Earlier this month the Presbyterian Lay Committee wrote to the session of every PC(USA) congregation, reporting on the outcome of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Specifically, it reported that
• the GA established a $2 million fund to help middle-governing bodies (presbyteries and synods) sue local churches and confiscate their properties.
• in defiance of the PC(USA)'s constitution, GAPJC has ruled that presbyteries can establish permanent commissions armed with the power to defrock your minister, remove your session, seize your property and even deny your congregation the right to hold a meeting.
• in several cases, individual lawsuits have been filed against session members and local church trustees.
The Lay Committee suggested that sessions consider
a. cutting off all unrestricted mission giving and per capita payments to the denomination’s higher governing bodies (presbytery, synod, and General Assembly) "until they call a halt to their cruel assaults on your brother and sister congregations."
b. re-directing unrestricted mission gifts to ministries that the session knows it can trust.
c. designating GA, synod and/or presbytery per capita contributions to a Legal Assistance Fund established by the Lay Committee to assist congregations and their leadership sued by the denomination and its agents.
Now, The Layman reports that on November 18, the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) wrote to all Sessions in the PC(USA) claiming that the Lay Committee's letter "contained many factual errors and may cause great misunderstanding."
On that grim "date that will live in infamy, Secretary Hull, having already been told of the attack, excoriated the Japanese diplomats, telling them, "In all my 50 years of public service, I have never seen a document so full of outright lies and scurrillous distortions."
Reading the Stated Clerk's letter, one asks, "Where is Cordell Hull when we need him?"
The Stated Clerk says "The General Assembly did not create a two-million-dollar defense fund, as requested by the Presbytery of Northern New England. The assembly chose, instead, to create an Extra Commitment Opportunity (ECO) fund that would receive voluntary contributions. The name of the ECO is Constitution Legal Defense Fund and it is numbered E052058. To date, we have received no contributions to this fund, and no money from the per capita budget has been allocated for it."
Well, I'm glad the Stated Clerk set that straight! A "Legal Defense Fund" for presbyteries has not been established. It is a "Constitution Legal Defense Fund." Moreover, the CDLF has no set amount, unlike the $2,000,000 fund desired by the Presbytery of Northern New England. And how nice that he goes to great length to tell Sessions how they can contribute to the CDLF. He had to--so far, the CDLF has not received a nickel. And he forgot to mention that the reason that PNNE's overture was defeated is because the GA did not want to commit "its" funds to such a purpose.
Yep. Those guys and gals at the Lay Committee sure tried to slip a whopper past the Sessions--not.
Next, he reports that
The letter suggests that presbyteries have taken aggressive actions to deprive congregations of their pastors and property via ecclesiastical processes and the secular courts. The letter misrepresents the actions of presbyteries and misinterprets recent General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission cases.
Virtually all actions by presbyteries are reactions to aggressive schismatic behavior by individual congregations and sessions. Of the thirty-nine cases in civil courts, thirty-six have been filed for local sessions. The three filed by presbyteries have sought only that sessions and congregations be required to follow the processes provided by the Book of Order.
Oh, my. Where to begin?
No aggressive action by the PC(USA) or the Presbyteries? Read the Louisville Papers for yourself--especially the part that suggests that as soon as a presbytery thinks a congregation may be re-considering its denominational affiliation, it form an AC to remove the pastor and session, chenge the locks on the doors, freeze the bank accounts, and get to court to tell the judge that the presbytery is a "bishop"! Or telling the judge that the PC(USA) is a hierarchical denomination even though the authors admit that the PC(USA) has never called itself that.
Consider that before the Louisville Papers were leaked, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma put them into effect by clouding the title to the property of each of its member congregations.
"Of the thirty-nine cases in civil courts, thirty-six have been filed for local sessions."
As counsel to four of those thirty-six churches, I can explain their action. In the case of three of them, they knew that the Presbytery of Donegal had instituted suit against two disaffiliating churches 25 years ago. The presbytery lost at the trial court level and on appeal. Desiring to be the plaintiff rather than the defendant, they filed a declaratory judgement action, asking the court to rule on which corporations owned the property. They then allowed the presbytery to refrain from answering the complaints and entered into negotiations. We never set foot in a court-room!
In the fourth case, the Session had advance word that the presbytery (PNNE) was planning to appoint an AC to assume original jurisdiction, oust the Session, change the locks, and "prevent" the huge majority of the congregation from leaving the PC(USA). That case has also been settled. The majority gave up the physical plant, part of which is nearly 200 years old, to the 50 or so which make up the so-called "loyal PC(USA) remnant). The 200 plus majority has now swelled in number.
