The OPC and Local Church Property

            Over the past two weeks, I have been contacted by five different people with Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) connections concerning the things I have written about a congregation withdrawing from that denomination with their property. One individual told me outright that I have misrepresented the OPC’s Constitution, values, and culture. He asked me to correct or remove some articles that I have written in the past. Since there are pastors and churches considering the OPC that receive these emails, I want to address those concerns this week.

            First, I want to point out that in many ways the OPC BCO is the best that I have seen. It is brief and to the point in most places. I have admired their BCO when I have read it. Yet, that does not mean that everything about it is correct. It is my conviction that the Church must uphold the regulative principle of the Scripture being the great touchstone of truth in worship, doctrine, and church government. The OPC BCO, like many others, makes statements concerning withdrawing from their denomination with property that cannot be proved from Scripture. Thus, Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, section 6 says:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

Second, someone might ask why this matter of church property is such a big deal (especially since the OPC permits a congregation to leave with one’s property as long as all the steps are followed)? That is a great question. Here is my answer. The private ownership of property is a fundamental right given in Scripture and neither church nor state is allowed by Scripture to deny it. Every congregation has a right to own its own property and there can be no law, under any circumstances, that infringes on that right in any way without violating the Scripture. I appreciate the fact that the PCA gave that Scriptural right to her member congregations, but I feel that not enough has been done to prove why churches have that right.

Of course, we have many voices today telling us that private ownership of property is not a fundamental right. The Scripture teaches otherwise. Ahab was the king of Israel, but he violated the inheritance rights of the Mosaic law in his covetousness for the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21:1-29). Even a king does not have the right to seize the property of individuals. If the state does not have that right, neither does a church (whose power is “ministerial and declarative only”). Ownership of personal property is a civil matter and it outside the jurisdiction of a church. Once again, the Scripture is determinative on this point. Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece or property and pretended to give the whole proceeds to the Church. Here is what Peter said to Sapphira: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was in not under your control?” (Acts 5:4). What Peter said about the private property of individual church members is true of individual congregations. Their property rightfully belongs to them and there is no control of any kind that Scripture gives to church courts over the property of member congregations. If someone can prove otherwise from Scripture, I am all ears. By the way, there are plenty of other Scriptures that could be used to prove that private ownership of property by individuals, groups, businesses, or churches is a Scriptural principle.

The right of congregations to own their own property without any interference by the larger church has been practiced throughout most of church history. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, those congregations that left the Roman Catholic Church did so with their property. The same thing had happened when the Church split into the Greek Orthodox and Catholic branches in 1054. When the New Side Presbyterians split away from the Old Side Presbyterians in 1741, they left with their property. When the Old School-New School split in 1838 took place congregations left with their property. There are certainly examples of denominations retaining church property of those groups that attempt to leave, but no conservative should ever want to be among them. When the Church of Scotland was split in 1843 by the Disruption, those congregations that left were forced to leave their property behind. So, there is neither a Scriptural principle that gives denominations a right to the property of congregations nor is there historical precedence that is compelling. No denomination has a right to have any control over the property of an individual congregation.

So, we now must consider what the OPC BCO says about this matter of church property. There are two sections of their BCO that speak to this matter, Chapters 16 and 31.  Here they are (with some statements highlighted for emphasis):     

Chapter XVI, Congregational Meetings

7. A congregation may withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church only according to the following procedure:

a. Before calling a congregational meeting for the purpose of taking any action contemplating withdrawal from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the session shall inform the presbytery, ordinarily at a stated meeting, of its intention to call such a meeting, and shall provide grounds for its intention. The presbytery, through representatives appointed for the purpose, shall seek, within a period not to exceed three weeks after the presbytery meeting, in writing and in person, to dissuade the session from its intention. If the session is not dissuaded, it may issue a written call for the first meeting of the congregation. The call shall contain the session’s recommendation, with its written grounds, together with the presbytery’s written argument.

b. If the vote of the congregation favors withdrawal, the session shall call for a second meeting to be held not less than three weeks, nor more than one year, thereafter. If the congregation, at the second meeting, reaffirms a previous action to withdraw, it shall be the duty of the presbytery to prepare a roll of members who desire to continue as members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and to provide for the oversight of these continuing members.

c. The presbytery shall be given the opportunity, at any congregational meeting at which withdrawal is being considered, to dissuade the congregation from withdrawing.

That is a lot to consider, so I will give you the procedure in bullet points:

1. The session cannot call a congregational meeting to take any action to leave the OPC until they first inform the presbytery (preferably at a stated meeting) and must give them its reasons for wanting to leave the denomination.

2. The presbytery shall appoint representatives to discuss this matter with the session for not more than three weeks both in writing and in person.

3. If the session is not dissuaded by presbytery, it shall call an initial meeting to discuss leaving the OPC.

4. The call of the congregational meeting must include both the reasons of the session and the response/argument of the presbytery.

