A Response to the Litigious Spirit of Heartland Presbytery

In January 2010, the church in which I serve as a deacon, Colonial Presbyterian in Kansas City, Missouri, and Overland Park, Kansas, entered into a season of discernment regarding her continued affiliation with Heartland Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Heartland was invited into the discernment process; town hall meetings were held at both of Colonial’s campuses, with cases made for and against disaffiliation by Colonial’s Session and representatives from Heartland; mailings were sent by both the Session and the Presbytery to the homes of Colonial’s members; and an informal, non-binding survey was conducted that revealed that 91.2% of the 69.1% of Colonial members who responded to the survey wanted to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and instead to affiliate with a denomination that accorded more closely with Colonial’s beliefs and values regarding Scriptural interpretation and Christian living (see http://www.colonialkc.org/discernment for the resources provided to Colonial’s members).  And so, Colonial’s Session approached Heartland Presbytery, requesting that a plan be developed to dismiss Colonial to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church with her property.

However, Heartland refused, wanting the discernment process and Colonial’s involvement in the PCUSA to continue.  Yet the Session believed that the discernment process was complete and that God had spoken through the voice of Colonial’s members.  And so the Session, seeing that Heartland was unwilling to enter into negotiations, scheduled a congregational meeting to decide whether or not to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and affiliate instead with the EPC (see “No more Mr. Nice Guy in Heartland”).

In the week preceding the scheduled meeting, Heartland Presbytery summoned Colonial’s Lead Pastor and Clerk of Session to a meeting where the Presbytery ordered them to cancel the scheduled meeting or face the Presbytery stepping in to suspend the pastors’ relationship with the congregation, dissolve the Session, and assume leadership and pastoral responsibility for Colonial.  The following day, Colonial’s attorneys filed for quiet title and a temporary restraining order in both Kansas and Missouri.

On August 22, 2010, Colonial Presbyterian Church voted 96.8% to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and 95.8% to affiliate instead with the EPC (see “Colonial leaving PCUSA; Heartland presbytery counters” and “Colonial joins New Wineskins; pastors renounce jurisdiction”).  Heartland responded by filing to acquire ownership of Colonial’s property on the grounds that the PCUSA Book of Order has a property trust clause that states, “All property held by or for a particular church…whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association…is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” (§G-8.0201 of the 2009/2011 PCUSA Book of Order, which was in place at the time Colonial voted to disaffiliate) despite the absence of any such trust language in Colonial’s property deed or corporation by-laws.  On June 9, 2011, the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri, at Kansas City ruled in favor of Colonial (see “Missouri court rules in favor of Colonial Church in property dispute”), and on February 2, 2012, the District Court of Johnson County, Kansas, ruled the same thing (see “Heartland loses second battle in Colonial property dispute”).  Heartland appealed the Missouri circuit court ruling on May 3, 2012, at the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, but given the precedence set by Heartland Presbytery v. Gashland Presbyterian Church on June 10, 2012 (see “Missouri church wins property-dispute appeal against PCUSA presbytery”; Heartland appealed this ruling, but the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear it), it is highly probable that the ruling from that trial will again be in Colonial’s favor.

Recently, I stumbled across the Heartland Presbytery Minutes from its February 11, 2012, stated meeting, which was held a little more than a week after the Kansas court ruling was issued.  At that meeting, one of Heartland’s minister members presented a motion (1) “to immediately cease any further plans for litigation against either Colonial…(or) Gashland,” (2) “to dismiss Gashland…to the (EPC),” and (3) “to formally contact Colonial with an invitation to enter into professional mediation that will ultimately facilitate Colonial’s dismissal into the (EPC).”  The motion was defeated by a four-to-one margin.

Between the motion and the vote, Heartland conducted a debate on the presbytery floor during which the following points were raised, which I want to here address:

  • “While the Commission may have been carrying out the Presbytery charge, their method is not the only method of resolving disputes, and that other, perhaps more Biblical, ways should be explored, in light of the series of adverse civil court rulings the Presbytery has received.”

The Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge…  Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt. 5.25-26)  Likewise, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth,

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?  Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?  Do you not know that we are to judge angels?  How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!  So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?  I say this to your shame.  Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?  To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather suffer wrong?  Why not rather be defrauded?  But you yourselves are wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (I Cor. 6.1-8)

Biblical authority is lowly esteemed in the PCUSA, especially in presbyteries like Heartland.  Rather than seeing Scripture as possessing the authority of the edict of the King, most in the PCUSA see it as possessing the authority of the expert court witness that can be cross-examined and overruled by the higher authorities of criticism and interpretation.

God and the Bible are presumed upon in the PCUSA, not feared or respected.  Biblical teachings on sexual morality are treated as secondary to contemporary cultural ethics.  Christ’s teachings as being the only conduit to the Father (Jn. 14.6) are disregarded in favor of “not (denying) the truth and benefit found in (non-Christian) religious and wisdom traditions” (see “Elders raise concerns about GA vice moderator’s presentation”; Landon Whitsitt, the author of the quote and Vice-Moderator of the 219th General Assembly, is a minister member of Heartland Presbytery).

