It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.
— Psalm 118:8, 9
Just because your heart is right with God doesn’t mean your books are right with the IRS. *** It has been reported that some churches are not 501(c)3 organizations and may be under investigation.
— Michael Chitwood, Chattanooga CPA who peddles snake oil compliance services and fear
at the “best church and ministers seminar in America”
By David Tulis
Today four other men and I who govern a small Presbyterian church in Chattanooga take a bold step to dissolve our corporate charter. In a meeting of elders and deacons, we agree unanimously to end a 60-year affiliation with state government as one of its creatures.
We vote, in other words, for a separation of church and state — one that will let this group of Christians more faithfully serve God as members of his body, a heavenly corporation conceived as embassy of the king of kings.
The modern corporation is a creature of the state, an entity created within the state to serve the state and to obey its statutes, scruples and policies while accomplishing the private purposes for which it was created. We five church officers are charged with stewardship of the church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a king presently reigning. Democratically elected, we represent to the world a governmental body whose incorporator resides in a jurisdiction quite beyond that of the secretary of state’s office in Nashville.
We vote to dissolve the corporation because we already exist as a corporation. The church wherever it exists is incorporated in Christ, who gives it His body, His rules of order, His charter and the power of the Holy Spirit to affect in society reformation and rebuilding from the ruin of sin. To be a state corporation while existing as an emissary from an alien jurisdiction is not just redundant, but ultimately self-contradictory and incoherent. The peril of state incorporation becomes more evident as we learn of attacks against churches and religious organizations by bigots and proponents of gay theory.
My church, like yours, exists in obedience to God. It exists by God’s grace. It exists to glorify Him, and its purpose is to obey what is effectively a divine public policy connected with the conquest of the earth by the sweet and swordless operation of grace. State corporations exist by grace of a much lower order; they exist by that generosity of their creator — state government. They exist to serve public policy and the public welfare. In our case, Brainerd Hills Presbyterian Church Inc. prospers, it appears, because we became a state corporation by petition May 7, 1954.
In the 1950s the inducements to become a corporation were tremendous. The U.S. was a global power. Its government had become a giant and an empire. The states were whooping up growing budgets and social services. The lawyer, accounting and financial classes were in agreement with the universality of the state in economy and schooling. Culture was in agreement; Jesus’ expansive claims were shrunk to the domain between the individual’s ears. A corporation limits liability, makes things cohere, makes it easy for the people to deal with the church. Corporations such as EPB and the water company like dealing with corporations. Among the privileges of state corporate status we obtained are limited liability, a “perpetual” life apart from any of the members or officers, existence of an entity that owns property and exercises various substantive and procedural rights such as going into debt. “The general powers of this corporation shall be to sue and be sued by its corporate name,” our charter reads.
But the advantages were not to the body of Christ. They served everybody else — lawyers, insurance companies, accountants, tax preparers, regulators. In the name of good stewardship and prudence, we cast aside the mind of Christ and his exclusive jurisdictional and extraterritorial authority.
When I was ordained by public vote as deacon, I assumed a state office as well, that of trustee or officer of the corporation. While the church represents a jurisdiction outside the territory of Hamilton County or Tennessee, we had entered these political jurisdictions and found residence as a corporate citizen “governed by the general statutes of the state of Tennessee, which have heretofore passed and are now in force, and any statute subsequently passed,” our charter says.
Having laid aside legal status as a church, we took up the costume of a state actor. The “certificate of incorporation” states its purpose is “to form a Church to be conducted according to the doctrine and worship of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.” The corporate process formed anew our body, pretending the church did not exist previously and had to be formed. It was as if an earthbound resurrection were enacted at the end of which is no heaven and no God on His throne, but merely a simulacrum of identity, a shadow behind a veil, an administrative creature delineated in forms, stamps, yearly reports and exemption letters — and behind these, the permission of man.
When in 1954 John E. Bacon and the other elders “constituted a body politic and corporate,” they created a parallel legal organism through which other corporations deal with the people who in flesh and blood exist under veil. Like it or not, a man like me, a deacon, became with my ordination vow a state officer. We the members of the church became members of an organization.
Odd shadow plays
One question that arises among elders Vaughn Hamilton and Peter Gagliardi, our minister Gary Roop, and deacon Pat Murphy and me is the whether any sort of property transfer might be required once the corporation is dissolved. A deed dated after the formation of the corporation indicates physical property is held by Brainerd Hills Presbyterian Church Inc. Will a legal transfer of title for “F$1 and other consideration” be required to transfer ownership from the corporation to the organic and living Brainerd Hills Presbyterian Church?
We deal in shadows and in mysteries. When God’s people in this place vote on the Lord’s Day, Dec. 28, 2014, on dissolving the corporate charter, will we vote as organization members to yield the corporate shell — and then will we vote as church members to receive the property held now by the corporation? Perhaps. I have proposed double sets of votes, by officers and by members.
We vote as avatars to dissolve. We vote as men and women in persona propria to receive. We vote, then, to become a church, and lay aside the fear, doubt, co-option and alliance that abides in our 60-year contract to have a double mind and double heart.