Mark D. Roberts

Part 5 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In my last post I offered a theological critique of the Book of Order’s statement that all church property “is held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” This statement is in tension with what is said elsewhere in the Book of Order about Christ and his church. In the first chapter we say that:

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, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world . . . . . It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills . . . . (G-1.0010 a, b)

It seems to me, therefore, that any legal or ecclesiastical statement about the ownership of church property must always be qualified by the fundamental fact that all church property belongs to Christ, and that he can do with it as he wills.
This is surely implicit in the Book of Order, which may be why it isn’t included in the specific statement of church property being held in trust for the use and benefit of the PC(USA) (G-8.0201). If we were to ask those who actually wrote G-8.0201 about this, they might very well say: “Of course all property ultimately belongs to Christ, and it’s his to do with as he pleases.” At any rate, I think that’s what we in the PC(USA) should be saying today, in light of our own statements in the Book of Order about Christ’s headship, not to mention biblical statements concerning Christ’s lordship over all. After all, if our own bodies belong to the Lord and not ourselves (1 Cor 6:19-20), surely we’d have to say that land and buildings dedicated to him belong to him first and foremost. We’re just renters, in a way.
Actually, the Book of Order implicitly and explicitly allows that it could be right for a church to leave the PC(USA). In Chapter XV on “Relationships,” we state:

G-15.0203 Reception and Dismissal of Churches
a. When a particular church of another denomination requests that it be received by a presbytery of this denomination, the presbytery shall verify that the church has been regularly dismissed by the governing body of jurisdiction, and the advice of the highest governing body of that denomination dealing with relations between denominations has been received, and shall then receive the church in accord with its responsibilities and powers. (G-11.0103h.)
Dismissal of Churches
b. Similar procedures shall be followed in dismissing a particular church from this denomination to another. (G-11.0103i)

By recognizing that it’s okay for the PC(USA) to receive a particular church from another denomination into the PC(USA), we’re implicitly acknowledging that it can be right for a church to leave a denomination and join another. Our statement on the dismissal of churches makes this explicit. Though nothing in Chapter 15 mentions church property explicitly, it stands to reason that if a church can rightly leave a denomination, then it could be right for that church to leave with its property. If the PC(USA) recognizes that there are times when it’s right for a church to leave a denomination, surely we can allow such churches to leave with their property?
But could the PC(USA) ever let a church leave with its property since we state that all church property is held is “held in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination”? Yes, I think we could. I believe that the PC(USA) could, with freedom and integrity, allow churches to leave with their property. How? The argument would go something like this:

All church property in the PC(USA) is held in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination. Ordinarily, this means we strongly discourage churches from leaving the PC(USA) over minor differences of opinion. But when the differences between a particular church and the denomination are significant, when they involve central issues of theology and mission, and when these differences have led a church into a wise and godly process of discernment that has ended in super-majority vote of the congregation to leave the PC(USA), then it may very well be consistent with the “use and benefit of the PC(USA)” to allow a church to leave with its property. Why? Because the PC(USA) does not exist to advance its own cause or its own glory. It does not in fact exist for its own benefit. The PC(USA) exists to benefit Jesus Christ and to extend his kingdom. Thus hanging on the ownership of church property may not be for the benefit of the PC(USA) in all cases, given our greater commitment to Christ. Even as we confess individually that our chief end as human beings is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” so the chief end of all church property is God’s glory (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1). We recognize that it may not always be most glorifying to God for the PC(USA) to retain ownership of all church property.

Again, the case of a pastor leaving the PC(USA) helps by way of analogy. When I became ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament in this denomination, committed myself to the following (G-14.0405)

(5) Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?
(7) Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?
(9) Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

westminster abbeyThese were strong commitments, not simply to the Church of Jesus Christ, but to the PC(USA) in particular (lower case “church”). But the PC(USA) does not insist that, as a pastor in the denomination, I can never move to another denomination and maintain my ordination. Even as we recognize the ordination of pastors ordained in sister denominations when they join the PC(USA), so we can dismiss pastors to other denominations with their ordination intact. We understand that that PC(USA) is not the whole Church, but only a church within the whole Church. Perhaps this same sort of logic would give us the freedom to release congregations with their property. (Photo: From inside of Westminster Abbey, where the Westminster Shorter Catechism was considered in the 1640s.)
Now I realize that, in fact, it often gets very messy when churches consider whether or not to leave their denominations. This is especially true when churches feel threatened by denominational bodies, as is often the case in the PC(USA), and for good reason. On many levels, the denomination has made it clear that it will evict churches that vote to leave the PC(USA), and pursue legal action against churches that seek to leave with their property. In response, churches have sometimes not involved their presbyteries in the discernment process, and have even sued their presbyteries preemptively. Surely something is terribly wrong with this picture. (Sin, for example.)
So what should happen if a church, which usually means its leaders, begins to think that it should leave the PC(USA)? I’ll sketch out the contours of what seems to me a godly, just process in my next post in this series.

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