The Devastating Consequences of Replacing God's Governmental Arrangement in the Church with a Secular System of Control
This article addresses recent attempts by certain dissenting brothers to alter the God-ordained government in the local churches under their care. By so doing, they are running a great risk of transforming those congregations from local churches into local sects. By manipulating the by-laws that are in place as part of a local church's legal status as a non-profit corporation, the dissenting brothers are seeking to increase their powers as directors of the corporation to include the authority to command the affairs of the church. In Toronto, Canada, this agenda has been carried out successfully already. We offer this booklet with the hope that churches under this dissenting influence will be preserved to enjoy peace in the divine government under Christ the Head and His proper representative authorities.
Through the ministry of Brothers Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, the Lord fully recovered the proper understanding of both the universal and local aspects of the church. In its universal aspect, the church is one and is a living Body for the full expression of Christ the Head (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22-23). In its local aspect, the church exists in many localities as local churches to be the practical expressions of the universal Body of Christ on earth (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 12:27; Rev. 1:11). In this twofold status, the church has both an organic, essential aspect for its existence as the Body of Christ and an organizational, administrative aspect for the maintaining of its proper order in the divine government.
Sadly, the administrative order in some local churches today is in danger of being corrupted by certain dissenting brothers who claim to need more clearly-defined authority to guard their churches from outside influence. In actuality, they are consolidating their power in the churches. To achieve their ends, the dissenting brothers are turning to the by-laws that are in place as part of a church's legal status as a non-profit corporation. By manipulating these by-laws, the dissenting brothers are aggressively maneuvering to increase their powers as directors of the corporation to create a new and unscriptural class of director-elders who are above the other elders in their churches. If successfully implemented, these changes will alter the heavenly nature and divine government of the affected churches, making them divisive sects under the direction of a manmade hierarchy. Regrettably, this has already happened in Toronto, Canada.
From Local Church to Local Sect: The Effect of Forsaking the God-ordained Government
The government in a local church is carried out by Christ the Head through the elders, who are appointed by the apostles according to their maturity in life (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The elders function as overseers to teach and shepherd the flock of God and to handle the financial affairs of the church (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Acts 11:29-30; 1 Tim. 3:3). Brother Lee writes:
The New Testament revelation shows us that the government of the church is very simple and practical: All the government of a church is entrusted to the elders. The elders are the government of the church. According to their spiritual stature, the elders are those who are mature and older. According to the affairs they handle, they are the overseers, which speaks of government and administration. (The Elders' Management of the Church, p. 17)
To alter this God-ordained administrative arrangement in a local church will inevitably devastate the divine government in that church, transmute that local church into a local sect, and offend the headship of Christ in that church. Brother Watchman Nee saw the inherent danger in adopting extra-biblical institutions and decrees in a local church and warned against it:
The Bible has decreed all institutions of the church in a clear way already. We must never have any decrees, whether they are creeds, constitutions, rules, charters, or ordinances outside the Bible, no matter how scriptural they may appear. Otherwise, we will become a sect right away. We may be more scriptural and more knowledgeable than other sects but still be a sect. We should only have one open Bible now for men to follow. If we institute anything outside the Bible, no matter how scriptural it may appear, we are causing others to despise the Bible and turning their attention to the instituted ordinances. In this way, those who are "of our group" must abide by the teachings of these ordinances before they can meet together. Of course, if anyone sees any ordinance that is contrary to the Scriptures, he should reject it. Of course, we should teach others the teachings of the Bible. But if anyone follows these teachings, they are following the Lord's word, not any kind of authority in our word. If we institute anything, our institution will become the standard of our faith. This means that we will be setting up another standard of faith besides the Bible, no matter how scriptural such a standard may appear. (The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, vol. 7, pp. 1116-1117)
The dissenting ones are making a concerted effort to change the proper administration in their churches by enlarging the scope of what is allowed in the New Testament. By seeking to elevate the secular office of director of the corporation above the scriptural office of elder of the church, the dissenting ones are proposing exactly the type of extra-biblical institution that alarmed Brother Nee. If the saints in those churches vote to approve the proposed amendments to the by-laws that would make this change possible, then what will be produced is an unscriptural, hierarchical organization that nullifies the headship of Christ and destroys the proper standing of that local church.
