THE EVILS OF INSTITUTIONAL RELIGION

Widely praised for its program called "Bread for a Hungry World," Richland Hills Church of Christ of Ft. Worth is itself the hungriest mouth that holders of millions of dollars worth of its bonds have ever fed.

Its bonds were bought by thousands of Church of Christ retirees who thought they were investing wisely and safely for their sundown years and at the same time were helping a dynamic and inspiring church. They have been brought to a rude awakening. No interest has been paid in almost two years, no settlement is in prospect in spite of false reports by the Christian Chronicle, and only a partial recovery of their investment is seen and then only "after years of litigation," as one of the elders of the church warned.

The Richland Hills case is a classic study on the evils of institutionalization. The bonds were not issued by the members, who bear no legal responsibility to pay on them. The elders of the church, individually, are not legally responsible for them. The bonds were issued by the institution called "the eldership." This "institution" is responsible only to the extent of its legal holdings. Not one penny of the weekly contributions has ever been spent on paying the interest or principal of the bonds. As Jon Jones, the former minister of the church who was demoted to running the "Bread" program, has advised, the contribution must be devoted to paying for the elaborate staff and programs of the church.

Bond holders have only recently learned that the church borrowed from a lending agency such interest as has been paid, giving a first mortgage on the very real estate which was supposed to be the security for the bonds. This amounted to the bond holders paying their own interest. The First National Bank of Amarillo, the court-appointed agency to represent the bond holders, has the case in court to ascertain who has first claim on the church's real estate.

Even if the bond holders are found to have first claim, they, obviously cannot recover more than a fraction of their investment. Real estate values were grossly over-inflated when the bonds were issued. Thanks to the savings and loan debacle and the perilous conditions of many banks, real estate will remain in a sick condition in Texas for years to come. Still unclear to the debt holders is whether their claim extends to the huge and expensive plant of the church, or is limited to the surrounding real estate. The only hope for the bond holders is the willingness of the large membership to assume responsibility, which is theirs morally, for the huge debt. -- A Tennessee Bond Holder