Given that presidential election activity in the U.S. (and elswhere) is heating up, we are republishing here a briefing from our Legal Department concerning what congregations may and may not legally do with respect to political activity. Note in paragraph two a specific GCI policy statement on this topic.
Although the 2016 presidential elections are almost a year away, the media is currently all abuzz with talk about the various potential candidates and the primaries for the major parties. Every election “season,” this one included, the IRS issues guidelines and cautions for churches about what is permissible and impermissible (mostly impermissible!) in regard to political involvement. Often, other groups, including in previous years the National Association of Evangelicals, issue long, detailed reports explaining where the legal “line” is separating the permissible from the impermissible. It is important for churches to avoid any impermissible political involvement, since violating the law in this area can bring serious penalties upon a church, including the complete loss of its tax-exempt status.
Although the law regarding involvement of churches in political matters forbids most such activities, some very few political expressions or actions are allowed, under narrow circumstances. However, notwithstanding any narrow or slight activities that might be allowed under the law, it is the denominational policy of GCI that its congregations (local churches) are not to engage in any political activities or statements whatsoever. This policy is based on two overarching principles:
- The law is complicated and even lawyers can and do argue about how it might apply in any given case, which means staying completely out of the political field is the only safe course.
- The denomination does not believe that local pastors or church leaders should be trying to influence local members or the community at large about whom they should support or what political view or position they should take.
In light of this strict “no political activity” policy, pastors and church leaders should refrain from all such activities, including refraining from statements in sermons suggesting one political party is better, more Christian, more in line with the Bible, etc. than the other. Neither should any leader praise or condemn either party, any candidate, or any current office holder, including the current President, for things done, said, or not done or unsaid. While it is plain that some issues that face our society are issues about which Christians care, no one in the congregation should feel that he or she is being pushed or pulled to support or vote for or against any party or candidate. Indeed, the congregation should not be able to discern the pastor or other church leader’s political positions from his or her public statements. A pastor’s public statements should not include political content at all.
Another issue regarding such political activities is the issue of local church pastors or other leaders using the names and addresses of the local church members and attendees in order to send them letters or memos with political content, including, but not limited to, actually encouraging them to vote for or against a certain candidate or party. The practice of using member addresses for this purpose is against church policy and should never be done. Mailings to church members and attendees should be about, and only about, religious or other church matters having no political content.
In short, our sermons, teachings, member mailings, and community involvement projects should be strictly about the gospel and not about politics. To be clear, our policy is not to be “politically neutral.” Our policy is to be “apolitical,” meaning “without political content” at all. It can be helpful for our pastors and leaders to state this policy of being “without politics” and “without political content” to the congregation from time to time so that our members understand our policy. If members wish to be politically active in some way, they are free to pursue such activities on their own or through affiliations with political groups, but not through the denomination or its local churches. We do not forbid political activism, per se. We only forbid political involvement by and through the church.