As such, the PCUSA tolerates false teachers despite Scripture’s warnings against them (II Pet. 2, Jude 3-16, Rev. 2.14-16,20-23).  To be sure, not all ministers in the PCUSA are false teachers, but they are the majority, holding the interpretation of Scripture as a higher authority than the Scriptures themselves.

Thus, Colonial found no just court in the PCUSA to which to appeal for protection from the unjust actions of Heartland Presbytery and which could justly arbitrate between them.

And it is further evidence of Heartland’s disregard of the authority of Scripture that it should seek satisfaction for its grievances against Colonial in civil courts rather than pursue more peaceful and Biblically-based remediation by settling with Colonial out of court.

  • “Considering the value of the properties involved, the Presbytery has spent less than 2% of what it would recover if the property were to remain in the denomination as a result of a successful defense of the denomination’s ‘property clause.’”

This, perhaps, is the most damning statement in Heartland’s meeting minutes.  What matters most is not that Colonial is using her physical property to proclaim the Word of God to the people of God, equipping them to reach out with the Gospel to their friends and neighbors who do not know the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, all for the glory of God.  What truly matters to Heartland is that Colonial’s physical property be retained and that the property clause of the Book of Order be justified, all to the glory of Heartland Presbytery and the PCUSA.  Property, not Christian love, is what binds Presbyterians together.  Blessed be these ties that bind.

  • “The concept of ‘walking away’ from litigation in mid-stream is neither legally responsible nor economically viable, without knowing what the costs of that line of action would be.”

Not responsible to whom?  Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.  Is it truly responsible to Him for Christians to sue one another in civil court over property?  What kind of testimony does acrimonious litigation give to the unbelieving, watching world?  Already the world sees no earthly difference between Christians and non-Christians, and civil litigation only serves to reinforce that belief.  And if there truly is no earthly difference between Christians and unbelievers, what good is the Church?  “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Mt. 16.26)  “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn. 13.35)

  • “The direction of the 218th General Assembly to draft ‘gracious dismissal’ policies was recognition that litigation is deadly to the body of Christ, and that pursuing litigation costs congregations both financially and spiritually.”

Heartland Presbytery is concerned about the costs of pulling out of civil litigation with a congregation formerly under its care, but it was not concerned about the costs of that litigation before proceeding with it.  There is no evidence that Heartland has truly counted the cost to its own soul for this litigation.  From all appearances, it seems that its lawsuits are motivated by pride and greed.  “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16.18)  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Ex. 20.17)

  • “The General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission has cited the Heartland Presbytery process as a good example of carrying out the directions of the 218th General Assembly on ‘gracious separation.’”

This statement is not credible.  Heartland Presbytery has no examples of “gracious separation” to which to point.

  • “Carrying out the final requirement of the motion is highly problematic, since even sending a note holding the Colonial pastors in prayer was deemed to violate a civil court injunction of ‘no contact.’”

So rather than ceasing litigation and pursuing a peaceful way to gracious separation, the “problems” of dropping a civil suit and extending an olive branch are considered too insurmountable.  Have you not read, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”?  Or is it that you have read it but do not believe it?

  • “If these churches are allowed to depart with their property, it will bring to an end any hope of gifts for New Church Development.”

Here, at last, is recognition that churches’ property truly belongs to them.  Here, also, is yet another statement that financial gain is more important to Heartland Presbytery than peace.  The fact is that Heartland Presbytery never contributed to the purchase or maintenance of Colonial’s property.  And yet, just because a General Assembly thirty years ago added a property trust clause to the Book of Order, it believes that it has a legal right to Colonial’s property.  And so far, the civil courts have disagreed with that belief.

When the early Church was growing rapidly, “Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people (and mentor to Saul of Tarsus, Acts 22.3) … said to (the Sanhedrin), ‘Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with (the Apostles). … So in the present case I tell you keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.  You might even be found opposing God!’” (Acts 5.34-39)

Likewise, Heartland Presbytery and the PCUSA ought to be careful about pursuing departing congregations with litigation.  They believe, after a season of discernment by which they have sought the will of God with fasting and prayer, that the Holy Spirit is leading them to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and affiliate instead with other Reformed denominations, such as the EPC.  If they are mistaken, if they are disaffiliating based on their own recognizance and not based on the leading of God, then these changes in denominational affiliation will come to naught.  But if God truly is leading them to disaffiliate, then the money that Heartland and other presbyteries throughout the PCUSA spend in a draconian attempt to coerce them and others who sympathize with them to stay is spent in vain, and they oppose the will of God.

UPDATE June 26, 2012: The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, has ruled in favor of Colonial, upholding the June 9, 2011, Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court ruling.  Praise the Lord!