Sunday, February 17, 2008

On Pastoral Sensitivity and Property

Pretend that you are on the presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry, and in examining a candidate for ministry, you ask this candidate a situational question: “You get word that someone has attempted suicide and is now in the hospital. You rush off to visit him. Tell us what you might say and do in that visit?”

“The first thing I’d do is remonstrate with the man freely,” the candidate replies. “Then I’d ask what in the world caused him to do such a sinful thing and I’d rebuke him and tell him to beg God for forgiveness. Then I’d lead him in a prayer of confession and tell him to buck up and show that he had really repented. Finally, I’d leave him to medical care.”

Would such practice commend the candidate for pastoral ministry? Should such a candidate be ordained into ministry in a Reformed church?

Be careful in how you reply, because you could bar John Calvin from the ministry. Such a response was Calvin’s way of dealing with an attempted suicide.

Calvin said it
I am visiting Geneva to attend a meeting of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, and on a free afternoon, I decided to visit the International Museum of the Reformation. There, one of the exhibits provided an English translation of Calvin’s testimony in what must have been the equivalent of a police investigation, or perhaps a coroner’s inquest. Let me reproduce it in full:

I, the undersigned, hereby declare before Lord Pierre d’Orsiere, appointed by the Lieutenant of Geneva, that this is my true statement, made today, January 23rd, 1545. Yesterday between eight and nine, Pierre Vachat came to me in tears and told me of a deplorable event that had occurred at his home, namely, that his brother had asked his maidservant for a knife and plunged it into his stomach. He asked me to go to him. I immediately set off, and on the way met our colleague Monsieur Mattieu de Gestons. When I reached the high chamber where Jean Vachat was lying, I remonstrated with him freely. I then asked him what had driven him to thus wound himself. He told me that he was in great suffering. I showed him in several ways how the Devil had seduced him and led him astray. After rebuking him, I asked him whether he repented for offending God and succumbing to such a temptation. He answered in the affirmative. He repeated this twice. I asked him whether he begged God for forgiveness and whether he had faith, and believed that He would be merciful. He answered in the affirmative. Then we prayed as the situation required, recognizing and confessing the error of his action. I exhorted him again with my words to be patient and seek consolation in the grace of God. Just then, Master Claude, the barber, arrived. I asked Vachat to allow himself to be treated, and thereby show that he repented of his act and entrusted himself to God. By his attitude and words, I saw that he was calm and lucid. When this was done, I left with our brother Monsieur de Genestons. I swear that all this is true. John Calvin
Before Reformed pastors became psychologists and group-hug enablers, we were first concerned about the state of one’s soul. That was certainly clear in Calvin’s practice.

One good deed deserves another
I thought of one other thing while I was in the museum (fascinating, by the way), located where the cathedral cloisters had once stood. It was in those cloisters in 1536 that the Reformation was voted. When that Roman Catholic (the only “denomination” at the time) cathedral’s pastors and congregation voted to became Protestant, they left their previous denomination with property.

That property, a historic cathedral on prime real estate, has been part of this new denomination for nearly 500 years. This afternoon, in an ecumenical service commemorating the 60th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, at least three Roman Catholic bishops (or perhaps they were archbishops or even cardinals) were in attendance in that cathedral to demonstrate their ecumenical support.

Quite noticeably, they were smiling and didn’t ask for the property back. Perhaps they had never heard of the Louisville Papers.


Blogger Meghan said...

To the first part, you will let us know how well telling someone with clinical depression or an other psychological disorder to just "buck up" works, won't you? I'm sure most of them will respond very well, because they probably just never thought of not being unhappy.

To the second part, the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the nasty, nasty liberals not letting the good and noble conservatives walk away with church property rings very hollow to my ears.

I know of no reason why I should believe that if the situation were reversed and liberal churches were leaving a conservative denomination the conservative denomination would not be using every legal means they could conceive of to strip the liberals of church property.

I certainly have never seen any evidence of the conservative side of the present denomination forbearing to use the judicial process against liberals for every offense, real or imagined.

10:09 AM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Not that you're bitter, or accusative, or lack a sense of humor or a sense of historical interest or anything...

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

11:28 AM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Meghan said...

I'm just trying to live up to the shining example of the bitter, accusative, humor challenged people who ran me out of the ordination process and pushed me away from the denomination.

11:50 AM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

Uh-huh. I think I understand.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

11:55 AM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Meghan said...

