Hillsong – “Tax Free”: A Current Affair, truth, taxes, transparency, and talking about Jesus

I feel dumber for writing anything about this 15 minute journalistic monstrosity from A Current Affair last night. But on the same night John Dickson was presenting Christianity in a positive light on Q&A, the knives were out for Christians, and churches, but mostly Hillsong, on Australia’s least reputable tabloid television show.

The Chaser team has done a pretty good job at showing why A Current Affair isn’t really worth watching or engaging with over the years. But I’m a sucker for things that make me angry. So I’ll bite.

There was not one redeeming feature about this feature. The reporting was bad. The production was bad. The story was bad. The subject was bad. The Hillsong they presented in the story through a montage of sermon footage, interview footage, and interviews with parishioners was bad, the overt campaigning for a particular political objective without really featuring any view to the contrary was bad, and the logic behind that campaign was bad, and the Jesus presented in the story was bad.

It was bad. The worst bit of the bad bunch, I reckon, was the complete lack of anybody from the church – congregation members or staff – talking about the significance of Jesus beyond the (presumably material) “blessing” being a follower of Jesus brings, and the “Jesus said feed my sheep” stuff from the soup kitchen minister was almost equally bad.

That a story on national television can feature the line:

“There’s money to be made from Jesus. Lots of it.”

Makes me a bit sick.

Lets break this story and its problems down three ways – the problem with the story, the problem with Hillsong, and the problem with the alternative vision offered by Bill Crews and his Loaves and Fishes restaurant.

The problems with the story

I’m further and further away from being able to call myself a journalist every day – it’s a long time since I finished my degree, and a long time since I did anything that looked like journalism – if you can count the hours of unpaid work I did in newsrooms as journalism. It’s not so long since I last did paid PR work, which I guess is a bit like journalism. That was Friday. Of last week. I guess I’m saying you should take what I say here with a grain of salt – because I have a professional interest in journalists not being objective. When I do PR, I want them telling my story, and not focusing too hard on alternative views.

Or do I?

Not really. I want journalists to be telling truth. So I want to be telling them the truth. And telling the “other side” the truth. And letting people decide what the truth is.

Fundamentally, and this gets me in trouble all the time because I’m rubbish at keeping secrets – I believe that there’s a certain type of information that wants to be free. It’s not always my job to tell information – and I’ll largely respect that – but I‘ll almost always encourage the person who shares an unknown truth with me that the best way to either rob that truth of its negative power, or maximise its positive impact, is to get it out there.

I had a theory, back when I was writing about things that people were a bit more interested in, or things that were a bit more controversial, that it actually served my case to let my “opponents” see my hand, but to play it relatively forcefully. There was a group that formed in opposition to something my organisation was lobbying for, and for one reason or another, I gave them a bunch of stats from a report we had been basing our work on that hadn’t been publicly released – because if the numbers didn’t add up, we wanted to know about it. We didn’t want to be pushing for something that wasn’t really a good idea. We had nothing to hide.

Anyway… this is a pretty long preamble to suggest that the people driving the agenda driving this story – be it the journalist, his sources, his interviewees, or whatever lobby groups are pushing this legislation that’ll remove the tax protection from religious organisations, aren’t doing their cause any favours by being so sloppy with the truth. Be it by picking Hillsong as representative of the church in Australia (it’s an outlier when it comes to church size, operating budget, and reach), or by picking sources who obviously have an axe to grind but aren’t really all that qualified to be making the statements they’re making, or by not presenting valid alternative views, or by so obviously editorialising when it comes to the pejorative adjectives used and the cliched graphics and sinister music employed to make a point.

We’d be better off, I think, sitting down with the numbers, hearing from Hillsong about how they use the money, hearing from sociologists or legislators, about the contribution, or lack of contribution that churches make to public life and what justification they might have for providing financial benefits and protection for churches…

Objectivity isn’t necessarily about balancing two competing accounts of truth, you’ve got to give the right amount of weight to the right perspectives – a vox pop interview with a few joe averages off the street isn’t a more credible voice than someone who has devoted their life to studying something, that’s Australian egalitarianism/tall-poppy syndrome gone mad… objectivity is created by collecting data, then asking, and answering, the big questions about the data fairly, carefully and professionally.

