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Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 6

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, September 15, 2008

Part 6 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
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This post is Part 6 of the series Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? It is also Part 1 of a new series called The PC(USA) and Church Property.

So far in this series I have given five reasons why I am not currently planning to leave the PC(USA). In my last post I explained one reason frequently given for not leaving that is not persuasive to me. In today’s post I want to explore one of the stronger reasons for not leaving the PC(USA), a reason that is fraught with complication and controversy.

If you are committed to your local Presbyterian church, whether as the church’s pastor or a member, then you’d tend not to want to leave the PC(USA) unless your church leaves with you. But, in many cases, it’s a very difficult and painful thing for a church to leave the PC(USA). There are two main reasons for this.

First, when churches vote to leave the PC(USA), they rarely do by a vote of 100% for leaving and 0% for staying. (In June of this year, Lancaster Presbyterian Church in New York did vote 243-0 to leave the denomination, but this sort of unanimity is unusual.) This means that when a congregation votes to leave the PC(USA), it is also voting to split itself into two different congregations. People who have worshipped together, prayed together, and served together will now be in separate churches. Friends may very well end up on different sides of the vote and therefore in different churches. From a relational and emotional perspective, therefore, it’s hard for a church to leave the denomination.

Second, when a church votes to leave the PC(USA), it is not entitled to keep its property. Unlike the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which allows congregations to leave the denomination with its property if two-thirds of the members vote to leave, the PC(USA) claims to own the church property even if 100% of the members vote to leave. This claim is ensconced in the PC(USA) Book of Order, which reads:

G-8.0201 Property Is Held in Trust

All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This means, in effect, that a particular church does not really own its own property. If it leaves the denomination, it leaves its property, or at least it surrenders the right to keep its property. This is true, in principle, even if, as is almost always the case, the property was purchased and developed by the members of the church, with relatively little assistance from denominational bodies.

The Book of Order does not address directly a situation when a church votes 100% to leave the PC(USA). It does speak of what should happen when a congregation has a split vote to leave.

G-8.0601 Property of Church in Schism

The relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of a particular church can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery. (G-11.0103i) If there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the particular church at the time of the schism.

What this means is that, in theory, the presbytery of which a church is a member has the right to dismiss that church to another denomination. (I say “in theory” because presbyteries that have voted to let churches leave with their property are being challenged by their synods.) In most cases, however, the presbytery will decide that the faction that has voted to remain in the PC(USA) is “the true church” within the PC(USA), and therefore entitled to the property. This has nothing to do with the percentage of the vote. Even if 95% of a church voted to leave the denomination, the presbytery could decide that the “true church” was the remaining 5%.

In fact, as more and more churches are voting to leave the PC(USA), presbyteries are responding quite diversely. Some have allowed churches to leave with their property without any payment. Other presbyteries have required churches to pay some relatively small amount of money to keep their property. Other presbyteries have required departing congregations to leave without their property. When congregations have refused, these presbyteries have taken them to court. So you end up with a situation where a presbytery and a former congregation of that presbytery are suing each other in civil court.

In my next post I’ll have a few things to say about this regrettable situation. For now I simply want to note, by way of summary, that it is not an easy thing for a church to leave the PC(USA). I’m not suggesting, by the way, that it should be easy. But sometimes you’ll hear people recommend that evangelical churches leave the denomination as if it was a simple and painless thing to do. In fact, it is neither simple nor painful.

This discussion will be continued in the series: The PC(USA) and Church Property.

Topics: PCUSA: Why Not Leave, PCUSA: Church Property |

8 Responses to “Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 6”

  1. Ray Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 7:32 am

    This is why I think the much better course of action would be for the denomination to agree that reconciliation is impossible…and to work toward a fair, amicable division of the PCUSA. Nobody should want this to end up in state courts with 50 different outcomes, depending on what each state rules, and to become tied up forever with endless appeals. We should be proactive enough to keep this disagreement out of civil courts.

    I have absolutely no idea how to make this happen, nor am I naive enough to think it ever will. But, to me it makes more sense to agree to disagree than to fight to the finish - because at the finish there will be nothing left.

  2. Matt Ferguson Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 9:17 am

    I agree with Ray and I will be very interested to hear you (Mark) and the rest of the leadership address a way forward at The Coalition’s Gathering XI.

    When you keep in mind the big picture you outlined with the start of your series “The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited” back in July (which I recommend to any who have come to this site recently to go back and read) we are not left with any easy options. And it may well be that we do not have any options a super majority of us in the orthodox evangelical fellowship will agree on.

    But we must start to think of bold, new ways to approach the situation we are in. I hope that we will hear such thoughts at Newport Beach.

  3. Frank Norment Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 11:19 am

    In the reunion, there was a section G-8.0700 that was supposed to be an “out” for churches in the former PCUS. Has this been tested/used by any former PCUS church attempting to leave? What is your take on this section?

  4. Alan Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    The issue of the “Trust” may seem to be a “national” mandate but the fact is “a trust” is a legal term subject to the rules and laws of the particular state in which the particular church is incorporated.

    The courts have supported the denominational stance as in Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa and have also ruled on neutral principles when deeds etc. have been in the name of the local congregation ie. Hope Pres. in Oregon.

    The denominational take is that the “trust” isn’t necessarily a “legality” as much as a way of understanding our connectional nature. The problem with that spin [and it is spin] is that it exists in a chapter which deals with legal entities such as incorporation and the like.

    G-8.0700 was there for the PCUS to leave within the first few years. I happen to think that the overwhelming majority vote at GA about being gracious should take precedent. However, as much as it would hurt, the fact is, when one can no longer say that their sisters and brothers in Christ are supportive of the orthodox doctrine and practices of the Christian Faith one may just have to leave.


  5. Christine Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    I would point out that in many cases it is not presbyteries that are going to court first. Four congregations in my presbytery sued it “pre-emptively” for clear title to property before departing for the EPC. In most of the recent wave of court cases regarding property, litigation was initiated by congregations, not presbyteries.

  6. Dale Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Maybe I am niave but is there hope that maybe both sides will handle this in a kind way? That would be so nice.

  7. Paul Becker Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    I believe that the property clause, while intended to preserve a system, has created a “closed system” that will explode. Let me explain.

    When conflict results in output that feeds back into the system of conflict to increase the intensity of the conflict and perhaps leading to additional conflict, pressure builds and the cycle repeats and feeds itself. This is called a “positive feedback loop.” No system can withstand the continual building of energy without a release of energy. Positive feedback loops are detrimental to systems. (The term “positive” had nothing to do with the idea of being “good” or “upbeat.” Google “positive feedback loops” to learn more.)

    In a “closed system” where conflicting parties have no where to go, the result will be an explosion. In order to preserve the system, pressure has to be released. The PCUSA needs to revise the property clause so that its boundaries can become more like a permeable membrane, letting congregations come into and go from the PCUSA with greater ease, much like the posture of the EPC.

    In the “permeable membrane scenario,” when congregations leave, it is a form of feedback that can cause us to consider our stewardship of Assemblies at all levels of the church.

  8. Joshua Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 1:10 am

    I think the last sentence of this post was supposed to say, “In fact, it is neither simple nor painless” instead of “In fact, it is neither simple nor painful.”


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