Incorporation is Not the Problem
This article grew out of a response to a series of questions sent to the Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church. One question challenged the Session's (governing body of the local church) refusal to endorse certain political candidates. Another question had been raised concerning the church and its incorporation status. This individual thought that the Providence Church had incorporated, and this was the real reason for not endorsing political candidates. For the record, the Providence Church is not a 501 (c) (3) corporation. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) denomination is; however, this article is not necessarily an attempt to defend Church incorporation per se. Many people believe that incorporated status on the part of churches is the source of the present-day political woes. False theological positions have caused present-day Christians to be culturally ineffective. Doctrinal decline and apostasy are the real root factors involved in our present Christian cultural impotence. The goal of this article is to help those who have naively assumed that incorporation is the source of the church's present problems. There may be reasons for churches not to incorporate. It is a fact that 501 (c) (3) incorporation status results in restrictions on political activity of churches. Has this caused the church to become unfaithful to Christ? What has been the historic view of Protestant churches regarding political involvement? This article will show that there are Biblical reasons for churches not taking certain political actions such as endorsing political candidates along with a historical view of incorporation. We will also briefly consider the legitimate role of the state. A number of questions will be raised that those who argue for disincorporation should answer. Have we cut ourselves off from the past wisdom and history of Christianity through our ignorance? The doctrine and practice of Reformed churches (churches that originate from the Geneva wing of the Protestant Reformation) is used as a reference point in order to help gauge present-day debates.
The Biblical considerations should be understood as coming from a Reformed position. For those interested in an argument against church incorporation, they should consult the excellent two-part article titled "Introduction To the Concept, Attributes, and Definition of the Corporation."1 This article takes a serious look at the dangers of church incorporation without making slanderous accusations. John Eidsmoe, in his The Christian Legal Advisor, and the Rutherford Institute have provided helpful information about incorporation and tax-exempt status issues. The information concerning churches and political activity is valuable.
The Church is Not Politics
The organized church should not engage in certain activity, such as endorsing political candidates. Individual Christians should be doing the minimum of intelligently voting. It is a great temptation for churches to endorse political candidates. For example, should the organized church have endorsed George Bush over Michael Dukakis? At the time, it may have seemed like a wise choice. In retrospect, it would have brought reproach on Christ's church for endorsing a public liar. Since churches cannot predict the future actions of political candidates, it is unwise for a church to place Christ's stamp of approval on a political candidate. The question concerning Christ's church endorsing political candidates is primarily a theological issue. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches have held to the position known as "sphere sovereignty." This position was formally developed by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian statesman. Kuyper summarized sphere sovereignty as follows:
In order that the influence of Calvinism on our political development may be felt, it must be shown for what fundamental political conceptions Calvinism has opened the door, and how these political conceptions sprang from its root principle. This dominating principle was not, soteriologically, justification by faith, but, in the widest sense cosmologically, the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible. A primordial Sovereignty which eradiates in mankind in a threefold deduced supremacy, viz., 1. The Sovereignty in the State;2 The Sovereignty in Society;3 The Sovereignty in the Church.
Kuyper's influence is still with us today through the apologetics of the late Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary. Several of Kuyper's works are still in print. While he was one of the most powerful conservative pastor theologians, he entered politics and became prime minister of the Netherlands. The Reformed churches in the Netherlands did not endorse Dr. Kuyper's candidacy because of their adherence to the rudiments of the doctrine of sphere sovereignty. Sphere Sovereignty stated simply is that the state, church, and family are institutions created by and accountable to God. Each institution should not intrude into the sovereignty of the other institutions. For example, the state cannot pick candidates for church office. The elders of the church cannot tell a family that their children should not eat "Wheaties." The church should not pick or endorse political candidates. There is little disagreement concerning the first two propositions, so why should Christians question the third? The genesis of sphere sovereignty existed in John Calvin (Protestant Reformer) and is continued in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). This is a distinguished Protestant confession.
