every church in France, Christian or otherwise, must be comprised of two associations: a cultural association, and a religious association. The idea (a good one) is that religious entities should somehow contribute to the culture as a whole.
In practice, the biggest difference between the two associations comes out in the budget. When filing the budget, a church must file any expense that is religious in nature under the religious association, while everything else that is not strictly religious should be filed under the cultural association. Up until recently, the exactitude of these budgets was treated with a fair amount of leniency. However as time goes by, the government is becoming stricter and stricter.
A church not far from ours recently purchased a series of workbooks for the kids’ Sunday School class, and filed them under the religious association’s budget. A few months later they were audited by the government. When the auditor came to the part which contained the Sunday School workbooks, she mentioned them to the pastor, who didn’t blink.
“That’s right—Sunday School workbooks.”
“Oh,” she said, “so you run a school?”
Of course the pastor was surprised. He told her that no, Sunday School (the name is the same in French) isn’t truly a school, it’s just what they call their morning services for children.
She refused to hear it:
“But this says ‘school’. And a school is a cultural entity, not a religious one.”
What happened next was unbelievable. The church wasn’t warned, they weren’t even fined. Rather, their religious license was revoked.
The church is no longer allowed to receive any kind of money from its members. Which, of course, is a death sentence: without money, they will no longer have a building, they can no longer purchase supplies. They will be forced to either disband and join other churches, or begin the lengthy and expensive process of replanting their church—during which time they will certainly lose their building.
This accounting misstep would have been so easy to forgive; the church was shut down on the basis of semantics. It was a frightening object lesson for the other churches in our area: you must be very careful, because it seems leniency is no longer an option for auditors.
Satan does not want healthy churches to exist in France; he certainly doesn’t want new churches planted. Any church planter in France faces enormous roadblocks he has thrown in the way. But God is all-powerful, with every resource in the world at his disposal, and he is sovereign over Satan and these roadblocks (Romans 8:31-39). Please pray that he would incline the hearts of our politicians, mayors and other elected officials to facilitate the spreading of the gospel in France.