The suit against the seven elders of the Sixth and Izard Church of Little Rock has apparently ground to its predictable end, assuming absence of appeal, the elders losing on every count and in the process piling up a stiff debt for the church members to pay.
The order drafted by Special Master Kay L. Matthews of the Pulaski County chancery court requires the elders to open all fiscal and other records of the church for examination by any member and to have the members elect the directors of the incorporated church. The election must be held on the principle of one-man one-vote and under standard safeguards such as secret ballot. The secret ballot is to insure that the elders will not know how any member voted, a practice grossly violated in the past.
Since the plaintiffs had advanced testimony in Brown vs. Gipson questioning the propriety of certain real estate transactions involving church property, the accuracy of financial records, and possible conflicts of interest, the order extended to them the right to ask the court for an independent audit after examining the church's financial and other records, including minutes of elders meetings, telephone bills, salary data, and other expenditures.
The suit was initiated by Joe Brown, a deacon of long standing, after years of unsuccessful efforts to get basic fiscal information on the church's activities. The elders rejected his claim that he had a "right to know" saying that they had divine authority to release such information to members only when they thought it wise. When Brown asked the chancery court to require the elders to open the church books to inspection by the members, as the Arkansas law under which the church was incorporated required, the elders summarily fired Brown by letter. John Gipson, listed in the abbreviated title of the case, occupies the dual role of "minister" and elder and, as may be expected, has been the chief theological expounder of the elders' defense.
What is the importance of Brown v. Gipson? If it involved an issue peculiar only to the Sixth and Izard Church, it would be seen as a regrettable local matter undeserving of national consideration. But because it deals with a sickness that has spread to most American Churches of Christ, it is a case of the first magnitude. The case rests on the principle that accountability lies at the heart of any healthy, viable social organism, including churches, and that accountability must be restored in our churches before the disease of authoritarianism reduces them to empty shells. Judge Matthews' commonsense order carries a message to every church in which the members have become little more than spectators so far as the decision-making process is concerned:
"But once directors [elders] are elected they become officers of the corporation [church] and they then have and owe a fiduciary duty to the members of the corporation [church] to operate and manage corporate affairs in the manner required by statute and as approved by the members thereof. Their duty requires them to disclose fully to the members all financial and business records and affairs of the corporation." (Italics author's.)
The breadth of this order comes at a critical point in the history of the so-called American Restoration Movement. For a century beginning under the leadership of Alexander Campbell it was the commonly-held belief that each church was both autonomous and congregational, with the members electing deacons and elders and making the decisions of the church. Elders were servant leaders and shepherds. Following World War I the churches began to reflect the cultural changes of an industrial society. Gradually elders began to act as a corporate body on the model of the secular board of directors and a corporate name was coined for this emerging institution -- "the eldership," a term wholly foreign to the New Testament.
Accelerating the process was the appearance of the hired "minister" another non-Biblical creation. Since the minister came to owe his hiring and tenure to elders, he began to proclaim from the pulpit "the authority of the elders." Like Topsy the thing "jest growed." Gradually, almost in a fit of absent-mindedness or passivity of the members, and certainly, without examination or debate, a new orthodoxy emerged which totally reversed the teachings of such Restoration fathers as Campbell and Lipscomb. Indeed, the earlier views came to be unknown to the pew as the church left its rural poverty base and became suburban and prosperous. New budgets soaring into hundreds of thousands of dollars, bond issues, and plants and grounds costing millions sent the power of elders soaring also; and many churches saw elders entrenching themselves in corporate charters. If genuine scholarship never accepted the new pulpit orthodoxy, the fact remained that anyone who resorted to the teachings of Campbell or Lipscomb was likely to be branded a heretic and cut off from church participation.
The new orthodoxy was spun from the English word "overseer" in Acts 20:28 and the gross mistranslation "obey them that have rule over you." The word "overseer" which first emerged in the King James translation was a special term applied to a lowly county official who administered poor aid and found its way to America in the Antebellum South. This is the meaning embraced in the contemporary church and into the word is read every power, including absolute authority, claimed for the modern eldership. Paul's thought in Acts 20 is totally foreign to the plantation usage. He sees elders as watchers over the flock to keep away "wolves" who can destroy both shepherds and flock. Paul's language carries no connotation of power at all.
