Can We Trust the Gospels?

Recent Posts

Past Posts Archived by Date

Search this site


Search this site


« The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 14 | Home | The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 16 »

The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 15

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Part 15 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

As I’ve explained in two recent posts, on Thursday, June 26, 2008, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved Resolution 03-21. This resolution provided for the provision of funds from the General Assembly to presbyteries engaged in lawsuits with congregations that have left the PC(USA) and joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and have tried to keep their church property. An amendment to the resolution weakened its effectiveness by having all funding for the lawsuits come from special contributions.

Nevertheless, the symbolic statement of the Assembly was a strong one. They endorsed and encouraged lawsuits between churches and denominational bodies over church property. If a PC(USA) congregation votes to leave the denomination, it should be aware that its presbytery, with the approval of the General Assembly, will try to keep church property and will be prepared to go to court to ensure this result. Given the fact that the General Assembly didn’t actually provides funds from its budget, its clear that the symbolic statement was the main point. The vote on this resolution was meant to threaten and intimidate any congregations that might consider leaving the PC(USA). The Assembly’s vote said: “If you leave, we’ll keep your property, and will fight you in court to make sure we keep it. So beware!”

The next day, Friday, June 27, 2008, the General Assembly considered another resolution having to do with church property and litigation. Resolution 04-28 was co-authored by Robert Austell and Archie Smith. Austell, you may recall, was one of those General Assembly commissioners who spoke against Resolution 03-21. I quoted Austell’s remarks a couple of posts ago. As you might well imagine, the tone and substance of Austell’s resolution was radically different from that “go ahead and sue our fellow Presbyterians” resolution that passed on Thursday. Here is the whole text of Resolution 04-28:

The 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

1.   Directs the Stated Clerk to send this resolution to the presbyteries, synods, and sessions, indicating the will of the assembly that presbyteries and synods develop and make available to lower governing bodies and local congregations a process that exercises the responsibility and power “to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches in consultation with their members” (Book of Order, G-11.0103i) with consistency, pastoral responsibility, accountability, gracious witness, openness, and transparency.

2.   Believing that trying to exercise this responsibility and power through litigation is deadly to the cause of Christ, impacting the local church, other parts of the Body of Christ and ecumenical relationships, and our witness to Christ in the world around us, [the General Assembly] urges [congregations considering leaving the denomination,] presbyteries[,] and synods to implement a process using the following principles:

•     Consistency: The local authority delegated to presbyteries is guided and shaped by our shared faith, service, and witness to Jesus Christ.

•     Pastoral Responsibility: The requirement in G-11.0103i to consult with the members of a church seeking dismissal highlights the presbytery’s pastoral responsibility, which must not be submerged beneath other responsibilities.

•     Accountability: For a governing body, accountability rightly dictates fiduciary and connectional concerns, raising general issues of property (G-8.0000) and specific issues of schism within a congregation (G-8.0600). But, full accountability also requires preeminent concern with “caring for the flock.”

•     Gracious Witness: It is our belief that Scripture and the Holy Spirit require a gracious witness from us rather than a harsh legalism.

•     Openness and Transparency: Early, open communication and transparency about principles and process of dismissal necessarily serve truth, order, and goodness, and work against seeking civil litigation as a solution.

The crucial affirmations in this resolution are those that have to do with litigation between churches. The resolution doesn’t mince words when it affirms that “trying to exercise this responsibility and power [for congregations leaving the denomination] through litigation is deadly to the cause of Christ.” This is because “Scripture and the Holy Spirit require a gracious witness from us rather than a harsh legalism.” So the process when congregations consider leaving should be open so as to “work against seeking civil litigation as a solution.”

In the Rationale that accompanied Resolution 04-28, Austell and Smith explain:

To be direct, if a church goes through the trauma of an internal split, wouldn’t we rather the members go to church anywhere than end up disillusioned and quitting on a local church and presbytery that have been to court in a protracted legal battle? Wouldn’t we rather lose some dirt or brick or even lose face than poison the well of witness in our community? As the resolution states, we believe litigation by Christians against Christians is deadly to the cause of Christ.

Not unlike me, Austell and Smith are hopeful about the potential for churches and presbyteries to deal graciously with the issues associated with a congregation’s departure:

What do we envision? We call on local church leadership and presbytery leadership to care pastorally for majority and minority groups in a church seeking dismissal. This could result in a final picture, not of two embittered enemies in court, but in mutual blessing and partnership in the midst of the sadness of parting. We envision presbytery leadership and local church leadership working together to bless and make way for a majority group and to take great care to relocate and shepherd a minority group. This could be the last great joint mission effort of two parts of Christ’s body who are focusing on different mission fields.

What happened with Resolution 04-28? Given the fact that only a day earlier the General Assembly had voted to supply funds for lawsuits over church property, even when these lawsuits were between denominational cousins and fellow Presbyterians (PC(USA) and EPC), and given the fact that the “sue your fellow Christians” resolution had won with 57% of the vote, you’d rightly expect that the General Assembly would reject Resolution 04-28 by about the same margin. After all, how could Austell and Smith expect an Assembly that had just approved to fund lawsuits among Christians to agree that such litigation is, in fact, “deadly to the cause of Christ”?

