Mark D. Roberts

Part 16 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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Today I’ll finish this series on the PC(USA) and property. (Is that cheering I hear in the background?) I thought I’d review a few main points and add some concluding remarks.
The Book of Order of the PC(USA) states that all church property is “held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (G-8.0201). Taken out of context, this passage might suggest that any congregation that leaves the PC(USA) must always surrender its property. In fact, it seems that quite a few people, including many leaders of denominational bodies, interpret the “held in trust” clause in this manner. But, given the larger claims of the Book of Order, including the fact that the PC(USA) does not exist to advance itself, but rather to further the cause of Christ, and the fact that the PC(USA) explicitly acknowledges that our denomination is only one part of the Church of Jesus Christ, and the fact that we have a process for dismissing a congregation to another denomination, and the fact that we are committed to ecumenical partnerships with other denominations, it seems fully consistent with the Book of Order for a presbytery to dismiss a congregation with its property in certain situations. This is consistent with the larger mission and purpose of the PC(USA) because this whole denomination, property and all, exists for the use and benefit of Jesus Christ. Those who read the “held in trust” clause as preventing presbyteries from letting congregations leave with their property intact are missing the larger point of the Book of Order, not to mention the larger point of what it means to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ.
From a logical and theological point of view, I don’t think the Book of Order needs to be changed in order for presbyteries to feel both free and, at times, obligated to let congregations leave with their property. But I am aware that, in practice, congregations often feel intimidated by presbyteries when it comes to matters of property, and presbyteries often feel slighted by congregations that don’t consult with them before voting to leave the denomination. We have a huge lack of mutual trust, honesty, and grace in matters of church property.
For this reason, it might be necessary to amend the Book of Order in one way or another. I would be supportive of some amendment to G-8.0201. It might read something like this:

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.), which exists for the use and benefit of Jesus Christ and his mission. Therefore, there may be situations in which legal ownership of church property should be transferred to another denomination or Christian ministry.

That’s not polished language, but you get my drift.
The way the Book of Order talks about the situations we’re facing in the PC(USA) is not, in my view, particularly helpful. We have a section that reads:

G-8.0601 Property of Church in Schism
The relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of a particular church can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery. (G-11.0103i) If there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the particular church at the time of the schism.

For one thing, I think the word “schism” is not especially helpful here. It is too inflammatory. When those in the PC(USA) describe those who leave as “schismatic” and those who leave describe the PC(USA) as “heretical” or “apostate,” we’ve left Christian truth and charity far behind. Nevertheless, this passage from the Book of Order appears to limit the actions of the presbytery, not to mention the work of the Spirit and the lordship of Christ. If I read it correctly, G-8.0601 says that if a church votes to leave the PC(USA), let’s say by a 80% to 20% vote, the presbytery can only “determine” that the 20% faction “is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The presbytery does not seem to be empowered to recognize that the 80% group should keep its property, even in a situation where the 20% group wouldn’t be able to use it or doesn’t want to keep it. Doesn’t it seem better to say something like: “the presbytery shall determine how the property might best be used for the mission of Jesus Christ”?
If I’m reading G-8.0601 correctly (and I’d be happy to be shown that I’m wrong), then I think the Book of Order is making a theological and tactical mistake here. When a church leaves the denomination, the most important factor for determining who should own the property is not whether or not the church is a “true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” This shouldn’t be the main factor even when there is a minority of the congregation that votes to stay in the PC(USA). The most important question, and the only one that ultimately matters, is: “What is best for the kingdom of God?” Or, more simply, “What does Jesus want to do with his property?” It would be the height of arrogance to assume that Jesus always wants to keep PC(USA) property in the PC(USA).
In fact, some presbyteries have shown the kind of kingdom perspective I’m advocating. They have let churches leave the denomination with their property, sometimes at no expense to the church, sometimes selling the property to the church at a significant discount. But other presbyteries have taken a “PC(USA) only” approach to property ownership, and have, in fact, spent a whole lot of Jesus’ money fighting for the legal ownership to his property.
This move is terrible stewardship, but that’s not all. It’s also an example of the sort of narrow-minded institutionalism that is killing the PC(USA). The more we focus on the PC(USA) and its success, the less we’re focused on the kingdom of God and its success. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own self-preservation as a denomination that we forget our true mission. We forget the call of Jesus to deny ourselves and take up our cross. We forget that sacrifice isn’t expected only of individuals, but also of the church. We forget that we are to give ourselves away for the sake of the kingdom of God. We forget that all church property belongs truly to Jesus Christ.
Our intramural lawsuits are not actually protecting the PC(USA), but injuring it. For example, if you were looking for a church, would you want to join a denomination that sues former churches and sister denominations? I wouldn’t. Not in a million years! And neither do thousands upon thousands of potential Presbyterians. So, as we’re fighting each other for property, we’re chasing people away from the Presbyterian church. In our effort to save ourselves, we’re killing ourselves off.
Fights between presbyteries and churches over church property not only reflect terrible stewardship and suicidal institutionalism, but also damage the mission of Christ. The last General Assembly was absolutely right when it affirmed, in Resolution 04-28, that “litigation is deadly to the cause of Christ.” How many people are turned off, not just to the PC(USA), but also to the gospel by headlines about church lawsuits? I hate to think of the number. Our actions confirm the worst stereotypes of Christians as self-absorbed, institutionally-bound, materialistic, unloving hypocrites. I wonder if we’d continue on this path if we realized how many people we’re chasing away from Christ by our lawsuits and petty in-fighting.
What will save us from this mess? Nothing. The only hope comes if we ask the question differently. Who will save us from this mess? The answer comes clearly from Scripture, though the context isn’t at all similar. In writing to the Romans Paul says:

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:19-25)

Only Jesus Christ can save the PC(USA) from our sinful ways. Institutional renewal could take all sorts of forms. Yet what the PC(USA) looks like in the future or even whether there is a PC(USA) is not the main point. The main point is Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and Head of the Church. The main point is his mission and his glory.
I believe that what’s needed now more than ever in the PC(USA) is a widespread return to Christ. In the old days we’d call this repentance. We need to turn from our sin and turn to Christ. We need to turn from our self-interest and turn to Christ’s interest. We need to offer ourselves, our churches, and our properties to Christ, recognizing his lordship over all.
I’m not making this up because I’m so pious or clever. I’m simply restating what we Presbyterians say we believe. In fact, I will close this series by quoting the first section of the PC(USA) Book of Order. If you’ve never read this, it’s well worth your attention. And if you’ve read it before, I invite you to read it again.

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.
Christ Gives the Church Its Faith and Life
c. Christ gives to his Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its officers and ordinances. Insofar as Christ’s will for the Church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Christ Is the Church’s Authority
d. In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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