The Supreme Court Decision

The decision of the Supreme Court regarding property rights is of vital interest to the Christian Reformed denomination. The fact that a Synodical Committee has been appointed on this very matter to report to the Synod this year indicates the interest in this question.

In the year 1966, two churches of the Presbyterian Church U.S. (Southern) withdrew from the Presbyterian denomination. They were the Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Eastern Heights Presbyterian Church, both located in Savannah, Georgia. This decision was made because the denomination had departed substantially from its original constitution as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Since these churches wished to remain true to this original confession as the constitution of their church, they felt that they were entitled to withdraw from the denomination and yet retain their properties.

However the particular presbytery (classis) in which these two churches belonged took the matter of property to court, claiming that the denomination owned the property on the basis of what was called an “implied trust.” In this “implied trust” the congregations supposedly gave their properties to the denomination. The local court found that the congregations had the right to keep their properties because it appeared to the jury that the Presbyterian Church U.S. had indeed left its original constitution as found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. W hen the presbytery (classis) appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, that body upheld the decision of the lower court. It then appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. There the Supreme Court ruled that the decision as to church property may not be made on the basis of doctrinal questions, that is, on the basis of who remained true to the original constitution. Rather the decision must be made on the basis of the laws that apply to property. With that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed the Georgia Supreme Court to re-open the case and to settle it on the new grounds. Doctrinal questions could not be used as the basis for the decision.

“Implied Trust” Does Not Apply

Well, the Georgia Supreme Court did open the case, and its decision was that if doctrinal questions cannot be taken into account in such a decision, then the idea of “implied trust” cannot exist either. No denomination can then say that because a church is part of this denomination, its property is owned by that denomination. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the property belongs therefore to the two Presbyterian Churches that had withdrawn from the Southern Presbyterian Church.

When this decision was again appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, by the presbytery of Savannah, the high court ruled that it would not interfere with the decision made by the Georgia Supreme Court. Tn effect the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the two Savannah churches have the right to retain their properties on the basis of the law which applies to property holdings.

This decision of the U.S. Supreme Court is indeed historic. As far as we in the Christian Reformed Church are concerned, it is especially noteworthy. For the church government under which we live is precisely the same as that of the Presbyterian Church. Indeed, our church government is called the “Presbyterian” form of church government. Thus the decision of the Supreme Court respecting the Presbyterian Church obviously also affects any church existing under a similar government.

This Decision and Our Situation

However this question is not simply an abstract concern for us in the Christian Reformed Church because we happen to have the same form of church government. There are indications that within our denomination there is an alarming amount of defection evident just as the two churches in Savannah found within their denomination. When for example, the historicity of Genesis and the infallibility and authority of Scripture is openly denied; when the mission of the Church is reduced to social involvement instead of the necessity of preaching repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; when honesty in confessional commitment is something tragically missing in many who have signed the Form of Subscription; when the liturgical trend in the Christian Reformed Church is away from sermons toward dialogue, drama, or other means of presenting the Word of God; when continuing efforts are made to get the Christian Reformed Church into the World Council of Churches; when agitation is made to have the Christian Reformed Church reconsider its stand on the lodge; when the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church fails to uphold warranted protests with firm and clearcut decisions as in the case of Professor Dekker and the protest against the sermon of Rev. Sweetman, and thus compromise rather than conviction appears to be the dominant mood; when the training of our future leaders continues to be at the Free University of Amsterdam where the Kuitert teaching bodes no good for the future of the Church; when the Christian Reformed Church gives unqualified support for the Theological College of Northern Nigeria (TCNN) where the church supports an unreformed ecumenism in the training of the ministers in the Nigerian Church especially when the Tiv Church has begged for our support for a distinctively Reformed Seminary: when these things become evident, who can deny that there is significant defection within the Christian Reformed Church?

In view of all these areas of concern, it may be that individual congregations that continue to protest the direction of the Christian Reformed Church in these areas will be forced to leave the denomination. In that event, the decision of the Supreme Court would allow that congregation to hold its property title and thus retain ownership. As Dr. C. Aiken Taylor, editor of The Presbyterian Journal writes, “The decision therefore gives hope to congregations and classes that the plans of the ecumenists will not swallow them up with no hope of escape. At the same time, this decision of the court gives greater security to the individual congregations that are alarmed about the direction in which many of the denominations in America are going.” He feels that these congregations can stay within their respective denominations and continue to bear their testimony together with others who are working hard to awaken and inform and coordinate and unite the conservatives of the church in preparation for the general restructuring which is coming, knowing that if they are forced out of their denominations, they will not suffer the loss of their properties. With this security, these congregations and individuals within our churches may work together and plan together for what the Lord surely intends to bring to pass in our time.

Rev. Henry Vanden Heuvel is pastor of the Princeton Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.