What is a Church?

The IRS has its own definition of a church. We have had clients over the years who have applied for church status but for whom the IRS has said, “We’ll give you 501c3 status as a mission, ministry, or a bible fellowship, but we will not grant you church status.”

There are definite advantages to having church status. The principal advantage is that you never have to file tax returns with the IRS. Therefore, the IRS does not easily grant church status. What does the IRS say about obtaining church status for your nonprofit?

General Information: There is no single definition of the word “church” for tax purposes. When determining whether a section 501(c)(3) religious organization is also a church, the IRS will consider characteristics generally attributed to churches and the facts and circumstances of each organization applying for public charity status as a church.

The characteristics generally attributed to churches are as follows.
• A distinct legal existence.
• A recognized creed and form of worship.
• A definite and distinct ecclesiastical government.
• A formal code of doctrine and discipline.
• A distinct religious history.
• A membership not associated with any other church or
• Ordained ministers ministering to the congregation.
• Ordained ministers selected after completing
prescribed courses of study.
• A literature of its own.
• Established places of worship.
• Regular congregations.
• Regular religious services.
• Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the
• Schools for the preparation of ministers.

Although it is not necessary that each of the above criteria be met, a congregation or other religious membership group is generally required. A church includes mosques, temples, synagogues, and other forms of religious organizations. The practices and rituals associated with your religious beliefs or creed must not be illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy.