Mark D. Roberts

Part 15 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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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.

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