Friday, July 30, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: See You in Court, Brother

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Wow. Christians going to court with one another.

You’d think this issue would be put to bed speedily by even the most cursory glance at Matthew 5:25-26 or 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. But no, believers are keeping their lawyers on speed-dial in significant numbers. It used to be the primary reason was child abuse, but last year it was something new: property rights.

Tom: Here I thought we’d all be meeting in cell groups in homes sooner than later as a result of lawfare trial balloons from the transgender, feminist or gay lobbies. But no, this is even stranger: we’re doing it to ourselves, Immanuel Can; not just as individuals, but whole congregations. And most of it involves issues related to church buildings.

Who Is “We”?

Immanuel Can: I’m not sure “we” are doing anything, actually. If the example in the article is typical, what it looks like is that disputes are breaking out over who owns the religious buildings when a local church breaks away from some central authority structure, or when a local church is dissolved and the property becomes vacant to sell. Am I reading that correctly? Or are there different kinds of contentious property issues?

Tom: Fair enough. I’m using “we” to describe evangelicals generally, but maybe that’s not reasonable. I agree, it’s not a problem for non-denominational groups that have no central organizational structure that draws on them financially and imposes rules upon them.

Ugh. You may have dramatically shortened this post. Thanks.

IC: Well, it may not be “us”, but we may have to learn a few things from the example. At the very least, we can say that putatively “Christian” organizations are descending into litigation over whether the local congregation or the central synod has the real investment in the local church. That’s interesting.

Tom: Thanks. We may still get something out of this, so feel free to point me in the right direction.

Political Polarization Leads to Denominational Fractures

One thing that interests me is this statement: “Most property cases ‘seem to arise from factional disputes between conservative and progressive wings of congregations.’ ” That sounds like a familiar tale. Left/Right disagreements are currently uglifying our political landscape; finding similar tensions within denominations should not surprise us.

IC: Yes, the political polarization that is so typical of our age can all-too-easily sneak into our churches. Partisanship splits congregations. That’s a general concern, and we could talk about that.

Or we could talk about a more specific problem, the property issue which, it seems to me, looks like this: a local church wants to do something that is considered too far Left or Right for the general denomination and its central governing body. The issue then becomes what authority the departing local congregation has to retain a property that was originally claimed in the name of the parent denomination.

Your pleasure, sir?

It IS Straightforward, Isn’t It?

Tom: I haven’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing a political church split, though I’d be interested in hearing from those who have. The internal disagreements I’ve run into in local churches have been more personal.

IC: I think that’s just called, “dealing with human beings”.

Tom: Yup. As to the property issue, though, I’d be very interested to see how a synod or other form of denominational oversight would use their Bibles to justify taking action against a local congregation, or vice versa. That seems perplexing to me. The scriptures on the subject, as I’ve pointed out, are well known and quite straightforward.

IC: Before we go on (and just so people know what you’re talking about) which scriptural principles did you have in mind?

Tom: Matthew 5, where the Lord says, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court,” the context of which is a “brother” who has something against you. He’s talking about a fellow Jew there, I think, rather than a Christian brother, but that only makes the application stronger for Christians: basically, we are to solve our problems outside of the legal system, not inside.

The other one is Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians, which definitely apply in the church: “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?” His upshot is that we are better off losing our shirts voluntarily outside of the system than taking our fellow Christians to the cleaners or vice versa.

Neither passage is vague, cultural or terribly complex.

Complicating the Simple

IC: Certainly true. But once we’ve already conceded in the past that our local church will have a denominational name, an allegiance to a particular theological package instead of whatever the Word may teach us, a religious building and property, a clergy, and a central office to preside over all this (all things that we know are really just made up by the “common sense” of human beings, because they’re never entertained in scripture), it’s hard to imagine what rules would apply to the disassembling of an institution created with these features.

Other than knowing we’re not supposed to be suing one another, which you’ve already pointed out, what guidance can we find for the disengaging of a local assembly from the denomination or central governing body?

Tom: I can’t think of much, to be honest. We are given principles for resolving interpersonal conflicts, but I can’t think of any that address institutional conflicts.

But that’s understandable: when we create extra-scriptural (or outright anti-scriptural) situations for ourselves, it’s hardly reasonable to complain that scripture doesn’t directly address them and provide us with clear answers. God can scarcely be expected to provide solutions for situations he never ordained in the first place.

Do you have any bright ideas?

You Made This Mess, You Fix It

IC: I agree with you that all the answers address the moral conduct of individuals, on the one hand, and the conduct of the local church itself, on the other. Biblically, there’s no mediation procedure for conflicts between local churches and a central office, no org. chart locating clergy, and no deeds and titles for property and building ownership. God simply hasn’t answered the question, “What do we do when a local group breaks away from the collective or the denominational hierarchy?” These things are outside of any conception of church he gave.

In other words, we’ve created the problem; but there may very well be no answer to the question, and no way at all to fix the mess we’ve made. If so, that reflects neither on the Lord nor on any insufficiency in the plan he gave us … it just means we weren’t following instructions in the first place.

Tom: Agreed. I’m thinking back to the theological polarization issue we talked about earlier. The two recent court rulings mentioned in the CT article both have to do with local churches breaking away from their former denominations. Now, a very conservative church electing to part ways with a very liberal denomination is certainly one possibility, but I suspect given the current cultural trends that the general tendency may be the other way round. The resulting lawsuits, I think we agree, are a shoddy business that doesn’t honor the Lord. But consider the alternative to parting ways. I’m not sure the Church as a whole is well-served by local congregations forced into lock-step with a denomination in areas where the local congregants have markedly different convictions.

The Eternal Thing

What are your thoughts? Where testimony is concerned, would you rather see an outward show of phony unity, or an honest admission of serious differences?

IC: If a local congregation does not believe something the central synod insists is essential, it’s hard to see what value there would be in forcing the local church to conform. You cannot compel belief. As the old saying goes, “A man compelled against his will / Remains an unbeliever still.”

The issue, I think, is more the practical question of whether the local congregation has the right to the property and building of which they have current tenancy, or whether the denominational headquarters or the central synod rightfully owns it. Worse still, how does one decide if some of the congregants stay with the denomination on the key issue(s), and some go another way … not an uncommon happening, I suspect, in such situations.

Tom: Well, whatever issues need to be worked out between the various parties, we can be sure of one thing: the place for them is not the secular court system. As Paul puts it, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” In the end, a building is only property.

IC: Good point. After all, what is the eternal thing: winning the point, seizing property deed, or the public reputation of the Lord of Glory?

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