Sphere sovereignty lies at the heart of and is fundamental to the Protestant doctrine of separation of powers. The spheres of sovereignty or authority must always be under God's authority. This doctrine of the separation of powers is clearly seen in Reformed church polity (government). For example, there are three layers of church courts: the first being the session of the local church, the second being the Presbytery or regional church court, and third the General Assembly, the highest court of appeal. This Protestant influence is also apparent in our American Constitutional Republic. For instance, we have three divisions or separations of powers, the Judiciary, Legislative, and Administrative.
Should a church endorse political candidates? Endorsing a political candidate as a church session would constitute the placing of Christ's endorsement on the candidate. When the session acts, it is functioning as Christ's representative. Christ governs his church through elders. Sessional members would be in violation of their ordination vows if they, acting in an official capacity, endorsed a candidate that held to some type of heresy. This would bring reproach on Christ. This does not mean that individual Christians and Christian leaders cannot support various political candidates. What would be involved for the church in this type of project? It would be absolutely essential for a session to interview the candidate to determine his faithfulness to Reformed theology or have assurance from a Reformed denomination with whom they have ecumenical relations that this type of interview had been completed to their satisfaction. Elders could not endorse a candidate that was beyond their ability to discipline. Time constraints are another important factor. Each endorsement would necessitate a substantial amount of time to be set aside for an examination, debate and possible training classes for the candidate. A process of this nature would cause other legitimate ministries of church elders to suffer, and would therefore be unacceptable. Once the church begins to violate the state's sphere of authority, it will only be a matter of time before some government bureaucrat wants to return the favor.
In addition, elders in Presbyterian churches are bound by confessional standards. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith in section 31:5 reads:
Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs, which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition, in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.3
It is true that this section of the confession is dealing with synods. If this is true of higher church courts, the lower courts, e.g., a session, should take great caution before ignoring this restriction. G. I. Williamson's comments at this point from his commentary on the Confession are helpful:
We believe that the following arguments are sufficient proof of the teaching of the Confession. (1) Christ said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (Jn. 18:36). Christ not only made no effort to wield political power or to influence directly political events by making pronouncements on civil matters, but also when his followers tried to make him a political power he frustrated their attempt. Instead, he preached the gospel of the kingdom of God. He taught that men must be changed, and that as they were changed they would leaven the social and political order (Mt. 13:33, etc.). (2) There is no evidence that the apostles or the apostolic church intermeddled in civil affairs. Even the Jerusalem Synod concluded nothing that was not ecclesiastical. (3) There is no Scripture teaching which warrants such interference in the affairs of the State on the part of the Church. The Reformed concept of "sphere sovereignty" is the scriptural teaching and it indeed recognizes that God is supreme in every realm or sphere of life.4
In Luke 12:13, 14 Jesus refused to rule on certain family or civil matters. Do we want the church to become another two-bit political organization? Christ is the head of the church. The church is instructed to imitate Him. We must preserve the spirituality of the church. Then can the church have any influence in the political realm? Consider Calvin's position:
The gospel is not to change the administration [policies] of the world, and to make laws which pertain to the temporal state. It is very true that Kings, Princes, and Magistrates ought always to consult the mouth of God and to conform themselves to His word; but our Lord has given them liberty to make the laws which they know to be proper and useful by the rule which is committed to them.5
Calvin elsewhere argued that the church had the authority to bring discipline against magistrates who were members of both societies. If a church member is an elected representative, he is still subject to the discipline of the church. Politicians in Geneva thought twice before promoting ungodliness. The church through its discipline can have influence politically. For example, politicians who vote to make abortions legal can be excommunicated from the church.