An Unscriptural Hierarchy: Merging the Heavenly Government of the Local Church with the Secular Administration of the Non-profit Corporation
The church is a heavenly entity existing in the sphere of the divine government, but it also exists on earth as local churches that are subject to the laws of the states or provinces in which they reside. Consequently, the members of a local church may form a corporation in order to have a proper legal standing before the secular government under which they live. The non-profit corporation is not the church per se but exists to satisfy the requirements of the secular law to protect the financial assets of the church on behalf of all the members. To intermix the secular corporation with the heavenly church adulterates the church itself and causes it to forfeit the headship of the ascended Christ to become a common human organization administered according to worldly principles of management. This is to trade theocracy (rule by God) for human government and to endanger the uniqueness of the local church as the testimony of Jesus. In effect, it is tantamount to ancient Israel's rejection of the rule of Jehovah in favor of a secular king (1 Sam. 8:4-7). In the churches where such confusion is reigning today, the dissenting brothers are endeavoring to consolidate their power by using the secular corporation and its by-laws to gain influence in the church. This is a dreadful mistake.
In order for a corporation to have the proper legal standing with the acting government of its state or province, directors must be elected to serve as trustees of the corporation. In their function as trustees, the directors hold the financial assets (e.g., business accounts, properties, etc.) of the corporation in trust. Their role is one of custodianship, not one of management. According to the view of the secular government, the directors of a non-profit corporation exist to protect the interests of the stakeholders. In a local church, the stakeholders are the saints. The directors of the corporation are, therefore, in place to serve the saints and to satisfy the minimum legal requirements of the secular government in the state or province where the church has residence. The directors do not carry out the spiritual administration of the heavenly church; the responsibility for the administration of the church lies with the elders. Typically in a local church, the elders will serve as directors of the corporation, but the two offices serve two different purposes and should not influence each another. If a brother serves as an elder and as a director, it is incumbent upon him not to use his position as a director of the corporation to exercise influence over the spiritual affairs of the church. The dissenting brothers have disregarded this distinction and are placing their local churches in positions of immediate peril.
"The Church of the Torontonians": A Case in Point
The dissenting brothers who have seized control of "The Church of the Torontonians" have successfully entrenched themselves in an unassailable position as newly-defined directors of the corporation. However, their actions in replacing the God-ordained government of the church have transmuted their standing into that of a sect. Their new by-laws, which were ratified after they had surreptitiously cleared away any possible chance of stopping them, effectively codify a system of error (Eph. 4:14) and give the directors unprecedented power to govern the church. These new by-laws endow the directors, who are chosen from among the elders, with far more authority than is actually required by law for the existence of the corporation. These director-elders have now become a controlling faction among the saints and have uplifted themselves above their fellow elders, thereby making them "second-class" elders.
The Directors' New Powers
Choosing the Church's Apostle(s)
The Board of Directors of "The Church of the Torontonians" assumes an unscriptural authority to choose the church's apostle(s) (By-law Number 2007-1, Article 10, Section 10.2). This upsets the balance of authority presented in the New Testament by redefining the office of apostle. The office of apostle is the only office in the universal church (Eph. 4:11-12; Rom. 1:5). The ministry of the apostles is universal for all the churches; it is not for specific local churches to the exclusion of others. The apostles also have the God-given authority to appoint and remove elders in the local churches (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 5:19), thus indicating that the elders are under the apostles. By empowering the Board of Directors to choose the church's apostle(s), this new by-law subjects the apostles to the directors and limits the apostles' ministry to only those churches that choose to recognize them. This clearly violates the principles established in the New Testament. Brother Witness Lee writes:
The government of the church is very simple. The apostles go out and preach the gospel to establish the churches. Then they select the more mature believers and appoint them to be elders to shepherd, to take care of, a local church. The elders should take care of the churches according to the apostles' teaching. Because all the churches are established by the apostles, and the elders are selected and appointed in different localities by the apostles, in taking care of the churches all the elders should take the word of the apostles. (The Conclusion of the New Testament, Messages 189-204, p. 2169)
For a church to choose its own apostle(s) is for that church to establish an exclusive relationship with those apostles. The New Testament forbids such favoritism because it divides the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 1:12-13).
