Church Property Fights

A Virginia lawmaker has attempted to legislate a shift toward congregationalism when it comes to the ownership of church property. Didn’t Paul say something about how scandalous it was for believers to take their divisions before unbelievers?

I don’t know the history of property ownership in other denominations, but in Methodist John Wesley first formulated what he called his “Model Deed” (see here and here) in the middle of the 18th century. His intent was to make sure that the property Methodists invested in would remain in use to pursue Methodist goals. No church would want a bunch of outsiders to come in and take over their congregations and take their property from them. Seems like a pretty good strategy, doesn’t it?

I also understand the motive behind this legislation that challenges this practice. From their point of view the exact opposite has happened. Instead of outsiders coming into the congregation and taking it captive, outsiders (theologically speaking) have come into the denominational leadership and taken it captive. Generations of Methodists have joined and supported their congregations with the thought that the churches stood for basic Christianity (as laid out in the Articles of Religion). They thought Methodists stood for doctrines like the Incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the authority of scripture, etc. Now they find that many of their leaders no longer adhere to these “archaic” doctrines. Sure, they’re still free to adhere to orthodox theology, but since the UMC has a top-down authority structure, they have no say in whst kind of preacher they get next – one who adheres to something close to orthodoxy or not.

Do you see why there is a problem here?

As Lyle Schaller claimed years ago, the UMC is fractured by distrust. The hierarchy doesn’t trust the congregations. The congregations don’t trust the hierarchy. Pastors don’t trust the laity and laity don’t trust the pastors.

In this situation I don’t think legislation like that proposed in Virginia is the solution. But neither is the usual authoritarian response from the denominational hierarchy. Both ends of the spectrum need to find ways to talk about the issues – and listen to each other.

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