[VIEWPOINT]Korea’s clergy already gives much

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[VIEWPOINT]Korea’s clergy already gives much

Recently, arguments have been made for requiring religious leaders to pay income tax.
It is natural to assume that they should carry out their duty of paying taxes as the rest of the people do. But the issue of paying taxes involves a big burden on the government as well as religious leaders. Since there is no legal requirement for them to pay tax on income, religious leaders are unhappy to be receiving criticism as if they are an immoral group of people who evade taxes and live in comfort. Arguments for imposing income tax on religious leaders should be made prudently.
Let us consider the validity and practicality of the issue.
In the case of Christian religious leaders, for example, the validity of taxation should be established before imposing an income tax on pastors.
First, we should examine whether contributions to churches can be considered revenue. Church operations are supported by church members’ voluntary contributions and donations.
Pastors do not require church members to make contributions for the purpose of earning income. This makes it difficult to define contributions from members to their churches as revenue.
Second, there is the question of whether pastors’ ministry should be viewed as work or service. Pastors do not work for the purpose of earning income but for service or missionary activity. The 25th Civic Affairs Department at the Seoul District Court recently issued a ruling that said, “Pastors can hardly be regarded as workers.”
Since pastors are not considered workers, it is unconvincing to contend that they should pay income tax based on a concept of ministry as work or employment.
Another point at issue is practicality. There are over 100,000 pastors in some 60,000 churches in Korea. About 80 percent of them cannot operate independently. Hence, pastors who belong to churches subsist, in many cases, on living expenses lower than the minimum legal wage.
Although pastors have the highest level of education among members of society, they endure difficulties while they dedicate their lives and efforts to ministry or missionary activity. In a survey of 10 leading denominations in Korea and 37,655 churches under them, the Korean Association of Church Communication found that 19,362 churches, or 54.9 percent of those surveyed, have annual operating funds of less than 20 million won ($21,500).
Pastors in self-reliant churches make contributions to society or support other churches at levels much more than the value of what they would otherwise pay in income tax.
It was found that pastors generally donate 30 to 50 percent of their living expenses for various purposes such as relief or mission. Given this situation, accusing pastors of tax evasion and pressing them to pay income tax would raise an issue of equity in comparison with the entire society.
If pastors have already been practicing a life of sharing and giving to society even if they have not paid income tax, taxing their income does not make sense. I fear that imposing income tax on them might diminish the value of sharing and discourage religious leaders from their voluntary lives of putting love into practice.
Until now, the government has not required religious leaders to pay income tax, probably taking into account the particular nature of their service, low income and positive role in society.
In our age, the value and role of religious leaders lies in enlightening the world and helping people, together with social organizations and the government.
Therefore, rather than seeking tax revenues from religious leaders and painting them as shameless criminals, now is a good time to show appreciation for their service that cannot be converted into money.
We should think carefully about imposing income tax on religious leaders.

* The writer is a pastor and spokesperson of the Korean Association of Church Communication and professor at Calvin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Eok-joo
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