So what happened? Resolution 04-28 passed, with 76% of commissioners voting affirmatively (519 yes; 157 no; 8 abstain). How amazing! This means that around 200 commissioners who voted on Thursday to fund litigation between churches voted on Friday that such litigation was “deadly to the cause of Christ.” Whoa!

What are we to make of this discrepancy? Honestly, I don’t know. Were the 200 who switched sides hopelessly confused? Or were they just patting the New England Presbytery on the head by affirming their resolution but not funding it? Do these commissioners really believe that litigation between churches over church property is “deadly to the cause of Christ”? Or were they just trying to “make nice” in an effort to keep the PC(USA) together? Or are they convinced that litigation that is “deadly to the cause of Christ” is, nevertheless, necessary for the health of the PC(USA)? Or . . . ? I don’t know. You tell me.

This is part of what makes it so tricky and trying to remain faithful in the PC(USA). If the denomination would simply be clear about what it affirms – whether we’re talking about homosexuality, church property, the nature of Christ, or whatever – then we could decide where we stand and what to do about it. But the denomination is endlessly being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). One day we vote to fund lawsuits against our fellowship Presbyterians. The next day we vote that such litigation is “deadly to the cause of Christ.” I wonder how much longer the PC(USA) will continue to affirm and do that which hurts the cause of Christ.

So is there a way out of the church property crisis? I’ve already made some suggestions in this series. In my next post I’ll sum up what I’ve said before and add a few final thoughts.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

11 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 15”

  1. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    “What are we to make of this discrepancy?”

    Here’s my take. A number of those who voted for the first resolution believe that legal solutions (i.e., suing) are sometimes necessary, and it is therefore appropriate to prepare for this contingency.

    These same people (i.e., the “number of those” who also voted to pass the second resolution) believe that the legal solution should be either a last resort, or pretty close to it.

    I probably wouldn’t have supported the first resolution (despite my stated desire to see the Presbytery have some non-optional compensation if a church chooses to leave), but I don’t see any necessary contradiction between these two resolutions.

  2. Mark Roberts Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Mark B-W: You may be right. But, at any rate, you are surely giving this a gracious reading.

  3. Viola Larson Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    I think this discrepancy is on the same order of the negative vote against changing the words of marriage between a man and a woman. I believe the GA Commissioners believed they would perhaps be going to far in alienating the Evangelicals in the Church. I also think there was a great deal of misunderstanding about the issues among commissioners.

    Something I have not written about before. A friend of mine and I testified about the supposedly common God between Islam and Christianity. A commissioner who I have been told is liberal in theology asked us for our papers which included alternate ways of not claiming a same God yet working together for peace. They still did not get it right but I am convinced that many commissioners wanted to get it right and were not given good information. They were given mostly information from a liberal Muslim’s point of view, twice. Once in committee and once during the business meeting. In the same way I think many commissioners were simply not given a good understanding about the property issues until Robert Austell spoke to his overture.

  4. Renee Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    As a witness to both of these actions in committee and in plenary… the appeal for legal funding was made to support the brothers and sisters in the Presbytery of Northern New England (PNNE). It was represented and perceived as a supportive measure for this presbytery and all other subsequent presbyteries… including the commissioners presbytery. The details of the types of litigation by the PNNE were not discussed.

    Robert Austell’s presentation was so full of grace that it would be hard to speak against it without sounding harsh and/or angry.

    At some point, I would like to write about my observations of congregations who were lead by our Lord out of the PCUSA. Very few people understand the dynamics of these decisions. Most people have projected their own feelings, attitudes, and thoughts onto these congregational decisions without taking the time to listen. In addition to theology, the congregational decision to leave has been contingent on a large number of variables including, but not limited to, presbytery milieu, church location, type of ministry and mission, state trust laws, congregational involvement in renewal efforts, and elder participation in their own PCUSA presbytery.

    Grace and Peace,
    Renee Guth
    Former exec. dir. New Wineskins

  5. Jim Berkley Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 4:04 pm


    You suffer from the same illusion that I share: We expect people to think and act in a logically consistent manner. If they believe “A,” then they can’t possibly believe “not A,” can they?

    A postmodern, confused, distracted, emotional, poorly informed, and overwhelmed General Assembly apparently can simultaneously be for “A” and “not A.”

    Take the issue of Israel-Palestine, for an example apart from property issues. The General Assembly Peacemaking Committee chair, Nancy Kahaian, made a big point about trying to balance all sides, but the “balance” was accomplished by proposing that the General Assembly approve two conflicting resolutions. The GA gladly and rather mindlessly complied. What resulted was the approval of Item 11-06 to “avoid taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality where one side clearly is at fault and the other side is clearly the victim” on the one hand. Then, on the other, the assembly violated that resolution by adopting an endorsement of “The Amman Call,” which was, as one proponent commissioner called it, a “way to say that we ‘dare not be neutral.’” Go figure.