Sorry, the blogsphere is a nice place to vent sometimes.

I would very much welcome the opportunity to my particular circumstances and hear what you have to say about it, but comments on your blog are not the place to do it.

12:02 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Jason Foster said...

Meghan's rhetoric on property is irresponsible.

BCO 25-9 and 10 of the PCA Book of Order are as explicit as can be regarding not only who owns the property of the church (the local congregation) but also makes clear that "the Church as a whole promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will, whether or not such congregation remains within or chooses to withdraw from this body. All officers and courts of the Church are hereby prohibited from making any such attempt."

Now, as the PCUSA has demonstrated, what is codified in official writings of the denomination may have no connection with the reality on the ground, thus rendering these official proclamations moot and irrelevant. The PCA is not above cooking the books in a similar fashion - they're sinners too. But if anyone is aware of a case in which the PCA has violated the express instruction of its BCO regarding issues of church property, let's see it. If such cases cannot be produced, then the accusation that has been leveled is problematic at best.

But that's not all. The EPC has actually had a prominent case of a church leaving its denomination recently. Forest Hill Church in Charlotte was once a major church of the EPC. But disagreements over baptism compelled the church to leave the EPC and become non-denominational. Did the 'conservative denomination' use 'every legal means they could conceive of' to seize a very expensive and lucrative piece of property and kick the congregation out? A quick drive down Park Road in Charlotte will give you the answer - no.

Jason Foster
Springfield, VA

12:11 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Christine said...

Alas, your historical analogy leaves out a few salient facts: before that largely pro forma vote took place in Geneva in 1536, the ruling Catholic prince-bishop had been kicked out with the help of the army of neighboring Protestant Bern, the city government of Geneva had given Catholic clergy the choice of conversion or exile, rioting Protestant iconoclasts had invaded the city's churches and damaged much of their ornamentation, and the city government assumed control of church property and handed it over to the Protestants for their exclusive use. The Reformation in Geneva was a political revolution in which the government forcibly wrested property from one Christian church and gave it to another. It was not nearly as tidy or as amicable as you suggest.

Christine Kooi
Baton Rouge, La.

12:28 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Thanks. I have an e-mail address: I also am in Geneva at the moment and up to my ears in things I'm supposed to be doing.


Both parts of my post were meant as wry comments, not as exact models for how things should be done.

Thanks for the historical backfill. At the Reformation Museum, that stickiness didn't come out, but a whole lot of other regrettable things were detailed.

I was simply struck by the fact that the magnificent building was once a Catholic cathedral, complete with a bishop, I would think. For the last nearly 500 years, it has has been in the hands of a different denomination. The congregation certainly did leave with property, and a worshipping community remains.

It's a zero-sum game for the Kingdom. I just wish the PCUSA hierarchy could see that and allow itself to be as truly ecumenical in a broad sense as it claims to be in a narrow sense. I love the Presbyterian Church, but it certainly isn't the whole Kingdom of God. A congregation can do perfectly well outside the PCUSA, and for a denomination, simply holding on to property should not be a concern. It has better things to do.

The Reformers certainly paid for all they achieved--they paid in blood, in disaster, in hardship, and, in many cases, with their lives.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

12:55 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Debbie said...

Hey, Meghan, this struck a chord with me, because I know about it firsthand. Please don't assume that Jim would actually deal with a person with clinical depression the way Calvin did, just because he wrote about what Calvin did. Jim actually does know a bit about clinical depression, because I (his wife) had clinical postpartum depression, lasting a year each time, after the birth of each of our two children. He certainly knows that a depressed person can't just "buck up."

Read the blog a little more carefully and you will see that Jim was not advocating this--he was just a little bemused by how Calvin handled things, and also pointing out that we should not forget, as we are caring for people, that we should also take thought for their spiritual state.

Debbie Berkley

1:14 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Christine said...

It was not a case of a congregation voluntarily choosing to leave one "denomination" (a concept that didn't exist in the 16th cen. anyway). It was a case of the state taking away real estate away from a church, expelling its clergy, and handing it over to a vocal, rebelious religious minority. It was not peaceful, nor was it democratic. The Genevan reformers gladly used the power of the city government to gain physical control of Geneva's churches. (Perhaps the historical analogy works in a different way--a number of dissenting congregations in the PCUSA are indeed relying on worldly power--in this case the secular courts--to gain control over real estate.)


1:26 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Presbyterian History Student said...

