Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the Hypocrisy of Tithing to Finance Lawsuits

This post is not directed at any particular group of Episcopalians (or Anglicans or Christians, for that matter). Instead, if the shoe fits, wear it.

At this time of year, churches across the land are seeking to establish their annual budgets, and are asking parishioners to submit their pledges. The unavoidable fact is that the recession we are currently experiencing will adversely impact those budgets. It therefore becomes all the more important for both churches and their parishioners to allocate their priorities, in order to maximize the benefit of each dollar donated. Thus one has to wonder why churches in tight financial straits would allocate any significant portion of their budgets to lawsuits. And one has to wonder even more at why parishioners, who are perhaps struggling to keep their donations to their church at least on a par with the previous year, would let their money be used in such a wasteful way.

This will not be news to many who reflect for even a moment on the matter, but it needs saying, and saying repeatedly: lawsuits are one of the most inefficient ways that exist to spend money to achieve a given object. Any of the alternatives to a lawsuit---mediation, arbitration, or even face-to-face, unmediated talks---are preferable to taking a case to trial, if the object is to put the dispute behind you as quickly as possible. Of course, if that is not your object---if your object, instead, is to "teach the other side a lesson," or to humiliate them, or to punish them for the hurt they have caused, then you will naturally be drawn to litigation as a means to such an end.

But we are talking about Christians, not pagans, or illiterates, or mugwumps. You know whom I mean---the persons who pray (at least, they used to every Sunday) that

all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.

You who are contributing to budgets that finance lawsuits do not need me to tell you that the "bond of peace" is not what litigation is all about. Litigation is war, pure and simple. Listen to St. Paul on the subject of lawsuits between fellow Christians:

6:1 When any of you has a legal dispute with another, does he dare go to court before the unrighteous rather than before the saints? 6:2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you not competent to settle trivial suits? 6:3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary matters! 6:4 So if you have ordinary lawsuits, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? 6:5 I say this to your shame! Is there no one among you wise enough to settle disputes between fellow Christians? 6:6 Instead, does a Christian sue a Christian, and do this before unbelievers? 6:7 The fact that you have lawsuits among yourselves demonstrates that you have already been defeated. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 6:8 But you yourselves wrong and cheat, and you do this to your brothers and sisters!
St. Paul would have known this passage from Proverbs, and probably could quote it by heart:

"Do not go out hastily to litigation, or what will you do afterward when your neighbor puts you to shame?"

In a lawsuit between Christians, one of them will put the other to shame. One may turn out the winner in the lawsuit, but both will be losers as Christians.

This latter sentiment is expressed perfectly in this old Spanish proverb:

El judío échase á perder con pascuas, el moro con bodas, y el cristiano con escrituras.

The Jew ruins himself on passover feasts, the Arab on weddings, and the Christian on lawsuits.
But the point is not merely that lawsuits between Christians are un-Christian, or that they cost a ruinous amount of money. The point is the utter disconnect between tithing to a church so that the church may instigate and maintain a lawsuit.

The tithe originated with the Temple in Old Testament Jerusalem. Priests in the Temple did not "work" for a living, and so had to be supported by tithes. Leviticus 27:30 says:

Any tithe of the land, from the grain of the land or from the fruit of the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.
The New Testament did not change the character of the tithe; it simply took it as a given (e.g., Mt 23:23). As the tithe sustained the Temple, so the pledge of today sustains the Church. The business of the Church, however, is not lawsuits, but mission---fulfillment of the Great Commission that Christ gave to his Apostles.

The usual response given when someone makes this point runs like this: "Well, yes, but the lawsuits are necessary. The group who left were the ones who started it; they took the church buildings and property with them. That was theft, and they cannot be allowed to get away with it."

Just stop and think about that statement for a minute. What is it really saying?

That the church property and buildings are what the Church is about? No, because the Church consists of people:

[In the New Testament t]he temple motif is not discarded but transformed. The new temple consists of people: its foundation is Christ (or Christ together with “the apostles and prophets”); its stones are “living”; it is ever “rising”; no less than the old temple, it is the habitation of the holy God.118 According to another image, believers serve as priests in God’s temple, offering their praises and indeed themselves.119 Their “spiritual sacrifices” are the very qualities which Yahweh longed to see in his people under Moses.120 As the redeemed, they perpetually remember Christ’s death—as Israel under Moses remembered the passover.121 While unrepeatable, the cross possesses atoning efficacy which sinful believers must repeatedly invoke.122

118 See John 2:19–22; 1 Cor 3:11, 16; Eph 2:19–22; 1 Pet 2:5; Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1981), pp. 747–749; Ridderbos, Paul, pp. 429–432.
120 J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (London: A. & C. Black, 1969), p. 91, comments on 1 Pet 2:5b: “Many OT writers had already glimpsed the truth that what pleases God is not external sacrifice in itself, but rather such things as prayer and praise, thankfulness, a broken and contrite heart, and a life of justice and compassion.” He cites Ps 50:14; 51:16–19; 69:30–31; 141:2; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6–8. Heb 13:15–16 calls readers to the twin “sacrifice” of loving God and neighbor.
121 For the affinities between the Last Supper and the passover, see Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribner’s, 1966), pp. 15–88.
122 For the Eucharistic “remembrance” of Christ’s death, see Matt 26:26–28 (and parallels [Lk 22:19-20, Mk 14:22-25]); 1 Cor 11:23–26. Heb 13:10 probably speaks of a heavenly altar (cf. 9:11–28) rather than of Calvary or the Lord’s Table; see I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 139–140. For Christian appeals to the cross, see 1 John 1:7; 2:2. On the peril of living in disregard of the cross, see Phil 3:18–19; Heb 6:4–6; 10:26–27. For suggested parallels between the Eucharist and Exodus 24, see F. C. Fensham, “The Covenant as Giving Expression to the Relationship between Old and New Testament,” TB 22 (1971): 91–2.
(Johnson, S. Lewis ; Feinberg, John S.: Continuity and Discontinuity : Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments : Essays in Honor of S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988, p. 198.)