    Or consider whether homosexual practice is sin. The assembly tragically removed the Authoritative Interpretation that clearly and pastorally and quite biblically named homosexual practice as sin. Thus one would think the majority no longer considered homosexual practice as sin. So why then did the same assembly vote against approving same-sex marriage? If they no longer consider same-sex practice sin, what possible reason would they have to disapprove same-sex marriage–other than bias, crusty tradition, or whim?

    The assembly was either hopelessly confused or it felt no necessity to be logically consistent. Personally, I think their inconsistency was a product of both confusion and missing logic.

    Jim Berkley
    Bellevue, WA

  6. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Mark D. Roberts said, “Mark B-W: You may be right. But, at any rate, you are surely giving this a gracious reading.”

    True. I don’t dispute that. This just speaks to my strongly-felt conviction that it is essential for Christians to do so. I try not to ignore the possibility/probability of “less gracious” motivations, but I simply MUST look for ways to interpret the motivations of those I may find myself opposed to that give them the benefit of the doubt. I think this is very important.

  7. Linda Lee Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    I think both resolutions show that most of those at this last General Assembly realized their actions would cause many more churches to leave.
    They only stopped their agenda when people spoke to the possibility of a mass exodus if the definition of marriage
    was changed.

    Austell and Smith had pure motives -

    Maybe the commissioners realized that their actions did not reflect the majority view from their Presbyteries.
    So they tried to look gracious when undeneath it all they do not really want to hear from the majority. Just let them go - and while your at it - show some grace. If you have a big fight it will look bad. There doesn’t seem to be any respect for the views of the churches that might be leaving - even though they represent the majority views in this denomination.
    It is really sad.

  8. J.Falconer Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Rev. Roberts, Thanks again for your recent posts. I hope this post does come across sweet, sincere & flowery. Our family greatly praised your church, ministry & pastoral leadership. Your church & specifically you as the leader was by far one of our most postive church & pc experiences ever. Now we’re all very grown up with our ages spanning 40’s,50’s., & 70’s. Young at Heart! Ha! I remember being in my early 30’s & very proud to attend your church regularly. WE’ve attended many different churches & pc churches where we’ve resided in 6 states & 17 cities in this great ole USA & your church was by far the stellar best-Numero Uno 1!!! We attended many other famous churches in OC CA without the favorable outcome. I’m so happy that You & your wonderful family were part of our Orange County
    church family & home-pc experiences!! After residing in Tustin, CA for 32 years-we knew a great church when we saw 1. Thanks for all of your sermons at Irvine. It has greatly helped our faith in these times. Prayers & Love, Falconers PS Thanks again for your postings GOD BLESS Texas is very blessed to have you & your family & Yes we lived in Texas too!

  9. robert austell Says:
    October 9th, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Mark, I continue to appreciate this series. Thank you!

    I do not think the legal fund overture (03-21) would have passed as presented to the full Assembly. It was originally a request from Northern New England presbytery for funds for their legal expenses with Londonderry PC… but the committee felt like they could not support one presbytery without supporting all - so they multiplied the costs out to get $2 million, which would have come out of per capita funds… I cannot fathom that the GA would have passed that. If they had, I think all the other controversial issues would have paled in comparison.

    But, when one commissioner offered an amendment which reverted the total amount to $185,000 and assigned it to a voluntary “extra commitment opportunity” (ECO), I think all of us who wanted to see the $2 mil. version defeated jumped on it. My thought was, “What church would voluntarily send mission dollars to another presbytery’s legal defense fund?” To me, the amendment completely neutralized the overture.

    I see that action as consistent with the later support of 04-28 and a desire to find a “better way.”

    While I’m commenting, I would point folks to my blog (linked above) and the resources available to share with your own presbyteries. While the GA approved the “gracious process” resolution (04-28), the resolutions instruction to communicate the resolution to all the congregations of the PCUSA was not carried out.

    I believe it is worthwhile and needed to try to get the content of 04-28 into the hands of local pastors and Sessions in order to encourage each presbytery to develop a gracious PROCESS (not the same as gracious dismissal… but a process) to consider the requests of folks seeking dismissal.

    In God’s grace,

    Robert Austell

  10. Randy Says:
    October 9th, 2008 at 11:08 am


    I agree with MBW’s reading of the matter, but I’m concerned with some of the tactical implications of all of this when we consider investing in our building. Earlier, you indicated we should talk to the presbytery, which seemed wise. And while you didn’t retract that statement, you summarized the statement of the Assembly (and I think most presbytery officials would feel even more strongly this way) - leave and we’ll sue. Knowing that the Assembly has affirmed (to at least a limited extent) this leave and sue approach puts a congregation that wants to be open with its presbytery about its long term concerns in a very vulnerable conversation. Perhaps its right to be vulnerable here, but the lawyer in me doesn’t want to turn his cards over in the middle of the game.

  11. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    October 9th, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Robert: Thanks for this insight. And, more importantly, thanks for your extraordinary leadership in the last GA and in our denomination.

    Randy: Yes, indeed. It’s quite a mess.


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

You must be logged in to post a comment.