Brown v. Gipson is historically important because for the first time the new elder orthodoxy was stated and defended under oath in a court of law and its shallowness exposed. The bald claims of power were shocking. The ancient "primacy of the papacy" was matched by the new "primacy of the elders" No pope ever claimed more absolute power over the Catholic Church than the seven elders claimed over the Sixth and Izard congregation. Elders are chosen only by elders. An elder is beyond the reach of the congregations, no matter what he does. An elder is accountable only to his fellow elders. He is removable only by them. As the overseer of the congregation, he rules it. Collectively the elders have absolute control of all the church property, including the money contributed by the members. To compel them to reveal to the members the detailed handling of such money would violate their consciences and deprive them of their liberty conferred by the Holy Spirit. The elders select and fire deacons. They determine who may and who may not participate in the worship activities of the church. They are under no duty to counsel with whom they have decided are "wrong."
The new elder orthodoxy views the mass of members as permanently immature. They cannot be treated as mature adults, for example, in the reporting of church finances. The elders must use careful discrimination in what to reveal to the members and what to keep secret. Under such a perspective, the manipulation of the members to achieve the ends sought by the elders becomes a practical necessity.
The recent case served to pull back the curtain on the shocking extremes to which power may go where it is not restrained and where there is no accountability. The case turned the spotlight on the most recent election of elders at Sixth and Izard. It was announced that the existing panel of seven elders should be increased to nine and the members were asked to nominate men who met the scriptural standards for elders. There emerged three nominees, John Gipson, the minister, Bud White, and Phil Wallace. Papers bearing the names of the three and the scriptural standards which they should meet were distributed to the members to mark their favorite choice. Each voter was asked to sign his ballot. In due time the elders announced that Gipson and Wallace had been selected. Clearly the members thought they had participated in a bona fide election, though no totals were mentioned, and White was left to assume that the members did not prefer him. Suspecting that something was wrong, Bob Scott, a veteran member, was soon able to establish that White was the overwhelming second choice of the members, more than doubling the support for Wallace. He found the vote to be 146 for Gipson, 105 for White, and less than 40 for Wallace.
In the trial it was admitted that White had more support than Wallace. One of the elders prepared a chart from the ballots. Under each nominee he listed the names of every member who voted for him. Unsigned ballots were thrown out. White was then eliminated because the "wrong" members supported him, among the wrong members being the adult children of Attorney Scott and Dr. Tip Nelms, a former elder. When asked if the elders had counseled with the members they considered "wrong" the reply was in the negative.
Anticipating to blunt the case of the plaintiffs against the elders for the elimination of White as an elder, Richard Condor asked White to sign a drafted statement saying he had no objection to the way the elders handled the last elder selection in which he was eliminated. However, he had to admit on the witness stand that White refused to sign the document...Condor, who had been an elder since 1969, went on to say that even though a majority wanted a certain man to serve as elder and even though he fully met the scriptural standards for the role, the existing elders had full authority to reject him for their own reasons, because they were overseers. When White and his wife finally learned what the elders had actually done to him, it is not surprising that they sadly concluded that there was no longer any place for them at this church.
Here we have a case that looks like Chicago ward politics at its worst. In a nation long devoted to the secret ballot and personal privacy, this incident reveals a contempt for the polling process and the worth and dignity of the members, In spite of what the members may have thought, the elders explained to the court, this was not an election, for elders alone choose elders. What was turned in were not ballots. They were "suggestions" which in no way was binding on the elders, for the discretion of elders cannot be restricted. And if they concealed the voting facts from the members, that too, apparently lay within the discretion of the elders.
To this shocking extreme to which the lack of accountability may lead, the trial also focused on the low level to which the members may be reduced. The second example involved the filling out of pledge cards in connection with the new budget under consideration. A financial statement was distributed which showed the church bank account standing at $45,000 and expenditures of $775,000. What the members did not know was that the expenditure total actually included a bank certificate of deposit of $ ! 60,000. Obviously if the members knew of the existence of this fat sum, they would not feel as pressing a need to dig as deep to keep the budget in the black. Once revealed, it was an inescapable conclusion that this was not only a crass example of manipulation of the members but a matter of deception, for a C.D. could never be called an expenditure.
In the light of what took place in the election of elders described above, common sense would say that elders should have nothing to do with the actual polling process and no access to the ballots. Their sole activity should be limited to casting their ballots just as the other members do. To require members to sign their ballots is a practice repudiated by the civil society decades ago. Abuses in the "signing" process are endemic. We can cite a case in another church where a very active member was cut off from all participation in the public worship ("silently excommunicated'') merely for nominating the "wrong" person for elder.