Subjugating the Elders
Under the newly adopted by-laws, the Board of Directors occupies the top tier in the hierarchy and has the power to ratify (or, by implication, not ratify) decisions made by the elders (Article 5, Section 5.10). The more powerful director-elders also have authority to "suspend" an elder without recourse and for a length of time determined at the sole discretion of the Board (Article 9, Section 9.10). Under this system, the elders are under the Board of Directors, thus negating the witness of Scripture that the elders are subject to the apostles (1 Tim. 5:19-20; Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
Controlling the Saints
The Board of Directors of "The Church of the Torontonians" now claims previously unheard-of authority over the saints. Their publicly proclaimed rationale for these changes is that they need new powers to adequately protect the church from outside influence. The following powers have been given to the directors through the ratification of the by-laws:
- The Board of Directors can suspend a member "without notice" and "without recourse." The duration of the suspension shall be "for such period as the BOARD in its sole discretion shall determine" (Article 9, Section 9.10).
- The directors have authority to remove anyone who does not agree with them (Article 4, Section 4.13, Subsections 3-6) and to impose disciplinary measures as a further consequence (Article 13, Section 13.5). A member under discipline agrees to waive all rights for the period of time that the discipline is in effect (Article 13, Section 13.5, Subsection 4).
- As a qualification for membership, an applicant must satisfy the elders and the Board that he or she has not been contentious or divisive (Article 4, Section 4.1, Subsection 11). What is meant by "contentious" is not defined in the by-laws, but it can fairly be assumed that a "contentious" person is one who is not in agreement with the directors and does not receive their directives.
- The Board of Directors can change the requirements for voting members "from time to time" as it deems "appropriate" (Article 4, Section 4.1, Subsection 12). This power affords the Board the way to include members favorable to them and to exclude members who may not support their initiatives. The by-laws further allow any members to be excluded from the meetings of "The Church of the Torontonians" (Article 13, Section 13.4, Subsection 8e). This again contradicts the scriptural exhortation to receive all believers (Rom. 15:7). The only ground for refusing a believer into the meetings of the church is if that one is divisive (Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10), involved in idol worship (1 John 5:21; 1 Cor. 8:4-7) or gross sin (5:9-11; 6:9-10), or denies the incarnation of Christ (2 John 7-11).
- To be a voting member, one must agree to submit to the authority and discipline of the directors and elders (Article 13, Sections 4 & 5). Submission to "the authority and disciplinary procedures and principles of the church" is one of the duties of members (Article 4, Section 4.6, Subsection 7, and Section 4.8, Subsection 5).
- The directors approve applicants for voting membership (Article 4, Section 4.4). Furthermore, in order to increase support for their agendas, the directors can add ten more votes by granting up to ten other saints an honorary voting member status for up to three years (4.9).
- The Board monitors the financial contributions of the saints, verifying their donations by "church donation receipts" (Article 4, Section 4.1, Subsection 9; Section 4.6, Subsection 6; Section 4.8, Subsection 3). Unless a person's donations to the church are verified, he cannot be admitted as a voting member. This violates the Lord's own word in Matt. 6:1-4. In commenting on verse two of this portion, where the Lord charges the disciples not to sound a trumpet in their giving so as to receive glory from men, Brother Lee states, "For this reason, we in the churches do not keep records of the giving of the saints." As the kingdom people, "[t]he principle is that we do not give with the intention of making a show or receiving glory from man. Instead, we do everything in secret in the presence of our heavenly Father" (Life-study of Matthew, p. 263).
- The directors determine which services are legitimate for voting membership (Article 4, Section 4.1, Subsection 8). A saints' hidden service unto the Lord, such as praying, shepherding the saints, preparing meals, etc., appears not to be regarded as sufficient for membership.
- The directors decide which home and district meetings count as legitimate meetings for membership (Article 4, Section 4.1, Subsection 7). To be approved for voting membership, one is expected to "have attended church-designated gatherings regularly during a period of three most recent and consecutive years or longer (Hebrews 10:25), where 'attend regularly' is defined to mean at least one attendance per month at a meeting in the hall or a place deemed equivalent by the BOARD on the Lord's Day." Apparently, a meeting held in a place that the Board does not deem equivalent to the hall is not considered a genuine meeting, yet the Lord Himself regards any gathering of two or three into His name as a meeting where He is present (Matt. 18:20).
Protecting Their Interests
The directors can be removed only by a two-thirds vote of the qualified voting members at "an annual or other general meeting" (Article 5, Section 5.6). A special general meeting, however, can be called only by the Board of Directors (Article 8, Section 8.2).
