Sunday, July 3, 2011

Should a Church of God Fellowship Be Incorporated?

A corporation is a legal tool. But it is not the Church, and it is not even a church organization, and it should not be. A church organization should have precedence over the corporation. A Church of God organization, or fellowship, such as Living Church of God, Church of God an International Community (David Hulme), Church of the Great God (John Ritenbaugh), etc., really consists of the organized relationships between individuals in that organization, the common knowledge between members of what each person's role is, who has authority over whom, and the willingness to cooperate according to those commonly understood relationships. In other words, people in the organization know who is in charge and cooperate with that individual or individuals. The actual corporation with its articles of incorporation, its constitution, and its bylaws, is just a legal tool to serve the organization. It works best when it mirrors the organization as closely as possible, but it is only a tool. The organization can change it or leave it and form a new corporation.

An analogy is a man driving a car. He may own the car and there are several passengers in the car. They may be members of his family, or his friends, or church members. Maybe they are all on the way to the Feast of Tabernacles. And all the passengers agree that the driver and owner of the car is in charge of the trip. He is the boss. He decides when they will stop to eat, where they will go to eat, what route to take. Everyone understands that and they cooperate with the driver when he makes those decisions.

But the car is only a tool for making the trip. If it breaks down, or is stolen, the driver will replace it, maybe be renting a car, and the trip will continue. The driver is still in charge of the trip and everyone with him agrees with that.

In this analogy, the driver and the passengers are like a Church of God organization, a fellowship, such as Global/Living Church of God. The car is like the corporation. It is a tool of the organization, nothing more, not the organization itself. The car can break down, be discarded, be replaced, but the team consisting of the driver and passengers continues. Likewise, a Church organization or fellowship can continue even if it replaces the corporation that it used as a legal tool.

Just as a car provides advantages to a team of travelers over walking or taking public transportation, so a corporation provides advantages to a Church of God fellowship. It simplifies and facilitates business relationships in renting halls, printing and mailing magazines, purchasing television time, and many activities. It enables tithes and offerings to be collected with tax exempt status, which allows members to deduct what they contribute from their income, lowering their taxes. It can help to obtain lower postage rates from the post office for the mailing of magazines and other literature. It simplifies and clarifies copyright management.

But the corporation is not the organization.

Here is an illustration from Church of God history. When Mr. Roderick Meredith raised up Global Church of God around January 1993 (I do not have the exact date), he started a new Church of God fellowship. It started with only a few people but grew as more people coming out of Worldwide joined him. They had organization. The organization was the working relationship between Mr. Meredith and the people who understood that he was in charge of that new fellowship he raised up and respected and submitted to his authority in decisions relating to the work of the Church in that organization: feeding the flock and preaching the gospel to the public. Mr. Meredith made the decisions about which pastors to hire, what duties to assign to various people, how much money to spend on preaching the gospel, and what TV or radio stations to go on. That was the organization. Mr. Meredith called that organization "Global Church of God".

Global Church of God, led by Mr. Meredith as human leader, also built a corporation as a legal tool to facilitate the work of the organization. That corporation was also called "Global Church of God".

But what happened in late 1998 illustrates the difference between an organization/fellowship and a corporation.

In November 1998 several members of the corporation's board, including Larry Salyer and Raymond McNair, gained control of the corporation named "Global Church of God" from Mr. Meredith who had previously controlled it. It was no longer a tool that the organization under Mr. Meredith's leadership could use to do the work of the Church.

But they did not take control of the organization. The organization consisted of the leader of the organization, Mr. Meredith, and those ministers and members who recognized him as leader and worked together in an organized way.

So what happened? Mr. Salyer and Mr. McNair acquired control of the corporation and formed a new organization made up of about 20-25% of the ministers and members who had previously recognized Mr. Meredith as leader but now left Mr. Meredith to join Mr. Salyer and Mr. McNair.

