Mark D. Roberts

Part 3 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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Friends: Thanks for your many helpful comments. I’m glad this can be a place where people can interact freely and respectfully. I hope we can continue to discuss and even disagree in Christian love. Please understand that, though I read your comments, I often don’t have the time to comment on them.  I wish I did, but sometimes writing a blog post takes all the time I’ve got. 

In my last post in this series I began to consider the implications of the PC(USA)’s claim to “own” all congregational property. One implication is the possibility that what holds the PC(USA) together as a denomination isn’t so much theological conviction or covenant communion as property and money. This seems to be implied when people fear that letting churches leave with their property would lead to hundreds of departing congregations.
I realize that what I’ve just said doesn’t reflect well upon the PC(USA). I’m quite sure that there are hundreds of churches that are joyfully part of the PC(USA) and would never consider leaving. For them, the church property issue is moot. But as I try to understand what’s going on in this church property issue, I read things that deeply trouble me about the health of the PC(USA). Let me start at the foundation, with the statement of property ownership in the Book of Order. It 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.).

I understand that this language has a legal tone because it was intended to prevent churches from leaving the denomination with their property. But when I read the last clause, my theological conscience cringes. Should we say that church property “is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”? Legally, this language may be defensible, some would say necessary. But is it theologically defensible? Is church property actually meant for the use and benefit of a denomination? Isn’t church property meant first and foremost for the use and benefit of the Lord? Shouldn’t we say this when we talk about church property? What if Christ, for his purposes and in his wisdom, actually wanted a PC(USA) church to join another denomination? What if it was actually better for some congregation to be allied with another denomination? Are we in the PC(USA) open to that possibility? Or are we certain that in every case the best thing for a congregation and for the kingdom of God is for church property to remain in the PC(USA)?
An analogy might be helpful here. When I became ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), I made many strong commitments to our denomination. But if I believed that God was calling me to be a pastor in a sister denomination, that wouldn’t be frowned upon or prohibited. In fact, my switch to, say, the ELCA would surely be blessed my presbytery, representing the whole PC(USA). The PC(USA) doesn’t believe it has some lasting and irrevocable claim on my services. I am not “held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So doesn’t it make sense that we view church property in a similar vein?
Again, I get what the Book of Order is trying to do. And, in general, I’m not one to encourage churches or individuals to leave the denomination. In fact, I’ve never done so in my life. I’ve been a member of the PC(USA) (previously, the UPCUSA) for over forty years, and an ordained PC(USA) pastor for half of that time. Whenever members of my former church in Irvine would raise the issue of leaving the PC(USA), I’d discourage this idea. Nevertheless, I am concerned that the way the Book of Order talks about property is inconsistent with the true purpose of the denomination, and even with our basic convictions about the nature of the church.
Part of what concerns me about the statement that church property is “for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” is that it gets the order backwards. I have argued elsewhere that denominations exist to support, advance, and extend the ministry of individual congregations. That’s their primary purpose. Particular churches, after all, are on the front lines of ministry. At their very best, denominations help churches do their ministry faithfully and effectively. Churches do not exist to support and further denominational concerns, for the most part. Denominational interest in church property, therefore, should focus on the use and benefit of the individual congregation in its community, not the use and benefit of the denomination. If a church is considering leaving the PC(USA), what should matter most to a presbytery is the question of what is best for the particular church and its mission. The Book of Order gets things backward, in my opinion.
There may well have been a time when denominations were a primary instrument of ministry and mission. I have argued, in fact, that denominations have done many valuable things throughout the ages. (See my series: What’s Good About Denominations?) But almost everyone who studies church life today concludes that the age of denominationalism has passed. And, in my opinion, there’s no biblical argument for the necessity of denominations. Yes, churches will continue to be involved connectionally in ministry and mission. Yes, churches will gather for worship and communion. But future partnerships will be less and less rigid and institutional, and more and more flexible and organic . . . rather like the body of Christ, come to think of it.
In addition to my “getting it backwards” criticism, I have another, even more significant objection to the idea that church property exists “for the use and benefit” of the denomination. I’ll explore this in my next post.

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