How the Church Influences Politics
What other ways can members of the church influence society? Westminster seminary professor Paul Woolley explains:
The Bible teaches that faith in God is the foundation for all attempts to meet human need. The Christian church meets the spiritual needs of men. It teaches them how to face their own relation to God and it teaches them how the grace of God operates. When that grace has worked in the heart of a man, he becomes concerned about human need. As a Christian citizen he, not the church, goes out to do battle with the social ills of men. The Christian must battle social ills. The church tells him so. They must be fought, and fought on Christian principles. But it is the citizen, not the church, who goes to war.6
The individual Christian is the one who takes and brings forth the whole counsel of God to be applied in the realm of state, family and business. In the Old Testament we find Azariah, the chief priest, opposing king Uzziah (See 2 Chron. 26:18). Does this happen today? In 1 Peter 2:5 we learn of the priesthood of all believers. Today's pastors and Christians can bring the word of God to political representatives. If God opens the doors to witness to politicians, we can declare the whole counsel of God. It is perfectly legal. For instance, Pastor Chuck McIlhenny (OPC) has witnessed to government officials. The church McIlhenny pastors and his home were set on fire by militant homosexuals in San Francisco. McIlhenny has stood fearlessly against pro-homosexual legislation (see When the Wicked Seize a City for the real-life story of a courageous pastor). J. Gresham Machen (OPC founder) testified before Congress concerning educational matters. Machen warned against further government involvement in education. The General Assembly of the OPC has petitioned the President and Congress concerning elections on Sunday, abortion, and, most recently, homosexuals in the military. The denomination's incorporated status has not stopped the church from being faithful to Christ. The Presbytery of New Jersey (regional OPC) is suing the state over a law forbidding the criticism of homosexuals in public places.
Can a church use a corporate structure safely? Consider a by-law of Providence Presbyterian Church that sets forth a well-thought-out view concerning incorporation and the state. This by-law sets forth the view that incorporation does not give the state a license to regulate the doctrine and Biblically based practice of the church. The following is an attempt to reassert the concept of a free "Ecclesiastical" corporation into the marketplace of ideas:
The use by this church of legal vehicles to relate to the civil government, including, but not limited to, the use of IRS 501 (c) (3) status, is done in recognition of the practical necessity of a method by which civil government entities may carry out their responsibility of distinguishing legitimate churches for purposes of recognizing such churches' tax immunity and other legal protection, while at the same time retaining their ability to prevent fraudulent groups from calling themselves churches to avoid taxation, etc. The use of such vehicles by Providence Presbyterian Church is not meant to imply that we are agreeing to the idea that the church exists as a creation of or an entity of the state; nor is it meant to imply that the civil government has the authority to tax the church, or to regulate its doctrine or Biblically-based practice. Rather, we hold that each is an entity which as to its existence and operation answers directly to God and not to the other.7
Incorporation As a Legitimate Vehicle
It should be again noted that Providence Presbyterian Church is not a 501 (c) (3) corporation. Some have said that this by-law is an example of being naive. Those who make this charge have still not articulated a mechanism by which civil and church governments can, in a practical way, relate to each other. Is there a relationship between church and state? If so, how does this take place? How would the state know of the existence of the church? Incorporation as stated above is a vehicle. The church is more than a particular tool or vehicle. Is incorporation something inherently sinful? Most of us work for companies that are incorporated. If incorporation is inherently sinful, should we quit our jobs? It is true that by definition a corporation is a creation of the state. Is your company a creation of the state? Those who argue that a church must not incorporate should ask their place of employment to disincorporate. Especially family business corporations. Consistency demands it. Would your family be a creation of the state if it made use of a corporation? It is fallacious to assert that the use of a legal tool such as a corporate structure turns a family or church into a creation of the state. The family and church are more than the corporate entity. It has been argued by R. J. Rushdoony that the doctrine of incorporation is one of history's most important doctrines. Rushdoony has this to say concerning corporations:
The church thus, as the original and true corporation has an earthly as well as a supernatural life....The influence of the concept or doctrine of incorporation or the corporation went beyond the state into the world of commerce. The business corporation echoes whether or not it knows it, the Biblical doctrine of the church. Two things may be said at this point. First, it goes without question that the doctrine of the corporation has, in humanistic hands, been greatly abused and misused. However this should not lead us into overlooking a second fact, namely, that the concept of the corporation has given continuity to man's activities in one sphere after another. Medieval and modern institutions have a continuity and history unlike anything in the non-Christian world. What the corporation doctrine has enabled men to do is to transcend the limitations of their life-time and life-span. Men can create and develop a business, a school, or an agency whose function lives beyond themselves. This has been a very revolutionary and Biblical fact....
