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The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 11

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, October 2, 2008

Part 11 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In my last post I summarized one action of the 2008 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The Assembly voted in favor of a Resolution 03-21, which authorized the denomination to help pay for lawsuits pitting PC(USA) presbyteries against churches and/or denominational bodies of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The churches in the lawsuits are congregations that have left the PC(USA) for the EPC, and that are trying to keep their church property. Because the resolution was amended so that the funding for the lawsuits would come from special gifts only, the resolution lost its teeth. Nevertheless, it made a strong symbolic statement of the will of the General Assembly on the matter of legal battles associated with church property.

As I mentioned in my last post, I disagree strongly with this action of the General Assembly. There are many reasons for my disagreement, including:

1. While the PC(USA) is cutting funds for essential ministry and mission, it seems ludicrous to devote funds to lawsuits over church property. This remains true even if those funds are from special, dedicated gifts. The General Assembly should be directing giving to evangelism, church planting, doing justice, and caring for the poor — not to suing fellow Presbyterians.

In fact, what actually happened at the General Assembly is even more unsettling. Though I was not there at this time, one of my blog readers was present. He describes the context for the vote on Resolution 03-21 this way:

[R]right before GA took up this overture, we saw a video presentation about the horrors of pastoral sexual abuse at a mission in San Francisco. Generations of young men had been abused. We were asked to give San Francisco Presbytery $100,000 to help defray the massive counseling costs for these victims. We voted it down. In the next item of business, we authorized $2,000,000 for lawsuits. I have never felt so heartsick in my life.

I can only shake my head with wonder and sadness.

2. The PC(USA)’s understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ does not hold that only PC(USA) churches are truly and correctly ministries of God’s kingdom. We acknowledge other denominations and believe that God is working in and through them. Thus it is fully consistent with our basic theology to allow that some PC(USA) might be better served to be aligned with other denominations. We have no inherent theological reason to insist that churches and church properties must remain in the PC(USA).

3. When PC(USA) churches and governing bodies engage in lawsuits with other churches or denominations, this make a horrendous public statement about our values, theology, and utter lack of grace or charity. Nothing would confirm a cynic’s view of the church more than seeing churches and church bodies using God’s money to sue each other.

4. The damage to congregations when churches and church bodies sue each other is major. Out of pastoral concern for the people involved, we should make every effort to refrain from such lawsuits.

5. I want to reiterate a point I made earlier in this series. Is it ever right for some of Jesus’ people to use Jesus’ money to sue others of Jesus’ people over who gets to use Jesus’ property?

6. My strongest reason for disagreeing with the action of the General Assembly is that it is contrary to Scriptural teaching. Though there is not place in the Bible that directly addresses the case of churches suing churches, we do find an analogous situation in 1 Corinthians 6. Here is the passage:

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that. (1 Cor 6:1-8, NRSV)

This passage clearly teaches that Christians should not sue other Christians in secular court. Such disagreements should be solved in the Christian community. A wronged party, according to this passage, should choose to be wronged rather than to seek victory in secular courts.

I wasn’t present for the debate in the General Assembly over Resolution 03-21. I don’t know if somebody reminded that Assembly of 1 Corinthians 6. And I don’t know if somebody responded to this point with some biblical justification in favor of PC(USA) lawsuits against other Presbyterians. But the apparently cavalier way in which the General Assembly approved of a resolution that seems, on the surface, to be inconsistent with Scripture is deeply distressing to me. It suggests that the PC(USA) has indeed jettisoned biblical relevance and authority, and not simply when it comes to homosexuality.

I should note at this point that the majority of lawsuits between churches leaving the PC(USA) and presbyteries are initiated by the churches. The presbytery is usually the defendant in the lawsuit. I wonder how many churches have wrestled with the implications of 1 Corinthians 6 before they sued their presbytery. And I wonder how many presbyteries grappled with the biblical statement: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?”

I have never been directly involved in a church leaving the PC(USA), so I can’t speak from personal experience about why a church would sue its presbytery. But I do know from what several people have reported to me that churches have done this to protect themselves from harsh and vindictive presbytery actions. Some presbyteries, it seems, if they get word of a church discussion of leaving the PC(USA), have threatened to engage in extreme measures to snuff out the conversation. Pastors will be put on leave or removed. Church elder boards will be ousted and presbyteries will take over. It appears that such actions have been encouraged by national leaders in the PC(USA). So, rather than turning to their presbyteries for guidance and grace, churches try to protect themselves from atrocious behavior on the part of their presbyteries.

Now I’ve been around the PC(USA) long enough to realize that blame for this sickening situation falls on both sides of the fence. Presbyteries have sometimes mistreated churches and engendered the fear that churches feel. Churches have sometimes failed to honor their presbyteries and done that which is contrary to our Constitution, not to mention Scripture, in their relationships with presbytery leaders. When Presbyterians end up spending tons of money suing each other in secular court, it’s the sad, natural consequence of a long history of relational conflict.

By its vote on Resolution 03-21, the General Assembly not only failed to help heal this conflict, but actually made matters worse. The Assembly encouraged the kinds of lawsuits that are unbiblical, unedifying, and, I would argue, ultimately unPresbyterian. The Assembly poured fuel on the fire of schism, bitterness, and terrible stewardship.

But then, only one day later, the General Assembly weighed in once again on the issue of churches leaving the denomination. And, once again, the Assembly did something stunning. I’ll explain tomorrow.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

3 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 11”

  1. Jim Says:
    October 2nd, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Do you agree that EOP started this particular fight (Kirk), by filling the affidavits on every church property with the courts?

    Indeed, some could say that PCUSA, just by having the trust clause, have already violated 1 Corinthians 6?

  2. Mark Roberts Says:
    October 2nd, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Jim: I’m not familiar enough with the details to have a trustworthy opinion, though it does seem, from what I know, that the EOP has been acting way out of line with anything biblical or gracious.

  3. Frank Says:
    October 2nd, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    This may be a little off the subject, but I am looking forward to your comments about Michael Walker’s Part Two: Case for Realignment. His idea may solve a Theology problem but it may create an even larger financial problem. Who pays for what?


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