Monday, March 24, 2014

"Behold Here is Wisdom": Church Corporate Structure as a Shield and a Protection for the Church

Every few weeks I come across someone who is a member of the LDS Church and is complaining about the corporate structure of the Church. They complain that the Church is too corporate, too focused on money, too focused on things that have nothing to do with the gospel. Currently these criticisms typically focus on the City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City. Despite the fact that the Church has not used tithing funds to build it, and despite all the good it is doing in providing jobs, city beautification, and a healthy living and shopping space, the criticism continues. The critics use the City Creek Center as evidence that the Church has gone out of the way and is no longer focused on salvation and truth but is a corporate entity that has displaced the true Church and now is only interested in self preservation and the accumulation of wealth.

Whenever these complaints are aired those who are make the complaints seem to have at the root of their dissatisfaction the fact that legally the Church is organized as a corporation with the sole owner of the corporation being the president of the Church. Occasionally they express the desire to see a more democratic and distributed structure to the Church so that they do not have to be in the "suffocating corporate structure" that stifles free thought and "the more interesting doctrines of the Church".

 One Church dissident (no I will not provide a link to his blog) asserted a few months ago that the Church had caved to the desires of the world and had lost its special status in 1830 when the Church organized as a legal entity. In his post this particular Church dissident stated that up until 1829 Joseph Smith had the true church, pure and undefiled, but in 1830, under the pressure of those around him he caved and gave obeisance to the god of Mammon and organized it according to the laws of man and money and not according to the laws of God. Since then the Church has been in the wilderness and only the true believers are part of the true church.

Other Church dissident are not as extreme, but others still choose some other point in Church history where the general Church has gone out of the way and lost the imprimatur of the "true church". Some do not choose a point in time but say that there has been a gentle drift into worldliness. Regardless of the time this group of people make the case that the official, legal institution known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the "true church" and that in fact the "true church" is laboring under the weight of corporate bureaucracy that is becoming a suffocating appendage to the group of people they consider to be the "true believers".

So what would happen if these critics got everything they wanted and the entire corporate structure of the Church was done away with? Perhaps if we look at other churches that do not have such restrictions then we can get a sense of what would happen to the Church if we got rid of its corporate structure that they hate so much. There is a blog that I follow called Religion Clause that posts about all the legal cases in the United States that deal with religion in any way. Mostly it is boring legal stuff but occasionally there are interesting cases that illustrate many of the issues facing churches in America today. One issue that came up recently dealt with a court case in Colorado where a dissident group of a church was suing to remove the pastor from his position.

On the one hand the appeals court ruled "that a state trial court judge acted improperly when he issued an order allowing police to remove a pastor from his pulpit." The improper action came about because the lower court "made a decision regarding ecclesiastical internal governance and organization; it determined for the church who represented its interest, a governing decision belonging only to the church." The initial ruling given by the lower court essentially gave the government the power to decide who should be in control of the church, its property, and its organization, but the appeals court said that the courts could not make that determination. As stated in the blog post, "the Court of Appeals said that ownership of the church's property should be determined by the trial court through an examination of deeds, articles of incorporation, bylaws and other documents."

This is to say that the only criteria that the courts can use to determine who owns what when it comes to a dispute over property owned by a church is the documents that clearly set up the structure and organization of the church, including which names appear on the deeds. Thus if a church is to have real property, such as a chapel, or printing press to print scriptures, then they must have someone, or some legal entity, that holds the deeds and controls the bank accounts so that it can do the work of the church.

Without a centralized church structure there are several churches today in America that are running into the problem of what to do with dissident groups (or in some cases church leadership that does not listen to nor care what their congregation wants). These problems have resulted in several court cases over the past few years where different groups are suing for control of church property. There is a full spectrum of cases where entire congregations are leaving a larger church organization and they are losing their place of worship in the process to where larger church organizations are losing significant amounts of property and resources when local groups break away. This creates a great drain on the churches ability to continue their more important calling of proclaiming the gospel. These problems are endemic in almost all of the major churches in America today.

When I read about all of these problems I am reminded of the fact that these problems are (virtually) nonexistent in the LDS Church. The reason why these types of problems never happen in the LDS Church is because of the way the Church is organized. I don't mean how the priesthood and Church leadership is set up (though that also plays a role), but in the way the Church is organized as a legal entity. The fact that all property is held under either the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Corporation of The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints effectively prevents these types of disputes commonly found in other denominations from even becoming a question that must be asked, let alone a problem that must be resolved in court. The Church is not without its own legal challenges, but these are not challenges that arise from within, and it is the way the Church is set up as a legal entity that protects it from the types of problems found in other churches.

To put it very plainly, the very corporate structure that critics, both inside and outside the Church, find so distasteful is the very thing that protects the Church from schism, property disputes and wasteful contention that would prevent the Church from fulfilling its mission. In perhaps a bit of irony that is lost on them, the same critics insist that the Church should only focus on proclaiming the gospel and helping the poor, criticize the Church for being too corporate. Yet the very corporate structure that they are criticizing is the very thing that allows the Church to do what they want it to do.

This brings to mind the instruction given to Sidney Gilbert before he moved to Missouri to establish Zion as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 57:8-10 (emphasis added).
8 And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant Sidney Gilbert plant himself in this place, and establish a store, that he may sell goods without fraud, that he may obtain money to buy lands for the good of the saints, and that he may obtain whatsoever things the disciples may need to plant them in their inheritance.
9 And also let my servant Sidney Gilbert obtain a license—behold here is wisdom, and whoso readeth let him understand—that he may send goods also unto the people, even by whom he will as clerks employed in his service;
10 And thus provide for my saints, that my gospel may be preached unto those who sit in darkness and in the region and shadow of death.
There is a purpose to the things that the Lord commands His Church. Previously I wrote on my blog and asked the question "Do we still have the United Order?" and concluded that we still have the United Order, though it is now known by a different name. Regardless of the name the purpose is to provide for the saints (provide jobs, beautify their city and prevent urban decay as in the case of the City Creek Center) so that the "gospel may be preached unto those who sit in darkness and in the region and shadow of death."

I find it interesting that and just a tad ironic that some of the critics of the legal entity that is the Church would also proclaim their great desire to live under the United Order, yet they criticize the current iteration of the United Order and proclaim it to be a manifestation of how the Church has gone out of the way. They proclaim that if they had lived in the days of the United Order they would gladly live under it, but when they are presented with it today, they build and garnish its sepulcher.

The organization and structure of the Church are to be done according to the laws of the country ("obtain a license") and set up in such a way that the work can progress so that all things can be done in wisdom. There is wisdom in how the Church is set up as a legal entity. It protects the Church from the same problems that are tearing apart other churches and is proving their downfall.

1 comment:

Nick Nelson said...

Great post, Ryan. I find that in almost all cases supposedly "faithful" critics of the church would change their tunes if they had the chance to see the why's and how's that go along with things like the church's corporate structure.