Ecclesial Apartheid?


The Afrikaans term “apartheid” is one of those unhappy loan words which has found a home in the English language.  Unhappy because it defines an evil which opposes the second greatest commandment as taught by Jesus; at home here because we know only too well the shape of that evil in our own heritage and hearts.  The word itself literally translates as “separateness”, but of course applied historically to the terrible social and political segregation of “blacks” from “whites” reflecting the racist, dehumanizing and demeaning efforts of those in power against those with no voice. It was an evil none too soon exterminated in South Africa.

Yet, apartheid still flourishes in many forms in our world today, even in the church world.  Certainly there are evidences still of racial segregation, even racism in some of our congregations today, but I’d like to consider with you another type of apartheid in the PCUSA, one that has no links to race, but still manifests an unholy separateness.  We might call it “ecclesial apartheid.”

Recently I’ve been reading a paper approved by the 218th General Assembly entitled, “The Ecumenical Stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”  There is much that is good in it, especially in the Biblical and Confessional Basis section.  There we are reminded that the Church is one and catholic; that according to the 2nd Helvetic Confession there is “only one church for all times,” a truth which requires us to reject explicitly “any claims that would confine the church to any one group of believers.”

The Confession of 1967 declares, “The unity of the church is compatible with a wide variety of forms, but it is hidden and distorted when variant forms are allowed to harden into sectarian divisions, exclusive denominations, and rival factions” (9:34).  This sounds an awful lot like a warning against ecclesial separateness — apartheid.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  There are certainly times when God calls His people to separation from those who rebuff His will and purposes, even from those who claim His name but live in flagrant opposition to His commands.  But the call to unity in the Spirit prohibits a separateness which refuses to bless those in God’s fold whose leading is still within the framework of the faith but seeks expression through a different institutional framework than ours.

This unholy separateness, however, is exactly how our denomination has acted with regard to PCUSA congregations feeling called to align with other denominations.  We have acted as though we are “the true Church”, rather than simply an institution within the much larger, universal body of Christ.  We have formally accused a sister denomination (the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) of attempting to steal sheep by convincing churches to leave the PCUSA and align with them.  (By the way, this charge, brought to the 2008 GA, resulted in the establishment of an investigative committee which was given permission to appeal to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now WCRC) for punishment of the EPC should that committee find “malfeasance.” Of course, they found no malfeasance, but their report to the 2010 GA was muted and mealy-mouthed, with any embarrassment ameliorated by burying their conclusions deep within a larger report to the GA.)

We have taken legal steps to prevent churches from leaving us.  At times, when churches have voted with large majorities to depart, our ecclesiastical powers have declared those churches to be “in schism”, and have awarded the material resources of the congregations (including all facilities) to the minority group, even if it represents a miniscule portion of the total congregation.  The justification given is that this minority, because it wants to remain in the PCUSA, is the “true church.”

We have had presbyteries appoint administrative commissions, upon hearing that individual congregations are considering the possibility of leaving the denomination, who have come in to take jurisdiction of the congregation, removing the pastor(s) and dissolving the board of elders, acting themselves then as the congregation’s leadership, in order to prevent any further action concerning potential departure.  How can this not be viewed as the unjust use of power to oppress those who disagree with the oppressors — we who pride ourselves on taking the side of the marginalized?

We have seen presbyteries and synods engage in expensive litigation against congregations under their charge in order to try to prevent them from leaving, or failing that, at least to legally wrest all the property and assets from those congregations in the name of the mission of the PCUSA.  At the formation of our denomination in 1983 we inserted into our Form of Government a couple of paragraphs which have become known as the “property trust clause.”  It declares with unabashed, self-interested bias that all property belonging to the local church (even if bought and paid for by that congregation with no help from the larger denomination) is nevertheless held in trust for the larger denomination.  This means that should a congregation wish to leave the PCUSA, we will be sad to say goodbye to them, but will have no compunction about making them homeless in order to grab their property and assets “for the future mission of the PCUSA.”  Sometimes we may relent and charge them a massive ransom fee instead so that they can leave with their property intact while we hold their pound of flesh.

All of this smacks to me of a denomination which has lost any sense of Reformed ecclesiology, which sees itself as the “true church,” and is unwilling to “lose any resources” which by its own rules should belong to it.  Where is the overarching sense that we all belong to the one body of Christ, that these material resources don’t belong to us but to our Lord, that we are called to bless those who feel they must depart rather than to punish them, that we should bless our sister denominations and pray they will thrive instead of leveling accusations at them and seeking their humiliation?

Through our actions, we have demonstrated in this one way our intent to separate ourselves from the rest of the body of Christ by hoarding “our” resources for “the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” [to use Book of Order language].  We have engaged in ecclesial apartheid, at least in this one area of our common life, for the sake of earthly trappings of money, influence and power.  We have done what the Confession of 1967 explicitly warns against, allowing ourselves “to harden into sectarian divisions, exclusive denomnations, and rival factions.”  May God have mercy on us.

Why haven’t we excised this trust clause from our polity?  It is a stain upon our call to love one another and bless our brothers and sisters. How can we hide behind a defense of “connectionalism,” arguing that to have all property belong to the denomination demonstrates concretely that we are united, and yet miss the staggeringly obvious truth that we ourselves belong wholly to Jesus Christ and as such all these resources are His to do with as He pleases, whether that benefits the PCUSA or not?

Instead of coercing churches to a forced unity based on Mammon (to be used of course for the benefit of our denomination), why don’t we seek to pursue a unity based on the work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who brings us to a common understanding and experience of God and His Kingdom: one body, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all?

If we welcome the work of the third member of the Trinity, who can bring us to one heart and mind, that of Jesus Christ, then we won’t have to worry about trying to force churches to stay in a dwindling denomination.  We’ll no longer be held captive by ecclesial apartheid.  We’ll have found a purpose worth giving ourselves away for, and who knows, God may just make the Presbyterian Church a mighty instrument in His hands once more.  One can always hope….

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2 Responses to Ecclesial Apartheid?

  1. Mike Armistead, Hilton Head Island, SC says:

    Well said, Mateen. The trust clause should really be called the “mistrust clause.” It is an exercise of power that an organization puts in place when it fears some of its consituent bodies might have a reason to exit. It is a sign we no longer trust each other, nor have the love and bibilical grounding that naturally bonds Christians and churches together as the body of Christ. It is also a statement that property is more important to the denomination than people. That is the opposite of Christian love that puts people before property.

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