5. If the vote at the first meeting was favorable to withdrawing, the session then shall call a second meeting not less than three weeks later nor more than one year later to vote on leaving the OPC.

6. The presbytery shall be allowed to speak at any congregational meeting called to leave the OPC and to attempt to dissuade the congregation from doing so.

7. If the vote at the second meeting is favorable to leaving the OPC, the presbytery shall make a roll of any members who wish to remain in the OPC.

AnalysisThe thing that jumps out at me about this procedure is the degree to which presbytery is given authority over the decision of a church to leave the OPC. The lower court, the session, cannot even call a meeting to take any action on leaving without getting permission from the presbytery. And it is not a bare permission, either. The presbytery is vitally involved in every step along the way and is allowed to actively work against the wishes of the session. That is a top-down, hierarchical approach to church government in which the power flows from the top. This chapter of the OPC’s BCO does not mention property, but property is mentioned in chapter 31.

Chapter XXXI, Incorporation and Corporations

5. All particular churches shall be entitled to hold, own, and enjoy their own local properties, without any right of reversion to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church whatsoever, unless the particular church should become extinct, provided, however, that any particular church may, if it so desires, give or dedicate its property to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A congregation that desires to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and to retain its property shall follow the provisions of Chapter XVI, Section 7, of this Form of Government. Dissolution of a particular church by any judicatory, or by any other form of ecclesiastical action, shall not be deemed as making a particular church extinct within the meaning of this article. But these provisions shall not be construed as limiting or abrogating the right of the judicatories of this Church to exercise all constitutional and proper authority over the particular churches as spiritual bodies.

AnalysisAfter saying that there is no right of reversion to the presbytery of any loical properties of a congregation, Chapter XXXI says: A congregation that desires to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and to retain its property shall follow the provisions of Chapter XVI, Section 7, of this Form of Government. If conditions are placed on retaining the local property of a congregation, that can only mean that if those conditions are not met that congregation cannot retain its property. Otherwise, the whole statement is nonsensical. It is obvious that this part of the OPC’s BCO was written neither by civilian attorneys nor by people trained in ecclesiastical law and the Scripture. I have no idea when this change to the OPC BCO was made or if it was placed there from the beginning. What I do know is that it is a bad rule. Such rules giving presbyteries authority over the local church property in any manner for any reason are contrary to Scripture. They also aid and abet denominations in moving in a progressive direction. I can venture a guess at how this conditional clause (“to retain its property”) would be exercised. Suppose a congregation did not follow all the procedures of Chapter XVI and there was a small minority of the members of that congregation who wanted to remain in the OPC. I strongly suspect presbytery would use this clause in Chapter XXXI to give the property to the “loyal minority.” That is what the PCUS did in several instances back when the PCA was being formed. Or suppose that a congregation did not follow the right procedure and voted unanimously to leave the OPC. I can imagine a progressive presbytery deciding to litigate the matter in a civil court. And winning. That clause in Chapter XXXI of the OPC’s BCO is very problematic and needs to be amended as soon as possible.   

It gives me no pleasure to highlight these matters about the OPC’s BCO. I have friends in the OPC, even as we all do. There are people on this email list who are ordained in the OPC or who are members of an OPC congregation. I wish I could just refer to Vanguard Presbytery. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to show the contrast in order to convince people of the right decision. This point, therefore, is undeniable. If you believe that church property rightfully belongs to the local congregation, then the OPC is not the right denomination for you or your congregation. If the OPC continues to slide toward progressivism, it will become more difficult to leave the denomination with your church property. The simple change to a 30-day waiting period in the PCA before voting to leave has caused a lot of difficulties for congregations wishing to leave that denomination. What I can tell everyone who is considering the Vanguard Presbytery along with the OPC and the ARP is this. Buyer beware. Do you really want to give over any aspect of the control of your church property to a denomination that may go progressive? Is there any Scripture verse that gives higher courts the right to control in any manner what happens with respect to the property of a local church? No and no. I realize that some churches have already left the PCA and gone into the OPC and the ARP. If they ever need to withdraw from either denomination, there will be shrieks of grief when they face the reality of the painful steps they must take to do so. It is really very simple. A denomination is a voluntary association or federation of churches and every member congregation should be able to leave with their property whenever they decide to do so. True Presbyterianism is grassroots. The OPC BCO sections I quoted above are hierarchical—not Presbyterian. Vanguard Presbytery is a true Presbyterian denomination. Both the OPC and the ARP need to amend their BCO’s post haste in order to conform to Scriptural Presbyterianism. A reformation by both of them of any doctrines, worship practices, or governmental rules that are contrary to Scripture would also be helpful. (Next week we will consider the ARP’s rules for withdrawing with your property).

Dewey Roberts, Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery and Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church

Donations to Vanguard Presbytery may be made to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

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