Forsaking Theocracy for Democracy
The new by-laws introduce the democratic principle of rule by majority vote and thus disregard the headship of Christ in the theocracy of the church. If the elders are unable to reach a decision by consensus, then the issue of concern is put to a vote (Article 1, Section 1.1, Subsection 12). Voting, however, does not have its source in God. Brother Nee is instructive here:
All the churches should have the same practice toward certain matters. Yet the standard of our conduct is not according to the approval of the majority but according to the decision of the brothers in oneness. Oneness and one accord are the works of the Holy Spirit, while the consent of the majority emerges from man. (The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, vol. 22, p. 67)
Brother Lee also identifies the fallacy of taking the democratic way in the church:
The principle is that in arranging business affairs, you should never bring in the way of democracy where everyone discusses and expresses their opinions, and where eventually the opinion of the majority is taken and the decision is made. This is the worldly way, and it is different from the teaching and example in the Bible. On the other hand, you cannot be autocratic; you cannot take the lead by yourself alone, with everything determined and decided by you and carried out by you. This is equally unscriptural. The principle of admini-stration in the Bible has to do with the Holy Spirit in the Church. (The Elders' Management of the Church, pp. 231-232)
The system of voting brings in man's flesh and cuts off the authority of the Holy Spirit. Hence, we can never adopt the system of voting. On the other hand, the Bible does not allow one leading brother to make decisions by himself either. In the Bible there is no autocracy; there is only the meeting together of the experienced, spiritual, and elderly ones. (The Elders' Management of the Church, p. 234)
Rejecting the scriptural revelation of proper church administration and disregarding the fellowship given by Brother Nee and Brother Lee according to that revelation, the dissenting brothers in Toronto have formed a sect by using the corporation and its by-laws to produce an unscriptural system of church government. They have traded the rule of God for a kingdom of their own making.
A typical meeting of a local church "corporation" is a peaceful affair. The meetings are generally held once a year, as required by law, and are usually on the Lord's Day. In order to fulfill the requirements of the state or provincial government, a quorum of voting members must be present to conduct business. The meeting is overseen by the directors. If a director is up for reelection, he may be duly reelected by a vote of the qualified members. Miscellaneous items, such as updating the by-laws, are also put to the members for a vote when necessary. (In these cases the practice of voting is permissible in order to fulfill the corporation's responsibility before the secular government; the vote here does not affect the administration of the church as a spiritual entity.) A financial report is given by the corporation's treasurer to conclude the meeting. The minutes recorded by the secretary serve as the official record of the business conducted. The atmosphere is always pleasant, and there is mutual respect between the directors and the members as they function together to faithfully fulfill their responsibilities as constituents of the corporation.
Recent events in Toronto were anything but peaceful. The directors decided to conduct an early business meeting to have their new by-laws passed in the interest of consolidating their power. In an effort to justify the request for an early meeting, a rancorous document entitled "Why Have an Early Business Meeting in Toronto?" was released to the saints. The writer of that document labels the saints who agreed with the quarantine of Titus Chu and certain of his co-workers as "77 saints aligned with LSM," thus portraying them as outsiders in Toronto. A large number of the saints and two of the elders protested the early business meeting due to fears that the dissenting elder-directors were attempting to strengthen their hold on the church. The dissenting directors ignored those protests and insisted on moving forward with their agenda. The saints who protested the directors' proposal were forced to seek the intervention of the court to keep the traditional mid-summer date for the business meeting. Their petition was denied because the court deemed the dispute to be religious in nature, and the meeting proceeded on the early date proposed by the directors. In that meeting, the by-laws were ratified by a vote of the saints only after the requirements for voting membership were illegally redefined by the directors in order to pad the voting rolls with their supporters. This action completed the dissenting brothers' takeover of "The Church of the Torontonians." That group is now a divisive sect no longer meeting as a genuine local church in the Lord's recovery.
The saints who refused to stand with the division have now disassociated themselves from the dissenting ones' divisive sect and are meeting as the church in Toronto. Their stand has been affirmed by the Body, and the church in Toronto began to enjoy the Lord's table again in a joyful and peaceful atmosphere with many visiting saints on April 15, 2007. We praise the Lord for His mercy!
It is clear that other genuine local churches in Eastern Canada and the Midwest of the United States are in danger of being similarly abused. We pray that the Lord will strengthen the saints in those churches to stand for the oneness of the Body of Christ and to reject the machinations of any ambitious brothers who would rise up to defraud them of their inheritance in the Lord's recovery.
[Tony Espinosa with Bill Buntain and Dan Sady]