But the organization consisting of Mr. Meredith and all those ministers and members who continued to recognize him as leader (about 75-80%) continued. For a few days they were without a corporation. But they were still an organization. Mr. Meredith had his rolodex, or personal phone book, and could work out of his home, calling ministers and members, giving instructions, and those ministers and members still knew he was in charge and cooperated with him in an organized way. The Sabbath after the takeover, congregations still met under Mr. Meredith's leadership. Sermons were given, the flock was fed, and for a few days the organization led by Mr. Meredith functioned without a corporation.

They formed a new corporation named "Living Church of God" as a legal and business tool to replace the "Global Church of God" corporation they had lost.

Another example of the difference between an organization and a corporation is the example of Worldwide Church of God during the California receivership in the 1970's. For a time, members were instructed to send their tithes and offerings, not to Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, California, but to Herbert W. Armstrong, Corporate Sole, in Tucson, Arizona. This was a temporary expedient to ensure that the tithes and offerings would serve the organization when California temporarily controlled the corporation. But faithful ministers and members still knew that Mr. Armstrong was in charge regardless of what corporate umbrella was used or not used by him as a business and legal tool.

Should a Church of God organization or fellowship have a corporation? In most cases it is wise because a corporation is a valuable tool for doing the work of the Church. The problem becomes when people confuse the organized fellowship with the corporation. One is a team, the other is a tool. No one should have greater loyalty to the tool than to the team.

The whole Church of God is really the Church led by Jesus Christ as head. That Church is the collective body of everyone who is converted, every member who has dwelling in him or her the Holy Spirit and is led by God's Spirit. That is what Herbert W. Armstrong taught and that is what the Bible teaches. And at this time with the whole Church scattered and divided, there are many organizations (fellowships) within that overall collective body of converted human beings. Some organizations, some ministers who lead those organizations, are more faithful and do better work in God's service than others, and Christ is the judge. Each of those organizations, or fellowships, are organized in some way based on common recognition of roles and responsibilities of the ministers and members. And most of them have corporations as tools for legal and business purposes. That is not wrong, as long as the needs of the corporation never override the needs of the organization.

The corporation must serve the organization, not the other way around. When the corporation does not, it needs to be fixed or replaced (or abandoned or dissolved).

There can be another purpose of a corporation and corporate law from the viewpoint of civil authorities in this country. It may not necessarily be the purpose of laws and requirements for incorporation that the government wants to impose its ideas of organization on the Church. But the government has to be prepared for contingencies in case future lawsuits occur over control of the assets of a church. If a any church splits, which from the government's point of view is always possible, a civil court may have to decide who should control the assets, the bank accounts, the copyrights, the contracts, the office equipment, etc. They are not going to go to the Bible to figure this out, nor do we want them to because without God's calling they would not understand the Bible correctly anyway. The courts will go to the articles of incorporation, the constitution, and the bylaws to guide them in their decisions. They need that as a roadmap. That tells them what everyone agreed to when the corporation was set up.

To my knowledge, in all recent splits in the major groups in the Church of God, courts have not had to decide these things because we in the Church have at least obeyed God's command not to sue each other (1 Corinthians 6:1-7), but as far as the government knows, it can happen, so they require clarity in the documents that set up a corporation.

When the whole Church of God is spiritually healthy, we will all be in one organization as we were under Mr. Armstrong, OR, if there are several organizations, they will cooperate with each other like departments in a company with Christ as head over the whole company. When the Church is divided into hostile and COMPETING organizations, that is an indication that there is not spiritual health in the whole body. I don't mean that every fellowship is spiritually sick or weak, but many of them must be for there to be widespread division. It takes two to cooperate but only one to make war. The messages to the seven churches in Revelation show that the Church is not always spiritually healthy.