This story was not objective. It was a pretty awful piece of propaganda.

Here, I think, is the central thesis of the story, as a direct quote… from the journalist, Ben McCormack.

“Hillsong takes advantage of an antiquated piece of legislation which says that if you’re a religion it’s the same thing as a charity so you don’t have to pay any tax.”

The bolded bits indicate where the lack of objectivity hits. The italicised bit is where I think the whole exercise falls down a bit – the real question he should be asking is whether all the aspects of Hillsong’s business model meet the religious element of that law.

Now. He’s in a bit of trouble here, I think, when it comes to trying to overturn this “antiquated piece of legislation” in the ordinary business of a Christian church – which one might define as preaching the gospel, and encouraging Christian living by pointing people to the example Jesus sets on the cross.

From what I can gather, there’s actually not yet any definition of charity legislated in Australia (it seems there’ll be one from July 2013), there’s some case law though, this a bit of a court judgment cited in an appropriately titled Commonwealth Charities Definition Inquiry:

“There is no intrinsic legal definition of a charity. As a matter of technique, Courts can only describe the attributes of charities. And the essential attribute required is that a charitable activity must seek the public weal; or, to put it another way, a charity is not concerned with the conferment of private advantage.”

Say what you want about Hillsong – and we’ll get there – but Christianity, in its essential form, is not interested in conferring private advantage, it’s about encouraging people to give up material advantage to take up a cross, and follow Jesus. Sure – like Brian Houston says in a clip from the sermon – we hope for heaven in the future, and that’s an advantage… but it’s hard to argue that it’s a private advantage.

He’s in more trouble because that’s not entirely the truth – religions aren’t protected because they’re charities, religions are protected because they’re religious groups. Here’s some more from the Charities Definition Inquiry (chapter 30) about what the present, and future situation here looks like:

“Since the Commonwealth enacted the first comprehensive income tax statute in 1915, an income tax exemption has been available to a distinct grouping of entities known collectively as `religious, scientific, charitable or public educational institutions’…

Its [a religious institution’s] objects and activities need to reflect its character as a body instituted for the promotion of some religious object, and the beliefs and practices of the members must constitute a religion.

Charities falling under the head of `the advancement of religion’ would also meet the requirements for a religious institution. (In Chapter 16 the Committee recommends that the `advancement of religion’ should continue to be a charitable purpose.)”

Whoops. Seems the facts aren’t quite what the story suggested. It took me a couple of minutes with google to find that out.

You could ask if Hillsong’s music and publishing arms are promotions of a religious object, and you’d probably find that since, well, the Bible, and perhaps the book of Psalms, that music and publishing are pretty essential to promoting Christian beliefs.

Adam Shand their “expert” (as in, that’s what they called him, I’m not passing judgment on his expertise) on this tax exemption front, had this to say:

“Every year more than $30 billion leaks out of the tax system to these not for profits, at this time when we’re in these deficit budgets and we’re seeing hospitals, roads, schools, their budgets being cut, this is money that could go towards that, and I don’t think it would harm Hillsong or any of these other churches to pay their fare whack, like anybody else does.”

This quote annoys me on a bunch of levels. It draws a bunch of disparate and largely unrelated strands together, and assumes the church is a drain on, rather than a contributor, to society in terms of the services it provides.

Hillsong makes a huge percentage of its revenue from after tax donations that don’t benefit the people making them in any way. They’re not tax deductible. People are directing the money they’ve already paid tax on to a cause they care about, and it’d be just as easy to support that cause “off the books” – they could give Hillsong $28 million worth of tinned soup if they thought that was the best way to see their religious cause – the mission of Jesus – advanced.