As one who studies Presbyterian history, I'll comment a bit. Many of the ongoing debates are interesting, but very sad.

First, it is undeniable that both "conservatives" and "liberals" will use ecclesiastical or secular power to promote their side. Secondly, whichever side loses cries alot.

The church property issue has been a nasty part of the PCUSA (and other mainline denoms-excluding UCC). As to Meghan's comment, I'm not aware of a conservative denom. suing a "liberal" church for property. That is because only the mainline (with very few exceptions) hold a property trust interest.

I will remind everyone that the PCUSA and its predecessors have dealt with the property issue for over 100 yrs (at least since 1906) and still have not managed to form a reasonable process for leaving the denomination. In the meantime, they have had horrible suits, litigation etc...(See Cumberland (1906), OPC (1936), PCA (1973) and current). Such a failure is inexcusable to say the least. But, perhaps some in the PCUSA like the waters permanently muddied.... As Jason noted what is written and what happens in reality in the PCUSA can be completely different.

7:10 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Meghan said...

I guess I need to clarify -- I was thinking of a hypothetical situation in the PC(USA).

I am not in any way qualified to speak of any other denomination.

I'm sure the good people of the PCA and the EPC are just that.

7:31 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Viola said...

I think you need to put a smiley face or something at the end of this post. It made me laugh out loud but evidently other people don't have my weird sense of humor.

Speaking of property disputes it seems the Synod of the Pacific is attempting to get involved with the civil case Roseville and Fair Oaks Presbyterian Churches have against Sacramento's Presbytery and evidently the Covenant network is helping the Synod. And this is interesting because the civil court case would have been dropped if Rev. Thompson of Westminster Presbyterian hadn’t filed a complaint against the Presbytery. And his church is a member of Covenant network. Hmmmm--Shades of things to come!

Anyway, thanks for the laugh and the "profound words" about good soul keeping. We have forgotten that Christian discipline.

Viola Larson
Sacramento CA

9:04 PM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Chris said...

As someone who got tossed out of Candidacy for not taking CPE seriously but "taking sin - yours and the perceived sin of others - too seriously" (by John Shuck's presbytery, no less), I also shared a good belly laugh on this one.

12:54 PM, February 19, 2008  
Blogger Timothy said...

In response to Presbyterian History Student:

The Presbyterian Church has been at the forefront of trying to sieze the property of local churches. They were one of the parties that led to the Watson rule established by the Supreme Court in the 1870s that gave deference to the denomination over the local church. Previous to the Watson rule English Common law required the court to ascertain which party in the property dispute best represented the views of the original founders of the church and award the property accordingly. The secular court wanted to get out of the business of deciding religious disputes, hence the Watson rule, and has continued in that vein ever since. In its most recent rulings on the issue the court has continued to move towards less involvement in religious disputes than even the Watson rule by allowing courts to use neutral principles.

One of the big issues in the background of the Reformation was over property ownership and the role of the state in determining property ownership. Post Reformation modern states all assert themselves as the final arbiter in determining property ownership. That is one of the results of the Reformation.

What happen in Geneva was more than just a rebellion, it was also the State imposing its will on property issues. It chose to award the property to local groups rather than the Roman Catholic Church controlled by the Pope in Italy. I suspect it did so with the belief that the local groups were more in tune with the beliefs and practices of the first christians (the same logic that became part of English Common Law in resolving church property issues).

The property chapter in the PCUSA BOC is simply a claim of an implied trust. It has no legal force unless the secular courts recognize the trust. Yet to hear the claims of many in the PCUSA these days you would think it was the church that had the right to decide property issues.

When my colleagues seek to impose a claim of property ownership of a local church, and site the Book of Order they sound amazing like ones parroting the views of Roman Catholics in the midst of the Reformation and it makes me chuckle.

9:54 AM, February 21, 2008  
Blogger Tim said...

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church also has constitutional provisions by which a local congregation (provided they have at least 65% support and do things decently and in order and are open to possible reconciliation) can leave the denomination with its property. To the best of my knowledge, no church has ever left and had to forfeit property. And, in my own presbytery, two churches recently petitioned to leave, but soon recanted in a very humble and gentle spirit after reconciliation took place.

Thanks for the excerpt from Calvin. This is very refreshing and reassuring. For those who may not be familiar with the counseling ministry of Jay Adams, his approach to these matters is quite similar in many regards. I would recommend going to for more information.

11:59 AM, March 07, 2008  

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