Granted that corporations are not necessarily good (nor necessarily bad), it still remains true that the concept of the corporation has been important in history by giving continuity to the works of men. Among other things, the original corporation, the church, has given a new meaning to time. Time is now time in terms of Christ, B.C. Before Christ, or A.D., Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, in Christ....
The development of corporations in Western history has been very important. Many Christian corporations were established during the medieval era to carry on specific Biblical duties and to organize people for common action to meet a specific Christian need or function. Attempts at statist control were also common....
In the United States, virtually total freedom existed for generations for all kinds of corporations. The incorporation of a church or Christian agency of any kind was simply a legal formality notifying the state of the existence of such a body and its immunity from statist controls. In recent years, the statists have turned that notification into a form of licensure and control. The matter can be compared to filing a birth certificate. When the birth of Sarah Jones is recorded by her parents and doctor, permission for Sarah Jones to exist is definitely not requested; rather, a fact is legally recorded. Similarly, in American law religious trusts, foundations, or trusts did not apply for the right to exist but recorded their certificate of birth, their incorporation. The current Internal Revenue Service doctrine is that the filing is a petition for the right to exist. This turns the historic position, and the First Amendment, upside down. It asserts for the federal government the "right" to establish religion and to control the exercise thereof. As a result, a major conflict of church and state is under way. At the same time, many abuses of the concept of a church corporation prevail. Some organizations sell "ordinations" as pastors and priests to enable men in the evasion of income taxes. This kind of abuse does not invalidate the integrity of a true church, nor is it a legitimate reason for the entrance of the state into the life of valid churches. Then too, because of the intrusion of the federal and state governments into the sphere of church incorporation, some are advocating disincorporation by churches. Given the vulnerability of the church as an incorporated legal entity to statist controls, we should not forget the total vulnerability with disincorporation. In some court cases the results are proving to be especially disastrous. If our weapons against an enemy prove to be somewhat defective, does it make sense to throw away those weapons and to disarm ourselves? 8
It should be noted that Rushdoony is one of the more influential Reformed theologians of the twentieth century. Incorporation is the product of a Christian world view. Asian, African, and Arab world views did not produce the doctrine of incorporation. These world views hold to a different teleology (view of history). Disincorporation is a short-term solution. The Branch Davidian sect was an unincorporated religious association. This did not stop the tanks. The removal or absence of the legal barrier, i.e., the corporate shield or veil, may have made the membership of the Davidian sect to a much greater degree vulnerable to the government attack. It is a fact that the corporate shield protects the membership from actions against the corporation. Should we throw out the baby with the bath water? We should not repudiate the products of Christian civilization just because the state is intruding into these areas. Our strategy should be to reclaim and rebuild, not repudiate. Let us elect better representatives who will reign in government abuses.
1. Messrs. Ron Porter, Steven Schlei, Norman Jones, David Maser, Richard Honaker, "Introduction to the Concept, Attributes, and Definition of the Corporation, Part One and Two," The Bias Report, Editor Larry Woiwode (Carson, Stephen Sturlaugson, 1993), February, 4-18, March, 6-15.
2. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures On Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprinted 1981), 79.
3. G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession Of Faith (Phillipsburg, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), 250.
4. Williamson, 250, 251.
5. W. Fred Graham, Church and Society. Readings in Calvin's Theology, Ed. Donald K. McKim, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1984), 277.
6. D. G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting The Good Fight, (Philadelphia, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995), 184, 185.
7. By-Laws of Providence Presbyterian Church, Denver, February 8, 1996, 2.
8. R. J. Rushdoony, "Incorporation" (Vallecito, Chalcedon, 1984), Position paper 50.