Huge sums aside, if Hillsong is a not-for-profit, and it is legitimately engaged in a Government approved activity, where presumably they see some benefit flowing through to society, the tax revenue isn’t “leaking out” – it’s not even tax revenue.

I had some other issues with the story.

The “tax free” refrain, coupled with a red rubber stamp, was, frankly, cheap and pointless.

The “why are these guys tax free if they’re not doing charitable work?” question wasn’t answered, or even asked, presumably the government has access to the same stats as some ridiculously bad television tabloid journalist.

Tax Free

My other issue was that for large chunks of the story it wasn’t clear why the people being interviewed were being interviewed.

I’d hope that most people can’t be bothered watching this sort of trash for more than 5 minutes, but investigative journalist Adam Shand, who time and time again was the man the not-very-investigative journalist Ben McCormack turned to for expert opinion wasn’t actually introduced or given a title until 7 minutes and 40 seconds in. The other source, Anti-Hillsong campaigner Tanya Levin was briefly introduced about four minutes in. These two appeared on the screen time and time again, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to provide a superscript with their names and titles on it – but this wasn’t done. We really had no idea how credible they were as sources. Bill Crews from the Exodus Foundation wasn’t introduced until almost the end of the story, he was clearly clerical, and critical, and wholesome, charitable, and good – but this was, in my opinion, a poorly produced and presented story based on shoddy reporting and horrible research.

Which is why it was on A Current Affair. I guess.

What’s the Problem with Hillsong

I’m fairly convinced that the legal processes that are in place are appropriate, and that Hillsong, as a big and wealthy church is well and truly on their radar, and I don’t think Brian Houston had any reason to lie when he wrote this response to similar media interest in 2010, and I think this media release is a largely helpful response to the story.

“It is a fundamental right of every person to support organisations of their choice and many who are a part of our church community – just like other Christians – freely choose to give of their time, resources and finances to ensure that the church is able to fulfil its mission of bringing hope to the world through Jesus Christ.”…

We have always recognised the need to be accountable and transparent and produce an annual report that is available publicly. The figures given by ACA were taken from publicly available ASIC records which we lodge annually and were presented in isolation simply to suit the program’s agenda; however the facts are very different. We operate an open book policy whereby congregation members are welcome to make an appointment to inspect the audited financial results of the church.

It wouldn’t surprise me if ACA didn’t contacted Brian Houston for comment, this is the sort of story you react to immediately, rather than waiting to respond on your website…

My problem with Hillsong is that despite making moves away from the prosperity doctrine being their core thing in recent songs and stuff – I’m willing to cede that to them – when members of their congregation are interviewed about life as part of the church you get stuff like:

“I’ve seen much much more blessing than I could ever have if I didn’t give that 10% of my income to God.”

And it’s unfortunate that there seems (and again, it’s quite possible that the picture of the service you get in the story isn’t accurate) to be such an emphasis on money in their services – there certainly wasn’t a shortage of money material for the story to draw on.

It’s a massively unhelpful thing for the rest of us that the biggest church in Australia seems to be on about money, prosperity, and blessing, as much as they’re on about Jesus. Even if that perception isn’t reality – some deliberate work on overturning that perception is required.

I’m not really interested in questioning this stuff though, I am interested, like Hillsong, in the “bringing hope to the world in Jesus” thing (as a non-pentecostal, I think they, like most pentecostals ‘over-realise their eschatology’ which means they bring to many promises about the future for Christians into the present, and ‘under-realise the place of suffering’).

What irks me is that the alternative proffered to Hillsong’s flashing lights and rock show is the ascetic “give everything to the poor” approach to ministry advocated by Bill Crews.

It’s true that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – but the next bit of that instruction, the “follow me” was really where it was at for that guy. The problem with Crews, and it taps into the problem with the story itself, is the idea that the gospel itself doesn’t help people. My guess is that the parishioners interviewed in the story understood that this is how their money helps people.

