October 12, 2003 Q & A

Incorporating Churches


In chapter XVI of the OPC Book of Church Order, section 6. (2000 Edition) under Form of Government it states:

When the laws of the state require, the congregation shall transact business as a corporation. All other business shall be conducted in the congregational meeting.

So often Reformed believers and in particular church leaders will decry the "church growth movement," in that it capitulates to the modern man's tendency to be entertained or Reformed people will often criticize the modern "mega-churches" that seek to run their church like a "corporation" with a powerful CEO type pastor. And well they should, because the word of almighty God shows us a better way, yet on the other hand, churches almost universally (including the OPC) as the BCO points out find it obligatory to become a corporation, albeit "tax exempt," under the 501c3 government IRS regulations. Is there any contradiction here?

Here are a couple rhetorical questions to see where I am coming from:

1) Where does the authority of Christ's church belong?

2) By whose authority is a minister ordained?

3) Must the church of Jesus Christ answer first to God or the State in matters of conscience, doctrine, etc.

In light of these question, what is the position of the OPC on the question of criteria for a church to become a part of the denomination?

#1. Must a church become a corporation to be in the OPC?

#2. Must a church be a "tax exempt" 501c3 church to become a part of the OPC?


Thanks for your questions. I'll try to answer them even though I am not aware of the particular practices in all OPCs.

In reference to the Form of Government Chapter XVI-6 you bring in a number of "suppose-ifs." There was a time when the OPC was becoming enamored with the principles of the church growth movement, but since the latter 80s she has reaffirmed her opposition to those principles. Whether some of those notions persist, I cannot say, but they are not adhered to by our denominational Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension.

And while there may be some pastors with CEO tendencies, I doubt if the practice is either taught or encouraged in the OPC. For example, we take ministerial candidates from a host of conservative and Reformed seminaries. And of late years we have developed and practically required of all new candidates for our pulpits that they take short but intensive courses of training to teach the history and vision of the OPC and press home the biblical and practical implications of the pastorate (promotion of the servant rather than the CEO mentality).

I doubt that we have mega-churches, though some few newer churches have grown to the point that they employ several pastors.

But the OPC in general does approve of the incorporation of churches that own and control real property with worship facilities. Is that biblical?

We live in a less than perfect world. And there are certain matters over which the state exercises authority whether we like it or not. Fire protection and police protection are arms of the state. The church in which as a retired pastor I serve as a ruling elder requires a fire inspection once a year. We submit to it. It is what belongs to "Caesar."

We thought till recently we were incorporated (having been in existence for over 25 years), and found out that we are not. We are registered as a church with the normal protections stated above. We are now considering our options. One advantage of incorporation is that members or officers of the church cannot be sued at law for all sorts of reasons. Of course we carry liability insurance. But should we ever be sued for an exorbitant amount, we as members might be named. You can use your own imagination as to the possible results.

If perchance we should announce a sermon or conference opposed to "gay rights," and the homosexual community came and attempted to shout us down (and that has happened!), it would be the duty of the police to come at our call and restore order.

Should a new congregation buy property to erect its own edifice, there are in most cities zoning ordinances to cope with. In my second pastorate more than 55 years ago, I came up against that very problem. We were compelled to purchase property just outside of the city limits to overcome the obstacle. The result in the end was far better than we had contemplated. But zoning ordinances are out there, and we must cope with them.

Shortly thereafter in the same city I helped organize a Christian day school. We began in the educational facility of an old church building. By Thanksgiving we were visited by the Fire Marshal telling us that we must make certain building changes or move. We moved over Christmas vacation because apparently what was good enough for Sunday education was not good enough for education Monday through Friday. But the school prospered and has survived to this day. In other words, God has ordained civil governments. And there never has been or ever will be a perfect civil government! So we must cope with what, in God's providence, is out there.

Now to answer questions 1 through 3:

The authority of Christ belongs over civil government no matter however corrupt (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-3). But Christ's authority is supreme over His church. As a matter of fact, in our government the state doesn't care a whit (though it ought to) whether we are a Christian church, a synagogue or a mosque. We all have the same rights granted us including freedom from taxation.

My father used to say, "The power to tax is the power to destroy," and how right he was. So freedom from taxation is in a sense a divine right rather than a constitutional one. That is why the authority of the church involves (in prevailing practice) two final governing bodies. So matters concering the corporation are handled by the same congregation acting as a corporation and primarily as an ecclesiastical body. Form of Government 16:6 states that "When the laws of a state require, the congregation shall transact business as a corporation" (my emphasis). But it is the congregation, and only the congregation that acts on budgets, etc. The state doesn't rule in these matters, the church of Christ does! So my answer to question one is Christ.

Ministers are ordained under the authority of Christ as well. It is true that ministers are called by the congregation (of believers). And there is Scripture to support this (by implication, Acts 6:1-7). But, as in the case of the Apostles, the church "nominated," but the apostles put the seven in office. So in our form of government, the congregation may nominate any candidate for ordained office (and thus pastors), but the elders must approve and instruct the nominees prior to their election. Of course, Presbytery must approve the ministerial candidate before he can accept a call. Remember that ministers and ruling elders (whether you consider them two offices or one) do not represent the members of the church, they represent Christ the King and Head of the church!

Question 3 demands a clear answer: The Church must answer to God alone in matters of conscience, doctrine and practice. The Westminster Confession of Faith says (Chapter 20-2) that "God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, in matters of faith or worship." And that leads me to say that, if you believe the church, in seeking incorporation, violates your conscience (which I don't) you don't have to bind yourself to a church which in your judgment does that. Now we are still sinners, though people of conscience. And consciences can be instructed by the Word. But they cannot be forced by the church or by anybody else but God Himself.

So for the two final questions (#1 & #2), I say no to both. However, tax exemption in the OPC is not tied to incorporation. Tax exemption is had by securing a tax-exemption number from the government. And the government is obliged to give it by its own law. Moreover it is also obliged to give it under the authority of Christ the King of the nations. But if you feel even getting that number is somehow related to the mark of the beast, you can pay taxes on both property and income. I don't know how the income would be effected—probably through its members paying income taxes on their benevolence giving and the church paying property taxes on its worship facilities. Now, should you organize an OPC congregation on your own, you would not be compelled to be incorporated. We have an exceeding high view of conscience, and will not compel any otherwise adequate believer to violate his or her conscience, though he were a minority of one.

If you have further questions you are struggling with. I'll do my best to answer them or point you to those more qualified than I.



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