Christ is the personal head in matters of salvation and spiritual growth over every individual man and woman who is a converted Christian. He is the head over every Christian family in matters pertaining to the family through father of that family, the husband being the head, under Christ, over the wife in family decisions. And in matters pertaining to the work of the Church such as the feeding of the flock, the caring for the poor, and the preaching of the gospel to the world, Christ is the head over every organization or fellowship set up for that purpose, BUT ONLY TO THE EXTENT THAT THE ORGANIZATION SUBMITS TO CHRIST'S LEADERSHIP. Because, just as an individual Christian or a husband and father of a family may be imperfect and may not always follow where Christ tries to lead, so it is with an organization. And Christ will judge the leaders of organizations for their choices to follow where He leads or not. Some who are found "so doing" the work of God faithfully will be told, "well done good and faithful servant", while others who eat and drink with the drunkards and beat up their fellow servants will be told, "you wicked and lazy servant" (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:12-26, Matthew 24:45-51).

It is not wrong for a Church of God fellowship to set up a corporation as a legal and business tool as long as the leaders, ministers, and members never elevate the requirements of the corporation above the requirements of the organization to obey Christ.

More to come...

Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:

How Is the Church Organized?, Chapter 7


Steven Britt said...

That was an insightful and well stated analysis. The fact that there is even such a concept as "competing" organizations is a sad reality - ideally all in God's true church would come under one organization, but under the present reality of multiple organizations the ideal is that these organizations be cooperating to preach the gospel to all nations, which we have not seen.

John D Carmack said...

Thought provoking. I'm not sure how that meshes with your view on government, but I suppose that is a future article. said...

How does this mesh with what I believe about governance? The matter of incorporation is really a side issue to the form or structure of governance. That is, the distinction between a corporation and a Church of God "organization" (a term I use synonomously with "fellowship") exists regardless of the form of governance the organization has or whether or not it is a right form of governance. So UCG has an organization, and they have a corporation. The organization is the mutual understanding of the members of the organization that all the elders will elect a 12-man governing body according to certain rules they have agreed to. There is also common understanding and agreement on who the Council members and other leaders are at the present time and the scope of authority of each office. Everyone agrees who is in charge of what. Of necessity, the corporation closely mirrors the organization, nevertheless they are not the same thing. For example, the corporation could go bankrupt because of a lawsuit, in which case the organization would have the option to discard the corportation, move across the street, and form a new corporation with the same rules as the old one. This is equally true of any COG organization whether it chooses leaders by a process of balloting according to the UCG/COGWA model or has top-down leadership (what some call "one-man rule") according to the Herbert Armstrong / Roderick Meredith model. Also, the distinction between the corporation and the organization exists regardless of which form of organization is right, or even if both are right.

My purpose is to refute two myths I have heard about Church of God corporations, neither of which directly have to do with the "ballot-box" vs. "one-man rule" controversy. Myth one: it is automatically wrong to incorporate because incorporation is compromising with the wrong ways of this world. This is false because a corporation is only a tool - you can use it for good or bad - it is not wrong of itself. Myth two: leaders within can justify their betrayal of that organization and of the principles they originally agreed to in founding or joining that organization by saying, "the laws of the land require us to protect the corporation". This is wrong because the corporation is always less important than the organization it is supposed to serve. If there is a conflict, the corporation should be changed or replaced, not the organization.

This last myth is something I heard regarding the 1998 decision by the board of directors of Global Church of God to remove Mr. Meredith. Someone (I don't remember who or the exact words) seemed to say that the board had to do this because the majority did not think Mr. Meredith's decisions would be good for the corporation and the law (man's law, not God's) required them to "protect" the corporation. But in making that decision, the majority members of the board betrayed an important principle of that organization they had agreed to when they joined it, that Mr. Meredith was the leader. He STARTED Global, and he brought these men in, not to overthrow him, but to support him and help him be effective, and they had agreed to that.

There may be a time when members of an organization must act against the wishes of a leader over them, but the reason should be their greater obligation to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29), not any presumed requirements of man's law to protect a corporation.