Knowing Jesus helps people. So when Bill Crews sets up a dichotomy between “helping the poor” and other activities of the church, he’s ignoring the huge imperative for the Australian church to work with the spiritually bankrupt.

“If it doesn’t go to help the poor the amount of money that goes in should be taxed… it’s a business just like anything else.”

I’m with Bill that we’re meant to be like Jesus. I’m with Bill that what Jesus says about money should frame how we think about money. I’m with Bill that the way Jesus thought of his responsibility to the poor should influence how we help the poor (I think Hillsong is with me, and Bill, at this point)… I just don’t want to limit the way Jesus wanted the poor to be cared for to literally feeding them – that has to be part of the mix, but it can’t possibly be all of the mix.

Here’s how Jesus talks about his ministry to the poor in Luke 4.

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The good news was that he had arrived as king. That he died, was buried, and was raised – and that this confirmed that he was king, and gives us victory over death… and the promise of life with him, in the new creation, where there is no poverty, sadness, or oppression – nobody taking advantage of people, imprisoning them, or being generally nasty. And sure. We’ve got to let that future reality shape how we live in the present… but we’re ultimately going to be shaped by the cross. Sacrificial love for others, at any cost, so that they might be set free to.

Bill is loving people in a radical way. A necessary way – but so are those who preach the gospel (especially when they also love people in a radical way). The “feed my sheep” line that Bill uses  in the interview is what Jesus says to Peter when he’s reinstating him after he denied him before he was killed in John 21, I’m struggling to figure out how it applies to a soup kitchen without first applying to teaching people the good news.

Ben McCormack was unhelpful again when he said “Brian Houston does a lot of talking, while Bill Crews does a lot of doing” – they’re equally essential parts of being a religious organisation, especially a Christian church, and doing what the government expects us to do when they give us tax free status.

A way forward

Briefly, now, because this post is already too long. If transparency isn’t the answer – and it doesn’t appear to have protected Hillsong from stupid journalism, and if stupid journalism undermines our ability to be on about the gospel clearly… then at some point it’s going to be easier for us to talk about Jesus unhindered if we don’t just pay tax, but campaign for the laws to be changed, not in our favour, but against our financial interests.

That might be the price we have to pay so that we can be seen to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

11 thoughts on “Hillsong – “Tax Free”: A Current Affair, truth, taxes, transparency, and talking about Jesus”

  1. There was a lot of traffic searching for this story online over the last couple of days, so someone’s interested in it.
    Apart from the pantomime presentation of Hillsong and Houston as the villians of the piece, which is standard for this type of report, it was never actually clear what the point of it was.
    I feel a bit obtuse not really knowing what tax do they want to see paid by all the churches?
    I could happily concede rates or GST refunds on materials, which is what the majority of congregations access.
    Company tax?
    GST on offerings collected?

  2. While I agree ACA sensationalist style of reporting isn’t always helpful, the smoking gun in this case is the lack of transparency. Some of the criticism is warranted, as Hillsong want it both ways. They enjoy the benefit of a tax free status, without open and transparent books. If Hillsong reported on the charities and aid organisations they support, they would be embraced with the same regard as say, the Salvation Army, and the media would leave them alone.

    However, fast and furious the criticism aimed at the Hillsong empire centres around their financial dealings, what get’s in my craw is the lack of debate on the gospel they (and others like Phil Pringle) preach.

    When the purity of the Gospel is not the central theme – no amount of ‘inspirational preaching or arm twisting’ will make a difference in this secular nation.

    Sadly, while tBrian Houston and Phil Pringle may have begun their ministries in earnest sincerity, they have become nothing more than the Donald Trumps of the Australian Church.

    1. Hi Catherine,

      I agree with you – I’d much rather the debate be about the gospel that’s being, or not being, preached.

      But I’m not sure I agree on the transparency front – according to Hillsong they are quite transparent. Their account books are available to be read in their office, they put out an annual report, and the data that ACA used is from their publicly declared ASIC data.

