Lessons That Should Be Learned From

The Tragic Little Rock Lawsuit

Norman L. Parks

In an extremely murky opinion, the only certain thing being the 4 to 3 vote, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state law under which churches could be incorporated violated the right of the elders of the Sixth and Izard Church of Christ, organized as a corporation under this law, to rule the church as absolute dictators and to deny the members any share in the management of the church finances or church activities and any information about church business which the elders chose to withhold.

The turgid opinion apparently left standing the trial order that the elders open the books of the church for membership inspection and hold elections for the officers of the corporation, but the trial judge felt that the appellate opinion tied his hands and refused to execute his own order.

The elders, using a Baptist and an Episcopalian as their attorneys, contended before the Supreme Court that "as a matter of doctrine" the eldership "neither holds elections nor shares financial management with the congregation as a whole." As God's personal representatives in the church, elders appoint all elders and deacons and remove them from office without the consent or approval of the members, they hold all contributions as God's money and are responsible only to God in the handling of it and cannot be compelled to share any information about the finances with the members, and their records and minutes of meetings are private and are not open to inspection by any member of the church.

Since the above claims are firmly rooted in the Holy Scriptures, the elders told the court, to compel them to violate them on orders by the state would be to deprive them of the freedom of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment. Apparently the elders believe that they have absolute license to do what they choose, but that no member has any freedom to do anything in the church life except what the elders choose to let him do.

One may search the trial records in vain for any scriptural proof by chapter and verse for any of their claims to authority. They did not show what scripture authorized them to appoint elders or what example or precedent was the basis of their claim to appoint and fire deacons, or to deny financial information to the members, or to keep church records secret. Apart from making claims, the elders offered no proof that any doctrine, scriptural church polity, or practice was in conflict with the Arkansas statutory law, which required that the members by popular vote choose the directors of the corporation periodically and have open access to all the church records.

Actually the elders did hold sham elections for new elders and the members thought they were choosing them, but the votes were kept secret and the elders chose whom they wanted and let the members think that was in accord with their vote, but it was a case of flagrant deception. Apparently in the future they will not even hold sham elections.

The members of the church who took the elders to court had ample evidence of abuses that were shocking. One was the announcement that a man standing for election as elder had been chosen when he had actually been rejected by vote of the members. Another was the misleading financial data which had put CD's under "expenditures'' to indicate that the church's finances were in bad shape. Another was giving away of two residences owned by the church to two professional ministers without the knowledge or approval by the members. Another was the refusal of the elders to allow an independent audit of the church's finances. Another was the concealment of the salary of the pulpit minister, which the elders ruled was none of the members' business, even when it was apparently grossly excessive. Another was the secret practice of denying some members any participate role in church life. Another was the steady loss of members alienated by the dictatorial rule of the elders. Another was special financial priviliges handed out to favored members. Another was the total monopoly of communication by the elders. And yet another was the concealment from the members of the evidence that one elder had carried on an adulterous relationship while serving as elder and was retained in his position.

The case of the plaintiffs was that the "members have a right to know." It is their money which supports the church and they have a right to know how it is spent and to approve of such expenditures in advance. It is their money which pays the pulpit minister and they have a right to know not only his salary but all of the extras granted on the side. If serious moral issues arise, the members have the duty to resolve them. The church is not a hierarchical organization but an autonomous society. The Sixth and Izard elders deny each claim. They and they alone own the church property. They may lock out a member from entering the church building. They may lock out a class from entering a classroom. They may cut off a member from participation without ever telling either him or the members in general. They are the sole judges of their own conduct.

The tragic plight of this old and once flourishing congregation inescapably draws attention to the chief actor in the story, the "pulpit minister" (did first century congregations even have pulpits?) for many years. What makes the Sixth and Izard affair peculiarly poignant is that this dominant role player was also an elder over the institution, with full right to sit in judgement on his own employment, his salary, his side benefits like a private telephone at his desk under lock and key, and other "specials" unknown to the members, such as the gift of a church residence. His critics say that he has small claim to biblical scholarship since his grades were too poor to win his degree from the college and included failures in New Testament Greek. Yet in keeping with the prevailing practices in most churches he alone is deemed able to teach the whole church unless a similar pulpit professional is invited in for an appearance or two. Though his total income is unknown, members say his reputed salary is far above that earned by many in far more advanced professional fields. The vast hole that the elders left in the church treasury to cover legal fees to defend their "right" to deny members their right to know could have carried the gospel to many people still shrouded in darkness.

If exceptional, this church is not alone. It reflects a growing movement away from seeing God's people as a social organism and replacing them with an institution independent of and separate from the members and highly structured in terms of power. No pope ever claimed more power than these elders both claim and exercise over their empire. Jesus explicitly declared that there is no place for power in the kingdom of heaven. It is small wonder that as power structures flourish, membership becomes passive and declines.

Lest the claims of power by the elders be regarded as exaggerated, we quote below from their court record:

"...the tenets of the Church of Christ religion place authority for church administration solely in the hands of the elders, and, pursuant to the dictates of that religion the elders cannot be compelled to share any information with...the members of the congregation."

"...the Church presently has seven elders and that is the long-standing belief, polity and practice of this Church that the elders have absolute and final authority and control over all Church matters, including the financing, acquisition, mortgaging and disposition of property, the hiring, the fixing of salaries, and firing all ministerial and other officials and employees of the Church. Under this longstanding belief and practice the elders themselves, rather than the congregation select and approve all new elders...and the desires of the membership have no binding effect on the action of the elders...and the removal of an elder for cause or otherwise...is also a matter within the absolute control of the elders themselves."

Perhaps the next claim will be the power to replace voluntary giving with taxation. Concerning such a claim for divine right to rule, Jesus said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant." David Lipscomb's response to a tyranny such as that claimed above was that it should be resisted "even to the dissolution of the body."