My Gospels Website
My Psalm Website
My Church
Some of My Books: Click on book for more info
My Da Vinci Code Series
in categories . . .
Professor Blogs
Resources for Leaders
Resources for Worship Leaders
Mark's Church
Visitors so far:
A Resource by Mark D. Roberts

Presbyterian Church USA:
The Saga Continues

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2007 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

Table of Contents
Part 1 Encouraging Signs in Church Property Disputes
Part 2  

Encouraging Signs in Church Property Disputes
Posted for Friday, March 2, 2007

I'm interrupting my series on Loving Your Enemies to deal with a significant story that I've been following, and that I expect will tweak your interest as well. I'll get back to the series soon.

This post is not about loving your enemies, though given what often happens when a particular church decides to leave a denomination, you might think to the contrary. Sadly, it sometimes seems that when a church says to a denomination, "After much prayer and consideration, we believe that we no longer fit with you, and need for the sake of our faith and mission to find a better denominational fit," the denomination declares that church to be the enemy. Then, given the litigious society in which we live, such "enemies" usually end up in secular court, spending lots of God's money fighting over who really owns God's property, and in the process both taking God's money away from God's mission and violating the plain teaching of God's Word. 1 Corinthians 6 makes it abundantly clear that Christians are not to sue Christians in secular courts. The passage concludes:

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that. (1 Corinthians 6:7-8)

Jesus's teaching on "loving enemies" by "turning the other cheek" and "walking the second mile" might indeed be relevant here, after all.

But I've been following a story that gives me hope, hope that my own denomination might find a way to deal with church property disputes in a manner that is consistent with Scripture and with the teaching of Jesus. Just maybe . . . .

The story began when the Presbytery of Mississippi voted last November not to enforce the property clause in the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church USA. This clause states that all church property is "held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)" (G-8.0201). This clause is usually interpreted to mean that if a particular church chooses to leave the denomination, that church cannot keep its property. But the Presbytery of Mississippi, in a carefully worded statement, voted in November 2006 to put the larger unity of the Church of Jesus Christ ahead of denominational ties.

The presbytery statement included the following affirmations. The presbytery:

1. Desires all its particular churches to remain in fellowship with each other under the jurisdiction of the Presbytery;

2.  Resolves that pure preaching of the gospel and right administration of the sacraments are constitutive of the church, that our unity, purpose, and mission are found in Jesus Christ and nowhere else, and that decisions affecting ownership of property are subordinate to, and should support, our spiritual unity in Christ;

3. Resolves that the Great Ends of the Church found in G-1.0200 summarize the mission of this Presbytery and explain the purpose for the existence of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.);

4. Resolves that whenever particular churches of this Presbytery pursue the Great Ends of the Church they are in fact using their property for the benefit of this Presbytery and of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.);

5. Trusts its particular churches to make their own decisions concerning how best to use their property to accomplish the Great Ends of the Church;

6. Resolves that property has not been, is not, and shall not be a basis for our unity or an opportunity for division among us; . . .

10. Resolves that it shall take no action to enforce any general trust interest claimed by any higher governing body against any property, real or personal, held by any of its particular churches while they remain under its jurisdiction;

11. Resolves that it will not resist any particular church of the Presbytery of Mississippi which would ask the courts of the State of Mississippi to clear its property of any claims made by higher governing bodies against that property; and

The statement includes a lengthy and biblically-based theological rationale for its various affirmations.

One of the churches that sought to secure the title to its property is the First Presbyterian Church of Pascagoula, Mississippi. This church was hurt but not destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The picture above shows the church sanctuary under repair. (Photo thanks to Ed Brenegar.)

Following the passing of this statement, three churches in the presbytery sought to have title to their churches clearly and legally vested in the churches. Several lawsuits ensued. Yet in the February 24th meeting of the Presbytery of Mississippi, the body voted strongly to settle the lawsuits amicably. In other words, the presbytery will not fight to keep the title to the property of its individual churches. (This story was reported in The Layman Online.)

What impresses me in this story is the vision of the Presbytery of Mississippi, one that extends to the whole church of Jesus Christ and not simply to its Presbyterian wing. Rather than using up God's mission money to fight over the legal ownership of God's property, the presbytery sees that it may be consistent with the interest of the Presbyterian Church USA to allow a church to own its own property, even if that church chooses to withdraw from the denomination. The presbytery is saying, in effect, that the Presbyterian Church USA is not about self-preservation, but about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ministry of His whole church. This is a gutsy move, and a controversial one. It is already being tested in the courts of the Presbyterian Church USA. How sad it would be if these courts ended up deciding that Presbyterian interests outweigh the interests of the broader kingdom of God!

I believe the Presbytery of Mississippi has provided a way out of a bind that has the potential to further divide and weaken the Presbyterian Church USA (and other denominations, notably the Episcopal Church USA). Since our Constitution says that property is held in trust for the denomination, this seems at first to imply that the denomination must hang onto ownership at all costs. But the Presbyterian Church USA is not committed to itself, but to Jesus Christ. Our "Great Ends" are not about self-preservation, but about the kingdom of God. If we could ever admit that to allow a church to leave the denomination might be better for the kingdom, then we could also grant that such a departure would be consistent with the true mission of the Presbyterian Church USA.

I have no idea if this holds up legally. But I am persuaded of its theological merit. And I'm not saying this simply because the churches that might leave the Mississippi Presbytery are more conservative ones. In fact, I'd much rather that conservative churches do not leave the PCUSA. Furthermore, my own presbytery, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, tends to be a more conservative and evangelical presbytery. Some of our churches don't line up with the majority theologically, however. If one of these churches, after a careful and prayerful process, decided that it could fulfill its mission better in another denomination, I would be willing to examine its situation and to vote to release it with its property, even though this would theoretically weaken my own presbytery and diminish our property holdings.

The great challenge for denominations such as mine is to realize that they might need to decrease so that the Church of Jesus Christ can increase. This realization would come only if a denomination were to recapture its proper identity as a servant of Christ, and, indeed, a wineskin of the gospel. In fact, this sort of insight would require no less than a miracle of Christ. But miracles are possible. The example of the Presbytery of Mississippi convinces me that they still happen today, even in the Presbyterian Church USA.

Comments on Presbyterian Church USA: The Saga Continues

If you would like to comment on what I've written here, or to read other comments on this series, click here. (Note: You'll need to register to make comments. You can read anonymously.)

Send an e-mail link of this page to a friend.

E-mail Mark D. Roberts
Visit the guestbook.

Go to the homepage.