Not only are elders secure in their absolute authority from removal or discipline by the church members and from any accountability to them, the Little Rock elders contended, they are also protected by the First Amendment from any action by the state when they violate the laws of the state governing non-profit corporations under which the Little Rock church was incorporated. They admitted that they violated Arkansas law which required them to open the financial books and church records to the members, but claimed that these laws violated their conscience and hence were invalid under the First Amendment. It is noteworthy that they offered no scripture to support their contention other than to refer to the claim that the Holy Spirit had made them "overseers." It was their view that the term encompassed unchallengeable authority, though the plaintiffs countered with testimony that scholarship has held that in the New Testament the word "authority" is never used or implied in reference to elders. Instead, their sole claim to leadership, as Peter affirmed, rests in their "example" for others to follow.
When asked what Biblical principle would be violated if the elders had to reveal his salary and other emoluments, Minister Gipson replied that it would cause dissention which the elders had the right to avoid. "Some might think that I was overpaid, and others might think I was underpaid," he replied. Since it was rumored that his salary alone was at least $75,000, the plaintiffs did not think that anyone would likely think he was underpaid, particularly since he was a man without a college degree.
In the hearings on freedom from accountability, an elder was asked if the New Testament did not teach accountability. It was pointed out that when the Apostle Paul raised money for the Jerusalem poor, he asked each contributing congregation to send a delegate with him when he delivered the funds -- a clear case of accountability. The witness replied that he did not regard this as involving a principle applicable to elders.
The plaintiffs countered the claims of the elders by presenting as an expert witness, Dr. Joel Anderson, vice chancellor and provost of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, whose father and grandfather had been elders and who had grown up in the Church of Christ. Dr. Anderson declared in reviewing the history of the Restoration Movement that throughout the past century and much of the current century the overwhelming view in the church was that the polity of the church was congregational and its leaders were elected by the members. He read from scholars stretching from Alexander Campbell to G.C. Brewer in support of this view. He conceded that a counter view had emerged in more recent decades propagated by pulpit hirelings who owed their positions to elders, but held that independent scholarship rejected the claim.
Under questioning, Dr. Anderson, a political science scholar and student of the science of polling, found that the recent polling of the Sixth and Izard Church, of which he is a member, violated every principle of fairness and objectivity. He cited the absence of a secret ballot, voting propositions so stated that one could not fairly vote either yes or no, the presence of cameras recording how the members voted, the denial of the right to speak on the issues to the members, and the use of the sermon preceding the polling to attack the plaintiffs. He also stated that he had considered the last selection of new elders a bona fide election and was surprised to learn recently that such was not the case.
The mood of the elders was apparently not softened by the unfavorable ruling of the court. On the Sunday following the issuing of the order Minister Gipson preached a sermon embodying the slogan "The Church demands...." What have we here? This church, this institution, indeed this corporation, ruled by an all-powerful and self-perpetuating hierarchy, which controls the lands, buildings, and other assets of the institution and may give away by deed parts of the real estate to one among themselves or to others without consulting anybody -- in short, this man-made institution demands! It demands of the members their time, their loyalty, their unquestioning service. This is the language of power. To the plaintiffs the speaker seemed to be saying, "No matter what the law may say, you members have a higher law in your elders. Don't start questioning the preacher's salary. Don't start inquiring about the property of the church. Don't raise questions about the choosing of elders. Yours is to trust and obey. We demand it."
How far adrift from the New Testament concept of God's children as functioning as a community of equals! In such a community there are no demands, no ordinary Indians and big chiefs, only voluntary mutual service. If there is any rank in such a community, it is measured by self-effacing service, not in power wielded.
It is clear that the chancery order, when enforced, spells an end to secret elders' meetings, closed minutes, decisions unrevealed to the members, and expenditures unauthorized by the members. It means that the salaries of the ministers and other employees must be known and approved by the church. It means a full accounting of all expenditures. While the court said that it was not telling elders how to behave, it was telling elders who became directors that they must tow the line prescribed by the law, for those who lead are no less accountable than those who follow. And in the light of this case, it is high time for churches everywhere to reexamine the practices and claims of elders and how they actually square with New Testament principles and teachings.