If a majority of a congregation chooses to leave The Episcopal Church today, but continues to use the church building and property as before, have they committed theft from The Episcopal Church, or from those who remain with that Church?

The only basis upon which such a charge could conceivably be made is on the basis of the so-called Dennis Canon, enacted in 1979. The measure was passed in a last-minute flurry at General Convention, with almost no debate or discussion, and for a long time it was uncertain whether it had even passed. By attempting to impose unilaterally a trust on all Episcopal parish property in favor of the Church, without the participation, consent, or even (in nearly all cases) the knowledge of the parishes thereby affected, the Canon itself may be regarded as an attempted "theft" in its own right. Indeed, by imposing a trust on property without the owners' knowledge, the enactment of the Canon was decidedly an undemocratic and un-Christian act for the Church to have taken, and to insist on enforcing it today in the courts just compounds the offense.

Thus it is no response to accuse those leaving and keeping the property as committing "theft"; the charge is as unhelpful as was the passage of the Dennis Canon itself, and gets us nowhere in dealing with the litigation problem. It would be far better to look to traditional Christian principles to see whether or not a mediated approach could succeed in lieu of the "winner-take-all" outcome of a court battle.

At common law, when an association broke up, the property was divided among the members in proportion to their respective interests. That is, if 80% of the members did something that the other 20% did not agree with, and the 20% decided to form their own new group, they could claim 20% of the former association's property. (This assumed that all members had contributed equally to the property to begin with. If the facts were otherwise, and the differing interests could be accurately traced and calculated, then the property would be divided up according to the actual interests.)

There is no reason why Christians, in the proper spirit of St. Paul's advice, could not agree to sit down and work out compensatory payments, perhaps scheduled over time, by which the majority could buy out the agreed interest of any minority in the church buildings and other assets. Such a result would be based on equity and Christian principles, and would be far preferable to staking precious dollars on an all-or-nothing outcome that will take years to conclude.

The alternative of the status quo is not only detracting seriously from the mission of both those who are suing and of those who are being sued, but even worse, I say, is the psychological disconnect that arises from saying and professing the exact opposite of what one is doing. Any outsider who sees a Christian praying: " . . . and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (or, to bring the point home even more keenly, how about " . . . and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us") would be justified, on seeing that same Christian agreeing that all of the money he or she contributed could be used to further a lawsuit against other Christians, in citing Jesus' parable of the unforgiving slave:

The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave

18:23 “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 18:24 As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought to him. 18:25 Because he was not able to repay it, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children, and whatever he possessed, and repayment to be made. 18:26 Then the slave threw himself to the ground before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything.’ 18:27 The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt. 18:28 After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins. So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 18:29 Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ 18:30 But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt. 18:31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place. 18:32 Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! 18:33 Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ 18:34 And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. 18:35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Thus every week in Church, Episcopalians and Anglicans (meaning those whom the Presiding Bishop has now decreed are no longer Episcopalians, after leaving her Church) pray to the Father that their own trespasses be forgiven, but like the unforgiving slave, they then turn around and do the opposite with their fellow Christian. Not only do they not forgive, but they approve the use of their tithes to harass and oppress, just as the unforgiving slave threw his debtor into prison.

This disconnect cannot long continue, because the sickness that comes from doing the exact opposite of what you profess eats slowly into your heart and conscience, and affects your ability to "be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life." And the saddest part of all is that it is the spiritual leaders of the Church who are being most led astray by the hypocrisy of acting contrary to the principles of the faith they have sworn to uphold.

Not all is gloomy, however, as there are a few stellar lights here and there who are doing exactly what they preach. Listen to this excerpt from a recent interview with Bishop Jack Iker of the (withdrawn) Diocese of Ft. Worth (H/T: Texanglican):

What do you foresee, legally and financially, for the local congregations that want to remain in Episcopal Church? Are lawsuits likely?

The congregations in this diocese that want to remain in TEC [Episcopal Church] will have to organize a new diocese or join an already existing diocese such as our neighboring Diocese of Dallas. I have offered my assistance to help them achieve this, as has the bishop of Dallas. I certainly hope that lawsuits over property will be avoided and that a negotiated settlement will satisfy the interests of all parties. Sadly, the TEC authorities have been all too eager to litigate in disputes like this. However, unless the local churches want to litigate against the Diocese of Fort Worth, there isn't much that the TEC leaders can do about it. Charity and forbearance are required on both sides.
My hat goes off to Bishops Iker and Stanton. They are preaching the best sermon of all: they are setting the example for others to follow.

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