Most of the other 32 congregations that filed suit have also done so under the duress of the Louisville papers.
And lest anyone forget, it is presbyteries, following the game plan of the Louisville Papers, that have sued individual elders and pastors. See, e.g., Presbytery of Northern New England and its surrogate, the "loyal remnant" who sued elders at Londonderry Pres, and Presbytery of Washington who sued pastor and elders at Peter's Creek Pres.
"The three filed by presbyteries have sought only that sessions and congregations be required to follow the processes provided by the Book of Order. When sessions/congregations have followed those processes, they have usually
been dismissed to the reformed denomination of their choice.
First of all, there are no such processes set forth in the Book of Order. Second, the Stated Clerk is apparently not well-informed by his staff. Where presbyteries have created such procedures sua sponte, the procedures put the presbytery in control of scheduling and require innumerable delays to "ensure" that the congregation really understands what it is doing. Where congregations have tried to follow such procedures, they have usually resulted in a determination by the presbytery that a "loyal remnant", often of ten percent or less, constitutes the "true church" which ought to get all the property.
It is true that presbyteries served with civil lawsuits have had to expend significant resources in defending our Book of Order processes. In the Sundquist v. Heartland Presbytery case, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC)recently affirmed the validity of those processes, which include permitting presbyteries to create structures that can respond to civil lawsuits when they arise, but such processes do not provide for aggressive actions by presbyteries.
Huh? As I discussed in a blog a couple of weeks ago, Sundquist is highly suspect. It appears to have been written with the sole intent of allowing the Stated Clerk to write this letter, because the questions of disaffiliation and dismissal were not at issue in the case. The sole issue taken up on appeal was whether a presbytery could give an AC blanket authority to go after a pastor and/or session and/or congregation on mere suspicion that they might be talking about whether they should leave the PC(USA). The GAPJC nonetheless threw in a long piece of obiter dicta about dismissal procedures, essentially assuming the role of GA and presbyteries to amend the Boook of Order.
And what nonsense it is to claim that the suits are about "defending our Book of Order processes." Not a single presbytery or congregation has filed or responded to suit. In every instance, corporations created under state law (and in tune with the Book of Order suggestion that congregations ought to incorporate) have been in suit over ownership of property, an issue which even the PC(USA) concedes is a matter of State law.
The Stated Clerk gets really exercised when it comes to the suggestion that sessions withhold per capita. He says "The congregation’s responsibility is not to itself, but to itself in light of its call to ‘fulfill its responsibilities as the local unit of mission for the service of all people, for the upbuilding of the whole church, and for the Glory of God’ (Book of Order, G-4.0104).” (Citing to Johnston, et al. v. Heartland Presbytery)
Well, yeah, but how is it wrong to withhold per capita from the PC(USA)and use it through some other agency "for the service of all people, for the upbuilding of the whole church, and for the Glory of God"? Just because the agency used is not the PC(USA)? Or is it that he believes, as did the authors of the Louisville Papers, that the PC(USA) alone is the "true church"?
And try as he might to limit Central Presbyterian v. Presbytery of Long Island (a presbytery cannot require payments from a session, nor can it punish a session for its refusal to comply with requests for payment from a presbytery),Kirk Johnson et al v. Heartland Presbytery, and Minihan and Richards v. Scioto Valley Presbytery to his aspirational language, he must admit that those cases established and reaffirmed long-standing GAPJC decisions that payment of per capita is voluntary, not mandatory.
Finally, we hear once again a plea "to heed the words of 1 Cor. 6:7 and avoid lawsuits." Well let's look at 1 Corinthians 6.
1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Paul counsels against using frivilous lawsuits against brothers, that is, suits for improper purposes. He does not forbid all suits. For instance, in Romans 13 he reminds us
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
In other words, God created and instituted the civil magistrate to carry out those proper functions within its domain. One of those functions, recognized since at least the Roman Empire, is to resolve property disputes. When Paul asks, "Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?", I wonder if he meant that one brother claiming the property could decide the issue between himself and the other brother? Probably not. And a whole lot of judges today are believers--witness the admonition of the Louisville Papers to seek a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian judge!
And I'll bet that many in the PC(USA) wish the Clerk had stayed away from 1 Corinthians 6. "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."
Oh, Cordell, what would you think?