      They probably wouldn’t be given the same slack the Salvos get – because their spending isn’t “charitable” – they do seem to spend a large portion of their revenue on ministry – promoting their version of the gospel around the world. People aren’t as interested in that as they are in the good works the Salvos do.

      1. “-because their spending isn’t charitable” – Define ministry. That’s a somewhat nebulous term for secular outsiders, particularly leery journalists.

        Does this ‘ministry’ allocation include money received from government grants?

        Oh by the way, if we want to view the Prime Minister or any other public servant’s financial status, the information is available via freedom of information, and on government registers. I am not obliged to ask for a meeting with the Prime Minister or a back bencher to view this information.

  3. Problem one, donations are not income. If someone gives you a gift of money, it’s not something you earned and you don’t pay tax on it. So tithing is never going to be taxable.

    Problem two, and more significant than problem one, a church is not a legal entity or person. For the purposes of the tax law, and most other laws, it doesn’t exist. That is because the membership of a church is an undefined and indefinable collective, so it can’t pay tax. The government is certainly not going to require individuals WHO HAVE ALREADY PAID TAX ON THIER INCOME to pay it again, just because they give some of it to a church.

    I suspect the issue, and any possible genuine argument is where a church runs a business and doesn’t pay tax on that income. Problems one and two don’t arise if that business is a corporation, or an individual, and it is up to the tax office (and the church/charity) to work out whether that satisfies the legal definition for advancement of religion or not. It is the job of the ATO to collect the Revenue, and they are not shy about doing so.

    Lastly, the concept of a charity, for legal purposes does arise out of a statute, the Statute of Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth I). But even if it didn’t, legislation is definitely not the answer to everything. The law on this issue is very clear. The only reason legislation would be necessary is if the government decides the law needs to change. Case law is actually a far more flexible form of legal guidnace and in my view is much more beneficial to individuals and society as a whole, providing of course that society maintains the morals and standards it wants the law to uphold. As social morals disintegrate, so do that of judges. Fortunately that decline is much slower in the law than in wider society (and Parliament).

    Overall my point is this, churches can’t pay tax, even if they wanted to.

    1. Thanks for this. Useful stuff.

      I agree except I think:

      “Overall my point is this, churches can’t pay tax, even if they wanted to.”

      There are some ways that churches could pay tax where they’re not – ministers could sacrifice FBT portions of their salaries, and churches could register certain arms as businesses and pay tax, so Hillsong could pay tax on its music revenue if it chose to not frame it as a ministry.

  4. I cannot bare to watch these sensationalist current affairs shows, but I get that people worry about paying tax…..from my experience of Pentecostal/charismatic churches there is a lot that needs to be simply explained to those who may have been deeply wounded by say the Catholic church in this country. 2 cor 9 speaks about giving with joy, and other scriptures speak about sacrificial giving. I have seen the fruit of giving in my life’ but I have also seen blatant manipulation of scripture to control people in their thinking, unfortunately. For those who freely give it will be given back by God and that is where the rub comes. Many just don’t ‘get’ God and His ways, which also include not betraying or taking your brother to court( for Christians who are disciples of Christ), and blessing those who persecute you.I have found that often people who grow up very poor become covetous and want material possessions; in churches I have been to there is a voice saying ” nothing but the best for God’s children”…this is also where the problem of covetousness and jealousy comes, where leaders live like Hollywood celebrities and cause a stumbling block for those who have not repented of the covetousness in their heart. A deeper more balanced approach comes through revelation of the Word, whos is Jesus Christ a real person who was God and understood money very well!

  5. Sorry I mean that Jesus Christ IS God! Was and is and always will be, more precious than diamonds and rubies….

  6. It’s nice to see an objective response to this story. I am an attendee of Hillsong, and I work at one of the Salvation Army’s family stores. I frequently get sick of seeing ACA and Today Tonight having a crack at Hillsong, all seemingly with some sort of humanist, anti-clerical agenda. This “story” seems to be regurgitated by these shows at least once a year now, and it’s frankly disgusting.

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