Mark D. Roberts

Part 4 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In my last post I began to lay out my objections to the notion, as stated in the PC(USA) Book of Order, that all church property is “for the use and benefit” of the denomination. I believe that denominations should exist for the sake of their particular churches, not the other way around. Church property, therefore, should, if anything, be employed “for the use and benefit” of the particular church. Moreover, if a congregation is considering leaving the PC(USA), denominational bodies should be mature enough to consider whether this will be better for the church and its ministry. It would be arrogant in the extreme for any denomination to believe that it is always the best denomination for its churches, or that church property would always be best used in that denomination only.
But I have an even more substantial problem with the statement that church property is “for the use and benefit” of the PC(USA). In fact, I would have the same objection if the Book of Order were to state that church property is “for the use and benefit” of the particular church. It seems to me that either “held in trust for the use and benefit” statement is at best in theological tension with, and at worst an outright contradiction to, the opening section of the Book of Order. Here’s how the Book of Order begins:

G-1.0100 1. The Head of the Church
Christ Is Head of the Church
a. All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body.
Christ Calls the Church Into Being
b. Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its building up, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of his Kingdom.

We believe that Christ has given the Church “all that is necessary for its mission in the world,” which surely includes its property. Notice, Christ gives this to the Church with a capital ‘C.’ This is not the same thing as saying that Christ gives all that is necessary for mission to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We are simply one small facet of “the Church.”
Moreover, Christ has the authority “to call, and to use the Church as he wills” for the purpose of “the establishment and extension of his Kingdom.” If this is true, then I wonder:

Aren’t we compelled to say that all church property exists, ultimately and most truly, for the use and benefit of Jesus Christ and his kingdom?
Can we ever know with certainty that Christ would never lead a PC(USA) congregation to leave the denomination with its property?
Does our attachment to property trump our submission to Christ and to his mission?
Isn’t the most important question of all when it comes to church property this one: What does Christ want to do with his property?

For the record, I’m not assuming that in every instance a church that votes to leave the PC(USA) has done the right thing. And I’m not assuming that every church that wants to leave should always be able to take its property. What I’m saying is that I’m deeply disturbed from a theological point of view by the way we PC(USA) folk have framed this issue. (Photo: A church building in Bodie, California, a ghost town. This was last a Methodist church.)
As I’ve said earlier in this series, I understand that the language in the Book of Order that claims church property “for the use and benefit” of the denomination is meant to have legal clout. It’s not, on the surface, a theological statement. But in the unqualified way the Book of Order talks about church property, it is making an implicit theological statement. Moreover, this statement has encouraged members and leaders of the PC(USA) to take for granted the notion that all church property rightly belongs to the PC(USA). I have never heard someone in this debate add something like: “But, of course, we know that the real owner of the property is Christ, and what matters most is what he wants to do with his property.” (I’m sure some have said this, but I’ve never heard it myself.)
Yet Christ’s ownership of all church property is, I submit, the most important thing to say about church property. In spite of what legal documents might say, the property belongs ultimately and rightly to the Lord. It exits for his use and benefit. This fundamental fact must undergird every single conversation about church property. And it must trump every legal claim or statement in the Book of Order. The only question that really matters is: What does Jesus want to do with his property?
Sadly enough, this question seems rarely to be asked by denominational officials when congregations are wanting to leave the PC(USA) with their property. In fact, when congregations leave and try to hang onto their property, what often happens these days is that some of Jesus’ people use a lot of Jesus’ money to sue others of Jesus’ people who defend themselves with a lot of Jesus’ money over the question of who gets to use Jesus’ property. Both churches and presbyteries, communities of Jesus’ people, initiate these lawsuits. Meanwhile, Jesus’ money that could have been used for Jesus’ ministry and mission gets consumed in legal battles.
I believe that there is a way out of this sad situation. I’ll explain this way out in my next post.

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